April 11, 2006 GMT
(3) Chile: El Norte Chico

We were late in getting the bikes out of customs. It was almost 11PM before we were back at the hotel. We still had to pack and organize our luggage for a departure tomorrow morning.

We followed the coast north from Vina. Then the road veered inland and I searched for a mountain backroad I had had my eyes on during the planning stages. I missed it by a mile, literally. However the road I was on had all of the correct characteristics so I meandered on. It changed from pavement to gravel and eventually, as it wended its way into the foothills of the Andes it became a mere track. I didn't expect that. Switchbacks folded back upon themselves as we climbed higher and higher. As we moved away from the coast the temperature climbed also, into the low 30s C. Finally the road dead-ended at the base of a mountain. We had to retreat. Now I could see the road I wanted. It was just across the dry river bed.

As we unwound our way down the mountain I stopped at a one-room country school house I had passed on the way in. I wanted to see if there was a connector road that would save me back-tracking all of the way to the start. "Yes, about half a kilometer down that way" the male teacher said. I had seen the road on the way in and just wanted to verify that it would work. We exchanged pleasantries and I walked back to the bike. Then I thought, why not give him a CANADA pin. I returned to the class, which consisted of 15 primary school students.

Everyone was at work when I entered and they raised a clamour as I strode to the front of the class. The teacher looked up from his work. I offered him the pin as a token of my appreciation. He stared silently at it, for a few long seconds and then it set in. I was offering him a pin from my country. He did not know I was from Canada until now! He was overwhelmed with emotion. He pumped my hand in gratification. He announced to the class that I was from Canada. Suddenly the whole class realized I was special. They circled round to touch the "man from Canada". Never in their wildest dreams would they have imagined someone from Canada would walk into their classroom and their lives. In that instant I became more than just a traveller. I had entered their lives.

School Children.JPG

Back on the correct road finally, we moved north at a better pace than the 1st gear we had been using on the last road. The primary reason for selecting this road was the several long tunnels we would encounter. As I approached the first tunnel the two cars, lined up for entry, in front of me, started to proceed. I didn't have time to remove my sunglasses so I just geared down and proceeded. I was not expecting the total and absolute darkness which surrounded me, compounded by my sunglasses. These tunnels are very narrow, barely wide enough for a single vehicle and several kilometers long. The road surface is littered with fallen rock and covered with pot holes. There was no artificial lighting.

When I lost my vision I lost my equilibrium. The bike meandered dangerously between the walls as I struggled to overcome my blindness and recover my balance, correcting my wandering movement by instinct more than anything else. A few, long seconds later my vision started to return and I was able to correct the out-of-balance forward movement and contain the wandering to about a 3 foot spread. Popping out into the daylight on the other end I was blinded again by the brightness of the austere surroundings. I headed for the next tunnel, but this time I would be better prepared...


We headed for the coast to find a place to camp. The next day we would return to the foothills to chase another valley. The desert is almost totally devoid of vegetation and an overall browness permeates everything. But these valleys, oh these valleys. They simply abound in life. Usually there is a river or stream present, and if this is not so, then sub-surface water is usually easily found. Just add water and the desert is bountiful beyond belief. This valley was cultivated in vegetables and grapes. Semi-trailer loads of grapes were being weighed-in at the Pisco sour plant; vegetables were being harvested. Life was good around Ovalle. The temperature hovered in the upper 20s.

This valley also harboured Diagata Petroglyphs from the period 200-700 AD. It was little wonder they had inhabited this valley with all of its bounty.


We had a mid-afternoon dinner and then headed for the coast on a dirt road. Our destination was PN Fray Jorge. We arrived at the park gates at sunset only to find them padlocked shut. We had known this would be a possibilty. We had gambled and lost. We camped outside the gates to wait for the scheduled opening at 9AM. At 5 AM a busload of high school seniors (all girls) arrived to park beside us. The silence competed with the idling bus and the chatter of 30 excited and tired girls. They had travelled all night to be here.

At 10AM the park attendant arrived. I rushed forward to pay the park fee and finally be on our way. He didn't have the key. He would have to go back and get it. REALLY! By 11 AM we were in. We rode the 15 kms to the ancient 8 million year old forest, kicked a few tree trunks and left. Much ado about nothing.

We crossed the Atacama again in quest of food and dined in the same restaurant we had the day before. We were becoming well known around town.

Onward we pushed, north and then back across the Atacama to the coast at Huasco and then north again to PN Llanos. This was not to our liking so we crossed the Atacama again heading for an abandoned silver mine, Chanarcillo, in the foothills and pitched our tents in the company of ghosts past. What a wonderful setting with a near full moon keeping the spirits at bay.


The morning found us prodding amongst the foundations of those who had come before us. Having sated our appetites here we headed up the valley to try to cross the mountains into the adjacent valley. The road, or track as it would be more appropriately called, followed a dry river bed. The loose, unconsolidated material and large rocks made 1st gear travel very difficult. After a few kilometers we stopped to assess the situation. As far as we could see, ahead of us, the track followed the river. Our road condition would not improve until it started to climb out of the valley. But what if that didn't occur for 30 kilometers or more? We checked our fuel...less than a gallon remained. The temperature climbed into the upper 20s. We turned our bikes around and retreated back to the Pan American highway some 20 kilometers away. As I hit the pavement my reverve light came on. I had about 60 kilometers of reserve capacity and it was 65 kilometers to Copiapo. That was cutting it too fine. Gas would have been an issue on that mountain track. We had made the right decision in more ways than one.

In the Copiapo valley we chased some Inca-Diagata smelting ovens. Over thirty ovens were built to render the raw ore into copper ingots for transport back to the Inca Empire where they would be transformed into jewellery and other finery for the Kingdom. This was an amazing valley...totally filled with grape vines. The vines spread across the valley floor until they bumped into the barren walls of the mountains, forming the perimeter boundaries. What a stark contrast!

We headed back for the coast to check out PN Pan Azucar. It was not to our liking. As pretty as it was, 12,000 pesos ($25) per person to camp was poor value. We were confident we could find better for less or nothing. Back out into the Atacama we headed before turning to the coastal town of Taltal. Just north of Taltal we found our home, next to the sea and sheltered from the wind. The cost was free. It is hard to argue with that.

Taltal Sunset..JPG

The Atacama is a desert like any other and yet like no other. It is almost devoid of vegetation and yet a few hardy plants eke out an existence by absorbing moisture from the frequent fogs that cover the land. It is not just a planar desert. It consists of dunes, mountains, hills, rocks, mounds, deep valleys and any other conceivable combination...but generally moisture is absent.

Diege de Almagro crossed this inhospitable land in 1535 and discovered first hand how unforgiving it can be. Suffering deprivation heretofore unimagined his troops literally froze to death in their saddles; died in their tracks, alongside their much abused beasts. The Carnage of Conquest. The desert desiccated their remains before they could putrify. Subsequent expeditions suffering from similar want and deprivation encountered the bodies and were able to gain sustenance from the remains and thereby avoid a similar fate.

Desert Wildflower.JPG

Posted by Robert Bielesch at April 11, 2006 10:31 PM GMT

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