Entering this country is like lining up at the bank; it’s pretty easy but you always have a small feeling of doubt about the outcome. The staffers are friendly, professional and helpful and there is little confusion especially during the week, the weekend might be different. We got our papers in order and pulled to the station where they would inspect us. We declared all things contraband and several folks came out for a look. As you can imagine we are more interesting than the typical local with a trunk full of toilet paper and laundry soap from the duty free. This makes for more of a curious check than a search. The highlight was when the dog came out.
The dog handler came out with a happy looking dog, maybe a Yellow Lab and he sniffed around Deya’s bike, immediately finding the pannier with the contraband we declared he put his paw on it with a look like, “Did I win, did I win!?” The handler took ownership of the prize then threw the chew toy to the delight of the dog. It was an impressive event that I enjoyed watching and the dog’s purpose, his job and position in his world was fulfilled leaving him satisfied.
The route was not unlike most of the Peruvian coast, dry, dusty, rocks and sand and way too much garbage. I read that Chileans considerer themselves more European than Latin American but I can’t see it. For sure they are different than their neighbours, keep up the good work. The only things I noticed that are European are the prices, good policing and the 220V European style outlets. Other than that its low quality at a high price, poor service and lots of garbage like every other Latin American country (except Costa Rica). This isn’t a complaint just an observation, the truth is I really appreciate the drivers here, they are by far the most civilized we’ve found. It maybe because of the police service, they are professional and well trained, definitely the guys you go to if you need assistance.
Our first night in Chile was on a beautiful (minus the garbage) beach, Caleta Camarones. We had a great dinner, some wine (1L of Gato red, 3 bucks), and a small fire. The wine is about the cheapest thing in Chile and it is good! The night was cold and made it difficult to sleep but the country feels very safe for camping and we didn’t worry at all. Getting to the sight however was difficult, I realized something that I may have been denying previously; I hate sand and wind. The wind is tiring and the sand is simply difficult to manage with the bikes fully loaded, probably unloaded as well. I dumped it in the sand then and just about pulled a muscle trying to lift it in those conditions.
In between the stops we have a lot of time to ourselves, helmet time I like to call it. It’s a great time to reflect on things, try to develop thoughts, sing, count lines on the road or just think randomly. Some thoughts can not be shared but many can, the hardest part of the experience is losing the thought or idea the first time you come to a stop or some other distraction takes place. It ends up being a great release on the mind, a battery charging effect I think.
The road South, after having ridden a couple thousand kilometres of sandy scenes is pretty uneventful and even a nice scene of dirt is a little bit like, well dirt. The thing about northern Chile is that it is loaded with mines and mills that are ugly looking and have traditionally polluted the environment to such an extent as to seem unreal. Great for job creation, etcetera, but when everything is consumed and the little productive town of Quillagua is decimated due to the sulphuric acid being dumped into the local streams it might not make as much sense. Seeing this first hand, a once productive climate now taken over by sand dunes and dead earth is disturbing. It doesn’t hold life, only that which can be paid for and maintained possibly for sovereignty reasons.
Another long day and we ended in the town of Calama, sight of the largest Copper mine in the world. We had approached a couple of places including this big one to get information on their operation but were greeted poorly. Mill towns as many of you know are all the same, people making more money than often their experience or education would normally allow for. The result is a lot of bars, tattoos and rednecks. A particular feeling is around and while the middle class is larger, thank goodness, the class can sometimes be smaller as a result of having things handed down. It’s good and bad to know that it doesn’t just happen in Canada. We stayed in an expensive residence, the cheapest we could find, and it was a dump.
The ride there was long, and we went through an inspection station for cargo trucks, as we queued up there where about eight dogs hanging around. When they saw us they came running. They surrounded me and a couple went to Deya, they where all barking vigorously. Deya panics when she’s approached by dogs, looks straight at them and physically appears scared. This excites two animals, the dogs and me. I don’t mind the dogs, I just ignore them, they usually bark then realize I couldn’t care less, shrug their shoulders and leave. But now they were all around me and barking hard.
The one dog that was leading the assault was looking at me as though to tell me something, I wasn’t sure what it was, it wasn’t dangerous but he certainly thought it was his place to do so. As the other dogs got closer he inched in, closer and closer to my leg, snapping and barking. I moved forward with the queue, annoyed slightly at the barking when the fellow got inches from my foot. Bang! I kicked him in the chops, he staggered back and continued to bark now with seriousness but from a distance. I watched the tone change as he shook off the pain in his jaw and all the dogs surrounded me. They acted as though they were trying to run down a deer, for me this is fine because I just let them run; eventually they get tired and give up, it’s fun. The sad part is that if they get too close they’ll get clobbered by the pannier or feel the effect of 400 kg of bike tire doubling over them at 30 kilometres per hour.
We rode away from the dogs and for days I would feel poorly for kicking the dude in the chin. Not that I feel bad about kicking a dude in the chin, I just think I could have handled it better. Deya picked up some milk bones so I would have an alternate strategy for dealing with the dogs down here, we will see. It’s really sad the way these animals are abandoned and when we see them dead on the road it’s a puzzle if they are better off as a bloated corpse or as a wounded half starved loner with no family. Most roaming dogs are badly damaged and suffering and there are a lot of them.
We headed into the mountains, our destination now was San Pedro de Atacama, located where the driest desert in the world is. The route was the long way as we wanted to go to some Geysers for free camping. The road was fantastic but as we climbed in altitude, oblivious to the huge error we had made, the road became more difficult. Deep sand and finally shards of ice covered the route and we had to turn around. The problem was we had just gone from 900 metres to 4500 metres in elevation. I almost passed out 3 times, our chests were hurting, stomachs twisted and the head spins were fierce. It took about 10 minutes of mammoth effort to turn the bikes around, something that at lower altitude would have been a joke.
The place was beautiful but we were truly suffering, distracted by the altitude we carried on. It seemed as though we would never go down the mountains, they just climbed as we reached an altitude of about 4900 metres. Finally we reached a point about 10 kilometres from the Bolivian and Argentinean borders and found a police outpost. The officer there was a fantastic guy, took us in, gave us oxygen, explained what was happening, gave us directions to get out and fed us some hot food. We watched Chile beat Spain in football for a bit too, 2-0 but later found out Spain won 3-2. If we weren’t so affected by the altitude and were prepared for -15 Celsius we would have camped in this area. It was probably the most beautiful place we’ve been in Chile so far.
We worked our way towards San Pedro, yes it was work. The road was not easy and the altitude was unforgiving. Eventually we would get there and find a place in the city to camp. The city is very touristy and actually pretty cool. As we moved through the streets you could see any number of different kinds of people; a young couple having a mild argument, a street vender handing out marketing or a pedestrian looking at us with wonder. Each of these characters becomes a part of our experience if only for a moment and we enter into their lives with an impact unknown and share a little piece of their reality. It seems, as eyes connect, that it’s all random but yet nothing on this journey has been random. Each thing, each encounter seems fixed and purposeful even if it’s only realized in hindsight. The purpose sometimes unknown but still less than coincidence we find ourselves being set up for lessons and opportunities to exercise our weak points and strengthen our skills.
The long sections of road make you think. I think about the reality that is around us a lot, about my career, about how I can make a difference. All these things are fleeting but they keep returning to me. I meditate while on the bike, in my own way, as does every other serious rider I’ve met. I wonder about how to resolve complicated issues varying from Deya’s fear of things to quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and the connection of the three fundamentals with gravitation. By the way, it’s way beyond me but there must be a simple answer to retarding the effects of gravitons (if they exist), which I’m sure they do, by blocking the route to their destination with some kind of parallel interference to mass and dense matter. The question might be more about what mass is, really. Certainly like a river inevitably flows to the ocean, a graviton moves towards mass pulling us along with it. It could be that finding this parallel opens the door to other fundamental forces explaining why gravity can not be linked well with the three primaries, but I digress. Someone smarter than me should be riding for hour after hour thinking about this so I don’t have to.
At San Pedro de Atacama we stayed in a campsite with a group of folks taking a http://www.kumuka.com/ world tour. This was a fun group, mostly Australians, one US and a New Zealander. Thinking back we should have stayed another night to hang out with this fun group. The ball sack pictures would have been funny to hear about. The town was a great tourist trap with good restaurants and shops. A really nice North Face shop cornered the main walkway, with mud brick construction and engraved wood signs the place was a dusty but beautiful place to walk, particularly in the evening. The morning came and we went riding into the Salar de Atacama, within the driest desert in the world. It was okay, with plenty of dirt and sand, there is no doubt about its desert status. I’m not too excitable about these things unless we were riding towards a dessert (a play on words) but really great dessert is hard to find down here.
We found a store that had some discount sleeping bags so we got two. They were about 8 bucks each and we figured it was a good idea since we keep freezing every night. The next camp would be near the water and we expected it to be cold. We found a spot in a place called Pichidangui, more precisely Quilimari about 200 metres off the Panamerican, and found out that it was an Army facility that allows camping. The facility was fantastic, the staff and instructors there were even better. What a good group to hang out with. We had dinner and breakfast in the mess with them and learned a few things about the forces too. They were running a Commando or Special Forces course for 6 weeks around water activities and were camped out beside us.
Previous to this great spot we also stayed in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar which has private camping, but since it was off season there was no one around. We met with the park ranger there who was a super guy, he invited us for coffee but by the time it got dark we were tired and couldn’t navigate our way to his place. We tried to pay the owner of the camp spot but he said he was too busy and took off. The facilities were poor at that spot and the next morning we couldn’t find anyone so we left. The park is beautiful and hosts things like penguins and various important sea life.
Our next destination after leaving the dry land would take us to the coast at Viña Del Mar, where we would stay in a hostel. The cheapest place we could find and it was brutally expensive. We discovered in town that when ordering a coffee you get a glass of carbonated water on the side, typically you finish your coffee and then your water, it’s nice. The cost of the stay though made me feel like we would have to abandon Chile as soon as possible if we were to continue our trip. The town itself was beautiful as is the landscape when you approach Santiago. The countryside turns very green with fantastic cactus and brush from 1-2 metres. A palette of smells and colours in greens, pinks, reds, blues, yellows and white splash across the hills and along the roads giving you a feeling that you will not end up a pile of bleached bones. The people become friendlier.
The minimum wage here is about 400 USD a month; the discrepancy between the rich and poor must be vast. I can not understand the high costs here, one might think the system is based on debt bondage, where the debt is the high cost of living and the bondage is to society in general. Despite that you do not see any impoverished people, weird, maybe they are hidden? I think it’s more likely that the country takes care to have a higher standard for everyone; Chile seems very advanced in its perception of itself.
We had an invitation to a friend of a friend and as it was either a friendly face and place to stay or rob a bank we decided to stay. Mario is a fantastic host and a good guy, sharing with his family and a dozen dogs is like hanging out with the Dog Whisperer. We have only been here a couple of days but have experienced fantastic Chilean hospitality. Learning about Pisco Sour, Chicho and other typical drinks has been excellent. We had a good BBQ with a selection of other Chilean dishes. While here we will have a chance to clean our gear, maintain the bikes and get supplies for oil and filter changes. Getting Deya’s left fork repaired is a priority and finding a solution to the broken GPS is also likely. Overall this is a very productive and helpful stop that Deya and I really appreciate.