Days 81 to 90 (13th – 22nd Feb.)
Day 81 (13th Feb.) Vicuna to Vallenar
For the first time this week we awoke to an overcast morning, so we needn’t have worried about getting too hot taking down the tent and packing everything up. However, the clouds soon lifted and once again we had a clear blue sky. We were sad to leave our camping spot in the vineyard, but have many happy memories of this area, and both of us felt it was now time to move on.
We headed east back along the Elqui Valley to La Serena and the coast, where we picked up Ruta 5 (the Pan American Highway) to carry on northwards. We stopped off for lunch at a roadside truckers’ café, just off Ruta 5, and had a very tasty meal of meat and fish churrascos (a type of filled bread roll). We decided that we will try and do this more often, rather than stop at the fuel stations for something to eat, since they are always so hectic (and expensive).
In the late afternoon, whilst re-fuelling, we decided to stop for the night in Vallenar, the adjoining local town. Although being in the middle of nowhere, it was quite a busy town and we easily found a reasonable, if somewhat tired, hostel to spend the night. The owner kindly let us park the bike in her secure garage behind the property. The hostel was situated facing the central plaza (square), very near to the church which chimed on the hour, but we were so tired we weren’t disturbed by it.
Day 82 (14th Feb.) Vallenar to Bahia Inglesa
When we left in the morning, our kindly hostel owner stopped the traffic on the adjoining one-way street to save us having to drive around the block to exit the town, which was nice of her!
The scenery on the way to Bahia Inglesa was spectacular as we entered the southern fringes of the Atacama Desert. We were soon riding between enormous, rocky sand dunes alternating with vast areas of open, flat sand. Surprisingly, temperatures were cooler than we’d expected, being in the mid- to high twenties. There was very little vegetation, just a few scrubby bushes here and there. Even the cacti, which were abundant over the last few days, had largely now disappeared. This barren landscape was similar in some ways to Patagonia, but with much more traffic and less greenery. We saw various signs for copper mines, and an old train track ran parallel to the road for many miles; it was clearly still in use as evidenced by a number of open freight wagons and a diesel engine unit which we saw at one point.
On the way towards Copiapo, we saw a sign for the San Jose mine (Gold and copper extraction), where in 2010, there was a dreadful cave-in which trapped 33 miners underground for 69 days in the pitch black. Fortunately, they were all safely rescued by an international rescue team and it brought in well over due mining reforms into mining safety for the workers.
We arrived at Bahia Inglesa in the early afternoon and started looking for a campsite. I had seen camping ‘Domes’ on booking.com and really wanted to stay in one. We found a campsite, Estadio Las Condes, just by the beach, which had several domes, and luckily they had one vacant. So, we are staying here for 2 nights, with the option to extend our stay if we wish. The dome has a central ceiling skylight and large windows facing the sea. It has a small kitchen area with a sink, fridge and microwave, air con, a television, table and chairs, 2 beds and a bathroom. It will be nice to have these extra comforts after camping for a while.
Interestingly, Bahia Inglesa (Bay of the English) is so-named after seventeenth century English pirates who used the rocky, natural harbour to anchor their boats, presumably wanting to escape the attentions of the Spanish (and possibly British) Navy.
After settling-in, we walked to the beach and were amazed at how quiet it was. We’d been advised by various people to expect this area to be very busy, but in fact it was not the case at all. Furthermore, our campsite was nowhere near full.
After several hours of strolling along the beach and the small town’s promenade, we returned to our Dome to have a Valentine’s Day supper and relax for the evening with a box of our favourite Chilean wine, Gato (which translates to ‘cat’) – the black cat on the label always reminds us of our own cat, Chico, who of course remains at home.
Day 83 (15th Feb.) At Bahia Inglesa
We woke to the sounds of the waves hitting the beach and the sun shining in through the windows…..a perfect way to wake up! Already we have decided to stay another night here. We had to do a food shop today as we’d made do with some supplies we had on the bike for last night, but since we have a fridge in the Dome we wanted to make the most of it by getting some fresh food and cold beers.
Whilst shopping, we were amazed to see Waitrose Chocolate bars in a Unimarc supermarket in a small town on the margins of the Atacama Desert! We had also noticed Waitrose chocolate biscuits when we were in Vicuna a few days ago, so how is this possible!! The chocolate had a fairly short shelf life (expiry in May), and we wondered about the EU trade agreements for this? We bought some anyway!
After lunch, we strolled down to the beach which is probably 400 yards away and spent an hour or so there before having a walk along the promenade and then returning for a cold beer for Mark and a Pisco Sour for me.
Day 84 (16th Feb.) At Bahia Inglesa
A lazy day today, walking the ten minutes to a local cafe to use their Wi-Fi, lunching at our Dome, and then some time at the beach where Mark did what he promised himself, namely having a swim in the Pacific Ocean.
Day 85 (17th Feb.) To Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar
After leaving our Dome, we continued along the Pan-American Highway towards Pan de Azucar, about 80 miles to the north along the coast, where there is a national park by the sea, with the opportunity to see Humboldt Penguins who live on a small island accessed by small fishing boats.
As we were riding along through the desert scenery, we saw a motorbike, a KTM 990, parked on the hard shoulder, in the middle of nowhere. We pulled over to see if they needed any assistance. The pillion, who spoke some English, replied that they had run out of fuel. Luckily for them, we had our 10-litre jerry can of petrol on the sidecar, so we were able to give them enough fuel to get them to the nearest fuel station. They were on their way home to San Pedro de Atacama and invited us to stay with them, since that is where we are also heading over the next few days. Apparently, they run a hostel with camping facilities, and promised to cook us a meal when we get there, as well as make us the best Pisco sours!
We arrived at the National Park, signed-in at the entrance with the warden, and then rode through some amazingly rugged scenery along the dusty road. We saw a few camping sites along the way and stopped off at an information centre to find out a bit more about the area and its camping opportunities. We decided to stay at Pan de Azucar Lodge (which looked better kept than the other one we checked out). Its pitches were well spaced out and overlooked the Pacific Ocean with its white, sandy beaches. Each pitch had a brick-built BBQ, and table with bench seating under a large thatched shelter, and use of the communal showers which unfortunately had only cold water.
We ended the day with a long beach walk, seeing many sea birds, mainly gulls and curlews, and a seal swimming very near to the shore line. There’s a large island opposite the campsite where the Humboldt Penguins live, so we will go and see them tomorrow!
Day 86 (18th Feb.) At Pan de Azucar
We woke to another cloudy morning, but it was still very mild, and the views from our tent more than made up for any disappointment that it wasn’t gloriously sunny. After having breakfast, we were remarking how nice it would be for a van to come along with fresh bread and supplies; a few minutes later, one did just that! The very friendly owners had a variety of basics, so we bought fresh bread, eggs and some fruit for lunch.
A kilometre or so along the road from where we are camping is a small settlement, Caleta Pan de Azucar, where there are a handful of houses, three small restaurants by the beach, and a few fishing boats. We rode over there to have a look around, walked along a small jetty by the fishing boats, and then saw a large flock of Pelicans both sitting and standing on the rocks, in the sunshine. They were so much bigger than we’d imagined they would be, and were fascinating to watch flying on and off the rocks. We also spotted a large brown sea lion who was almost completely camouflaged lying on another nearby rock.
We noted how makeshift the small wooden houses were and presumed the local fishermen lived there with their extended families. We saw a woman using a metal wheel-barrow as a BBQ, which seemed very effective, and many people sitting in front of these dwellings under simple roofs for shade. We stopped for a drink in one of the three restaurants which was full of local people and their happy children running around, whilst the family that ran the place all sat down together to a meal…. the whole place was very relaxed and laid back.
This made us think about all the places we have stayed at. We concluded that those where we’d camped for relatively little cost had been the most enjoyable, be it the remote oasis at Soros, the vineyard in Vicuna, or the beach here in Pan de Azucar! Maybe our expectations are less if you pay less, but we are certainly enjoying the freedom of not having pre-booked any accommodation for some time as we can stumble across interesting places to stay on our way.
In the evening I had my first cold shower since 1979, when I had gone on a ‘Camp Africa’ holiday to Morocco as a student nurse, and it wasn’t as bad as I remembered! Unfortunately, there was no water at all in the men’s showers so hopefully Mark can shower tomorrow!
We will move on in the morning if it looks to be a cloudy day and stay if sunny, for a day on the beach.
Day 87 (19th Feb.) At Pan de Azucar
We decided to stay another night since we woke up to lovely blue skies this morning. Mark walked the kilometre or so along the beach to the reception, to pay for another night, and I stayed at the tent in hope of seeing the bread van again.…unfortunately it never appeared! However, we have food stored in a metal box on the sidecar and we always replenish it when we do a food shop. We always keep a stock of couscous, pasta, rice, sachets of pasta sauces, grated parmesan, tins of tuna, tea, coffee, crunch bars, nuts and raisins, biscuits, and a bottle or two of soft drink, as well as a box or two our favourite ‘Gato’ wine. We also always have fresh water in a 5-litre plastic jerry can just in case we become stranded somewhere remote. At the start of our trip, we didn’t know how much we’d be camping, so it’s paid off being well-prepared; we’ve even had a melon in the footwell of the sidecar on a couple of occasions!
We spent most of the day lying on the deserted beach, just 100 yards from our tent. The big waves crashed against the beach as they rolled in and were ideal for some basic surfing for Mark. It was so relaxing just doing nothing, save for a few crosswords to keep our brains active.
In the evening, our neighbour from the next tent came over and invited us over for breakfast in the morning! We had only really waved and said good morning, so it was a very nice surprise, especially as we had given up hope of seeing the bread van again!
Day 88 (20th Feb.) Pan de Azucar to Antofagasto
We woke up early as we wanted to de-camp before breakfast, so we were all packed-up by 9.30 am. Breakfast with our neighbours was very enjoyable and was spent discussing both our travels and getting tips from them on the route we were planning to take north.
We eventually left our campsite at 11.00 and rode through more amazing scenery in the Pan de Azucar National Park, back towards Ruta 5. There were huge rock and sand hills with no vegetation at all, and very few passing vehicles.
Once back on Ruta 5, it was very much the same scenery and we drove the 250 miles to Antofagusta, stopping for petrol at a single, small service station and also to take photos of ‘The Hand of the Desert’, a famous Chilean desert sculpture. It was, for us, quite extraordinary how there were absolutely no plants for hundreds of miles – not even any cacti – but we had to remind ourselves that the Atacama Desert is of course the driest location on the entire planet.
As we approached Antofagasta, which is located on the coast, a number of large industrial buildings crept up whilst landscape became less sandy and rockier, still with no vegetation. The city is the second largest in Chile, after Santiago, and sprawls for miles along on the coast. We fairly soon found a hotel with secure parking not far from the city centre and signed in at the reception…. the concierge was watching football on the television, with Chelsea against Barcelona, albeit he remarked that he was a Manchester United fan since the well-known Chilean player, Sanchez, plays for them (as we’ve been told many times before by many locals). Everyone in Chile seems to be football crazy, with other sports very much taking a back seat!
We hadn’t had any lunch on today’s ride since there was no lunch to buy at the one filling station we’d stopped at, so, we headed off to find something to eat and then an early night.
Day 89 (21st Feb.) Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama
The ride to San Pedro de Atacama was through similar desert scenery as yesterday, except there was a bit more of interest to see. We also crossed over the Tropic of Capricorn a short distance north of Antofagasto. We rode past several open copper mines, huge multicoloured slag heaps, and freight trains running along the single track which had run parallel to the road off-and-on for a couple of hundred miles. There were now many huge lorries on the road, and over the course of the day we saw only a single motorbike. There are still numerous small shrines perched on the edge of the road, of which some are very ornately decorated. We still don’t know precisely why they are so abundant and must make more effort to find out. However, they were one of the few things that broke up the monotony of the desert landscape, especially after we’d ridden past the mines.
After a while, we started to ride up a long, gentle incline towards San Pedro. The gradual incline was quite deceptive as, when we stopped for a drink, our GPS indicated that we’d reached 11,500 feet (having of course been at sea level in the morning). Mark remarked that the bike had lately been struggling a little bit up parts of the incline, and had to change down from top to fourth gear to keep up momentum. This was clearly due to the relatively thin air which adversely affects the bike’s air/fuel mixture. The bike has two old-fashioned carburettors which, unlike more modern fuel injection, cannot compensate for changes in altitude. However, we soon started to descend towards San Pedro, which is at an altitude of around 8000 feet, the bike now purring along on little more than overrun for a number of miles.
We headed to Casa Campestre (the hostel owned by Brulio, the KTM rider who we’d stopped to give fuel to several days ago), and were shown to a lovely room which was offered to us at no cost! We were also given an invite to their home that evening for a BBQ with some of their friends, more kindness than we had ever expected.
We had a walk into the town centre, five minutes away, to get some wine and beer, and to have a quick look around. It was very busy, with many tour guides hovering outside their shops touting their tours to the local attractions. We thought about how lucky we’ve been, being able to get to more-or-less wherever we want on the bike and not having to rely on organised tours.
Our hosts for the BBQ, Brulio and Nayira, live in a Dome in the grounds of the hostel, which he had built with help from some friends. It was very interesting to see the external ‘walls’ were covered with Adobe (mud) which looked very rustic. Inside, there was a series of timber joists which supported a mezzanine bedroom. Indeed, almost all the buildings in San Pedro seem to be built with adobe, which is very attractive.
We spent a great evening sitting around a fire pit next to their Dome, with steak and chicken on the BBQ and far too much to drink!
Day 90 (22nd Feb.) At San Pedro de Atacama
After a late start we packed up our things and moved to our new home for the next 3 nights. We are still staying at the hostel and had a choice of camping in our tent or staying in a large campervan which is permanently parked in a corner of the hostel’s small camping area. The campervan won – we quickly moved in and decided to have a lazy day.
We wandered down into the town centre to locate the tourist information office and find out about the customs procedures for entry into the two close neighbouring countries, Bolivia and Argentina. We had read on our i-overlander travel app that paperwork for the border crossings to these countries had to be done in San Pedro, but luckily this has very recently changed and both borders now have Chilean customs offices in-situ. We need to decide which route to take from here, bearing in mind that we will almost certainly ship the bike home from Buenos Aires.
We could have a foray into Bolivia since we’re now extremely close, but the downside is that it’s now the rainy season there. All of the Bolivian roads within many miles of the border appear to be unpaved and we’ve been advised that many will hence be in poor condition, suitable only for 4×4’s. We therefore suspect that we’ll head back over the Andes into Argentina, to ride south and eventually east towards Buenos Aires and depending on time, into Uruguay.