Thankfully after a couple of days spent looking at sand we could turn-off the Panam highway a little way after La Negra and take a nice quiet backroad towards the coast at Papusa. This involved a bit of a climb over the coastal mountain range and it was still through the desert, but at least it had some changes in topography to give us something to look at other than sand. We rode with Karin and Martin again through this section and we shared some lovely desert campspots and some good laughs.
We had a great ride down from the desert towards the beach at Papusa, where we dropped out of the mountains and down to the vegetated coast. It was wonderful to see some plants again, to enjoy the colours and to have smells to smell.
After the desert the coast was sensory overload. We moseyed along the coastline for a couple of days, enjoying the sights, before we had to head back to the desert. Along the way we had great beach campsites, fresh fish caught by the local fisherman and cooked up by Karin, friendly fishing villages and the joy of seafood empanadas. We cleverly managed to time Jules birthday to coincide with a couple of days spent next to the beach in the great little town of Taltal - luckily for me as otherwise it would have been her second birthday in a row in a desert! Birthday celebrations included sunset beers, yummy seafood meals, and good company with Karin and Martin.
The friendly nature of the dogs here is only surpassed by the Chileans themselves. The big-heartedness of the locals meant that we actually enjoyed, to some extent, the riding on the main highway in the north of the country (after Taltal). Normally we avoid the busy highways if we can but in Northern Chile everybody that passed us was so friendly and gave us lots of waves and toots and big thumbs up. One night camped in a roadside stop we got talking to a very enthusiastic trucker who invited us to his birthday party, and then the next few days any of the trucks that passed us from the same company gave us big cheers and encouragement - our friend must have told all his mates about us.
One night in the desert we camped next to the house of a lovely old lady who lived by herself, and talked to her animals. We won her over with some chocolate and when we went to bed in our tent she came over to tuck us in with an extra coat, some blankets to put over our bags, a bit of twine she used to tie our tent down and a safety pin to put in the tent door. It was all a little random but very sweet!
Unfortunately my Spanish has been letting me down in Chile. I really want to converse properly with all the wonderful Chileans we have met, but I actually feel like my Spanish has gotten worse! I find the Chilean Spanish very different from what I am used to, and most of it is very fast with lots of slang and different words. Thankfully some people slow it down for me and speak to me like I am a child and with lots of hand signals, and in this way we get by.
We didn't enjoy the couple of days riding from San Pedro, through Calama and down to La Negra very much. It is remote but surprisingly there is a lot of traffic (mainly mining traffic) and often there is no shoulder and lots of wind. The section around La Negra is particularly painful – we tried working out if there was a road south from Antofogasto along the coast that we could take but the locals weren't sure so we ended up riding south of La Negra on the main road (missing Antofogasto completely)and then turning off an taking the paved road towards Papusa (130-ish kms to Papusa) and then Taltal. Papusa was a friendly little fishing village where we could camp down near the ocean. We would definitely recommend this alternative route south – though you do have to cross over the coastal mountains to get down to Papusa, and then you have to climb up again when you leave Taltal (though the climb is gentle here).
We also took the road through Pan de Azucar which we really enjoyed too – hard packed dirt road and hardly any cars.
The road from Caldera to Vallenar is a new u-beaut freeway, with a great big shoulder. But this means a fence all along the side which makes stealth camping a little more difficult. A couple of times along the number 5 (about 30kms south of Copiapo and just before Huentelauquen (north of Los Vilos)) we camped in the roadside rest areas that have showers, toilets and an ambulance station that is attended all night – the ambos gave us permission to camp there, they were really friendly, though it can be very noisy with the trucks coming and going all night.
From Valparaiso south we headed through the little back country roads as much as possible. We took the highway 68 out of town (we tried heading out of town on the smaller roads up over the hills but got turned back by someone that told us it was very dangerous and people were very bad in this area!) but turned off the highway as soon as possible and headed towards Tunquen (where we camped in a sandune) and then along the coast south (lots of steep hills here!). After San Antonio we headed back inland through small country roads (La Ruta de la Fruta) in the general direction of Santa Cruz. We got back on the Panam at Teno to do a day and a half of fast riding down to near Chillan.
Wild camping is easy in the north of Chile, where there are no fences and no people! The hardest thing is finding shelter from the wind. When we left San Pedro we planned to camp before Calama but found No shelter from the wind and so had to go into Calama and camp in town. We camped at service stations a couple of times along the Panam, but they can be noisy at night. Good beach camping when you are along the coast.