Chile’s Lake District: The Monkey Puzzle Trail

We are going the Right Way and the wind is at our backs, pushing us towards Ralco. The road goes past crowded beaches and beneath steaming volcanoes.

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We camp on a cliff, overlooking the Bio Bio River. It is clear and blue.

In town I log into the library WiFi. Trump has become president. My family marched in Boston. My friends marched in DC and in Anchorage. I surpress an overwhelming need to be there marching, too.

A utilitarian gravel road takes us up into the mountains. A series of dams tames the Bio Bio into clear blue lakes.

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In between, it still rages. I count four holes in this rapid. Just looking at it brings a small surge of adrenaline.

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Volcan Callaqui steams.

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In Chenqueco we wait for the store to open. I think we have enough food. Tyndall doesn’t. I fear running out of water, he food. Others wait for the store to open too. Everyone seems surprised that it is not.

I help reunite some chicks with their momma. Shadows lengthen. Everyone else clears off. It seems we will have to make do with what we have, and so we leave too.

We are following the Monkey Puzzle Trail, and here it gets interesting, the gravel grinding soon forgotten. We go down a dusty ditch to a pedestrian bridge and haul ourselves out the other side.

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A short stretch of single track takes us to double track and on to some of the best camping we have had in awhile.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

The occasional piglet darts into the bushes, sheep roam around, curious caballos come by and later, a man on a horse with his dogs pushing cows. Just before sunset, a lady and her son walk by on their way home. They were in Chenqueco waiting for the store to open, too. They assure us it’s still closed.

I wake in the morning to watch the new moon rise, followed shortly by the sun. The two track turns right, and we go up. The trail does not disappoint.

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Two times we drop back down to Lago Ralco on grin inducing descents and two times we climb up and away.

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Late in the day we run into another cyclist going the other way. He is heavily loaded and says he would never ride a bike like ours. He tells us the best parts of the Carretera Austral and he tells us our friend Scott is a day ahead of us.

Known for leaving La Paz and magically resurfacing in San Pedro, Chile 12 days later and pushing 200km days through the desert in northern Argentina, I know we will never catch up to him. It’s still fun to pick out his tracks in the dirt.

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I come around a corner and see this.

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Piles and piles of what I think is a lava flow. It looks like vomit from the center of the earth.

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I think about Aniakchak Crater and how long ago that errupted. This looks recent, too but I don’t know enough about geology to really say what recent means. We pedal up and around in the diminishing daylight, camping on the edge of a cold, blue lake.

At the top of the climb in the morning we find a mirador with an information board. It IS a lava flow, and it happened in 1988. That is recent. The whole thing is 10km long and 60 meters deep. It came from a parasitic cone on the side of Volcan Lonquimay.

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In town we eat. I check the news and my heart breaks and my blood boils. It seems that truth is a relative concept these days. Not everyone had the benefit of 11th grade American Studies with Mr. Ronco. He wouldn’t accept a source that wasn’t validated. Ever.

I close the connection and we leave town. Ice cream can’t lift my dark mood and so I pedal, back up into the mountains, the monkey puzzle trees and the rushing creeks. We find a quiet camp and soak our hot feet.

In the morning a Chilean offers us a ride. He’s really just a kid, with braces and a fancy pickup truck. He can’t belive we are doing this by choice, that we turn down his offer of water. It rus everywhere, why carry it?

We leave the gravel road and inquiring minds behind, riding through Reserva China Muerta and more monkey puzzles. It’s tranquil and quiet. We linger, not wanting it to end.

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The descent takes us through burned forest. It’s coming back though, and wild flowers pop out all over the place.

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Mid afternoon the heat chases us down into Melipeuco, in search of cold drinks and a resupply.

Route information can be found from Bikepacking.com.

Chile’s Coastal Cordillera

We met Nancho in Malargüe. He invited us to his house in Romeral. It is on our route, and so stopping is a no brainer. He shares his house and his family and his stories and his food and his company with us. I learn a little bit more about Chile, how to choose a good bottle of wine and that Chilean women are given six months of maternity leave, the men none.

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We leave Romeral, aiming for the coast across the Central Valley, through orchards and vineyards. We need to ride just a few kilometers down Ruta 5, to cross Rio Teno. A no bikes sign gives us pause, but we go on, not intending to be on the highway long. But then we see our bridge. There’s no shoulder and two lanes of traffic hurtling down the road at 120kph. Even if I could convince myself that crossing here would be a good idea, I know I can’t convince Tyndall. His fear of traffic is healthier than mine.

We look at an old dam just up river, but it won’t go. Tyndall looks at the map and picks out a different bridge. One melon and 35 kilometers later we’re back on track.

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We stop in Santa Cruz to visit the Colchagua Museum. It has fossils and pre Incan artifacts and jewels and even a few things from not so far away.

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The Central Valley is hot and a bit crowded. We stop for another roadside melon and then get serious. It’s time to get out of here. We head for the coast, hoping for cool sea breezes. Past Lolol we take off down a sandy side road. It rollercoasters through vast pine plantations.

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In Llico we watch fisherman bring in the days catch, and then find empanadas to eat.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

It’s a laid back little seaside town. Late in the day we return to the hills. Here they don’t mess about. The roads go straight up, or straight down.

Past Vichuquen we watch a small wildfire burn on the hillside. We ask about it, and are told it’s fine. It’s controlled. Skeptical, we go on, finding camp by a creek. I figure we can jump in the water if the fire turns.

Sitting on the ground, Tyndall turns to see this guy.

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I see a flock of geese coming up the creek. People are scarce, but the wild life is not. It’s a good thing we fixed the tent zipper.

Late in the night, I wake to see the geese sneaking past the tent, single file in stealth mode. In the morning they are hanging out in the road, making a commotion. I suspect they are not actually wild.

The climbs here are steep, the descents the same, but in between, we roll along ridegtops.

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From the forest we aim for the beach. I look at Constitucion from afar and am wary of entering. It looks big, but the beach beckons.

At the end of the road we find a dune to camp in. I put my feet in the Pacific and watch the sunset over the water. Lines of cars go up and down the road, doing the same thing. This particular place is crowded and trashy. Tomorrow we’ll move on.

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I wake up feeling wet. In an effort to prolong the life of our tent fly zipper, we haven’t been using it. Clear skis mean it’s generally safe to sleep without, but here on the coast, the fog has rolled in and the air is damp. We’ll dry the quilt out later. For now, it still insulates.

People are curious, wanting to know where we’re going and how we’re getting there. Advice and opinions are offered whether requested or not.

Here aguacates are paltas, frijoles are porotoes and fresas are frutillas. No matter, they still taste the same. Fresh food is plentiful.

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Each section of the Central Valley seems to have a specialty. Here’s it’s strawberries, and they happen to be in season. It’s easy to buy a box and stash it away for later.

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We eat strawberries for dinner, breakfast and lunch. They don’t last any longer as we roll through the mountains, taking advantage of long summer days. We intend to drop out at Buchupureo but miss a turn and end up 5km north, in Pullay. For our error, we are gifted a bonus hill.

From Buchupureo we go to Cobquecura, finding a place worth staying for a bit. We listen to sea lions roar and drink wine on the beach as the sun slowly sets. Locals play ball with a portable speaker blasting American rap music. What’s not to like?

Past town the pavement on the coast road runs out. Wheat fields abound. Oxen, too.

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We turn inland, having lunch in Trehuaco. On TV I see Michelle Obama and Sunny and Bo take one last walk through the White House. I see protests against Trump that look more like large dance parties. I wonder what Chileans see.

Cool sea breezes gone, we pass the afternoon in the shade of the town park. I buy a chocolate bar for later, hoping it won’t melt. It does, a sure sign it’s too hot.

From here, we work our way back across the industrial Central Valley, towards the mountains.

Where we rode: Romeral – Santa Cruz – Llico – Vichuquén – Constitución – Curanipe – Cobquecura – Trehuaco – Ñipas

We found a vast network of well kept dirt roads in the Coast Mountains, between the Central Valley and the sea. The camping in the mountains was easy but dry, and the fresh fruit and seafood in the coastal towns plentiful. Not all the roads were on our maps, and there’s more to be explored.

Paso Vargara to Chile

The Municipal Campground in Malargüe is quieter than anticipated. What I didn’t anticipate is the 31st annual Festival de Chivo happening while we were in town. The campground residents are quiet, but the music blasts next door.

We share our space with two Chilenos out on a trip. Nancho teaches grade school and has a 90 year old mother. His cousin Miguel hauls produce by truck around the country. They ask about Donald Trump. We say we didn’t vote for him. They say he will be bad for Latin America. We don’t disagree, and stumble on, trying to have a complex conversation in Spanish. It mostly works and we move on to other topics. They give us Chilean wine in a bottle with a label in Chinese. It’s the best in the world they say.

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Morning comes too soon. We decide today will be a half day, passing the afternoon in the shade, only leaving late in the day to find a place to sleep. I ask at a small finca if we can set up our tent. The Abuela says yes, and so we do, only hindered by two small puppies intent on climbing in with us.

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We compromise, and I fall asleep with a puppy pile by my head. They stay there all night.

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The road in the morning is covered in goat tracks. We follow them up into the mountains.

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The road surface is good, the grade reasonable but the wind not. Today it’s blowing in the wrong direction. I get off my bike, hunker down beside it and walk. There’s no other way.

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Flowers and green things abound. Water pours out of the ground and rushes down. It’s clear and cold. We soak our feet and have an afternoon wine.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

It almost looks like home, except there are no alders.

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Then press on, finding a calm home for the night.

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We descend to the mighty Rio Grande. At first the valley is wide, offering little protection. Dust devils engulf me, then move on. I get an exfoliation free of charge.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

Then it narrows and we go up.

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I watch the clouds build all night. Later, rain drops wake us up. We scramble to put on the tent fly. The wind still blows. In the morning the rain has turned to snow and hail. We dig out long forgotten layers, pack up and press on.

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The Argentinian immigration official greets us, as do 20 geologists from the University of Wisconsin and one cyclist from Belgium. The official tells us we can’t proceed because of the weather, but even when pressed, he doesn’t offer us a warm place to stay inside. We press back and they relent, stamping our passports and allowing us to go. It’s too cold to stand around outside.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

The Chilean immigration post is 16 kilometers away. We go there, and are offered a place to stay, wifi and water. Tyndall tells them they have a much nicer building than the Argentinians. They say it is called Progress.

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The sun is out and the road goes down. We head on.

Where we rode: Malargüe – Los Queñes – Romeral via Paso Vargara

Route notes from Andes by Bike, except we went straight west from Malargüe on a dirt road instead of going to Bardas Blancas on pavement, then turning west.

South from Mendoza

We kill a few dinosaurs to travel fast. The first day of summer has past. Despite the heat and long days I already feel the season closing in. Life in Anchorage has shown me that nothing lasts in these extreme climates, least of all long summer days. The desert holds little appeal to me and to Tyndall. We’re captivated by the coast, rumors of smoked salmon, lakes, rivers and trees.

The treelined streets of Mendoza are a pleasure to ride.

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It’s New Year’s Day and we have the place to ourselves. Old cars are parked in front of modern houses.

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After noon a handful of small shops start to open. We fill our bags with empanadas and cold drinks, taking it all to the park for a picnic.

Everyone returns to work on Monday, but still, the streets are incredibly civilized. Drivers stay in their lanes. They yield for bikes. They give us space as we work our way south past bodegas and vineyards. Snowy peaks can just be picked out through the hot hazy valley.

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Trucks filled with produce pass. Irrigation ditches run every which way. I smell peaches and apples and wet earth. A Weatherford Wireline Services truck goes the other way. Tyndall gets excited. Soon, a handful of pump jacks dot the landscape. We spot a derrick a ways off. Progress comes easy today.

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In Perditas we ask about the condition of Ruta 40 to Malargüe. While Tyndall talks, three Schlumberger trucks past. Conditions confirmed, we leave town. It’s not hard to leave the pavement and turn down a small dirt road.

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I see a coyote and watch birds flit about. After lunch the wind kicks up, mostly aiding our southerly progress. Butterflies get tossed about. The grasses shimmer and sway. It’s wild and empty here.

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At Arroyo Honda we find water and a cluster of trees to camp in. Hobbled horses mill about, along with a lone goat.

The wind is still at it in the morning. We climb out of the arroyo and descend into another. This one has water too, although it’s also silty. The next one is clear and we fill up our bottles before climbing out again.

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Rio Diamante looks like the Colorado a bit. Wide, brown, frothy. I imagine the rapids that must be on it.

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A couple of Swiss overlanders pass in their fancy rig, but otherwise we see no one.

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Looking for a quiet place to sleep, we stop short of El Sosneado.

I catch a glimpse of an elusive big bird. I see the brown feathers bounce off, spot a long neck poking above the brush and then it’s gone. We share the remaining kilometers to El Sosneado with oil field service trucks, then turn right onto pavement for Malargüe.

Where we rode: Mendoza – Eugenio Bustos – Perditas – El Sosneado – Malargüe

Route details from Andes by Bike.

Argentina for Christmas

Hostel Sonchek in San Pedro is comfortable. Two nights turns to four. Birds chirp in the mornings. Trees shade a back patio. Kittens roam around, getting up to no good and providing hours of entertainment. Empanadas can be had next door for a few pesos. We work hard to convince ourselves to leave, to go back out in to the desert.

At Valle Jere in Tocanao we sit in the shade and watch the local dog pack romp in the water.

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Gardens abound. Women and girls tend their orchards.

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The park is kept in fine shape by two guardaparques. We make to leave, but are stopped by a lunch invite from Maria and Martina.

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We learn about the flora and fauna in this oasis. We I eat a plateful of fresh apricots. The sun dips towards the west. Tyndall slathers his nose in sunscreen again and we go.

At the Tropic of Capricorn we stop for cookies. Five kilometers later I realize I forgot to take a photo. Loath to lose the bit of elevation I gained, I don’t go back.

We intend to arrive in Socaire this evening, but stop short to sleep in a canyon. We would both rather skimp on food and water than sleep in town tonight.

I watch the International Space Station wing through the sky and then fall asleep.

In the morning we waste an hour in town, waiting for a shop to open to buy supplies for the up and over to Argentina. I buy a giant loaf of french bread. It goes into the backpack for later. We climb. And climb and climb.

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A day’s effort gets us up an over one pass, to Aguas Caliente. The camp spot we had in mind is occupied. We search for another without any luck. I ask to share the space and they oblige. The wind howls and this is the only protection to be found. Out on the laguna, the flamingos could care less. They go about their business, cackling through the night.

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The road is empty. We see no one. The wind kicks us along on a smooth dirt surface. The climbs come easy today, and then they are done and we’re flying down towards the Argentinian immigration post.

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It’s Christmas and no one is prepared for two cyclists. Slightly rumpled officials appear and assemble in a line for us. First a Chilean exit stamp, then a question about where is the paperwork for our bikes, we don’t have any from San Pedro we say, then an entry stamp from Argentina and details about how to stay longer than 90 days if we would like to.

Rumors abound about this immigration post. Tyndall asks about a place to camp away from the wind. Instead we’re shown a whole house and told it’s all ours for the night. Beds, hot water, showers, even wifi. It’s a good way to pass Christmas, warm inside, listening to the wind howl outside.

The landscape stretches on forever it seems. We spin through silence. A small red car passes. A herd of llamas graze outside of Olacapato. Past town a few more cars appear, but in between, silence. Here there are SOS buttons and gas lines. I wonder who comes if we call.

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At the end of the day we find shelter from the wind and tuck in. In the morning we discover small hot pools, just a few kilometers farther up the road.

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Viscachas run up vertical rock faces. A man and his llama herd set out for the day.

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We spin, working our way up to 15,000′. At the top, a road grader awaits. I relish the elevation, knowing we won’t be this high in the Andes again. Tyndall asks the construction worker about empanadas in town. He says yes, we can find some there, and so we take off, going down down down.

From town there’s one more pass to crest. At the top we realize we should have brought a sacrifice for the Pachamama.

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Somehow, honoring Mother Earth involves litteiring.

After that, we begin to work our way down to Salta. It’s at about 4,000′.

A cactus appears. Then another. Then big bushy bunches of grass. The valley floor is a blanket of green. A creek rushes down it. The mountainsides still brown. Hamlets appear. Cows, goats, sheep, more green.

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Cactuses in bloom.

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The mountainsides turn green.

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A new road is being built, straight down the river bed.

We fight the wind the whole way, wanting to leave the barren and harsh altiplano behind. It doesn’t give us up easily.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

In Salta colors abound: green hillsides, red mangos, yellow peaches, white wine. We’re back in the (crowded) land of plenty.

Where we rode: San Pedro de Atacama – Socaire – Piedras Rojas – Paso Sico – Olacapato – San Antonio de los Cobras – Salta

Route details from Andes by Bike.

Chuquicamata: A Tour

Originally I had wanted to go to Potosi, Bolivia to see the silver mines that fueled the Spanish Empire. Those plans were scrapped after considering eight hours on the bus and our motivations to get to Chile. Instead, we learned that a cousin of a friend lived in Calama and her husband worked as a geologist in Chuquicamata, the largest open pit copper mine in the world. A few emails later, we had reservations for a free tour and a futon to sleep on.

All the tour books describe Calama as drab and gritty. It’s a working town. Everyone who works in the mine lives in Calama, a small oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert.  There aren’t any signs for yoga or massage or spiritual healing like San Pedro (a tourist town) to the East.  Instead, you will find red work trucks with wheel chocks and safety flags, everywhere. They are the symbol of Calama. They make me smile.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

Our tour starts at 1 PM in Calama where we board a bus with a number of other interested foreigners. We briefly stop at the old town of Chuquicamata right next to the mine. The town was closed in 2007 when the unwanted mountains of rock excavated from the mine began to encroach on the town. I also understand that arsenic is present in the mine dust. All the residents were moved to Calama.

We continue past one of the largest copper refineries in the world and on to the hole. At 4.3 Km long, 3 Km wide and 900 m deep it’s the largest hole in the world by excavated volume.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

We spend 45 minutes peering into the hole. We watch trucks get filled at the bottom and start their journey to the surface. When loaded they require one hour to drive to the top. Each filled with 320 to 360 tons of rock which contains 0.8% copper on average.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

This ore is dumped at the surface and pulverized further until reaching 0.3 mm in size. The copper is then concentrated to about 30% by mixing the dust with water and aerating from underneath. The precious metals bind with the air and float to the surface where they are removed. A secondary step removes molybdenum from the copper concentrate.

The copper concentrate then goes through a smelting process that increases the purity to 99.7%. Impurities are essentially burnt off at high temperatures through multiple stages. The 99.7% pure copper is poured into rectangular molds approximately 3′ x 4′ and 3″ thick.

At this point the copper is sent to the refinery where it undergoes electrolysis. The large plates from the smelter (the anode) are put in a bath with a cathode and electricity is run between the plates. Copper moves through the bath from the anode and is deposited on the cathode with 99.99% purity.  The copper is now ready for sale. The mud left at the bottom of the bath contains gold and silver concentrates that will also be sold.

Chile produces about 30% of the world’s copper followed by China with 10%. China is the world’s largest consumer of copper, consuming almost half of the world’s supply.

And so concludes the tour.

Check out this site for some photos of the process side.

Through the Lagunas to Chile

We leave Uyuni early. It’s not hard to do. With a choice between a reportedly washboard, sandy old railroad track and the International Highway, we choose the later. It’s dirt, but has no loose sand and no washboard.

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The kilometers click by. I see the mountains in the distance and aim for them. With a whole day of riding, we make it to Alota.

The plaza has a faucet and the church courtyard protection from the wind. I watch the moonrise over town and listen to the church service nextdoor.

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In the morning llamas share our courtyard. Perhaps we’re in their spot.

The International Highway takes us through La Valle de las Piedras and then we leave it behind, turning left into the mountains. My legs feel like lead today. Sandwiches and cookies are in order.

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Tyndall spots a group of suri on a small laguna. We watch from afar before dark clouds egg us on.

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I want the road to descend, but it doesn’t. It rolls. The washboard we have been warned about appears. There’s loads of different jeep tracks. I try and pick the smoothest but usually fail.

We descend to Laguna Hedionda. There’s a hotel there. We don’t want to stay, but are looking for a place to camp. We’re shown an extra room and told we can stay here.

I watch the flamingos on the lake as afternoon storms roll through, leaving fresh snow on the high peaks.

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The wind wakes me up in the night. I check the time. 2:00 am. That’s a new one. Typically the wind dies in the evening, not to return until the next afternoon. For a minute I worry about tomorrow, but then fall back to sleep.

Clouds hang heavy over the mountains. The wind kicks us south, past lagunas and up over 15,000′.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

I need a break. Lunch is sitting funny in my stomach and I lay down in the dirt. Tyndall waits, but soon can’t wait anymore. Storm clouds close in. We descend as fast as the sandy washboard road allows, working for each pedal stroke.

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We replenish our water supplies at Hotel del Desierto. The staff are kind and helpful. We almost stay but don’t.  Rumor has it there’s a great camp spot not far.

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The rumors are true.

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For a bit, the road is a dream. I sail along in the morning light.

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But then, the dream ends and the washboard returns. The landscapes are eyepopping, but the road is a challenge to enjoy. We can ride with our 2.25 inch wide tires but sometimes I walk just to take a break.

At the entrance to the Reserve there’s a main road of sorts. I pay our entrance fee. The ranger warns of death and cold at night. He says I must take a photo of Laguna Colorada.

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I’m more worried about the sun and the wind during the day. It takes some convincing, but he allows us to sit in his office for a couple hours, cowering from the hot rays. Our shadows grow a bit longer and we move along on a slightly improved surface, the wind coming from all directions.

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The birds and the sun wake me. This morning there’s nothing to do but climb. We putter along, taking lots of cookie breaks. Yesterday we bought too many, so today’s an Oreo feast. We top out somewhere around 16,000′.

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I crave oxygen and long to take a deep breath. Perhaps tomorrow I tell myself. In the meantime, we arrive at Laguna Chalviri with an afternoon to spare.

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We spend it in the hot pool there. I watch the birds and let the hot water melt aways days of accumulated dirt and sunscreen.

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From here it’s just one long day ride to Chile. An early start helps to ensure success. It also ensures we’re sharing the roads with loads of jeeps, all rushing around with tourists in tow. Some coming too fast and too close for comfort, only swerving around at the last second. Some coming alongside, windows rolled down, camera lenses poking out. Respect seems in short supply around here.

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We exit the park. I ask the ranger where my 150 Bolivianos goes. He says that park admission fees pay his salary and pay off the indigenous people who live in the park. Historically, the indigenous were llama herders. Since the creation of the park they have lost their livelihood.

A ferocious headwind has us inching uphill towards the border. A 42km, 7,000′ descent ushers us down the other side and into Chile without breaking a sweat.

Where we rode: Uyuni – Alota – Laguna Hedionda – Hotel del Desierto – Laguna Colorada – Laguna Chalviri – Laguna Verde – San Pedro de Atacama

The hotel at Laguna Hedionda sells bottled water. We were also told there is a fresh water spring 30 minutes by bicycle from the hotel but didn’t investigate it.

Excellent wild camping can be had 12km from Hotel Desierto, in a rock outcropping on the right. More stellar wild camping can be had in a small canyon, 15km from the Control on Laguna Colorada.

Our sources said Laguna Chalviri was empty at sunset and sunrise. This is no longer true. Jeep tours stop at all hours now, with the exception of a few hours in the afternoon between lunch and dinner.