The Forgotten Pass of the Atacama
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
The Atacama Desert can be an intimidating place when you look at it on paper. There’s a certain mystique in the cycle-touring world that comes with being labeled the driest place on Earth. The lack of water also means that populated settlements are rare, which makes the vast 128,000 square kilometers of salty, sandy, and rocky terrain seem all the more inhospitable to someone looking to pedal their way through.
To be honest, the prospect of having to carry more than a week’s worth of food along with 3+ days worth of water at any given time didn’t just seem like a logistical challenge in trying to over-stuff bags and strap things to places where they shouldn’t be strapped… It seemed wholly unappealing. Just the thought of watching those liters disappear while you keep your fingers crossed that the next potential water source actually exists was enough to make me wonder if it would even be worth the stress. Still, I’d heard enough praise about the solitude and beauty of the Puna de Atacama that I just couldn’t pass up the chance to see what the hype was all about.
There are a few potential route options when rolling out of the hyper-touristic town of San Pedro with your sights set on crossing the high Puna toward Northern Argentina, but Paso Socompa is unquestionably the one that stands out from the crowd. It was once a primary artery connecting Northern Chile with Argentina, but this road was essentially put out of commission many years ago when the more conveniently located mountain passes further to the north were completed and eventually paved. Now, this border-crossing is only kept around for a mining train that passes through a few times per week along with the occasional cyclist looking to traverse its isolated and undulating dirt road. In fact, most locals will deny its existence altogether.
After floating the idea around for a few days, a couple of other cyclists who were hanging around the San Pedro area, Chrissa (Greece) and Simon (Switzerland), decided to join in on the fun. Soon we were stocking up our bikes with as much food and water as they could possibly handle (plus a little bit more) and hitting the sun-drenched road toward the middle of nowhere.
Now, when I say sun-drenched I’m not just talking about your standard high-altitude sun on a clear day. The big ball of fire in the sky here is on a whole other level. Enough so that it managed to use the three-liter plastic water bottle I had strapped to my handlebars as a magnifying glass and melt large holes in my gloves, a windbreaker, and anything else in its path… It was a swift lesson in really making sure that the burning smell you thought you noticed isn’t actually coming from your bike (and don’t just check the bag where you keep your lighter!)
Especially when you factor in the climate around here, there are definitely mental gymnastics going on in your brain on a regular basis trying to figure out if you’ve got enough water left to make it to the next refill spot or predict which day you’re going to run out of food. However, those thoughts are easily muffled by that blissful, care-free feeling of riding in a place devoid of all traffic and surrounded by nothing but towering volcanic peaks. Besides, for all of the dire warnings I read about this route online, our water supply never got very low, and we ran into someone who could probably help in an emergency just about every day. Planning is always important in the Puna de Atacama, but it’s far from impossible, and no reason to avoid it.
One unquestionable highlight of this route is the rail-trail section that splits from the road and clings to a mountainside while offering up one unobstructed view after another of the Puna ridgeline. While my friends with skinnier tires might dock this occasionally loose and rocky “trail” a couple stars on their Yelp reviews for the surface, I found it to be totally rideable (and fun!) on 3” tires. On top of the fun-factor of riding through an area that very few people get to see, I also got my first look at a herd of wild Guanacos blasting down a hillside, so… 10/10 would ride again.
Of course, no route in this part of the world is complete without some kind of salt flat crossing it seems. This time it came in the form of the Salar de Arizaro, Argentina’s second largest salt flat. You see it from a distance while descending from the pass, but don’t realize until you get a little closer that this is not quite the same as the (mostly) glassy smooth salars of western Bolivia. There would be no free-form “pick your own route” situation here. Instead, you’re funneled through the sea of salt clumps along a bone-rattler of a road, which mercifully concludes in the sleepy little Argentinian village known as Tolar Grande (spoiler: All Argentinian villages are sleepy).
For anyone looking to get away from the crowds after riding alongside the swarms of Jeep tours in southern Bolivia or spending time in the Disney World version of an Andean town known as San Pedro de Atacama, I can say that Paso Socompa is exactly what you’re looking for.