The Atacama desert, part 1

CaptureWe just completed 12 days and 760 miles of riding through the world’s driest desert.  When we started on this route we imagined high temperatures, blowing sand, and the potential for days without water.  We were also very worried about supplies and road conditions, since the major towns were severely damaged by flooding a mere week earlier.  In spite of our worries, we sincerely enjoyed this challenging and desolate stretch of road.  The temperatures were bearable, the wind was almost always at our backs, and we never had to carry more than one day’s worth of water. Oh, and we hit 12,000 miles!

In the Atacama desert.

In the Atacama desert.

Apr04_009In this update we will share our journey from the lovely city of La Serena through the flood-ravaged towns of Copiapo and Chanaral.  In Copiapo we had to ride in streets coated in a thick layer of mud, and in Chanaral we saw the destruction that flash floods are capable of.  It’s been a wild ride, but let’s start at La Serena, on April 1.

The excitement began before we even left town – there was a 5.5 magnitude earthquake that shook us out of our beds at 5:20 am.   We both awoke with the motion, but Jason was much faster to realize what was happening.  He shouted ‘doorway!’, and we leaped out of our beds to huddle together in the doorway.  Doorways are a bit more structurally sound than ceilings, so they provide a bit more protection in case the building falls down.  It was over quickly, but we were a little out of sorts.  That was scary!

As we left the seaside city we had lots of climbing to get into the higher valleys of the desert.

Tendrils of fog creeping over the mountains into the desert.

Tendrils of fog creeping over the mountains.

We spent most of the day coated in a thick layer of marine fog before emerging suddenly at the top of a climb.  Suddenly we were in the real desert.  We hit 12,000 miles and decided to camp in the soccer field of a small town (with permission of course!).  It was a good introduction to the desert.

Big desert roads.

Big desert roads.

Morning visitor at our soccer field camp.

Morning visitor at our soccer field camp.

The next day we once again awoke to another earthquake.  This one was only a 4.9 magnitude, but we still got woken up.  We weren’t as worried this time though, as we were quite confident the tent wasn’t going to collapse around us.

From there it was just long, straight roads through the desert with the occasional long climb.  We were very lucky with road construction, and had one half of a divided highway all to ourselves for well over 50 miles.  It was a dream bike path through the desert.   Something that we really noticed these past days has been the true vastness of the desert.  It is so big, and so stark, that it messes with our sense of scale.  Sometimes we can’t tell how far away things are, and what we think are small rock are in fact distant boulders the size of a house.

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We saw a surprising amount of pick up trucks, cars, and firetrucks draped in Chilean flags and driving north.  They were all packed with emergency supplies like food, water, toilet paper, and clothes.  These folks were driving themselves to the north to help the disaster relief.  It was surprising and uplifting.  Chileans are no stranger to natural disasters, and seem to jump at the chance to help each other out.

Firemen driving supplies and volunteers north.

Firemen driving supplies and volunteers north.

After 3 days we came to the big city of Copiapo.  This is a city that powers the entire region with the money from copper mines in the hills, and about a week ago it was hit by a flash flood following torrential rains in the mountains.  When we arrived we were blown away by the amount of mud still coating everything.  The main road was barely passable and coated by a thick layer of mud, and oftentimes standing water.  The side roads?  We didn’t even dare explore them, but we would occasionally see earth-moving machines pushing small floods out of them and onto the main road.


Apr04_012Because the sidewalks and bike paths were impassable, we were forced to ride through the muck in traffic.  At times the mud was 4 inches thick, and at times we were riding through standing water.  Needless to say, when we finally emerged we were dirty, and our bikes were coated in filth.  Luckily, just a short ways out of town we found a gas station with a car wash. That’s right, we took the bikes (and ourselves) to the car wash.  2.5 hours later we were clean and back on the road.


Apr04_014 Apr04_015The fun wasn’t over yet though.  We had two more mostly uneventful days of desert riding:

Nothing here.  Just sand and rocks.

Nothing here. Just sand and rocks.


Next we reached the town of Chanaral.  This town had been built, really, in a place that should have been left free of human settlement.  It was at the outlet of a wide river valley draining a vast stretch of high-altitude mountains.  When the flash flood reached the town it came with massive force.  Large trucks carrying toxic waste from the nearby copper mines were turned over and over again, eventually coming to rest (ruined) in the mud.  Houses were swept away.  The main highway vanished and was literally washed out to sea.  All that was left was a new inlet where seawater crept closer to what remained of town.

There is supposed to be a highway here.

There is supposed to be a highway here. Excuse the power lines.

An alternate route had been created for traffic, so we could sneak through and witness the destruction.  It took us longer than expected because there was so much to see.

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Ultimately, we were happy to leave this area behind and head into the wide and isolated desert.  We loaded up our bikes with over 30 pounds of extra water and headed back into the hills. There were still scattered areas that had seen flood damage, and a surprising number of huge puddles in the desert, but for the most part the next section of riding was punctuated less with sad disaster areas and more with unique desert highlights.  More on that in the next update!

An alternate road we didn't take.

An alternate road we didn’t take.

Beautiful, stark camping spot int he desert.

Beautiful, stark camping spot in the desert.

More road damage - this is Chile's main highway!

More road damage – this is Chile’s main highway!

2 thoughts on “The Atacama desert, part 1

  1. Toby

    So glad to hear from you — had seen videos of the flood disaster and thought of you. Earthquakes, floods, desert — what an amazing experience. Love the car wash story — brilliant idea! You two look great and happy.
    Toby & Steve

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