Canyon after Pedernales

Salar de Maricunga to Chañaral

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After my failure to cross Paso San Francisco I am forced to go back to the Chilean coast. Of course, I am reluctant to go the same way back so I scout an alternative to Diego de Almargo. This promises a nice Salar de Pedernales views.

What I did not know about this route is that the salar isn't really as spectacular as the maps show. Instead there is an unforgettable canyon downhill ride.

April 20

In the morning I am waiting for an update from the Argentinian side of the pass. The newest info is that there is still too much snow in the pass so I have no choice but to go back. I am opting for a road to Diego de Almagro and I hope it will be of a decent quality.

But before I get the lates info, I am getting a "present" from an immigration officier. He decides that I will need a lot of food to get to the pass so I am receiving a lot of cooked meat. This is very nice of him. The only problem is that now I will need to figure out how the heck can I eat all of it before it goes bad -- today I am still going to be at the high altitude but tomorrow is going to slowly change into a furnace.

As I set off, I am relieved to find a superb ripio road. Moreover, there isn't going to be any hard climb which definitely helps with the mood. As the kilometers fly by, I can now spot distant mountains towards the Argentinian side. They definitely look more snow-covered than my neighborhood so I guess Argentinians were right with the snow in the pass.

Superb ripio towards La Ola
A golden-grass streak
Distant peaks towards the Argentinian side are definitely more snow-covered

What makes the scenery even more beautiful are plains of golden grass. I can even see a herd of guanacos as I speed by on a downhill.

Enjoying a speedy ride
The road is undulating a bit
I can't stop looking at the golden grass

And as if animals wanted to showcase, I am passing by another nice Andean Fox. Of course, it wouldn't be a ride without my "friend" headwind. Fortunately, it isn't very strong. Just icy enough to keep me layered like a russian dolls.

I also pass by apparently the only river (or better to say a stream) for dozens of kilomeres around. It is surprisingly huge (in a sense that I don't think it dries in the summer) but I would not bet on it as a source of good water -- I did not stop to check whether it is salty or not.

It is a bit disappointing that the road does not go closer to this interesting rock outcrop
Towards left I have standard colorfull hills
Guanaco herd
Another fox

Looking at the maps I expected La Ola to be a small village. To my surprise, this is exactly a one-building place. Ok, one building and a lots of communication antennas. It probably belongs to some mining company. Though I can see a man fixing a vehicle there, I am more than happy that at the immigration I took water for two days.

I feel like shooting on a B/W film
Volcán Doña Inés
Blue & yellow

After La Ola it is only a short way to Salar de Pedernales. Or so I thought. While my map indicates that I should be already cyling on the salt, I can't see any white in the distance. In the end the salar proves to be a big disappointment. The road never gets close to the real salt and there are only a few occasions when I can spot white in the far distance.

But this does not mean they can't signpost it. I pass at least five signs "Pedernales" spread over about 10 kilometers -- as if they could not agree where the salar is.

A bit of headwind and suddenly I need a jacket
This guanaco knows where to stay for the best shot
Salar de Pedernales

April 21

The morning looks very promising. Which is a good thing because I am planning a long day. I need to cover more than 110km, although only the first 15 km will increase my altitude (by 300 meters). The rest is going to be crazy downhill where I descent almost 3 vertical kilometers!

The first thing I learn once I sit on my saddle is that the morning theme is donkeys. Donkeys are everywhere. One here, three there, a herd somewhere else. It really looks like an invasion.

This morning's theme is donkeys
They are really everywhere

After a few kilometers I am coming across a junction with ruins of old houses (possibly quite good as a windbreak). I have two choices. Either I will go right and ascent 200 meters with a juicy 10% grade, or I go left and ascent more-or-less the same but spread over a more suiting distance. You can guess which option I prefer (Note: I am talking about 10% grade at over 3000 meters of altitude).

As I slowly climb, the scenery turns into pretty golden-hills. I even spot some guanaco. Before long and the climb is done, now is the time for a lunch and a long-lasting descent.

Saline marshes. I guess now I know from where is the salt of Salar de Pedernales.
Tackling the final climb before a big descent

What I did not know so far is that the descent is going to be through an impressive canyon. Which immediatelly turns this route from a nice to superb.

The descent is going to be through this beautiful canyon
Bike and the other side of the canyon
Foxes live even here

The road first gets down to the canyon bed over a series of long and steep switchbacks. Then it slowly flattens but it always guarantees a fast ride.

Descent to the canyon
Almost at the canyon floor
The canyon goes on and on ...
I am observing nice rock formations
Eventually the road is slowly flattening

To make things more interesting, the road eventually joins an old railway line to Potrerillos. Of course, the railway is long disused and so I am just imagining riding it a-la Indiana Jones style.

For a while I am tempted to switch the mode of transport
Finally I can again see some greenery

When I join the main road to Potrerillos, the things change. For one thing, there is pavement. For other, there is lots of (mining) trucks going around. At least they are quite nice and overtake me in a very safe way.

Then I hit a paved road
This stream doesn't even try to mask its saltiness

My mouth is watering for some cool and sugary refreshment before my first proper village Llanta until I realize that there isn't going to be anything. That is, unless I meet some ghost making living by selling soda. Seriously, I did not see a single person here. Well, at least Diego de Almargo isn't that far.

My impression of Diego de Almargo from maps isn't exactly fitting the reality. While I expected a big town, this is more like a big industrial village. I am quickly securing a not-so-cheap hostel (but then, hot shower is a hot shower). I am also learning that there is no bike shop/mechanic in the town (and after my Copiapó fiasco I hoped to get a new chain). At least the local supermarket has dried fruits and nuts. Which is actually quite surprising because there are many less-fancy things that are missing from the selection.

Diego de Almagro starts with an interesting monument

April 22

My morning start is slow because I am finishing a blog post on the Internet. So when I hit the road at 10am and try to get some lunch supplies, I am quite shocked that there is no shop open. At least I still have some small things (for example some apples) so I should survive to Chañaral. As a consequence, when I see some kioscos in a small village El Saladilo down the road, it begs for a break. Not that the kioscos have much usefull stuff though.

To say something about the route, the road to Chañaral isn't exactly exciting. Add to it a nontrivial amount of traffic and a very strong headwind to get the picture that today isn't one of my favorite days.

A typical view of today
A not so typical view of today
Lunch break
Final few kilometers to Chañaral are on Ruta 5

Chañaral is a small town which reeks of industry -- it doesn't particularly please the eye. I am instantly hunting for a bike mechanic. Compared to Diego de Almagro there is one here. Unfortunately, something like a 9-speed chain is far out of scope for this little shop -- the mechanic deals usually with 7-speed two-wheelers. At least I am getting a rubber glue in case I will need more tube repairs (I still have one glue but the experience taught me that once opened, these things seem to evaporate over time even with a closed lid).

After my not so successfull bike-parts shopping I am switching to a more conventional stuff. To my delight a local supermarked has decent selection and I am spending quite some time there (oh my, did I really bought so much food? It is so heavy...)

Then I am making an executive decition to stay for a night here. Technically, I could ride for another about 20 kilometers but that would land me in a national park. It takes me a bit time to find a hostel with WiFi. And then I need to negotiate price -- I want a two-bed room for a price of a single one because they have a single room only upstairs.

To finish my day I quickly grab something from a fast-food and then I am delving into bike mainternance. Importantly, I need to replace a chain. Fortunately I still have one spare so I should be able to ride until the next big town (Antofagasta) without eating into the sprocket.

Route

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Download simplified GPX of a route here

Stats by activity:

Activity Distance
(km)
Ascent
(km)
Pedal rotations
(thousands)
bike 251 0.7 44
Stats by day:
Date Distance
(km)
Ascent
(km)
Avg. temp
(moving, C)
April 20, 2017 71.3 0.25 12.8
April 21, 2017 113.7 0.40 21.5
April 22, 2017 65.8 0.09 21.7

Elevation data

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The next table is only for cycling activity.

Grade(%)Ascent (km)Descent(km)
< 2 113.1
< 4 9.1 56.4
< 6 3.3 12.6
< 8 1.1 4.3
< 10 0.2 1.9
≥ 10 0.7 5.2

Notes for cyclists (Immigration at Maricunga to Diego de Almagro)

Water is generally not available around this road. The best is to take two days of water at the immigration and survive until Diego de Almagro. For the same reason, I would not advise going this route in the opposite direction as you would need to carry at least three days of water into the climb!

Distance Elevation Notes
0km 3780m Immigration at Maricunga. Get all necessary water here.
1km 3740m Junction. Take R towards La Ola and Diego de Almagro. (L for Copiapó)
7.5km 3850m Top of a small climb
27km 3700m Junction. Go straight. (L for a potential shortcut to the canyon but with an unknown road quality and presumably including juicy climbs)
38km 3650m River. Not sure if salty or contaiminated by some upstream mine.
46.5km 3570m La Ola. Maybe water? A single worker's building and a lots of communication antennas. Saw a person there when I cycled this but I would not bet on it.
~67km 3370m Salar de Pedernales. There are Pedernales signs spread over the length of at least 10 kilometers. That said, you will see the shining salt only from the distance.
70km 3380m Junction to Laguna Salar de Pedernales (did not make a detour)
74km 3440m Intersection and a couple of houses. Go R for juicy 200m climb with grade ~10%. Go L for much better grade and a following canyon descent. (Took L. The roads should meet below Potrerillos)
87.5km 3670m Top of a climb. A superb canyon descent now follows. Initially steep but it slowly flattens.
(~104km, km 20 marker besides the road) ???? A modern-looking house. Saw a habitant but I would not bet on it.
113.5km 2380m Estación Montandon. A few abandoned buildings. If you dare you can hike a bit and visit some old railway tunnels.
123.5km 2130m Juction to Potrerillos. The road gets paved. Possible water source. There are few houses around the junction. Even if not inhabitated, there is lot of truck traffic from now on so you should be able to get water very quickly. Note that while the road follows a stream from now onwards, it produced weird long-lasting bubbles so I presume it is contaminated from some upstream mine.
160km 1200m Llanta. Seems to be a dead mining village. Saw nobody around.
185km 800m Diego de Almagro. An industrial town. Accomodation and shops.
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