Getting a Hand in the Desert

With the difficult decision of by-passing Bolivia made, we routed our bikes through more gorgeous, high-altitude vistas, aiming for the colonial town of Arequipa, and closer to the Peru-Chile border where, hopefully, our parts will be waiting for us.

Arequipa may only be the second largest city in Peru, but it is definitely the most charming (sorry, Cusco…)  The old town still maintains most of its colonial-era architecture, built with silla – a pearly-white volcanic rock mined in the area around Arequipa.  Most notably, the city is overlooked by the (now dormant) snow-capped volcano, El Misti and is surrounded by 80 others!

As you might imagine, with volcanoes come earthquakes and, Arequipa has had its fair share.  The most recent being a huge quake in 2001 that rattled the area for over a minute, killing scores and toppling one of the cathedral’s steeples – which has been nicely repaired, as you can see.

Centre Square Cathedral

It’s huge!

We visited a few historical sites while in the city – the Santa Calina Monastery, one of the most important religious historical sites in all of Peru. Because the Monastery for nuns is so extensive (20,000 sq. meters) we spent over 2 hours poking in and out of the simple or extravagant living quarters, apartments and dormitories of nuns of the Domincan Second Order.  Approximately 20 nuns still live in the monastery founded in 1580.

It was inspiring to be there.

Some of the streets inside the convent

simple and lovely

We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos which is dedicated to ancient Andean culture, but it’s most impressive display is Juanita – the 600-year old ice-preserved, mummified girl 11-14 years old.  She was selected to be a sacrifice as a child and, as such, lived a life of royalty.  In her final weeks, she walked (in leather sandals) over 300kms from an area near Cusco to the top of Ampato Volcano at 6,300m (21,000 feet) where she was ritually sacrificed to the volcano Gods.

Juanita (taken from the internet)

She was discovered in 1995 and now resides in the Santuarios Andinos museum, stored in a display freezer at -20C (no photos allowed).  There are up to 14 other such finds, but Juanita was the first and best preserved.  Truly amazing!


El Misti Volcano

Snowy Andes overlooking Arequipa

After a few days enjoying really great food and sight seeing in Arequipa, we made our way towards Arica, excited to see if our sprockets would be waiting for us.

The ride was uneventful and provided little excitement except for when Jordan’s loose chain came off the rear sprocket and mangled a link, creating a 90 degree angle in the middle of the chain. Of course, this happened on a lonely road in the middle of the desert, probably at high noon.  We didn’t have the tool to break the chain in order to remove it and replace it with the new chain which was sitting in his panniers.

We worked roadside for over an hour in order to get the bike back on the road but the mild concern we had with our situation soon changed to vindication – going directly to Chile was probably a good idea.  We rode easy for the rest of the day as we made our way towards Chile.

The border was modern, all the buildings had proper plumbing, but the process was still a bit whack, gently reminding us we were still in South America.

Desert border crossing – Chile

Fresh fruit and vegetables (and plants, seeds, animal products…etc!) are not allowed to cross the Chilean border, you must open all luggage to show border officials that you don’t have any on board.  This included an x-ray of our duffle bags which are strapped on to the back of our bikes.

What a hassle, especially for Jordan who had to unstrap the tires he was carrying for me in order to get at his bag.  The x-ray procedure was completely unsupervised and though we complied, we later listened to stories of those who ‘tricked’ the system and didn’t scan their bags full of (literally) forbidden fruit.

A short ride from the border brought us to the seaside town of Arica where we were met by our Kiwi-Chileno hosts and, yes…. our parts.  Again – a big thank you to TJ & MJ in PA, USA!

We still needed a garage to help us with the removal of the old chains and linking of the new ones.  This was the garage:

The parking lot -slash- workspace

…and his workshop storage area

Even our mechanic seemed to have a hard time breaking the links… but after a few hours, our bikes were road ready again, and we left the little town looking forward to more sea and more desert.  Our target was San Pedro de Atacama – 2 days away.

Chileans love to camp.  We knew this going in and we were very much looking forward to a lot of free camping.  While near the coast, we would take small roads to beach side areas where many other families were set up.  It was usually very primitive, and sometimes quite busy with locals but we liked the security of having others around and it gave us more opportunities to practice our Spanish.

beach camping

Jordan enjoying a sand road

Back inland we road more desert roads to San Pedro de Atacama – that is, San Pedro of the Atacama Desert – the driest desert in the world‘ according to folks like NASA and National Geographic.  So, why did it rain every day at 4pm in San Pedro?  Well, the Chileans, in typical Chilie-vs-Bolivia fashion, blamed Bolivia.  Specifically, the Invierno Boliviano (Bolivian winter).

Trying (without success) to keep dry in San Pedro with DirtProof & Florian and Beata

And, I suppose it was better than raining shit – which is what it did the first night as we had placed our tent under the tree the doves used as their toilet – we promptly moved our tent the next morning and washed the crap out of it (again, literally).  It must also have been better than the brutal floods that sacked the area a few weeks later, too!

Each day (before 4pm) we would explore the town or the area.  Touristy?  Yes.  But there’s a reason for that.

Valley of the Moon (Valle de Luna), Chile

Riding on moonscape – Valle de la Luna

mud streets and clay buildings – San Pedro de Atacama

Since we were in San Pedro for a few days, Jodan put my TKC80s on my bike (remember?  These were bought in Colombia!  The Metzler tires would just not wear out!).  We attended to email and hung out with some fun people – Silke & Ryan known as Dirt Proof – they travel for the purpose of trail running around the world!  Crazy, I know.  They have a great blog – check it out:

Man at work

Here’s a fact: the Atacama Desert runs for 1,000kms north to south.  And, we rode the entire length while heading inland and back to the coast several times.  Though it might sound boring – and it certainly felt boring at times, there is something about being inside your helmet for hours on end in unchanging, scorched scenery that really gives you time to think.  Though we’ve yet to think of a way to make this trip last longer than budgeted.

Stretch break

Then, about 75 km south of the town of Antofagasta, the monotony is dramatically interrupted by an 11 meter (36 ft) hand rising up out of the desert floor.  Mano del Desierto (hand of the desert) was sculpted by Mario Irarrázabal in the early 90s.  Some say the sculpture is intended to express emotions of injustice, loneliness and torture – others say Irarrázabal put it there to encourage drivers to get out of their cars to appreciate the desert.

Mano del Desierto y motos de Hasselmann


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