Even though we had rode more than 1,500 km south from Chile’s northern northern border, and the beginning of the Atacama Desert, technically we were still in the Atacama and the weather continued to be hot and dry. In response we made our way to the coast for some more excellent (and free) beach camping and to take in the Pan de Azucár National Park. I assume it is named after freshly baked sugar loaf as the rocky sandstone hills around the park resemble exactly this. The park is a must-see with numerous beaches, great food stands, impressive night skies and even penguins, should you be smitten.
My bike was wearing its new knobby tires and I was enjoying the unpaved roads more than ever. So, why not try sand? The next day, after motoring through the park, we searched for a secluded beach near the town of Copiapó that a local had told us about. The road to the beach was a combination of gravel and sand but we soon veered off the gravel as it was horrifically corrugated and chose the sandy tracks along side the road instead. What a gorgeous and soft ride! Until, that is, I came off in some of the deeper stuff. Of course my foot got trapped under my pannier and it hurt like a bugger – thankfully Jordan was there to shift the bike so I could remove my (very sore) foot.
A quick chat later and we turned the bikes around to head back from where we came. I don’t have many regrets with this trip, but the beach was about 300 meters in front of us. I should have got back on and tried again. As it was, we road the nice sandy bits back to the beach-side roads and found our most excellent camping spot of the trip so far.
Despite the sun and the heat, the water along the Chilean coast is quite cold due to the Humboldt Current so, while Jordan worked with some locals catching crabs, I took the opportunity to soak my foot, which was probably broken (but just the small bones on the top – there’s not much a doctor can do for that anyway. Right?)
We continued to travel south near the coast taking advantage of free camping whenever we could. And, we could have kept on going – camping for free, using the five-peso gas station showers that are strategically positioned along the main roads for truck drivers. But, we are not that hard-core and were lured by the soft bed and private showers that a town like La Serena could offer.
Our hostel was cute and likely the least expensive option in this very expensive Chilean resort town evidenced by the fact that it was so oversold we each had our own single, private room. We’ve had plenty of rooms where we’ve slept in separate beds… and even bunk beds, but this was the first time we had separate rooms. We couldn’t afford to stay long, so as quickly as we found it, we were off to the Elqui Valley – Chile’s Pisco wine region. mmmmmmm, pisco sours….
There is a dirt road through the scrubby ranch-land south of the Elqui Valley that winds its way up while making its way south toward Santiago. Steep switchbacks took us out of the valley before the road levelled out and hugged the rocky hills past numerous estancias (farms) and at least 3 international astronomical observatories – low light pollution and up to 300 clear nights per year contribute to the location of the observatories and a healthy astronomical tourism industry. Our goal: to camp out under these desert skies.
The perfect time arose when the road degraded from standard dirt / gravel to piles of loose and large rocks upon which I dropped my bike. The day was winding down anyway so it seemed a perfect time as any. After some good scouting on his bike, Jordan found an ideal spot which was probably on somebody’s farm land since there was evidence of a campfire among some rocks. The site included a tree to hide our tent and a large boulder to hide to the bikes. After setting up our stealth camp and having a bite to eat, we took to my camera and the night skies.
Sadly, the remote shutter release for my camera had died – last being used in NYC, but we sat and admired the southern sky for hours. While we couldn’t see the Big Dipper (not visible in the south), we liked what we could see that we had never seen before in the north: dark holes (dark nebulae) in the Milky Way, an upside down Orion constellation, the ‘backwards’ moon, 2 other galaxies, and of course the Southern Cross constellation. If you are into star gazing, the southern hemisphere seems to have a lot more on offer, more often (it faces the galactic centre of the Milky Way providing more visible access to billions of stars and events).
We packed up early the following morning and eventfully found ourselves on the main highway into Santiago de Chile – the country’s capital. The highway was in great shape, but with lots of traffic and boring scenery. Until, The Tunnel.
There are two exits off the main highway into Santiago a toll version and a free version – the first exit sign included the word cuesta. My expert Spanish knew that this meant “cost” so I announced to Jordan to keep on going to the next point of entry which would obviously be the no-charge exit. All of a sudden we were in a very long and very impressive tunnel (riding in tunnels never gets boring). This one was over 2 km in length and steadily dropped in elevation. By the end of it, we were sweating and I was positive it was because we were getting closer to the core of the earth.
Not only was I wrong about the core-of-the-earth thing, I was also wrong about cuesta. Well, I wasn’t wrong – it just has other meanings, like: ‘a ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a steep slope on the other‘ which describes where the free route we had just passed goes – on the hill. When we left the tunnel we were forced to pay $7 each for the luxury of going through the hill instead of around it. Our most expensive toll yet. But, it was pretty cool – so worth it.
Riding into Santiago was a lot less stressful than entering Lima, but it was just as great of a city. Our hostel was simple and located in the University district (there are at least 20 Universities & Colleges in Santiago). Conveniently, it was also located right next to a police station. Each morning, on our way out we would see the round up of stolen vehicles from the night before, some of which were riddled with impressive bullet holes.
But, our bikes were safe and sound in the parking space of the hostel, which we had converted to our garage. Both bikes needed oil changes, Jordan’s Dakar needed rear brakes and mine needed front brakes. While we were there, a couple of veteran travellers from Germany arrived – Simon and Frank. When we were in need of a 24mm socket for Jordan’s oil sump bolt (the bolt was stripped – this is very common with BMW’s 650-series), Frank came through. Thanks, Frank! We hope you and Simon are enjoying New Zealand!
We spent our days like we do in all major cities – walking the streets and soaking up the vibe. The DirtProof crew (Ryan & Silke) who we met in the Atacama desert were also in town, so one afternoon was spent with them at the Pablo Neruda home-turned-museum, La Chascona – named for his second wife.
When we got married, we used a Neruda poem in the ceremony, though you don’t have to be familiar with his work to appreciate his eccentricities or his love of art, all of which are on display including an amazing portrait of Neruda’s wife, Matilde done by Diego Rivera.
It was here, in Santiago where Neruda died in September, 1973. Only 12 days after Pinochet’s military coup that overtook the Chilean government. They broke into and pillaged La Chascona, taking and destroying valuable papers, objects and books. Neruda had three homes in Chile and all are now open to the public as museums).
One of the crazier places we visited was Mall Sports. An entire shopping mall dedicated to all things outdoors and no wonder, considering the location of Santiago! Camping, cycling, climbing, boating. If it didn’t support any of these activities, it wasn’t in this mall. Inside the mall was a massive climbing wall 2-3 stories tall, boats were on display in the man-made lagoon outside, and surfers could test their skills on the huge artificial surf wave pool next to the boats. Of course, there is also a skate park, an ice rink, and a race car simulator. It was the coolest mall we’ve ever seen.
We were in Santiago for a few days and we enjoyed every moment of it! The city is located between mountains and sea, it is filled with lovely tree-lined neighbourhoods and is a centre for art, culture and politics. We would have liked to stay longer, however we knew that if we did we be tempted by the hip cafes and amazing restaurants making it even more difficult to leave, not to mention decimating our meagre budget.
We thought about crossing the mountains and heading into Argentina in the general direction of Mendoza, however after much discussion we headed back to the coast for more fun in the sun. We were loving Chile!
Ode to Salt by Pablo Neruda:
in the salt cellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
in the desert.
In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
of the ancient
holds of ships,
the high seas,
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste finitude.