As we chugged up and out of Iquique, I peered out the window inspecting what we could have subjected ourselves to had we attempted to cycle this particular route: climbing 600 meters (2,000 ft) in 14 kilometers on a highway chock-a-block with large semis, a narrow shoulder, on the side of a cliff. No thanks. We were grateful to ride as passengers – including all our gear – the 4,700 meters (15,000 ft) towards the Altiplano on our second adventure with Mistico Outdoors.
This time, our tour involved two days of cycling between two Aymara villages, Huaytane and Chulluncane, where we would stay with a local family in their home, eating traditional cuisine, and taking a peek into their daily lives.
As we drove the two-plus hours to our destination, we stopped periodically for short acclimation walks, first in Chusmiza to eat a sandwich and drink Chachacoma tea, intended to acclimate to the altitude, and then again a thousand or so meters afterward.
We pulled into Huaytane just before golden hour, the evening chill had begun to set in as the afternoon winds picked up and the hills in the distance glowed in light of the setting sun. Home to fewer than 10 individuals, Huaytane centers around a main plaza with benches and a small playground for the children who visit during the summer months. Each home was made of handmade adobe bricks that require nine months to cure in the sun and rotation every three months. Brightly-colored doors warn entrants of head clearance – the Aymara people are rather short.
Our room was simple: two single beds adorned in colorful blankets made from llama or alpaca wool and a table with chairs at the other end, but it was cozy and warm enough under the covers.
Indigenous to the Altiplano region of Chile, Bolivia, and Perú, the Aymara people are found to have occupied the region for over 800 years. Considered to be among the poorest people in Chile due to the limited resources available in the harsh Altiplano environment – minimal electricity comes from solar panels, there is no drinking water, no showers, no heat – it’s all a perception of what makes a comfortable livelihood. On the outside, they do indeed seem poor, however, they often own several houses in neighboring villages or even in larger cities like Iquique or Arica and they drive nice, new vehicles, harvest much of their own food, and run businesses.
The women dress in pleated skirts, thick sweaters, long wool socks, and loafers. They, particularly in Bolivia, are the businesses owners and money makers. The husbands and other male relatives manage the relationships and transport the goods. Their wrinkled skin illustrates the hours spent in the harsh sun, a roadmap of their lives tending quinoa fields and shepherding llamas and alpacas.
Eulogia and Gregorio greeted us with a table set with hot water and an assortment of fresh tea – coca leaves, of course, lemon verbena, and mint, grown in Eulogia’s greenhouse. A short time later, she brought over dinner – vegetable and quinoa soup, quinoa, and a salad – all accommodating our vegan diet. The soup warmed our frozen bodies and the quinoa melted in our mouths. Made using the traditional methods of drying, venting, toasting, and rinsing, a process that takes several weeks, the quinoa Eulogia served had airy texture of cotton candy and zero bitterness. We were told the texture was impossible to replicate with store-bought quinoa.
Billy warned us that our first night in the altitude might be rough. He predicted that we’d fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow (which we did, around 8:30) and that we’d wake frequently during the night (which we did).
Altitude adjustment feels something akin to your worst hangover coupled with a migraine while suffering a nasty sinus infection as you combat waves of nausea. Oh, and you can’t sleep because your head is pounding, sending a fervent pulse reverberating through your body like the clang of a church bell and all of the mucus in your face blocks your nasal passages so you can’t breathe.
Then there’s all that coca tea you’ve drunk to remedy these symptoms, so you also have to get up several times in the middle of the night to pee. But to pee, you have to put on your coat and shoes because of the cold and walk across the little town to the public bathrooms. Altitude adjustment is a bitch, needless to say.
That said, Dave and I were not feeling up to the 30km ride from the main highway to Huaytane. So instead, we loaded into the car after breakfast (and heaps of coca tea) and ventured into a 400-year-old cactus forest near the Salar de Coipasa, just literally a stone’s throw from the Bolivian border. Billy pointed out local flora and fauna as we walked among the prickly towers.
From there, we visited Ancuaque, to relax at a natural thermal pool. While Billy went in search of a resident to unlock the gate to the pool, Dave, Joanna, and I gobbled our lunch in the car, protected from the biting wind. More a tepid bath than a steaming hot spring, we soaked our feet in the water while watching a herd of llamas and alpacas feasting on quinoa stalks.
We returned to another delicious meal prepared by Eulogia that included pebre, a Chilean salsa made from aji peppers, that utilized the tomatoes grown in her greenhouse.
Though we slept no better that evening due to our pounding heads, we felt better once standing up in the morning to attempt the bike ride between Huaytane and Chulluncane, where we would meet our second Aymara family.
We loaded our bikes and set off beneath the brilliant blue sky. Sora road as co-pilot in the car with Joanna, since we still were feeling the affects of the altitude too much to pull her along. Following the paved road, we pedaled away from Huaytane guided by the mighty Cerro Cariquima, towering above from 5,365 meters (17,602 ft).
With practically zero traffic, the three of us gladly took the lane. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps 30 individuals called Cariquima, the largest nearby village, home. The next largest city sat at 1,072 meters (3,517 ft) and 205 kilometers away. We saw no other tourists and more llamas than inhabitants. This was cycling bliss.
At one point, we forded a small river and our paved road turned to ripio (gravel) as we pedaled through a canyon with a still semi-frozen stream murmuring alongside our path.
Once out of the canyon, we were back on paved roads and open fields until we reached a laguna glimmering at the foot of Cerro Cariquima. An ardent birder, Billy excitedly pointed out native species in this Altiplano oasis.
The remaining kilometers pushed our altitude limits, as the road changed again to a sludgy ripio, with short, undulating hills that snatched our air, forcing us to draw slow, deliberate breaths from our lungs.
As we summited the small hill and officially crossed into Chulluncane, I took in the hills surrounding us, the adobe homes with thatched roofs, held down by heavy rocks to fight against the fierce winds. It was all so beautiful.
Don Eugenio and his wife, Gertrudiz – llama and alpaca herders – greeted us and welcomed us into their home. Again, hot water and an assortment of teas awaited us and I sipped three cups to aid my dry throat and soothe my aching head. Sora played with Copy, the sire of most dogs in the neighboring villages. As we warmed our bodies and chatted, Gertrudiz prepared and baked fresh bread in the wood stove and her daughter prepared dinner.
Like most nights in the frigid desert, we retired to bed early, though the affects of altitude persisted in the prevention a peaceful night of rest. After a breakfast consisting of steamed quinoa balls called Mukuna, a traditional field snack for the campesinos, we walked to the llama and alpaca corral, where Sora got her herding fix on and I attempted to snap photos of constantly moving creatures. We watched as Gertrudiz, a woman seemingly 80 years old, wrangle a scrawny baby alpaca to bring back to the house for monitored feeding. Meanwhile, don Eugenio told us of the legend of the Condenado, a zombie known to the local villages.
Soon after, Billy dropped us off in Cariquima, where we would spend a few days awaiting his next tour group, where he would bring along a package sent from my mom that did not arrive in time for our departure from Iquique. The thought of going back down to sea level and reacclimatizing haunted us, so we stayed put. Just 25 kilometers from the Bolivian border, it was a perfect launching point for our venture into Bolivia.
The Perfect Alternative to the Laguna Route
For those cycle tourists still wanting to experience the Atacama Desert, but have reservations about navigating the the popular, yet incredibly difficult, Laguna Route via San Pedro de Atacama and into Bolivia, this is the perfect alternative. With our narrow tires, heavy load, and dog trailer, we knew we would either be miserable for two weeks attempting the route, or have to find a different way. Teaming with Billy set us up for an easy entry onto the Salar de Coipasa, where we could follow much of the Pikes on Bikes route, plus Billy schlepped all of our gear up the dangerous highway out of Iquique and up the 4,700 meters to Cariquima.
By touring with Mistico Outdoors, we had the opportunity to visit Iquique, a delightfully temperate city on the Pacific coast lined with bike paths and a sight we hadn’t seen in some time – dogs on leashes.
Perhaps most importantly, the excursion allowed us several days to acclimate to the high altitude. The first three nights were miserable – we can’t imagine having to have cycled and slept in the cold with little access to water as our bodies adjusted.
For a dose of cycling, culture, and quinoa, and one of the most authentic travel experiences you’ll have with nary a tourist around, reach out to Billy Morales from Mistico Outdoor, and he’ll show you the best of the Chilean altiplano.