Many people know that I am a big biking fan. Neil and I have bicycled around Himeji Castle in Japan, Luang Prabang in Laos, and Ayutthaya in
Thailand. Any chance I get, I’ll rent a bike and head out to the sites. Not because I want to conserve energy (though I do) or because I like to save time (I’m all for that). Really…I like to conserve my own energy while utilizing the least amount of time traveling between sites. But in the Atacama Desert, the lazy-traveler gods had their revenge on me.
What to Bring when Biking the Atacama Desert
There are deserts and then there is the Atacama, the world’s most arid environment. Set against the Andes Mountains, this desert which is 4000 meters above sea level sits right underneath the sun. Light streams in from every angle, burning unprotected skin. The air is so dry that the ground cracks and salt bleaches at the surface. As you stand for pictures in front of salt capped dunes, it seems like you could be somewhere in the Alps skiing, if it weren’t for the third degree burns and sweat stains on your shirt at 10am.
So on long rides in the Atacama Desert, bring at least one liter of water each. Start the ride early and re-apply sunblock every hour or so. Hats will help. And if you are like me, scout out the one or two patches of shade in the valley. About 60 minutes into our ride, Neil and our friend Danny disappeared around the road bend. At the same moment, I saw a slim meter of shade. It took every ounce of will-power not to just duck into it for a rest. I did end up there twenty minutes later, thoroughly defeated by the desert and unashamed to admit it. A pair of Europeans even took a picture of Neil and I hiding from the sun.
When you arrive at the desert park, stop at the visitor center to pay for admission and check to see which trails are open. Caves, trekking, and dune climbing are available. But it’s always advisable to go with a group and follow the rangers’ instructions on which trails are safe.
Bike rentals are between 4000 and 6000 Chilean pesos (US$8-12). You can rent them for a half day or full day. Check the tires and ask for air if the tires seem low. Vendors should also provide you with a spare tube and air-pump in case of emergency. Helmets are optional. We declined ours. They would have made the trip even more warm. So that investment was a good miss.