Cafayate to San Pedro de Atacama: Churches and Thin Air

Ruta 40 out of Cafayate is one beautiful tiny church after another surrounding by four to five mud brick buildings, a few dogs, and some dusty tracks that make up the rest of the pueblo.

Pueblo San Carlos

Pueblo Payogastilla

Pueblo San Martin

It also cut deep into the heart of the Valles Calchaquí, which encompasses a large section of northern Argentina with a continual display of unique geography and contrasting colors. Quebrada de Las Flechas stands in stark contrast to the lush valley on its leading edge.  Wind and rain turned a landscape of ancient sandstone blocks into a maze of jagged fins stacking up almost vertically. Sandy ripio silently slices through it all as I make my way up to Molinos.

I hang a right outside of Secantas under grey morning skies and begin a day of climbing up through Parque Nacional Los Cardones.  Blue skies arrive just as I turn a corner to a magnificent sandstone expanse heading out in all directions around a sinuous ribbon of ripio.

Linking up to Ruta 33 on the other edge of the park, the climbing continues into a pampa bowl with a strip of asphalt slicing it in half.

Late afternoon shadows and wind arrive as I top out a Piedra de Molino (3,457 m/11,340 f). A  tiny chapel and grinding stone from the valley below guard over a Swiss like landscape.

A squiggly line to the bottom of the valley is a glorious sight indeed after nearly 80k of climbing. I camp mid-pass so I can savor the final run into Salta.

Salta offers up mellow walks around the city, coffee around the main plaza watching the tourists come and go, and more churches lighting up the night sky.  After a day of sourcing a few things,  I itch to get back on the road and back up into the mountains.

I join Nico, an Argentine who's coming to the end of his year long travels, for the march to San Pedro.  In Santa Rosa, we shoot the breeze with a local who's all smiles and fill up on empanadas.

Each pedal stroke brings fills the lungs with thin air as we muscle up over Abra Blanca (4,080 m/13,185 f) in gale force winds.

An abandoned railway building on the other side of the pass is home for the night as we hunker down and quickly jump into our tents to brace against dropping temps.

We arrive in San Antonio de Los Cobres early the next day and decide to wait for a few days after checking windguru. Bob and Ninos from Holland roll back into town at the end of the day returning from a wind beat down and the four of us bide our time wandering around the tiny pueblo where local dogs are a touch smarter than your normal hound and keep order from the roofs.  

With near calm winds, we creep up and over Alto Chorrillos (4,550 m/14,925 f) in the first of many passes marking the remote Paso Sico border crossing.

Ruby at a stout ocho greets us in Olacapato at the end of the day and is all questions. 

Frozen water bottles and bodies thaw as Nico and I head across the Salar de Cauchari splitting off from Bob and Nino as Bob battles stomach issues. 

Up and over Abra de Arizara (4,330 m/14,206 f), we shut it down for the evening in hotel-esque accommodations at customs and immigrations as the sky lights up.

Welcome back! 

A surreal volcanic landscape greets us we inch up towards Abra Sico (4,458 m/14,625 f). 

Each turn grows increasingly more fantastic as we crest the pass and descend into a vast bowl. Mineral rich mountains emerge from a sea of yellow tussocks of grass while

a salar stretches out along the opposite edge. Other-worldly.

After a brief stop in a questionable Chilean Gendermeria where El Jeffe has no interest in chit- chat, the steep run up and over Abra el Laco (4,578 m/15,020 f) nearly does me in as my stomach has been south since daybreak.

A night out in the freezing cold is enough for us both to shut it down early as we seek shelter and water in Mina el Laco.  Essentially deserted but a consistent waypoint for cyclists,  Javier welcomes us in as we rouse him from his later afternoon nap. 

The following morning we explore the edges of Lago Tuyalto. Snow dusted peaks and salty edges merge into one.

One last little pop

deposits us back onto pavement and quickly back into oxygen rich air as we steadily drop down towards San Pedro de Atacama, sad to be leaving the other-worldly landscapes behind.  

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Route:

Salta – San Antonio de los Cobres – Paso Sico – Socaire – San Pedro de Atacama.  Thanks to Andes by Bike for their spot on route info.