26: Santiago to Termas de Socos to Vicuna

Days 72 to 77 (4th to 9th Feb.)

Day 72 (4th Feb) Santiago to Termas de Socos
We said farewell to everyone we had met at the hostel and were sad to leave, which I guess is a sign of how much we enjoyed staying there.  The road diversions were still in place from the previous day’s Formula E race and all the roads we wanted to go along were blocked, so we’d end up going round in circles if we followed our off-line GPS maps. Fortunately, Mark’s navigational skills quickly got us out of the city centre and heading north on Ruta 5, the Pan American Highway.
We soon stopped for some fuel and chatted with a Chilean guy who had a motorbike and was very interested in our sidecar, how we got it here, and where we had been. We said our farewells and he went back to his car, only to return with a Nike sports T-shirt which he wanted Mark to have. Anyone who knows Mark will know that he’d never wear such attire, but it was gratefully accepted as a very nice token of friendship between fellow bikers we could only presume.

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The further north we travelled, the more arid the scenery became – endless sandy hills with huge cacti and short scrubby bushes everywhere. We rode through several long tunnels through the rocky hills and had some changeable weather on the way. After some 255 miles we needed to stop for the night. We have now become keen campers, so this was our first choice and i-overlander proved very helpful again. A short distance from the Copec Services we’d stopped at, near Termas de Socos, there was a hotel and campsite accessed along a gravelly track, some 1.2 km away from Ruta 5. It turned out to be perfect for us – the campsite was almost deserted and we were able to ride in, chose our plot, and then go back to the reception to sign in.

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This cactus was next to our tent – they are becoming increasingly common as we head north

The site had a large swimming pool, small restaurant and shop, as well as some thermal baths. Next to the campsite was a small bottling plant where the local spring water was bottled and then distributed. We bought some (apple-flavoured) at the campsite’s shop and it was nice, if a bit pricey.
We set up our tent and very soon were talking to one of the few other campers there, who just happened to have left his Africa Twin at home and was travelling by hire car with some regret! He’d clocked-up some 75,000 km on the Twin, having been to a number of places, including Scotland, Ireland, Morocco and Russia. He was originally from Brazil, albeit he and his Dutch girlfriend had been living in Amsterdam for around fourteen years. We all chatted about where we’d all been until it got dark and we had to eat!
Whilst having our supper we had some other visitors – a very skinny cat and her 5 kittens came from out of the bushes and were obviously hungry so we gave them some tuna and water and wished we could take them home with us!

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Day 73 (5th Feb) At Termas de Socos
We woke up to yet another sunny morning and our plan for the day was to relax by the pool, top up our tans and read our books….which we did. The kittens made another appearance and a few people came to use the pool for the day….but, considering its peak holiday time here, it was very pleasantly quiet.

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We were tempted to stay another night, but then thought we would only do the same again and although we’d had a nice day, we were both keen to get going again as there is still so much to do and see.

Day 74 (6th Feb) Termas de Socos to Vicuna
We were up early and de-camped which we’re getting down to a fine art now. However, as we were folding-up the tent we saw a scorpion on top of the groundsheet, which was a surprise to say the least! It was still alive but I think it must have been trodden-on at some stage of packing-up since it was only moving its legs and curling up its tail, but remained stationary. We flicked it away to the edge of the plot where it may still be! We’ll now make sure that we keep the zips of the tent closed in future, as well as checking our boots, just to be on the safe side!

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We returned to Ruta 5 and headed for the next large town, La Serena, on our way to the Elqui Valley and Vicuna. This is the heart of the grape growing area for producing both wine and the brandy which goes into the making-of Pico Sour, the lemon-flavoured cocktail which Chile is famous for. The Elqui Valley is also renowned for it’s huge clear skies and for star-gazing, with many opportunities to visit observatories, which we wanted to do.
As we rode along the Elqui Valley, we saw a huge black bird high in the sky, and thought it may be a Condor as it had the required eight ‘fingers’ at the end of its wings, and a white collar. The scenery was very picturesque along the valley where we saw many vineyards, a huge dam and reservoir, all with surrounding hills. We found the perfect place to camp, Alfa Aldea, which had both a small campsite set in a beautiful vineyard, as well as an observation telescope with star-gazing tours. We found a suitable spot and pitched our tent and, after an interesting conversation with one of the guys who ran the tours, and sat looking at the amazing views till it got dark after which we did a bit of amateur star-gazing. We also booked our tour for tomorrow evening which starts at 11.30pm!

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Our pitch at Alfa Aldea, right next to their vines.

Day 75 (7th Feb) In Vicuna
We woke up to a cloudy morning, so much so that we couldn’t see the tops of the surrounding mountains. However, it very quickly cleared to be another hot and sunny day. Yesterday, we heard about a strange weather phenomenon called the ‘Atacama Winter’, which happens around this time of year. Even though it’s the middle of summer, there are violent electrical storms high-up in the mountains, and indeed last night and this morning we heard low rumbling noises which we thought could have been thunder. Anyway, there was no rain so we walked into the town centre which was about 20 minutes away. As always the case with Chilean towns, there was a pleasant central Plaza and we found a nice place to have lunch in a courtyard garden. There we chose typical Chilean food which has been somewhat hard to find in some previous towns we’ve stopped at. We chose Pastel de Choclo and Humitas with salad, which are both sweetcorn-based and very tasty, washed down with a pisco sour and cold local beer aptly named Cactus.

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The empanada section of the menu – there is a choice of a few hundred, with a huge variety of fillings both savoury and sweet

Mark had a siesta in the tent in the afternoon, since we had to stay up till 23.00 for our star gazing tour, plus walking around in the hot sunshine is so exhausting…..sorry if you’re reading this from the UK where we have heard that there has been snow!
The tour started outside (in a dome structure amongst the vines) with a short presentation in Spanish and English about the formation of the solar system, followed by a video of how the sun, earth and moon were formed, which we had to wear 3D glasses for. We were given a glass of wine from the vineyard whilst this was playing, so it was all very pleasant and informal. We then headed over to an outside amphitheatre with seating around a huge telescope which had a x200 magnification factor. We had the opportunity to view some of the more important stars and appreciate how many light years away from the earth they are, all of which was fascinating.
Apparently, the skies here are clear for about 320 days a year here, so there are many places offering astronomical tours. Occasionally, they have to wait for clouds to pass, but luckily we had a totally clear night and have never seen so many stars in such detail. The evening finished with hot soup and garlic bread which was a nice touch, whereupon we had a short stroll back to our tent at around 2am.

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Day 76 (8th Feb) In Vicuna
After a late start, we spent some time at the pool and then walked into the town centre for a late lunch. We found a nice restaurant, Chivato Negro, and sat outside in a shaded courtyard enjoying our meal, complete with fresh local beer. Fortunately, our waiter spoke good English (and seemed to want to practise it with us) and was able to explain the menu since we wanted to try local Chilean food and beer. Mark also made friends with the restaurant’s very friendly cats whilst we were waiting for our meal.

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On our walk back to the campsite we were again amazed at how small many of the houses are here in Chile. Here in Vicuna, many roads have long terraces of very narrow dwellings (probably around 8 to 10 feet wide) with a small front yard in front, and all seem to have strong metal fences enclosing their boundaries. Every so often there is a small grocery store or ‘mini-market’, and of course many dogs wandering around or sleeping in the sun on the pavements. Everyone appears to be contented, considering these homes would probably be condemned if they were in the UK. We’ve also noticed that they are very commonly clad with OSB (Orientated Strand Board) which is often, but not always, painted. However, with the benign temperatures and lack of rain, this appears to be quite adequate (whereas in the UK it would fall far short of building regulations requirements!)

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Day 77 (9th Feb) In Vicuna
Today we visited the local Pisco Distillery which was only 3 km from where we are staying. We booked a tour very easily and fortunately had an English-speaking guide all to ourselves. We were taken through all the different processes and ended up with sampling a few different Piscos and were given our glasses as souvenirs at the end of the tour.
The Distillery is a co-operative, so all the small local vineyard owners bring their grapes to be crushed, and have a share in the business. Our guide told us that the majority of people in the town work in this industry, so if this cooperative was to close it would be a disaster for the local economy. She also mentioned that the origins of Pisco have been fought-over with Peru for many years, but apparently there is now firm evidence that it was first made in Chile.
Following our tour, we had a pleasant lunch of tapas and pizza in the shaded terrace of the Distillery’s restaurant. I had a pisco cocktail whilst Mark unfortunately had to have a soft drink because of having to ride back. However, his melon-flavoured jugo (juice) was really flavoursome so he didn’t feel too hard done by!

 

Here’s an update of our route, so far.  Vicuna is to the east of La Serena which is on the coast, just over half way up Chile.   We’ll now head for San Pedro de Atacama, to the north.

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