Friday, December 16, 2011

Desert, beaches, wind (it's just like home!) Northern and Central Chile: San Pedro – Chillan (14th Nov - 6th Dec '11)

When we first arrived in Chile we spent a few days resting up in the adobe-walled, tourist hotspot of San Pedro de Atacama. However, after a pancake-eating orgy it was time to board the bikes and head south and west, through the Atamaca Desert. Chile is a very long country, more than 5000km long, and in its northern reaches is the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. Supposedly this desert is so dry and devoid of life that NASA come out here to check their life-finding technology. We could certainly see why as we rode through landscapes of empty sand with no signs of life at all. This bleak landscape was accompanied by strong winds and lots of mining traffic. Urgh.
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.
When we left Taltal and headed south, back on the Panam, we were back to the dry desert. However, as we headed south we slowly started to see the changes in the make-up of the desert, and it became more and more vegetated the further south we went. This area is known as the “Flowering Desert” as occasionally after a big year of winter rainfall the desert is transformed into a carpet of flowers. We were lucky enough to hit one of these years and it was pretty to see. The road also passed close to the coast in some sections so we had some more beach camping time, but we decided not to spend too much in this section as we were keen to get to the southern reaches of Chile. So besides a trip into the Pan de Azucar National Park, and some rest time in the colonial town of La Serena we pretty much beelined for Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is a great little city. It is the old port of Chile, with lots of history, fantastic street graffiti and ridiculously steep hills. Known as the San Fran of Chile, it is a muddle of steep hills and stairs up and down the Cerros, houses perched seemingly on top of one another, and little nooks and crannies to explore. Valpo is also dirty and chaotic and we fitted right in. It was one of my favourite cities that I have been to, though trying to get the bikes up and down the hills was less enjoyable!
After finally finding our way out of the steep jumbled streets of Valparaiso we headed south along quiet country roads through forests and past little settlements – very different from our riding in the tree-less, people-less Northern Chile. We went first along the coast and then inland through the farming and wine areas, which meant lots of fruits stands that we could gorge out on yummy fresh and cheap fruit along the way. Cherries and stonefruit are cheap in Chile and we proceeded to stuff our faces with as many as we could carry.
We were very happy to get to the cheap fruit and veggie area because when we first arrived from Bolivia, the cost of things in Chile was definitely a shock to the system. Where we first came into Chile in the north of the country the prices were ludicrously high because of the remoteness of the area, and the effect of mining on the prices. As we headed south things got a little cheaper, though it was still more expensive than the rest of South America.
Chile was also a culture shock as it is very developed and it was like being back in Canada or the US with big roads, mega-supermarkets and well-organised cities and town. Suffering culture-shock, I had a little anxiety attack in one of our first mega-supermarkets- it was so big, there were lots of people around and there was way to much choice in the biscuit aisle for me to deal with. Thankfully we could ease our way back into the developed world by arriving in the north of Chile where it is still fairly remote and underdeveloped. In the north there were still shacks made of clapboards and tin, people still herded goats and no-one looked at us too strangely when we asked to pitch our tent in random spots.
The further south we got the more developed areas became. I almost fell off my bike the first time that we rounded a quiet desert corner and came across a major condominium development on the beach. However, by the time we got down to the mega-resorts of Vina del Mar we were getting used to the glitz, though we looked completely out of place with our dirty, ripped clothes.
The other thing that makes Chile standout from the last few countries that we have travelled through is the attitude of the dogs. In Peru and Bolivia the dogs hate cyclists and appear to want to bite our legs off. They chase us with rage in the eyes and froth in their mouth. However, in Chile our major problem has been trying to stop dogs loving us and following us adoringly down the road. A number of times dogs followed us out of a town and into the desert,happily running alongside our bicycles. We did everything we could to make them stop or turn back but not long after they would reappear, showering us with love and completely oblivious to our attempts to send them home. In one desert camp-spot a dog stood guard over our tent all night and then tried to come with us the next morning.
Even when we walked around the streets of Valparaiso a dog adopted us and followed us everywhere, including into shops, and if he wasn't allowed inside he would wait patiently outside for us. It got a bit ridiculous, with us trying to run away from him and then him happily finding us “hey you guys, where you been?”. I'm not sure where our dog magnetism has appeared from, maybe its because we smell so much? But every time we have to lose one of our adoring followers it breaks my heart.

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!
Not far out of Santa Cruz we met the most big-hearted family yet. Alejandra and her mum and dad ran a little grocery store and gave us permission to camp on the open ground next door; however, this somehow turned into inviting us into their home, feeding us and providing us with a hot shower and a bed for the night. A really awesome family and so generous to us.
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 finished up the Northern and Central section of Chile with a quick couple of days riding on the Panamerican Highway, zooming along south in order to get down to the Lakes Area. There are lots more beautiful places to explore in this very varied country! Next stop: volcanoes, lakes, mountains and even more good Chilean wine.

Tips for Cyclists.
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.
We turned off the number 5 just before La Ligua and went on the road along the coast through lots of fancy little towns towards Valparaiso. Lots of hills, but we enjoyed it.
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.

1 comment:

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