Not Another Bike Ride

December 6, 2005
Day 69

Adi and I got going early (around noon) today and bought our tickets to San Pedro, a short distance from Calama in the Atacama desert. We went to the hostel recommended by Pablo, who hangs out in San Pedro every now and then. I immediately noticed how laid-back the place was, with hammocks hanging all over the courtyard and several couches surrounding a large fire pit. It seemed like a great place to chill for a few days.

Everyone I talked to who had been to San Pedro seemed to rave about the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a large park with scenery perfect for watching the sunset. Adi and I were both up for going tonight, but I wanted to go on a tour bus and Adi wanted to be more adventurous and ride bikes there. I hadn't forgotten about my last bike-renting adventure, but somehow I figured it would be different because I was in Chile, and agreed to go.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the hostel owner rolled out the bikes that we were about to rent. They had wide tires, seats that stayed put, more than one gear (15, in fact), and an actual suspension. In other words, they were real mountain bikes. We got directions to the valley and took off, but not before the hostel owner said "suerte" to me. Hearing that word made me cringe, as I figured it would foreshadow the terrible events to come.

Our first stop was to the center of town to buy some candy bars and water for the afternoon. San Pedro is a small place that seems different from the rest of Chile. Like most of Bolivia, it's as if the entire town has been lost in time. The houses are made out of mud, the streets are unpaved, and the entire town's water supply gets turned off every night. Of course, this is necessary for a town located in the driest desert in the world. After stocking up on supplies, we headed out for our long bike ride in the 90 degree desert summer.

Almost immediately after leaving, the first problem of our trip occurred. Adi's back wheel wasn't aligned properly, which caused it to rub against the bike's frame. This made the bike very difficult to ride, so we headed back into town to look for someone to fix it. There didn't seem to be any bicycle mechanics available, but Adi eventually convinced one of the locals to lend him a wrench. After much torquing, kicking, and swearing, Adi finally got the wheel to spin freely and we set off again.

Our directions included crossing a bridge and turning to the left, which seemed eerily similar to the directions I received back in Sajama. Thankfully, this time there was actually a left turn after the bridge, and it was even on a paved road! Things went quite well as we rode down the road. After awhile, it split to the right to head toward the Valley.

After a short ride down a gravel path, the road split again. To the left were the Tulor ruins, and to the right was the Valle de la Luna. We still had a few hours before sunset, so we headed left to the ruins first.

The path passed through a small native village before entering the park. We paid an entrance fee and checked out the huts that surrounded the park office. Two of the huts contained lots of information about the Tulor culture that used to live there. The information was good to know, but I thought it was disrespectful to put it in the huts that the Tulor people used to live in. After seeing all that there was to see, we still seemed to be ahead of schedule, so we rested for awhile before leaving.

When we were about to head back, the park ranger said, "Aren't you going to look at the ruins?" "I thought we just did," Adi said. "No, these are just replicas. The real ruins are 300 meters further down the path." Finally, the setup started to make sense to me. To be honest, though, I could've skipped the real ruins. They had only excavated two huts; the rest were still buried under the sand. Five minutes later, we were on our way back.

When we began heading toward the Valley, the riding conditions worsened significantly. The wind picked up and blew directly in our faces, the path became corrugated from the constant flow of tourist buses, and it was an uphill climb the entire way. We had to move so slowly that at times, I wasn't even quite sure if we were still moving at all. Finally, after a rough hour of riding, we made it to the entrance to the Valley.

We only had about an hour until sunset, so the only attraction we had time to see was the sand dune lookout point, located several kilometers ahead. After a few minutes, the path became very sandy and went straight uphill, so we had to walk with our bikes. Still, the trip wasn't too bad, and we eventually made it to the dunes. Including our bikes, there were thirty tourist buses and two bikes at the dunes.

Adi and I climbed to the top of the dune and began watching the sun make its descent. The scenery surrounding the area was beautiful, but it was kind of ruined by the hundreds of tourists all around us. The sun also went behind the clouds before it set. Still, it was a good experience just taking in all of the surroundings.

We wanted to get back before it got completely dark, so we didn't waste any time in leaving the dunes. The first thing I noticed when we were going back was that it was downhill almost the entire way. The only work I had to do was to steer the bike to keep myself from crashing, which wasn't easy considering that it was getting dark, I was riding through thick sand, and buses continuously passed by on their way back to San Pedro. Fifteen minutes later, the worst of it was behind us as we entered the paved road.

As we approached town, I found it more and more difficult to pedal. When I stopped to inspect my bike, my worst suspicions were confirmed: I had a flat tire. Still, we were only about a fifteen minute walk from town, and besides, as Adi put it, we needed a cooldown after all of that riding. I would rather cool down by climbing into bed, but whatever.

Even though we had a few minor setbacks, this bike ride went rather well. We got to see everything we wanted to see, and we even got enough exercise to last a long time during the 50 KM ride. Even though the Valle de la Luna wasn't all it was cracked up to be, I still thought it was a good overall experience.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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