10.11.2003-10.31.2003       Calama, Chile to Santa Maria, Argentina
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After being in the Andes for months Calama, situated at a mere 7,500 ft., came as a relief. It was flat, the climate was pleasant and the air had oxygen. And, in contrast to Peru and Bolivia, the stores were stocked with a variety of goods. From Calama we set off back into the Atacama Desert. After passing the Valley of the Moon(so called due to its eroded, lunar-like landscape)we arrived at the next oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is a hip, laid-back travellers destination so there were plenty of piercings, tattoos and bongo drums. We enjoyed camping with amenities (i.e. tables, toilets, hot showers) for the first time in South America. Our brief holiday at below 10,000 ft. came to an end in San Pedro. The road to Argentina climbed straight up, gaining nearly 7,000 ft. in roughly 20 miles. This alone would have made it the toughest climb of the trip but with no services for days I was also burdened with an extra 30+ lbs. of food and water. That night we made high camp just south of the famed Laguna Verde in Bolivia. Surreal scenery followed as we passed several small lagoons before peaking at well over 15,000 ft. From there we plunged through a canyon and witnessed yet more astounding scenery. Weird rock formations, salt lakes and mountains. Vicunas(deer-like animals) pranced across the expanse.

At the border the pavement abruptly ended and we found ourselves riding on heavily wash boarded gravel. We expected this but a highway sign indicated something we didnt expect--the first town was a full days riding beyond what our map indicated. The friendly folks at Argentinean customs addressed our water shortage. The good scenery continued in Argentina but we could hardly enjoy it. The miserable road demanded nearly our full attention. Just before Susques we broke out of the desert and into canyon country. We lodged comfortably in Susques, thanks to a friendly caretaker who offered us two rooms at the expensive hotel for the price of one. After crossing one more salt lake we summited our last(???) 4000+m pass. An impressive descent brought us into the valley of the multi-colored mountains. As we arrived at the floor of the valley I sensed something strange in my nostrils--the smell of life. After so much lifeless, high desert the greenery in the valley was overwhelming. We spent that night in the pleasant tourist town of Purmamarca. It was our first proper Argentinean town and a few things became apparent. First, the dollar was still ridiculously strong against the peso so we were going to live well. Second, wed have to adjust our schedules. Restaurants didnt open until after 8:30 for dinner. We were accustomed to being in our sleeping bags at that hour.

We continued our descent to Jujuy, the greenery thickening all along the way. By the time we reached Jujuy the transition was complete. Birds were chirping, insects buzzing and trees flowering. The ride into Salta was even more refreshing, passing through heavily-wooded rolling terrain. I realized that it had been well over a year since Id enjoyed such riding conditions. In Salta we took our first rest days since San Pedro. We tried to take in some nightlife but it was futile. After a few nights we were taking our dinner with the locals, i.e. after ten. But it seemed the nightlife shifted as well, not getting started until well after midnight.

I left the Swiss in Salta and headed back into the hills, direction Cachi. It was a wonderful route, with every section named and signed. I climbed through numerous canyons and lush valleys before switch backing my way up to the summit at The Rock of Molino. The previous day I had been suffering in the heat at 4,000 ft. At the summit, 11,000 ft. above sea level, I shivered in the cold. After the pass I descended quickly and soon joined the legendary Route 40, a highway that runs the length of the country. Cachi is an impressive, small tourist town set amidst huge mountains. I spent a day there enjoying the town and exploring the surrounding desert. I encountered little traffic after Cachi and for this alone I was beginning to like Ruta 40. Amazing, eroded landscapes after Angostaco sealed the case. Vineyards and desert were the theme as I approached the town of Cafayate. The wineries were tempting but the town was too touristy to warrant a lengthy stay. Instead I continued on to Santa Maria, detouring to the impressively-situated ruins of Quilmes along the way.
DistanceElevation GainFlat Tires
Leg702 mi/1129 km42030 ft/13789 m1
Trip16257 mi/26163 km180 mi/291 km18
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