San Pedro de Atacama biking

I have been riding my mountain bike in a lot op places, but this ride might just make it into the top 3 -so far-. Keep reading, because at first this ride was not an obvious winner!

The first day

So, at first, I wasn’t really off to a good start. I had to pay 3000 pesos (about 3.25EUR) because the Catarpe valley is managed by a local community and the generated income is used for preservation (so they told me). Now, I am all in for a bit of local support but unfortunately I did not see any evidence of money spent on preservation of any kind. After paying the fee I had to listen to all kinds of instructions of what to do and where to go, and where not to go. (I’ll get back to this later). I also had to sign a logbook: time of entering and leaving. But honestly I guess this logbook gives a false sense of security. I don’t expect any local going to look for you when at the end of the day you fail to enter the time of leaving. Anyway, I passed the gate and was free to roam around in the Catarpe area..

I started to follow the main track to the Rio San Pedro de Atacama up to the Quebrada de Chulakoa, or “Gargante del Diablo” – a much more interesting name which translates as the “Throat of the Devil”.
A bit dramatic if you ask me, but I learned that something with “devil” in it always works to attract people. All over the world. During the “instructions” they told me it was a dead end and you should return the same way. But it is not true. There are more tracks to explore. Nevertheless when I reached the foot of mirador (from this side the mirador cannot be reached while cycling – you have to go by foot, it is too steep).

After that I decided to ride back down again the same way, back to main track to follow it upstream to the Church.

The church is a small closed building, build the old fashioned way with local building materials. From there I decided to make a loop, back to the Mirador reaching it from another direction and descend a second time down the devils throat. It was worth it: after a short challenging climb first there was an exposed rocky field, flat as a billiard, followed by some partly eroded and sun-dried muddy hills where the trail twists and turns while going down, and then following a dried out river bed back to the Throat. From there I decided to ride up to the tunnel which, they said, was closed but upon arriving it was -miraculously- possible to ride (or walk) trough it. Which I did. Some rocks were blocking the tunnel partly, but nothing too serious. But, I had to return to the gate to sign out so I turned around going back through the tunnel.

All this is easily reached by bike or by foot if it is your first time mountain biking. The Catarpe valley is one of the mayor tourist attractions, so a lot of tourists are guided by a local daily back and fourth between town and valley. they are usually easy to recognize: they wear these silly security vests that are usually obligatory in cars in case you break down. So, if you want to blend in as a tourist, wear one of those. Otherwise, just wear your normal bike apparel (with shorts!) to look like a local. Clipless pedals are scarce. I was the only one.

Catarpe revisited

Two days later, I returned. But now I had a much better picture of the surroundings, making it possible to bike like a local. I choose a different way to reach the Mirador and this meant I also got to bypass the community checkpoint. This was an excellent decision: the ride was much more interesting: a mild climb going up and out of the village. The trail was soon following the edge of the mountain and from then on it followed the ridge up to a viewpoint.

It was all ridable but sometimes technical difficult because of loose rocks and bigger slabs of exposed rock. And all along the way up, the views were stunning. There’s no need to go the afore mentioned Mirador, because it still can’t be reached by bike. Instead I rode around it, and I decided to follow a different river bed to reach the church, and then follow the loop I did two days earlier, through the muddy hills. This meant only going down the devils throat but honestly that is more than enough to enjoy that section.

From there I went back to the tunnel, reached the other side and turned left to climb the ridge under which the tunnel was laid.

Sadly this was a section I had to walk: it was too steep and loose rocks made it impossible to bike. Looking down I tried to find an alternative that was ridable, but I was glad I did not find one: the view at the top was spectacular. From there I could once again ride just along the ridge, enjoying all kinds of rock formations and different forms of erosion. This lasted a few kilometres, until I reached yet another Mirador.

I could see it was a paid location as well, but at this time it was closed. I followed the unmaintained track down through some freshly formed dunes. Now, I am an experienced rider when it comes to loose dune sand, but this was of another class: this “sand” was so heavy going that I had to walk it down partly. Then the track gradually improved until I reached a gate near the main road, the Ruta 23. There were actually some people at the gate and they asked where I came from, because the track was closed. Maybe I was lost? I confirmed that I was lost and that I just wanted to reach the main road. Of course with a handheld GPS I knew exactly where I was going but I did not feel like explaining that to them. From there I returned along Quitor to the main river of San Pedro. A very nice and interesting ride indeed.

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