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In any bike tour of South America, the Andes loom large. Every rider needs to decide whether to cross the cordillera; and, if so, where, when, how and how often. Some riders choose to avoid the issue, sticking on one side or crossing by bus. Others stay within the mountains as much as possible. Most will want to ride over them at some point. But where?

Our original plan called for us to cross the cordillera via the Paso Los Libertadores. It’s popular among cicloturistas, and for good reasons: it links two splendid cities (Mendoza and Santiago), it’s entirely paved, it’s dotted with hotels and shops, it’s high but not head-spinning (3,600m, more or less), and the views are marvellous. We know because we rode over it – there and back, from Mendoza, in a bus.

When we decided to visit Santiago on that bike-free break last month, returning to ride north through Argentina on the eastern side of the Andes, we left ourselves other options for going over the top. We chose the Paso de Jama, which flirts with the border of Bolivia as it connects the tourist towns of Purmamarca in northern Argentina and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. It’s less isolated than the nearby, unpaved Paso de Sico, but it reaches similarly extreme elevations. According to Wikipedia, the highest public paved road in Europe tops out at an altitude of 2,830m. By contrast, roughly half the Paso de Jama’s 400km are above 4,000m, and much of that half is a good deal higher.

The miracle is that it’s even possible to ride at these heights. To do so, you need to acclimatise as you go, ascending gradually and occasionally taking a rest day to let your body get the hang of the air. And you need luck. Altitude sickness strikes people at random, and at different heights. Happily, neither of us have suffered from it. However, even without the symptoms of altitude sickness, cycling at these heights can be exhausting – at 4,000m, there’s just 63% of the oxygen available compared to the air at sea level. As we got higher, Ruth found it difficult to ride in the thin air, which is why she reluctantly dropped out halfway and took the bus.

I’ve been more fortunate. At the highest points, my 41-year-old lungs didn’t cope quite as well as those of my twentysomething French riding companions (one of whom, I later learned, has previously climbed Mont Blanc), but they coped. I am glad they did; and here, with no apologies for the unusually long length of this travelogue, is why.

 


 

20 January 2014
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The hard work begins when RN52 forks off the north-south artery of RN9, arrowing west towards Chile. From the main square in the pueblito turístico of Purmamarca, the road begins to climb the Cuesta de Lipán – and it continues climbing for just over 34km. Countless hairpins lend the road a forgiving gradient; but with an elevation gain of 1,863m, this is still a lung-opening start to the day.

 


 

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The views are better on the way up the Cuesta de Lipán than they are at the summit, which sits at a cool 4,188m above sea level. (Inevitably, the Argentine sign at the top gives the wrong altitude.) But the real joy is just around the corner, a gleeful descent down a serpentine road into a stunning Martian landscape.

 


 

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The expansive salt lake of Salinas Grandes is visible from the top of the drop; you can just about see it in the picture above. Just over 30km later and nearly half a mile lower, it finally arrives, a thin layer of rain giving one half of it a beautiful mirrored effect. I suspect it’s a puddle compared to Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni, which we’ve yet to visit, but it’s still a mesmerising sight.

 


 

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Despite holding a population of fewer than 200 souls, the pueblito of Santuario de Tres Pozos is famous among the few cyclists who travel this route as a useful overnight stop. (Between Purmamarca and San Pedro de Atacama, a distance of around 400km, there are just three towns. This is one of them.) It’s a dusty, isolated spot, quite the brownest place I’ve ever seen. It also gets more than its share of storms.

 


 

21 January 2014

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The next day starts with some pancake-flat desert riding before another climb through a quebrada (ravine) to the high plains, 3,800m above sea level. Uncapturable with any camera, the skies dazzle.

 


 

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Another descent and another middle-of-nowhere pueblo. As the last settlement of substance before San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, 270km ahead, Susques fills in the late afternoon with truckers seeking an overnight roof. We end up staying for three nights after I’m knocked out by a stomach bug.

 


 

24 January 2014

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The 115km of road from Susques to Jama, the excuse for a town at the Chilean border, traces a giant U-shape around another salt lake (now being mined for lithium) and across unimaginable acres of great wide open. If wind could be photographed, it would monopolise the shot.

 


 

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The wind, it turned out, was blowing a storm towards Jama. Skies like this make you glad of shelter.

 


 

26 January 2014

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The border controls for the Paso de Jama are 5km before the actual border, which arrives with little fanfare and the usual inaccurate Argentine road sign. For the next two days, I’ll be riding in the company of Alexandre, Thomas and Clément, three Frenchmen I met at the service station in Jama.

 


 

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It turns out that the scenery on the Argentine side of the pass is a warm-up compared to the Chilean section. Curves in the road deliver extraordinary landscapes such as this.

 


 

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We walk down towards a gigantic lake for lunch, with just a half-dozen flamingos for company…

 


 

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… And then have to dodge some vicuñas who clearly haven’t studied the Green Cross Code. Still, we can’t complain. This is their territory, not ours.

 


 

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Just over 50km after border control, and about ten minutes after surviving a hailstorm, we pitch camp as planned at a lookout that provides a measure of shelter from the daily gales that blow in from the west. The Frenchmen’s tent almost takes off in the wind; giant rocks eventually pin down the guy lines.

 


 

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The view from the tent.

 


 

27 January 2014

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Shortly after the sun starts to warm the road the next day following a near-freezing night, we’re heading up what we think is the most challenging part of the ride.

 


 

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It is impossible to convey the sense of space up here. Everything is gigantic. It is a terrible cliché, but you can’t help but feel like a speck of dust on a speck of dust as you ride through scenery this empty and immense.

 


 

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Just under 15km and two and a half increasingly breathless hours later, we’re at the top. Advance study of the invaluable Andes by Bike website has given us notice that we’re now 4,836m above sea level, new members of cycling’s exclusive three-mile-high club. We celebrate in traditional bike tourist style: we take a photograph and have a biscuit.

 


 

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And on it goes, down and up and down and up, at or above 4,500m for more than 60km. The breathtaking views make up for the increasingly brutal winds.

 


 

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The Frenchmen stop to take some photographs shortly before another climb, this one up to 4,710m.

 


 

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At the top, waiting for his fellow countrymen, Thomas (in the red jacket) takes a nap.

 


 

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Jones vs the Volcano. This is Licancabur, which tops out at 5,920m, and it’s in our eyeline for much of the afternoon.

 


 

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Eventually, two signs. The first points us the way (as if we’re going to turn around at this point). The second informs us that after five unforgettable days of riding, it’s all downhill now. Within half an hour, we’ve lost 2km of altitude as the road plunges towards San Pedro de Atacama.

 


 

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But before we drop, one last glance at the volcano. It doesn’t look half as impressive from down here at the bottom.

 


 

from San Pedro de Atacama, II, Chile