It is still early as we set out into the desert on our rented bicycles. A whirlwind of dust whips up into my face as we turn out of the driveway and into the main street of San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile. After a brief break to pull over and extract the sand from my eyes we continue on our planned 40km ride at 2,400m above sea level in the driest climate on earth.
Despite our best efforts to secure decent bicycles, we only mange to get our hands on some sub-standard steeds with rusted chains and gears that seemed to grind and clunk every time they are changed. The one thing we have in our favour is our enthusiasm… nothing is going to stop us from our desert adventure and reaching our final destination: the desert salt pools.
We cycled through town and eventually reached the outskirts. The locals are up and into their workday, stopping briefly to look sideways at the crazy gringos making their way into the seemingly endless sandy desert. We reach a fork in the road and stop to interpret the road sign. The sign pointing left reads “The Valley of the Moon”. There is no sign pointing to the right but apparently that is the way we are meant to go. It is at this moment that I briefly hesitate and debate our decision to reach the salt pools under our own steam. But as usual in these situations, the sense of adventure prevails and we cycle on.
As we reach the 15km mark, the sun is really starting to bear down on us. My t-shirt is now soaked and the sweat that has been collecting in my bushy brows is starting to make its way into my eyes. Looking for an excuse to stop, we pass an odd-looking tree that has made its way slowly from the horizon over the last hour or so. Pulling over, we take a drink and I get my camera out to take some shots of the tree sitting precariously in its moon-like surroundings. After a few words of encouragement and an uneducated guess on our location, we cycle on.
After another hour, the sight of a building comes into view in the shimmering distance. With our destination in sight, our efforts are bolstered. Before we arrive though, there is one more uncomfortable incident as a truck passes us at high-speed. The sand and dirt engulfs us for a brief moment before I lose my way and ride off the road and into some deep sand. I stay upright for a brief moment before the bike and me come crashing to the ground. Looking like a crumbed cutlet, I pull myself up off the ground and try in vain to dust myself off.
Reaching the salt pools, we immediately know that our efforts to get here are worth it. The turquoise pools resemble a perfect sheet of glass lying across the sandy desert. As I kneel down to take a photo, I can see the peaks of the Andes reflected perfectly. By this point, I’m keen to remove the sand and dirt that’s caked on my body, so I take off my shirt and find a good place to jump in.
The water is refreshing and instantly melts away any memories of the dust and heat that we experienced en-route. Due to the high salt content, we effortlessly float on the surface as if somehow floating through the desert landscape. Without thinking, I go under the water and open my eyes in an attempt to see the bottom. The high concentration of salt on my eyeballs makes me let out an agonising underwater scream. My wife floats by laughing at my expense as I rub my eyes.
After washing the salt of our bodies, we decide to make our way back to San Pedro. The ride back is a little more tolerable as the afternoon sun moves closer to the horizon. Sure, my eyes are still on fire from my underwater exploits but my enthusiasm to keep exploring this beautiful part of the world hasn’t diminished.