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Our original plan was to spend a month on the Chilean coast, two hours north of Santiago and care for four dogs, before heading onto San Pedro de Atacama, and then the Laguna Route in Bolivia.
A fellow cyclist whom we had met on the road, however, had an accident on his bike resulting in memory loss, a broken scapula, two broken ribs and a punctured lung. We spent two weeks helping him navigate the hospitals in Spanish and recover at a friend’s home in Panguipulli, Chile.
After that, we felt like we no longer needed a break from cycling and were eager to return to our bikes.
A bucket list route for many cycle tourists, the Laguna Route, infamous for its difficulty navigating over kilometers of high-altitude sandy terrain with few resources, left us doubting our capability of conquering the route, given our already heavy load and trailer. The Carretera Austral was difficult enough for us and, that was supposed to be one of the easier routes in South America.
Fortunately, Billy Morales from Mistico Outdoors made our decision for us. After reaching out on Instagram about bicycle travel in the Atacama Desert, we scheduled a phone call. Given his perfect written English in our email correspondence, I assumed Billy was a gringo (not an insult here in South America), however I detected an accent over the phone and learned that Billy was indeed a Chilean.
Over an hour long conversation, Billy mentioned that while San Pedro de Atacama is a nice place to visit, it is riddled with tourists and expensive, geared toward the foreign traveler. The Atacama Desert, he explained covers 105,000 square kilometers, yet people tend to only get to know the section surrounding San Pedro. There is so much more to the Atacama, he said, and he wanted to show us.
Based out of Iquique, Billy suggested that we allow him to show us his version of the Atacama, which involved fat biking in sand dunes, cycling between local Aymara villages, and staying with the residents, in their homes. He promised no tourists, no park rangers to tell us no dogs allowed, and scenery similar to what we’d see on the laguna route. Oh, and the excursion would take us, and our bikes, nearly to the Bolivian border where we could practically walk to the Salar de Coipasa, our first of our Bolivia salt flat excursion.
Carry our gear 4,000 meters above sea level (masl) (13,000 ft) and show us a cultural experience? We were sold.
A biologist turned tour guide, Billy created Mistico Outdoors in order to combine his passion for biology, sustainable tourism, and outdoor adventure in the Atacama altiplano that serves as his back yard. With a mission to bring responsible tourism to northern Chile, Billy and his team offer inspiring adventures, deeply ingrained in sustainability and cultural immersion, showing off an otherwise unvisited region of Chile.
We began our northern Chile adventure with fat biking in Alta de Pica, sand dunes located just outside of the oasis town of Pica, known for its production of citrus fruit. We’ll get to the fruit part later.
After spending a few days in Iquique, Billy picked us up at our hostal, laughed at the sheer amount of our belongings required for an overnight trip, loaded our gear and we set off into the afternoon.
Located two hours from Iquique, we arrived at the sand dunes, situated some 2,100 meters above sea level (masl) (7,000 ft) as the sun slithered behind the hills. Billy wanted to test an evening ride with us and we were more than willing to partake.
I could feel the thin air while I pushed one of the fat bikes up and over the small hill to our starting point, panting heavily as I set the bike down in the sand.
Since our speed would maximize what Sora could handle, she stayed in the car with Joanna, Billy’s colleague, who drove to the bottom to pick us up after our ride. An animal lover, Sora and Joanna bonded straight away and we felt more than comfortable leaving our pup with her while we glided over the sand and dunes for 16km.
After adjusting the seat to my height, I positioned myself on the single speed bike. The fat bike felt clunky and foreign in comparison to Grete, my touring bike. I struggled finding a comfortable foot placement on the pedal, as I sought my balance while staring down the steep downhill that would serve as my introduction to fat biking.
I took a breath, and allowed the wheels of the bike slowly rotate and gain speed as I flew down the dune into the setting sun. Butterflies flew in my belly as I soared and by the time I reached the bottom, I was ready for my next downhill.
The fat wheels make for a stubborn turning radius and I soon found myself separated from Dave and Billy, divided by a rather large dune. I braced myself for the climb, tackling the dune from the side, but failed a third of the way up, my bike ceasing in the pillowy sand. I hit the ground with a silent thud, laughing and completely covered in sand.
We navigated a series of sand dunes in the glow of golden hour, watching Billy closely for technique. He seemed to float up and over and through the dunes.
By the time night fell, we had made our way to a long, flat descent. The fat bikes conquered the sand and rocks like a bulldozer. I hardly felt the bumps, and felt unafraid with my inability to see all that lay ahead of me.
We finished our thrill ride at the road, where the snake eyes from the car in which Joanna and Sora sat guided our way. My face hurt from smiling and laughing so much.
After loading the bikes, we returned to our starting point, where set up camp below a night sky speckled with more stars than we had ever seen in our lives. As we consumed dinner, Joanna told us of the Yakana, the Aymara constellations hidden in the Milk Way, seen only certain times of the year.
Every night, the Yakama, or mother llama, descends from the sky to drink the water in rivers, in order to prevent the Earth from flooding. The water she drinks turns to milk for her baby. One day the Yakana was drinking the water from a river with the baby llama and the frog, the snake, and the partridge. The frog and the partridge were having an argument and gossiping when they suddenly saw the fox coming to attack the baby llama. They warned the snake and they managed to freeze the fox through a magic spell of the frog. From that day, all the animals can be seen in the Yakana constellation, with the baby under the mother and the snake (to the right) and the frog and the partridge (to the left) always looking after them.
After listening to the story, we scoured the Milky Way, in search of the Yakana and her baby, the frog, and the snake.
We slept soundly, in the quiet of the desert, snuggled deep into our sleeping bags along with all my camera batteries and phone, to keep warm throughout the chilly night.
As the sun peered over the mountains in the distance, we slowly roused from our slumber, ate breakfast, packed, and readied the bikes for round two, this time with the bright daylight guiding our way. We snuck in a short ride with Sora before taking off.
This time, I felt excitement, rather than nerves, tackling that first steep dune, as I sailed swiftly down and pedaled on to bounce up and over the next series of dunes. Feeling more confident with full daylight and having had a practice round the previous evening, I tested my fat biking skills by carving into the sides of dunes and attempting steeper climbs. My efforts usually ended up with sand in my face, but the exhilaration trumped any embarrassment.
After skating across the foothills of the dunes and back to Sora and Joanna, we headed to Pica, to soothe our dried throats with mango juice, the town’s famed beverage. A sleepy town, we found only one juice stand open midday and huddled around a table as we awaited our mango juice.
The shop owner brought us our bright orange juices in pint glasses, topped with bendy straws. I love mangos. When the Mexican mangoes arrive in Portland, I purchase two cases worth and blend them, cut them, freeze them, and devour them. My mouth watered as I leaned over for my initial sip.
Thick and creamy like a lassi, with just the right amount of sweetness, I closed my eyes and moaned with delight, savoring the flavor. Our mango juices disappeared quickly and we ordered a second round.
With mango juice still lingering on my tastebuds, we took a quick peek of the Termas de Cocha, a natural pool of warm, but not hot water, where Iquique residents come during the weekends.
We headed back to the car, tired our day in the sun and made our way back to Iquique, where we would stay one more day before departing for our cycling adventure in the Atacama altiplano, which I’ll write about in a post soon.
For those cycle tourists still wanting to experience the Atacama Desert, but have reservations about navigating the Laguna Route in Bolivia via San Pedro de Atacama, this is the perfect alternative. The roads are paved and it puts you within a day or two of riding from the Salar de Coipasa.
To learn more about Fat Biking in northern Chile, visit Mistico Outdoors and shoot Billy an email. You won’t regret it.