Day 107 (11th March) Leones to Baradero
We were sad to leave Posada Maestossa as it had been so comfortable and relaxing, but we needed to move on and get to Buenos Aires. It had rained overnight and was overcast as we set off, but soon warmed up and we made good time despite a poor road surface. Large pot holes and ruts again covered our route till we reached Rosario, which amazed us as it was the main autoroute from Cordoba to the capital, Buenos Aires!
Rosario had originally been our destination for today as it was the birthplace of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. He became a revolutionist after travelling around South America in 1952 on a 500cc Norton motorcycle with his friend, Rodrigo de la Serna. They witnessed the poverty of peasants, miners and ostracized lepers and it had a dramatic effect on him, so by the end of their trip he was prepared to fight and die for the cause of the poor. Their experience became the subject of his book, ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ (which we must read again when we get home).
However, we found out there’s no Che Guevara museum in Rosario – only his house which is now a private residence with no admission – so we decided to press on to Baradero, a town some 50 miles closer to Buenos Aires, where we found a modest but decent hotel for the night.
Day 108 (12th March) Baradero to Buenos Aires
The road to Buenos Aires was straight all the way, running through very mundane scenery compared to what we’d been used to riding through over the last few months. When we arrived, we rode along the busy by-pass and into to the city centre.
We’d booked an ‘Aparthotel’ (a small apartment with hotel facilities such as breakfast, room cleaning etc.) for two nights to give us time to arrange a ferry crossing to Uruguay and to do a bit of sight-seeing. We’ll be returning to Buenos Aires when we reach the end of our trip, so may have time to see more of the city then.
Day 109 (13th March) In Buenos Aires
We spoke with the helpful concierge at reception, who offered to print the on-line ferry tickets we’d bought, so we are off to Uruguay tomorrow morning!
We spent the day walking the city and clocked up around eight miles, which was quite exhausting in the heat. Our destination was the Jardin Japones (Japanese Garden) which is apparently the biggest garden of this type outside Japan. It was a very peaceful place with Koi Carp swimming amongst the water lillies in the extensive ponds, red painted bridges, and winding gravel paths through the gardens.
Buenos Aires is a very pleasant city and seems to be very westernised, say compared to Santiago where we’d spent a week a month and a half ago. The walk to the Japanese Garden reminded us of being in central London in many respects. The old, Colonial buildings are impressive, with many having beautiful, ornate mouldings. They all seem to be well maintained, which is another notable difference to most other places we’ve visited. The streets were clean, with very little rubbish evident, but there were still many impatient drivers and loads of people jostling for space on the pavements!
Day 102 (6th March) Cafayate to San Pedro de Guasayan
The weather was overcast this morning as there’d been heavy rain overnight which continued into the early hours. The main road out of town, Ruta 40, had flooded in places and was a bit treacherous where muddy water had been washed down from the hills to the west and over the road, making it slippery. The road is actually designed with a number of wide gulleys running across it so that the muddy water is channelled into the ‘Valley of the Cacti’, on the other side. This meant that small fords had appeared at many of the gulleys, which we of course had to ride through. At one point, we passed several work men clearing the road with a digger. Judging by the amount of soil piled up at the roadside, we imagined that the road could well have been blocked earlier.
We soon turned off Ruta 40 and rode on towards Cordoba along a secondary road, Ruta Provincial 357/307, to Tafi del Vallee, a small town in the middle of the far eastern part of the Andean foothills. The road was paved, but was the worst example of paving we’ve come across so far, and looked about a hundred years old! It had become cracked to such an extent that it resembled crazy paving rather than tarmac, with the bits of tarmac between the cracks being badly eroded as well.
Out of sympathy for the bike, our speed dropped to between 15 and 30mph, depending on how bad the surface was. As we climbed up out of Cactus Valley, the rains returned and the cloud was so low that we were riding right through it, with visibility down to a minimum. We arrived at Tafi del Valley in the early afternoon having covered only 80 miles, and stopped here for a lunch of Locro, a local type of stew.
After lunch, we started to descend into the lowlands which run all the way to the Atlantic coast along Rutas 157, 60 and 9. The road surface was now good and we had to negotiate the never-ending hairpin bends which in any other situation would have been fun, but not today since we were riding through torrential rain (and had to stop for the first time in months to put on our waterproofs). When we eventually finished riding the hairpins, the rain stopped, and the weather started to improve. Whilst the road had improved by now too, there were still the inevitable animals to watch out for and today we had to stop several times for herds of goats, cows and horses which were roaming in the road despite some being managed by horsemen, also known as a Gauchos.
We eventually reached San Pedro Guasayan, where we decided to stay for the night. In fact, we had little choice since the next town where there would be accommodation was fifty miles away. When we saw a sign advertising the hotel in San Pedro, we were expecting to see a run-down hostel since most of the buildings in the small towns we had ridden through were fairly grim, but we were pleasantly surprised! It was a fairly new, sizable hotel with a thermal spa pool outside, which unfortunately we didn’t get to use. It had the feeling inside of being in a university hall of residence, especially in the restaurant, and was more than fine for one night. Day 103 (7th March) San Pedro de Guasayan to Cordoba
The weather was much improved today and we made good time as the road surface remained good. The landscape was much flatter and the road was straight almost continuously. We rode through several different types of landscapes – first, lush greenery similar to home; then a return to desert-like scenery with sand and cacti; then an expanse of salt flats; and finally more green landscape again very similar to the UK. We’d now entered the vast, low-lying area known as the Pampas.
We stopped at a service station in the late afternoon to use their Wi-Fi, to check-out hostels in Cordoba. After browsing for a while and finding nothing suitable, we decided to take a chance and stop on spec. This turned out to be a bad decision as the city was busy and it was difficult to park on the narrow streets outside prospective places to stay. Anyhow, we eventually found a hostel, with a 24-hour secure parking lot a short distance away. Day 104 (8th March) In Cordoba
Cordoba is Argentina’s second largest city and in our opinion not the most attractive! We saw a few interesting old Colonial buildings in some of the side streets, and the cathedral fronting the main plaza is spectacular inside, but many of the buildings we found rather mundane.
We walked a mile or so to the central park where we had some tasty street food, and then walked back to a bar on the plaza for a cold beer and people-watched for a while. The national drink in Argentina is Fernet, a strong medicinal-tasting herbal liquor which is always mixed with coke, so we will have to try it and compare it with the Pisco Sours of Chile!
We returned to the Hostel late afternoon as it was too hot to be walking around the city for too long. There was a cool breeze on the roof top terrace and it was from there that we heard the noise of a demonstration outside, very near the hostel. We had heard that it was ‘International Women’s Day’, so we guessed it was something to do with that.
We went to investigate. There was a huge march along a nearby main road, with a variety of banners and the marchers singing and chanting through loud hailers. There were also many trades union banners, and we could hear that they were demanding equal pay for women.
Day 105 (9th March) Cordoba to Leones
We packed-up and left the Hostel by 11.00. Hostel Aldea hadn’t been the best hostel we’d stayed in, but certainly not the worst. Maybe we should avoid ‘back packer’ hostels in the future! All the breakfast had gone by 9.30 yesterday (it finished at 10.00), and despite being told someone had gone for more bread, it never appeared, so we didn’t bother with breakfast this morning.
We exited Cordoba relatively easily albeit the signage was non-existent, and the off-line GPS map wanted to take us around in circles! At many of the road junctions there are no give-way signs or road markings (as in all other towns too), so it seems to be a free-for-all and could be potentially rather dangerous. Anyway, we found the city ring-road that took us to the autoroute for Buenos Aires and headed for the first service station to fill-up the tank and have breakfast.
In Argentina there are many Police check points. We were stopped a few days ago when they checked our passports and documentation, and again today!
The Police Officer today indicated that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt in the sidecar. In fact, we don’t have a seat belt fitted as it is not a legal requirement in the UK. After a discussion with his colleague he let us move on, but it did cross our minds that we may have to pay a fine/bribe, as we’ve heard a lot about such incidents involving the transport police from other travellers we’ve met.
The weather was in the mid-30’s and, unusually, hot even when riding along at speed. Whilst having lunch at a filling station, we decided to pre-book somewhere to stay for the night, preferably with a pool and with a bit more luxury than the last hostel! We found ‘Posada Maestosso’ on booking.com and reserved our room as the hotel had a nice-looking swimming pool and was only a short ride away.
When we checked-in, it was so nice that we decided to stay for 2 nights since the forecast for the next day was stating 36 degrees and we could spend a whole day lazing by the pool…..sorry to those who are reading this from a very cold UK!
We were the only people at the pool when we got there in the late afternoon. We cooled down on sunbeds in the pool, which was surrounded by palm trees, and stayed there until the sun went down.…luxury!
Day 106 (10th March) At Leones
As mentioned above, we’re spending the day at our hotel, catching up with this blog, checking the finances and extending our bike insurance, and taking it easy by the pool!
Day 100 (4th March) In Cafayate
Cafayate is a picturesque town with a central plaza which has numerous small artisan shops, restaurants and an impressive church surrounding it. We had an enjoyable stroll around, including one of our usual visits to the town’s church (which is almost always on the plaza) and ended up at El Rancho restaurant for lunch, as recommended by Trip adviser. We had a few very tastey meat empanadas (similar to Cornish pasties) which are much smaller and meatier than those we had in Chile, and a local dish, Locro. This is a hearty stew which is popular in the Andes, and is a national dish of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Equador. It consists of corn, beans and potato or pumpkin soup and some type of meat….not exactly sure what meat, but could have been goat!
As we left the restaurant, we chatted to two U.S. bikers who’d stopped at our restaurant for lunch. They were part of a nine-person group travelling in an organised tour over a period of two months. They were waiting for the others to catch up, and when we mentioned that we were travelling with a sidecar they told us us there were not one but two sidecars in their group, which were behind them, but would be along shortly.
They had started their trip in Cartagena, North Columbia, and had then travelled through Equador, Peru and Bolivia before reaching Argentina. The person leading this group through South America was Helge Petersen, who spent ten years travelling the world many years ago, and is now in his seventies. He has written books about his travels and still contributes to many adventure bike publications and organises bike tours through his company, Globe Riders. We spoke to him for a short while, but they still had a fair way to go before stopping for the night, so had to set off again.
It was interesting to see that the sidecars were like to ours. One of them was exactly the same, a Russian Ural, whereas the other was modelled on the Ural, but had a body constructed from glass fibre rather then steel, and looked slightly longer. Both were fitted to big BMW’s, an older 1150GSA and a more modern 1200 GSA. The only other sidecars we have seen so far were several weeks ago in El Bolson – two were parked-up next to a café and we made a point of chatting to their Argentino owners. Sidecars are a very rare sight in South America, as all the attention we still get highlights!
It was day 100 of our trip today! Time is going too quickly, but we’ll still see much more of Argentina as we now begin to head south-east towards Buenos Aires and Uruguay, before we return home towards the end of April. Day 101 (5th March) In Cafayate
Today, we had another co-incidence in the town. Mark saw three guys walking along the street, who’d sat at the next table to ours in Salta a few days ago. So we stopped, greeted them, and chatted to them for a while and found out that that they all lived in London. Then, even more co-incidentally, one of them spotted his next-door neighbour from home (Kennington) walking along the street! They’d both known that they were both visiting the general area, but certainly didn’t expect to bump into each other in a back street in Cafayate!
Cafayate is a well-established wine growing region, producing both red and white wines, the most popular being a white called Torrentes. There are also local farms producing goats cheese, and we’ve noticed numerous small stalls and posadas (small cafes with rooms) selling these products along the roadside. So, we were very fortunate to spot a place just on the outskirts of the town that sold both, which we walked to from our Hostel. We’d read that this vineyard had been in production for over 100 years, but several years ago they had noticed a demand in the town for goat meat and cheese, and had therefore decided to rear their own goats on grapeseed oil, corn, barley and oatmeal, and in return they could use the goat droppings to fertilise the soil for the grapes. So, the meat, cheese and wine are all organic.
We enjoyed our walk to the farm, a couple of kilometres along a sandy track through the vineyard. As we’d missed the last tour of the morning, we were able to wander over to the goat pens on our own.
All the goats seemed very well looked-after and friendly.
We bought a goat cheese in the small farm shop and then, on the way back to our hostel, bought a bottle of Torrentes, some bread, tomatoes and avocado for lunch….perfecto!
In the afternoon, Mark checked over the bike – sidecar bolts, engine oil, cooling fluid, tyre pressures etc. since we’re leaving here tomorrow morning and will head towards Cordoba which is en-route to Buenos Aires, which is around 900 miles to the south east, and Uruguay beyond.
We’ve updated our route map which you’ll see below. We’ve also now included a dedicated map page which can be accessed via the menu.
Day 99 (March 3rd) – Salta to Cafayate
We left Salta in the morning and headed towards Cafayate, approximately 120 miles away. The traffic was chaotic leaving the city, but we soon found Ruta 68 which would take us all the way there. We pulled over at a nice roadside café for lunch, sitting in their garden next to huge, fruit-bearing cacti.
We again drove through some magnificent landscapes, which at times were so outstanding that we just had to stop to admire the views and take yet more photos, most of which I take from the sidecar as we ride along. Since we’re only using a Samsung Galaxy mobile phone, we’ve been really impressed at how well they’re coming out.
Once at Cafayate, we found Hostal Cabanitas Del Suri which our i-overlander app had recommended. It’s towards the edge of the town in a nice quiet area, but only 2 blocks away from the central plaza. The hosts were very friendly, and we spent a while talking about our travels and the sidecar before unpacking and settling-in. We’ll probably stay 2 nights here as it’ll be nice to spend a bit of time in the area.
To our amazement, there was a minor thunderstorm shortly after we’d unloaded the bike, but apart from the rain in Salta 3 days ago, the last rain we had was back in December!
Now we’re back in Argentina, we’ve noticed the return of the ancient French cars we saw when in Patagonia, in particular Peugeot 504’s (Mark’s parents had one of these in the 1970’s), Renault 12’s, and also some Fiat 127’s.
Day 95 (27th Feb.) San Pedro de Atacama to Susques – crossing the Andes
Our first stop after leaving Casa Campestre was to the Aduana (Customs) in the town, to confirm that all paperwork for the crossing into Argentina can now be done at the border as until recently this had to be done here at San Pedro de Atacama, some 100 miles short of the border. This was correct, so we headed for the border crossing, Paso de Jama. We rode through more utterly amazing scenery, including snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, and experienced freezing temperatures at over 15,000 feet, which we weren’t used to having as we’d been basking in sunshine for the last few months! We both felt fine at this altitude but made sure we had regular stops for water and the Coca sweets.
We cleared passport control, customs and immigration very quickly and, unlike our border crossing into Chile several weeks ago, didn’t have to put all our luggage through the x-ray machine. We obtained our TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for the bike and then after filling up with fuel, and Lomitos (steak and salad rolls) for us, we aimed for Susques, approximately 80 miles away.
The hotel we chose to stay in was on the main road into the town and had secure parking and comfortable rooms. We enjoyed good steaks for supper along with a bottle of local red wine. It was only when we had finished the bottle that we remembered that we shouldn’t have drunk any alcohol as we would be travelling at high altitudes again the next day. But by then it was too late!
Day 96 (28th Feb.) Susques to Purmamarca – crossing the Andes
We had an early start and headed east on Ruta 52, our planned destination being Salta, the regional capital. The infamous Ruta 40 was another alternative, but remains unpaved in this part of Argentine so would therefore be slow and potentially uncomfortable. Again, the scenery was spectacular – we remained at high altitude for many miles, only starting to decend a little towards the end of the day. An added bonus for us was stopping at the Salinas Grandes (large salt flats) in the late morning. These cover an area of some 30 kilometres long and are an amazing sight to see, especially with the sun glistening on them, and they could easily be mistaken for snow from a distance. We pulled over by several stalls where locals were carving animals and other ornaments out of the salt to sell to passers-by.
The whole area was very tranquil and our stop made up for not being able to get to the Bolivian salt flats at Uyuni, which we’d thought maybe far busier with tourists on the multitude of organised tours which go there every day.
As we rode off, we could see the reflection of the mountains on the surface of the salt where it was covered with a thin layer of water; it looked magical.
Once on our way, we saw many more Llamas grazing in the scrub, along with herds of donkeys roaming the sparse grasslands and often in the road, too. So, as we rode along, Mark not only had to concentrate on not only avoiding the potholes but the animals as well.
Soon we were again riding the isolated winding roads through the mountains, when I heard a strange noise coming from the sidecar wheel. Our worst thoughts were confirmed…we’d had a puncture!
We pulled over onto the (fortunately) wide gravel verge where Mark proceeded to take off the sidecar’s wheel.
Strangely, when checking the tyre for foreign objects such as screws, nails etc., we found none. After taking the inner tube out we found no obvious defects, so we partially inflated it to see where the failure was. What we found was a tiny split where the manufacturer had imprinted a small ‘O’ shape into the rubber.
Luckily, we had a spare inner tube which Mark proceeded to fit with my assistance. Three passing motorcycle riders stopped to see if we needed any assistance which we kindly declined as we were coping well. A fourth, local motorcyclist pulled over and we assumed he was going to ask if we needed any help, but he’d only stopped as he needed fuel – he must have seen our 10 litre jerry can fitted to the sidecar. We ended up having to delay what we were doing and help him out. We thought afterwards that he should’ve known where the local fuel stations were and wondered if he was out to get free fuel. After giving him several litres of petrol, he looked like he was going to give us some money (which we would have declined). However, he didn’t offer any but gave us Coca leaves in payment!
When we re-inflated the tyre, we noticed that it was bulging out slightly where set into the wheel rim. When Mark had first removed the tyre, one of the tyre levers had slightly nicked the edge of the tyre bead and this is what we suspected was causing the bulge.
Mark decided that, as a precaution, it could be sensible to replace the tyre since the bulge may possibly worsen and ultimately cause the tyre to fail. However, we first had to get to a tyre shop so set off with caution.
The puncture had delayed us by a few hours. Once we reached Purmamarca, a small town on the way to our intended destination of Salta, we stopped to find a filling station. The town’s set against the exceptional Cerro de Los Colores ( hill of Seven Colours), ranging from brown, terracotta, mauve, pink, green, grey to yellow rocks. Now we were short of fuel ourselves and had hoped that there’d be a petrol station in the town. However, there was no fuel station in the town, the nearest one being some 50 km away, on towards Salta. We decided that it would be best to go in the morning and stay the night here.
We chanced upon a small Hospedaje (a private home with a room for rent) on the outskirts of the town which consisted of a small stone and wood shack complete with shower room and w.c., for the equivalent of £8 each! It was very rustic but charming and much nicer than some of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed in. After a good meal in a nearby restaurant, we returned for some much-needed sleep after a very long day.
Day 97 (1st March) Purmamarca to Salta
We left Purmamarca and headed for the next town, Jujuy, in search of petrol and a tyre shop.
Once at Jujuy we found a fuel station, but a tyre shop proved much more difficult, so we headed on for Salta. This is a large city, with many preserved colonial buildings around an attractive central plaza, with an outstanding Cathedral, many churches, museums and other places to visit, so we were looking forward to spending a day or two there.
We missed the main turning to the city centre and had to navigate our way through some dilapidated outskirts. However, this proved to be a bonus since we stumbled upon a motorcycle workshop which had a suitably-sized tyre in stock, and a friendly mechanic who fitted it on the spot. After taking the old tyre off, our suspicions were confirmed – the small nick in tyre’s edge bead had caused it to bulge. Having said that, the bulge had actually not worsened over the 150 miles or so we’d covered since the puncture so may well have lasted the trip. But, better safe than sorry.
We then found a lovely old hotel fairly near to the central plaza and well within walking distance of the places we planned to visit. Supper was a ‘Parilla’ (or meat grill) – Argentina is famed for its meat, and ours was brought to the table on a hot charcoal grill. We hadn’t had lunch, so really enjoyed this meal and the cold beers that accompanied it. Day 98 (2nd March) In Salta
Today was spent being tourists. First, we wandered down to the central Plaza 9 de Julio and found the ‘Museo Arqueologico de Alta Montana’. We’d read that there was a mummified child on display and were interested to see it and learn more about the Inca history and their artefacts on display. It was an incredible experience to see a well preserved five-year old child, which was more than 500 years old, and hear the story of how she had been buried high in the Andes mountains, only being discovered some 20 years ago.
We then walked through the city centre to a cable car which took us up the San Bernard Hill, and then walked the 1025 steps back down.
The view over Salta was impressive and we could again see the mountains in the distance which we’d ridden past the day before, and also those we’ll ride past tomorrow when we head for our next planned stop at Cafayate, a town around 150 miles to the south.
Day 93 (25th Feb.)
We spent a lazy Sunday, mostly reading our books and Mark dozing in a hammock. However, we wandered into town in the late afternoon to visit a museum, the ‘Museo Gustavo le Paige’, which has a collection of ancient ceramics and textiles. According to the Lonely Planet guide, it has ‘an extraordinary collection of shamanic paraphernalia for preparing, ingesting and smoking hallucinogenic plants’. It seemed an interesting place to visit but, unfortunately, like the museum we tried to visit in Santiago, it was closed for refurbishment!
On some nearby local stalls we saw Coca tea and Coca sweets being sold to reduce the effects of altitude sickness.
The highest altitude we’ve risen to so far was on the way here at 3,500m and we both felt fine. Here in the town it is about 2,500m, but when we ride over the Andes into Argentina it will be higher than this at 4,200m. The road we’re taking from Chile to Argentina is apparently the highest main road in the world (higher than some places in Tibet). There are higher roads, but they’re all secondary.
When at altitude, one is advised not to drink alcohol, to drink plenty of fluids, take the incline as slowly as possible, and rest if feeling unwell. The symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea, sickness and nosebleeds. Anyone can suffer this condition, whatever level of fitness they may have, and if severe it can be life threatening! We have some Diamox tablets (which we got on prescription before we left) and we’ll probably take these as a precaution when we leave here. We now have the Coca sweets too, so hopefully we are as prepared as best we can be, and hopefully the bike will cope ok as well! Day 94 (26th Feb.)
We had a message from our hostel’s reception that we must go to the welder ourselves, which was what we were planning on doing anyway today….we’d thought it slightly odd to be told originally that the welder would come to the hostel. The welding garage was only 10 minutes from our hostel, on the outskirts of the town. The mechanic was very helpful and was able to carry out a repair on the spot, welding the sheared section of bracket precisely back in place.
The garage was very different from any UK garages – there was a herd of goats wandering around their back yard and several dogs lazing around the place, one dozing a couple of feet away from the welding operation. The mechanic prepared the tools and equipment he needed to weld the bike, whilst Mark disconnected the battery. For a heat shield, to protect some nearby cables, he used a wet rag!
One of the benefits of having an older bike is that the frame is made of steel, which is easy to repair with conventional welding…..every town (and many villages) we’ve ridden through seem to have a local soldador (welder). Many newer bikes, particularly those which are more expensive, have alloy or aluminium frames which need more of a specialist process to repair and weld, which in South America is most probably available only in a few large towns.
It only took a short while to do this repair which cost 8,000 pesos (about £10). Mark had a brief chat with the mechanic about where we had been, and how we had got the bike to Chile, and then we left, very pleased with the speedy service we’d received. Once back at the hostel, Mark re-assembled those parts of the bike which he’d removed to enable the repair to be undertaken, and also gave the bike a general check-over since we’ll be leaving San Pedro in the morning.
We set out this morning to visit the nearby Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), which is located quite close to San Pedro.A short time after we left, the bike’s front fairing (cowling), onto which the windscreen and headlights are fitted, started to vibrate and judder far more than normal.We pulled over onto the roadside verge and found that one of the two mounting points which attaches the fairing’s supporting frame to the main frame of the bike had failed. Back at the campsite, Mark removed the fairing panels and the supporting sub-frame to find that the steel bracket, onto which the sub-frame is bolted to the bike’s main frame, had sheared-off at its upper position.In short, the fairing assembly was only being held in place by one of its two bolts.
The campsite’s owner, Braulio, kindly phoned a contact who he confirmed would be able to weld the broken section of bracket back in place. He said that the welder would come to us at the campsite later in the day, but having waited around all afternoon and into the evening it was clear to us that it would be ‘manana’ (tomorrow).
We spent the rest of the day reading books we’d found in the hostel’s communal lounge. I chose a book for Mark titled ‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps’ by Allan and Barbara Pease. Despite the book being 20 years old, the facts and the self-tests one could do were very interesting and explain a lot of things! After getting lost a few times with my map reading I now have an excuse and can blame my genes! I’m a lot better with the GPS maps when I only have to follow the green line on the phone screen, but thankfully Mark has a very good sense of direction so can always work out where we are…..but he still doesn’t listen!
Day 92 (24th Feb)
We were up early in hope that the welder would appear in the morning, but we could have had a lie-in! We spoke with Nayira and she will find out for us what is happening with the welder, so in the meantime we had to stay at the hostel in case he should appear. We spent most of the day talking with other travellers staying here, and then walked into the town for a late lunch (when it became obvious no welder was going to come today either), where Mark tried a tasty Guanaco stew. We’d seen these animals roaming the vast steppes of Patagonia, and he didn’t think then that one day he’d be eating one; however, it was very similar to venison and he enjoyed it.
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.
Day 78 (10th Feb.) In Vicuna
We spent a quiet day relaxing at the pool as we’d had a disturbed night – a neighbour had held a party which went on till 5.30 in the morning! It didn’t really bother us too much as we didn’t exactly have to get up early for work the next day and the live Chilean music was actually rather good! We spent most of the morning sorting out this blog which in fact takes quite a lot of time, but we are still enjoying recording what we have been doing so we can look back over it when we are back home.
We walked into town centre in the early evening to have supper. Being a bit conscious of all the security gates around the houses, we made a note to head back before it got dark. We chose a popular restaurant which was busy with locals (all ordering hot dogs and burgers) and chose a traditional Pastel de Choclo (sweetcorn-based, with meat, in a dish) and an avocado salad with local beer.
The meal was good and we enjoyed the atmosphere, despite it being quite hot as there was, unfortunately, no outside seating. We wandered back to the central plaza and watched some of the live entertainment – all towns seem to have a central square, often with a stage for bands or outside cinema, along with buskers, jugglers and so on. It always seems to be the hub of the town and an ideal place for people to meet or just sit and chat in the shade of the trees. It’s a shame that our English weather prevents this type of community space in the centre of our towns.
Day 79 (11th Feb.) In Vicuna and to Pisco Elqui
Despite camping, we are sleeping really well and only wake up when the sun’s risen and starts to warm-up our tent, which soon gets so hot that we have to quickly evacuate!
We decided to visit a ‘solar’ kitchen for lunch today, which was a short (4km) ride further east along the Elqui valley.
The solar kitchen, ‘Donde Martita’ Cocinas Solares Elqui comprised a typical Chilean building with outside terrace which had a rush-type of roof to keep it cool and shady. It overlooked the valley with numerous vines which are now heavily laden with black or green grapes, ready for picking sometime later this month. There was a set menu of 8000 Chilean pesos (roughly £10), which consisted of a mixed salad, solar cooked rolls, slow cooked goat with either rice or mashed potatoes, a flan for pudding, and either a glass of local wine or local juice. The juice was from the local cactus fruit, Copau, (or prickly pear) and was delicious.
The goat meat was so lean and tender – it was possibly the tastiest meat we’ve ever had and just fell off the bone. Again, we had another very enjoyable meal.
The owner of the solar kitchen was very friendly and well known in the area as being the first person to open such a restaurant, and has apparently been featured on Chilean TV! She gave us a huge visitors book to add a comment to, and in browsing the hundreds of other comments we noticed that only two other English visitors had left comments.
There are a few other solar restaurants in the area now, so we may well try another whilst we are here. We’ve probably eaten the best food of our entire trip this week, whilst in this region of Chile, and it’s been really nice having lunches out, so we only need a snack in the evening back at the tent.
After lunch, we rode further along the Elqui Valley to the small town of Pisco Elqui. On the way, there was more amazing scenery – the huge hills seemed to be of a sandstone type of rock, varying in colour from grey to yellow and pink. It was all very rugged and barren, but still beautiful with many vineyards, even at higher levels. The road was very narrow and twisty, with much presumably having been carved out of the steep rock-face.
Pisco Elqui was a small, touristy town with a few artisan shops around a central square. We sat in the shade of the square for a while, people-watching and listening to a guy playing an Accordion, another playing a pair of tin drums, and an old hippy banging a drum….not very rhythmically! As often the case, there was jewellery for sale set-out on blankets on the ground, but it looked to be much the same as every other place we have visited so it’s probably very hard to make a living doing this.
We headed back to our campsite and decided that we would have another day here and then, reluctantly, leave on Tuesday. Whilst we have loved staying in Vicuna, we are mindful that our time away is finite and there are other places we would like to visit. At the moment, our loose plan is to head north through the Atacama desert, then possibly cross into Bolivia before working our way south-eastwards towards Uruguay and Buenos Aires, where we’ll probably ship the bike back from in mid-April. We’ve been in contact with a couple of shipping agents who say we’ll need to confirm our intentions at least three to four weeks before our return date. Day 80 (12th Feb.) In Vicuna
Today will be our final day here, so we went into the town for the last time and had a pleasant vegetarian meal, for a change, at a restaurant named Govinder which appeared to be run by Chilean Buddhists. After this, we visited a small natural history and entomology museum on the central plaza. It was full of interesting insects, spiders and stuffed birds…. just like home! (if you haven’t been to our house, we must tell you that we collect taxidermy).
Since we are finally off tomorrow, we made the most of the pool at our small campsite and had several swims to cool down in the late afternoon heat.
Mark checked the bike this evening and we’ll try and try to get as much as possible packed, too, so that we can get an early start in the morning. We aim to get the tent down and have all packed before 9.30, after which it starts to get very hot out of the shade.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.