Words and Photos by Taneli Roininen @gonebikefishing
It was two weeks before the Christmas of 2017. I was stuck in Santiago waiting for my new rims (Scraper i40) and tires (Ranger 2.8 TCS Tough) from WTB to clear the Chilean customs. I had plenty of time to day dream and so I opened a satellite view of Good Earth and zoomed in to the reddish and brown desert covering the northern Argentina and northern Chile. There seemed to be plenty of roads, or at least tracks, some marked on map and some visible only on satellite pictures. I have met over 100 cyclists during the past three years and 35 000km on my tour around the world. Why had nobody mentioned riding this area before?
I typed in ‘cycling puna’ on Google search engine and found out that many tourers, even the ones going light with fatter tires, seem to have stayed in the comfort of the main roads and villages and only cross the real high altitude desert when they have to, seeing only a relatively short section of this mystical wilderness. Only Neil and Harriet Pike have explored the region, but unfortunately their website did not give much info on where my daydream route would take me.
The following week I spend days going through satellite pictures and drawing routes on lines visible on satellite pictures of different mapping services. I add 200 waypoints of where the route might or might not be doable, which river is likely to be a source of aqua dulce and which river might not be crossable. As a result of one week of research and planning I had a 1900 km route connecting the wine capital of Argentina, Mendoza, and the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. Now there is a route, but could I actually ride it?
On my hybrid carrying system of my 26+ Surly Troll, (small panniers in the front + bikepacking bags), I have carried one weeks food a couple of times. On my the planned route across the Puna, though, I would need to double or even triple that, while simultaneously increasing my water carrying capacity. I chat with another long distance bikepacker, Scott Pauker, online. He writes me: ‘I am curious how you will deal with the big boys route on the Puna’. I am too.
My setup would need a complete revision, if I want to even attempt riding the route without having my finger ready on the SOS button of my personal emergency beacon. I get an empty cardboard box from the local mercado and start to fill it with stuff that is not absolutely necessary for my survival in the wilderness. I am already travelling pretty light, having a dry weight of 10kg including the weight of bags, but I have to get lighter. Into the box of ‘luxury items’ goes:
I would send the box of stuff to San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile, as poste restante, where the expedition would end.
With some reorganizing of my gear I get to have nearly the whole frame bag and most of my small front panniers for food. Would this be enough? Probably not. I make some calculations of how much cooking alcohol I would need to cook 60 portions of my survival dish of lentil salami pasta and 40 litres of tea at high altitude in temperatures close to zero. A lot. I don’t like it, but one of my 1.5 litre water bottles has to turn into a cooking fuel container. I solve majority of the water capacity problem by strapping two three litre PET bottles on the sides of my front rack, behind the front panniers. God hail to Surly Nice Front Rack, it is weird enough to strap anything on it with some creativity.
Knowing my energy consumption on the road pretty well, I calculate that 60 portions of my survival dish needs around 6 kg of plain pasta, 1800 g of lentils and 1000 g of salami. I would lose some weight on the way, but I would survive. I turn a big mouth 3 litre Coke bottle (yes, that exists in Chile!) into a pasta container and fill a plastic cookie jar with pasta too. The Coke bottle is a perfect fit to my old Salsa Anything Cage under my frame triangle and the cookie jar just about fits under my sandals on my front rack.
A month later I found myself one week into the 1900 km route in the village of Guandacol, ready to start the first 500 km section of high altitude riding without any services. My bike is loaded with 15 kg of food and 2.5 litres of alcohol. The final water carrying capacity is only 10 litres, pero es así. This is how it would be.
The rest is history, I am eager to say. There are not many things which have gone according to plan on my gravel road world tour, but luckily completion of my Puna route has been one of them. I made it alive (though there was a close call!) and well. During the two months of exploring the area I found and tasted hundreds of water sources and managed to find fresh water often enough to make the completion of the route possible. Often I followed the behaviour of birds and vicuñas in search of non-saline water. The sceneries blew my mind every single day and the physical effort of hike-a-biking in soft sand at close to 5000 meters was more than worth it. Now more than 42.000 km of exploring the planet on a bicycle, I am yet to find anything like what I saw on the way in the north Argentinian and north Chilean high altitude deserts.
If this text so far has not yet convinced to leave your job (if you cannot get two months off from work), build your own Frankenstein heavy-duty bikepacking setup and buy a one way ticket to South America, let the photos below persuade you further.