San Pedro de Atacama, Chile


The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world. They haven’t had rain in about 40 years. When the Andes rose up, a section of the sea was trapped between two walls of mountain, lifted to near 4000m and left to dry under sunlight. This created the conditions for such a very dry climate and left behind a desert of salt, rock and dust. Surprisingly, however, the place is rather wet and not as dead as it looks: The water that seeps underground from the surrounding mountains gets heated underground and rises to mix with the salt in the ground, creating perfect conditions for a special kind of salt water shrimp to thrive, in turn creating a rich feeding ground for various species of birds. It’s fascinating.


Aside from that it’s a mine for salt and, more importantly, Lithium, which is in high demand nowadays and not found greater concentrations anywhere else in the world. And it’s also an excellent place to observe the starts above, if you remember to bring your massive radio telescope. 😉

We find Hostal Rincon San Pedrino, which at 6.5Kp/pp/n for a 4-bed dorm exclusively to ourselves (no breakfast), is a good deal around here. They have a kitchen, braai/bbq, parking, even hot showers. There is a tiny Copec petrol station in town but it takes a bit of practice to find it (it’s on calle Tocopilla if I recall correctly) because it’s actually on the grounds of a hostel and the one way streets make it more confusing to get to; and the fuel price is a bit dearer here.


Though San Pedro is a nice enough town, it’s very touristical and people aren’t all as friendly as we’re used to from the rest of Chile. When we ask for advice about the area in tour agencies (because we’re riding with a bike) they refuse to help. They just want our cash. We get good information from the official Tourist Information at the plaza though. We speak to some other Chileans from further south and they agree about the attitude of people up here.

We take the bike out for several day trips. There are various salares, salt water lagoons, geysers, hot springs and quedebras to visit: Valle de la Luna, Laguna Cejar, the Tatio Geysers, historical villages, Laguna Miscanti… It’s a really beautiful area to explore. The area is also the habitat of several breeds of Andean flamingos, which can be seen here. A lot could be told about these little excursions, but I’ll let the photos do the talking and let you know that, probably the best outings we had were the ride up to the El Tatio geysers (where we stop for a bit or RnR) and the Laguna Miscanti, which lies among snow-covered volcanoes at about 4500m, and it’s absolutely stunning!





The noise that the bike started making in Tilcara has become worse. Louder. We are higher up so I think it’s probably the altitude. But just to be sure I make a video of it and email it to Johnny Moto for advice.




We intend to leave one morning but I have a slow puncture on the front tyre. Shouldn’t take long to get fixed at the local Gomeria so I go there. The guy there dismounts the tyre and removes the tube, but we can’t find a puncture in it. I get him the spare tube from my kit and he installs it. When he re-mounts the tyre he uses a ratchet to tighten the small stabilizing nuts… applies pressure… and snaps it off! He shrugs his shoulders, says it should be fine to ride like this, and walks off. I am furious but somehow don’t lose my rag.



I decide to tighten the second bolt myself, taking great care not to apply too much pressure, and I manage to snap that one off too. SHIT! It’s no wonder this happened, because the ratchet we’re using here is generally used for bolts on trucks and therefore is long and therefore has much more leverage, so you don’t have to apply much pressure. Oh well….

Fortunately there’s a truck mechanic there named Ivan, just stopped by with a problematic truck, who helps me. He’s from Santiago (and I later find out he also agrees about the attitude problem of people up here in the North of Chile). The broken bolt is removable, so by welding a nut to the end and using a spanner we can extract it. Now all we need is replacement bolts, but in little San Pedro they have nada!

Ivan is off to Calama to find a truck tyre tube anyway, so I go with him in his 4×4. He scours the whole town with me to find a bolt. The household DIY warehouses stock only soft (grade 2) metal and we’re looking for grade 5-8. And, conveniently, it’s Sabado (Saturday), so by 12PM most places are shut. We manage to find some old workable spares in a tin at some mechanical spares shop – they’ll have to do. Then we spend a few hours tracking down a spare truck tube and it’s night time when we reach San Pedro. During this excursion I get a glimpse of the tough working conditions some people are under up here in this alpine desert. Fixing tyre tubes in a bath of ice cold water all day in this cold wind must require tough hands. Some teenage boys sit in a dusty yard nailing shut wooden crates, ready to send off to who-knows-where. – How fortunate we are.

The next morning we insert the bolts – they fit – and I’m ready to go. I thank Ivan for all his help and give him some cash in return for his time and effort.


That afternoon I check my email. A reply returns from Johnny Moto stating that the noise from the bike is malo (bad)! I should have it checked out immediately. Oh happy days! We get to visit Calama again.