La Ruta Del Diablo
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
After coming away from my first Puna de Atacama experience with a renewed sense of excitement for the other-worldly landscape and solitude of the high Andean desert, I was really looking forward to what else this region of Northern Argentina had to offer. Once again, there were a few different route options on the menu. One being a rather well-worn affair (for the Atacama at least), with a few extra towns dotting the map to make re-supplying a bit easier, along with rumors of a better riding surface. The other, a rarely used track setting off through a string of Satan-themed canyons, salt flats, and remote mountain passes….
I think you know which one we picked.
“Marte” (aka “Mars” in Spanish) is the word one local had to describe the first region we set our sights on… Desierto Del Diablo aka The Devil’s Desert. This place is truly incredible and very worthy of the couple days of detouring we took in order to pass through the red hills of eroded earth that decorate the landscape. Next to getting a call from Elon himself with a one-way ticket, this is likely one of the best places you’ll find on earth to pretend you’re meandering across the red planet.
For the second time in as many weeks we passed through the quiet village of Tolar Grande to re-stock for a week without stores, topped up our roughly 16 liters of water each, and made our way back through the Salar De Arizaro, this time cutting south toward a valley nestled between 6,000m volcanoes and sparsely populated villages.
Those first days coming from a town always seem to be the hardest. While you may feel refreshed from a shower, clean-ish clothes, and a day off to rest the legs, dragging 35 pounds worth of water on top of your maximum capacity of food tends to make even the freshest legs feel dead. It’s times like these where you really look forward to being a few days in, once you’ve depleted your supplies a bit.
Sometimes bike touring is all about luck. On the day we set off needing to cross the entire Arizaro salt flat in one shot (a place where there is truly nowhere to hide from the notorious Puna wind), we had thick storm clouds forming on all sides, with lightning, rain, and snow peppering the surrounding hills. Rolling atop a lightning rod on wheels in a wide-open expanse of salt is not exactly the place you want to be as the storm closes in, but luck was on our side this time as we managed to stay in a pocket of sunshine with only a few stray raindrops here and there. This seemed to be an ongoing theme throughout this route, with a storm often battering an area just outside of our reach. One day that luck was sure to run out, but we’d happily take it while it lasts.
Now, I briefly mentioned the wind, but that doesn’t quite do it justice… Just about any person who ventures through this region on a bike could probably write a 100 page dissertation on the subject. The short version is that the Puna wind is all-consuming. You have to plan for it every bit as much as you plan out your water and food re-supply points. As soon as the sun creeps over the horizon in the morning, the countdown to the noon wind begins. Some days it’s hitting you hard enough that you have to wonder if you’re better off just saving the energy, hiding behind the biggest boulder you can find, and hoping the next day will be better.
While it’s easy to mutter obscenities into the air when you’re trying to ride into a face-full of wind, it’s hard not to admire how that same force has helped to sculpt this uniquely beautiful landscape. Sometimes it may seem like it’s trying to re-sculpt your tent into a pancake, but that’s all a part of the Puna’s charm.
Despite seeming like a place that’s constantly giving you signs that you probably shouldn’t be there, the number of repeat visitors to this area is telling. While you’ll rarely see more than one or two vehicles per day on the road, almost all of these people are visiting this area for their second or third time and have come from the opposite side of the planet to do so. I don’t know if it’s a Bermuda Triangle vortex type of thing going on here, but despite the Puna’s inhospitable facade, it’s hard not to feel the wonders of its endlessly desolate landscape pulling you back in.
Check out my route on Ride with GPS.