April 30, 2006 GMT
(3) Peru: The Highlands
The desert had spoiled me. With ambients reaching into the low 30s C on a regular basis life was easy.
Riding had been hot at times, my riding gear keeping me in the moist zone. Water consumption was high in the 3 liter plus per day range. I looked forward to the mountains with trepadation, knowing they could be cold and wet.
The road from Nazca to Abancay was paved. Maybe it had been for years, but it was a road untraveled. The foothills passed quickly and soon I was in the montane zone. Sand gave way to grass, cactus persisted but reluctantly. A few trees were evident. Cultivated mountain sides became common place. Too steep for machinery they were hand tilled. Actually most of highland Peru operated that way. Tilling, sowing, reaping and threshing were still all manual operations.
The road wended it's way upwards...ever upwards...2,000 ft, 3,000, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8000, 9, 10, 11, 12 and finally 13,000 feet. My first low, high mountain pass peaked out at 13,600 feet. I was in the land of the Višuna. Groups of višuna abounded...my first encounter with this protected species.
The višuna had been protected throughout the Inca civilizaton and then brought to the edge of extinction by the Spanish. During Inca times the ultra-fine fleece from its breast was used for the finest of textiles to be worn only by the Inca himself. Višuna were not killed by the Inca. They were captured, their fleece removed and then released, to be harvested again. Any commoner caught killing a višuna suffered the same fate...the death sentence...no ifs, ands or buts. This was Imperial property.
Suddenly I was surrounded with greenery. So used to shades of brown, grey, white and black my eyes soaked up this forgotten wonder. Wildflowers abounded. I was astounded at the opulence. The land was covered in color... reds, greens, yellows, whites and purples. The wet season had lingered this year. It had merged into the dry season prolonging the wet and shortening the dry. Nature had responded in kind. The precipitation bonus had energized the flowers to bloom one more time. I had not expected this. It was truly a visual bonus.
I criss-crossed my tires, touching center only when I rolled from left to right. The edges moaned in protest. The rubber polished roads proved to be slick, providing only marginal gripping power. Round and round I twirled, left and right, in and out, 90, 180, 270 degree turns...more than a thousand. My arms ached from throwing the bike left and right. Debris sometimes littered the road adding an extra level of caution. Upwards, upwards, ever upwards I climbed. At 13,600 ft there was a brief pause and then a descent into steep valley. Down and down I whirled, my arms still aching...and then my first rain. It started gently allowing me time to dress up. Then it steadied and finally became a downpour.
The temperature dropped from the 20sC to the low teens. The land was lush and verdant. Onwards I pushed, climbing out of the valley and through another pass at 13,800 ft. A pause for lunch fortified the body. There was still a long ways to go...an unknown zone. The road had not straightened all day...2nd and 3rd gear were the norm, 4th and 5th the exception. Going was slow and there was no hope of a respite. My desination was only 250 kms away, but in reality it was 5 hours of hard riding.
I climbed into the last pass...the formidable pass...a pass of unkown elevation, duration and danger. The corners were tighter, the fog frequent, the temperature dropping steadily, the sun settling lower on the horizon, the verdant zone now well behind me. At 15,300 feet I reached the apex...but there I stayed...caught like a deer in the headlights. 8C and falling. I stopped to suit up.
Then the rains came. Slow for only a moment and then a veritable downpour. Purple and blue stabs of light jagged to the ground. The impending thunderous crash that followed surely woke the dead. It sent shivers down my spine. I looked around me. Truely, I was the tallest object on this vast, lifeless plain...the plain of doom. I could not stay here. I had to keep moving. There was no shelter. No place of refuge. No place to hide.
The rain froze into hail pellets and soon the road was covered in hail, several inches deep. I slowed to first gear, my feet ready to shoot out like outriggers should I move into a skid. Braverly overcame fear and I shifted into second and then third...then back to second. The intensity of the hail increased, the sun was obscured by the heavy cloud mass. Lightning stabbed towards me...the temperature dropped to 0C.
Then the road dropped off of the plateau...only a thousand feet or so, but enough to move back into the rain zone. I shifted up. The road sign indicated 150 kms to Abancay. The clock approached 5 PM. Sunset was just after 6 PM. There was no way I could make it now. If I arrived at all I would arrive after dark. These mountain roads require concentration in the daytime never mind at night. I pushed onwards.
I passed through a few hovel towns, fit only for those who have spent their lives in this harsh, unforgiving environment. I could not intrude. A rise in the road brought me back into the hail zone. It was either heavy rain or hail. Not much to choose from...the sky grew darker. I was warm and dry but hypothermia moves in slowly and catches you off guard. The rain still poured. I could not stop and strip down to add another layer here. I had to take my chances.
The road turned to the north and I spotted a patch of blue sky on the horizon. My spirits picked up. I knew then I could get out of this storm. I looked at my GPS. My route took me north. I was pointing towards a dry zone, but how far away was it?
At sunset I crossed the line. Like a mark in the sand, I crossed from the wet zone to the dry zone. I dropped off of the altiplano into a deep river valley. Soon I saw people out walking...enjoying the evening. The temperature rose to 14C. The altimeter showed a loss of 6,500 feet, down to 8,000. I had ridden out of the storm. Night moved in quickly. I was still 100 kms from Abancay with no desire to ride the canyon in the night.
I looked for a place to bed down and there it was. An old adobe ruin to block prying eyes, a river to lull me to sleep. As I dismounted an involuntary shudder wracked my body. My teeth rattled and my body shook. The first signs of a deep chill. I had beat it, but just barely. After a few minutes the chill had been purged. I unpacked and set up camp before the blackness of night descended upon me. Surrounded by mountains, a brilliant sky and a warm, dry evening I crawled into an even warmer sleeping bag and struggled to find sleep. I couldn't for many hours.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 01:53 AM
April 26, 2006 GMT
(2) Peru: The Desert Lowlands
Arequipa to Nazca...almost 600 kms. Was it doable? Yes, but you had to be motivated. I wasn┤t. I looked for a distraction and found one only two hours out of Arequipa.
Nestled in the foothills of the Andes was Petroglifos de Toro Muerto, a large area of petroglyphs heretofore unassigned to any culture. Dating from the time of the Wari, about 800 AD, some of these are finely executed. The sunbaked mountain side sweltered in the 35C heat. It was impossible to stagger amongst the boulders, slog through the sand and seek out all of the art work. Over two thousand petroglyphs exist in this one area alone. Two hours of labour left me exhausted and dehydrated. I retreated to town to recharge on fresh Trucha Frita and a liter of coke.
The afternoon was waning fast and it was time to select a room for the night. We had been in Arequipa for two nights so it was time to camp. As the sun set over the Pacific a deserted road beckoned and wended its way to an overlook to the Pacific beyond. A solitary fisherman drew his nets in the water below us. We met him later. He was seventy-seven and was still plying his trade from sunrise to beyond sunset. He was bare-foot as he trudged the trail from the sea to where we were. His well worn and patched clothing advertised his humble roots. He was totally happy and contented with his lot. He had found God and shared, with us, a few scriptures he had committed to memory.
Standing no more than 5 ft 5 inches, his barrel chest belied his life of labour handling fishing nets. His dark, creased face spoke of long days in the sun. As he stood there he looked the quintessential part of Anthony Quinn in "Shoes of the Fisherman". His features, his dress, his mannerisms were identical...it was uncanny.
The Atacama. What a wonderous desert. What a vast and desolate place. What a land of contrasts and change. What a varied landscape wrought of desolation. What a spiritually, forbidding place. What a wrecker of lives and dreams. What a place of dreams. What an eternally humbling place.
I have travelled almost 5,000 kms from the southern beginning of the Atacama, at Santiago, Chile, to Nazca, Peru. I have travelled, on a previous journey, the northern 3,000 +/- kms from the Ecuador/Peruvian border to Nazca, although this is not labelled Atacama. I do not believe, there exists on earth, an equivalent distance of total desolation and deprivation as can be claimed by this entire area.
It is wonderful...it is spiritual...it is indeed a treat to have shared this special place from its northern terminus to its southern end. I have criss-crossed it east to west and north to south. I have seen only a little of the destruction it can wreak. I have witnessed only a little of its beauty. I have experienced only a little of the desolation it lays claim to. But, I have crossed it and challenged it and shared some of its special, hidden places. The ATACAMA.
Just south of Nazca at Cementerio de Chauchilla, lies a vast burial ground utilized by the Nazca culture. Plundered by grave robbers and thieves these ancient graves were torn asunder...the bones of the deceased cast upon the desert like rain upon the ocean. Their peaceful and placid slumber disturbed for evermore. The INC (National Peruvian Archaeological Society) has now taken over the area, stopped the plunder and re-consolidated the bones and the graves. About a dozen graves remain open, protected by shelters, as a testimony to what once had been created by a remarkable, ancient culture. A culture so advanced that the quality of its textiles surpassed not only all contemporaries but those of succeeding future generations, to this date.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 02:51 AM
April 22, 2006 GMT
(1) Peru: The South
While visiting a museum on the outskirts of Arica, we met a Japanese couple who were travelling South America, for one (1) year, on their Yamaha....Yamaha 90 that is.
They were a retired couple in their 60s. They had special panniers built, a triple deck luggage pack on the back carrier, a large front basket, not unlike that found on a bicycle and double capacity gas tank giving them 10 liters of capacity and a range of almost 400 kms. I was astounded. I evaluated my 1100 cc brute, weighing in at 525 lbs plus 100 pounds of luggage plus 200 pounds of rider, tipping the scale at 700 lbs.
Their combination was about 200 lbs for the bike plus 100 lbs for the luggage plus 200 lbs for the rider and passenger coming to about 400 lbs. I was simply amazed that the suspension system was up to the load and the pounding. On my bike and other large bikes the weakest link seems to be the suspension. The rear shocks inevitably fail...and yet their tiny 1-1/2" diameter rear shocks and simple front suspension just kept on working and working and working. The motorcycle world could learn a valuable lesson from Yamaha here.
Before I left Chile it was time for a haircut. I waited my turn and then settled into the chair. My wire like mop was overdue. It was at that difficult stage, you might say. First he soaked me down and then sprayed some de-stressing agent on my hair to soften it up. After a vigorous massage it was limp and pliable and he combed it into a fashionable style.
Then armed with scissors and comb only, (the good old fashioned way) he proceeded to make pass after pass over my locks. With the precision of a forensic scientist working a crime scene he carefully measured each strand to ensure it had the correct amount of overlap to provide a perfect layered effect. Time and time again he combed it out and then repeated the entire procedure.
Finally after thirty minutes he combed it out again and I thought I was done. I gripped the arm rests, under the cover of my apron, getting ready to lever myself out of the chair. Before I could make a move he cradled my head in his hands and fluffed everything into chaos again, removing any loose hairs lest they fall upon my shirt after I left. One final comb out and I was done. I bolted for the door! The whole operation cost less than $6.
On the street I cast a backward glance back at the barber shop. In that split second, I walked full tilt into a low slung branch of a tree, who arm was thigh thickness. I staggered for balance and consciousness as the entire Milky Way flashed before my eyes. A goose egg size bump was my just reward.
The exit from Chile and the entry into Peru was simply perfect. These border crossings are always an unknown and I was't sure what to expect. At the first Aduanas office the beautiful Senorita accepted our completed forms and then proceeded to tell us we would need six (6) stamps on the document before we had completed the operation. She then pointed this way and that indicating where we would have to go.
Seeing the confusion in our eyes she smiled pleasantly, rose from her chair and exited the office. Then she pointed out the different buildings we would have to visit. How very congeneal of her...an extra effort she did not have to make.
The next official accepted our paperwork and provided his stamp. Again, he was the most pleasant individual I have ever encountered at any of these Latin border crossings. He welcomed us to Peru, directed us to the copy machine across the street and then waited patiently for us to return. Then he carefully walked us through the process and took it upon himself to obtain the other necessary stamps so we wouldn't have to struggle through the maze. As smooth and pleasant as the entire process was it still took about two hours. There was no mention of a Carnet or any other nonesense.
We moved on into Peru. At Tacna we stopped to get money (Peruvian Soles) and get a bite to eat. On the Plaza de Armas we viewed the Cathedral designed by Gustave Effiel and similarily his fountain.
The shoeshine boys were out in force working the Plaza. I was desperately in need of a shine so I relented, for 1 Sole...about 30 cents. Of course they bid low and then hit you with the EXTRAS after they are done, muttering lowing during the entire process that this layer is extra, this waterproofing agent which is necessary, will cost more and so on.
My shiny boots were no match for my graying leather pants so I directed him to attack the project. Standing in the middle of the mall amidst a growing crowd of onlookers, the shoeshine boy proceeded to polish, shine and seal my garments, working from the cuff of my pants to the...aah...well you know...the top...a very interesting experience I might add, especially under the scrutinizing eye of the discerning public. Amidst the flurry of EXTRAS he laid claim to I put him on a FORCE ACCOUNT RATE based on the amount quoted for the original project. Mr. Business meets...Mr. Business. We parted on good terms. The onlookers watched the whole procedure with interest. With the show over everyone went their way.
We moved on to Ilo, a coastal town. Unknown to ourselves we stopped in front of the City Administration Building. We perused the book looking for hotel options. A finely dressed man walked up and offered his help. He spoke impeccable English, had all of the correct contacts, knew most of the businessmen in town and invited us inside to meet the Mayor. It was getting late and we really needed to find a place to stay and get cleaned up before we took on any new enterprises so we politely excused ourselves and continued our quest.
We parted company and then half an hour later met again, while still searching for a hotel. This was a crazy mixed up town with a combination of one-way streets that made it almost impossible to return to a starting point if you missed a turn. After talking for a half hour he drew me a map and we said goodbye again. Later that evening, while strolling the Plaza after dinner, we met one more time. We talked for over an hour, just like we were old friends. What an incredibly warm introduction to Peru.
Arequipa is historically intact but not original. Most of the original Spanish architecture was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 1700s. Still, it offers a pleasant perspective on style and design from that era. The Santa Catalina Monastery is a sure pleaser. One can wander for hours amidst the maze of streets, rooms and tiny courtyards. It is truly a photographers delight. It has survived from the late 1500s and only in the mid 1900s was it opened up to public access. Cloistered nuns still live here but remain secluded in one small corner on the massive complex. The admission fees are a necessary means of generating operating capital at the expense of the isolated life they once led.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 04:00 AM
April 21, 2006 GMT
(6) Chile: El Norte Grande
We left Iquique and climbed up the ridge separating the town from the desert. The cool coastal air gave way to the dry desert heat. Soon we were basking in 25 C warmth; a far cry from the 12C on the coast.
Our first stop was Santa Lucia and Humberstone, the two famous or infamous ghost towns that were remnants and silent reminders of the nitrate era that reigned supreme at the turn of the century. The ghost towns were in exactly the correct state of preservation or decay, as the case may be, to make them interesting. Humberstone was an almost complete and intact town and nitrate refinery. Santa Lucia lacked the dwellings but had the industry intact. It was easy to consume two hours poking and prodding through the buildings wondering what was and may have been.
After leaving Santa Lucia we wandered aimlessly for most of the day. Most of the stuff we went to look at was only par or below. Finally we made one last stop at Cerro Unica, the largest geoglyph in the world. Surely we would not be disappointed.
We circled the hill looking for the artefact. The initial signs and scratchings we saw did not bode well. Then, suddenly there it was...all 86 meters of it, stretching from the middle of the hill to the crest...gratification at last.
Finally by mid afternoon it was time to make a plan. Where would we spend the night? More importantly, where would we get gas to get to the place to spend the night? The town I had planned to gas up in, Haura had no service station even though one was marked on the map. This was probably where Charles ran out of gas those many years ago, when he was travelling with a girl friend. Now, when you coast to the side of the road, in the middle of the Atacama, in the middle of nowhere, and you dismount and say to your partner "I ran out of gas", Just what do you think the first thing is that would cross her mind? "Sex in the Sand" or, "This could be serious". "If I have to make love because of this STUNT, we probably will not have enough energy to make it to the next town". Charles never did say what happened... come to think of it, I haven┤t seen Charles since.
Back to reality. I had less than half a tank left and 250 km to go to the next real gas. It would not work. The desert warmed to 35 C. The head wind picked up. We could back-track and basically end up where we started, or...
I decided to ask around town for gas. This was too big a place to be without this precious commodity. "Try here, try there" came the answer. Their gesticulating hands marked all points of the compass and a few in between. So far all of the here┤s and there┤s were closed. Finally I had what looked like a solid lead. I banged on the door. The lady of the house came out and knew by my gringo looks (I never told her I was a Canadian) that I wanted gas. Surely she knew it wasn┤t her I was after. Her old man would be back in ten minutes, she said. I waited in confidence.
Finally, he arrived. I am sure I could see a smile crease his sundried face. "Yes , I have gas," he said. "How much do you want?" "Ten liters," I said. I didn┤t care about the price. I just knew I wasn┤t going to be pushing this afternoon. 700 pesos per liter was the price. At 450 pesos per Canadian dollar, you do the math. Not a bad deal really as we had been paying about 610 pesos per liter at normal service stations.
Our coastal option for camping vaporized as it would have created another gas crisis. We headed north. As we headed north the earth opened into a gigantic gash, not unlike a massive fjord...except it was dry, with only the remnants of a river on its bottom. What a spectacular change in scenery from the dry, flat plain we had been riding.
Finally, near Cuyo we found a nice camp site with some real trees, and a restaurant only a mile away. Suddenly life was good. We set up camp and rode off to dine as the sun sank below the horizon. I dreamed of Charles and his feeble attempt to extract sexual favors from the age old "out of gas routine" and smiled with the knowledge that I did not know what the outcome was.
Arica held a few hidden gems from Europe. (Alexander) Gustave Effeil had been here...or at least he left his mark here and in several other places in South America, and as far north as Mexico. With a South American agent selling his masterpieces, he delivered two buildings to Arica...the Santa Clara cathedral and the Customs House.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 12:16 AM
April 18, 2006 GMT
(5) El Norte Grande
We left San Pedro and made a beeline for the coast. It was only 2-1/2 hours away but it seemed to take forever in the straight line, monotone drone of the Atacama. At Tocopilla we lunched on fresh Soupa de Mariscos, dredging up oysters, clams and a few unidentifiable bits and pieces below the murky surface of the broth. As advertised by the patrons it was "muis rico."
Further up the coast we pulled off the road and found our home for the night. Camping is adding a dimension to this trip that would not otherwise have been attainable. We overdosed on surf, sand and sun and let the incoming tide lull us to sleep, into a deep and satisfying slumber not achievable in any hotel.
Early the next morning we found we had camped a few short kilometers from Huanillos, a very complete ghost town. We could have dined on ghost vapor and fought off long lost spirits of the dead. This appeared to be an abandoned salt mine from perhaps the early 1900's harboring over a hundred workers. The boss's mansion sat perched on an overlook commanding both a view of the sea and the mining operation he controlled. He suffered little discomfort I am sure.
I have always said that if you combine motorcycles with mountains, volcanoes and scantily clad women you have reached nirvana...that elusive 'G' spot that most couples strive to experience at least once in their lives. If you combine motorcycles with at least one of the above than you approach nirvana. That is what we did today.
Beside the coast was a mountain. On the mountain was a road...or at least a facimile thereof. I passed it by, but the draw was strong. I tried to resist but I couldn't. I returned to the junction and surveyed the ascending scar along the face of the mountain. With saliva beginning to flow I raced through the gears in a mad quest to chase the road up the mountain and over it onto the altiplano.
The situation was not unlike a similar event Peter and I endured while crossing the Salar de Uyuni a few years ago. The altitude was not as extreme but the conditions were similar. A slash barely ten feet wide marked the road. The inside track was soft and partially drifted. The outside track a mere two feet from a sheer drop-off to the coastal plain below. We ground our way upwards fighting switchbacks that were too tight to negotiate in a single pass. Finally perched at an obscene angle we stopped to evaluate the sanity of the situation. Was it the wisdom of our years that caused us to return to the pavement? Or, was it simply a lack of courage? I know my wife would have questioned my sanity. Peter would have questioned my courage. I simply called it a wise decision.
A few kilometers down the coast I found a lovely restaurant and dined with the knowledge I had made the right decision.
The Road from Hell intersected the highway again not far from the restaurant. This segment was paved as it afforded access to the salt mine "Mina Chica" some twenty kilometers inland. We chased the easy track to the mine winding our way up to the altiplano through a deep canyon with only enough room for us and the road...and a few trucks.
At the mine we talked our way through "security" and proceeded to ride around the works. However when we stopped to take some photographs we were descended upon by security forces. From all directions little red pickup trucks zoomed towards us with beacons flashing. The windows lowered effortlessly and we were unceremoniously told to vacate the premises. OK! No problem. We had seen what we wanted. We left in peace.
Back on Routa 1 we moved north to Iquique. We were unprepared for the progressive, westerness of the town. Behind the new, upscale facade of the southern extension of the city lurked the Victorian gingerbread town of the Nitrate years. Nitrate had built this town and its wonderful architecture. Fish meal sustained it as well as the largest Duty Free Port in Chile. A lot of the town is in decay but a large section is undergoing regeneration and preservation. It will take time but will truly be a Victorian gem when it is finished.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 08:08 PM
April 16, 2006 GMT
(4) Chile: El Norte Grande
Baquedano! What a romantic name for a town that time forgot. Perched in the middle of the Atacama Desert only a short distance from Antofagasta it exists in a peaceful slumber; the desert winds whistling among its ancient buildings. A few hardy folk continue to eke out a living in this godforsaken place.
Most people would pass through this almost inconspicuous town and hardly give it a second thought or bother to lift their foot off of the accelerator if it were not for the carabineros. However, we had a different mission. We knew there was hidden treasure lurking behind the aging facade of the well weathered buildings. We knew this town held possibly the largest, if not the oldest Round House in all of South America. All we had to do was find it.
It was so well camaflouged amongst the ruins that we poked and prodded even though we stood right on top of it. And then there it was. A graveyard of ancient steam locomotives and a Round House that could service upwards of two dozen locomotives, simultaneously. I had never beheld such a wonder anywhere and least expected to find this treasure in this place of all places. Urgently in need of funding and restoration it still provided a visual impact of what once must have been. I fear it will crumble before it is resurrected, on this the day before Good Friday, where death, destruction and resurrection are very much on everyone┤s mind.
This town and this facility were built by Bolivia at a time when this part of Chile belonged to Bolivia. Bolivia lost this area to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1873 and thus lost their Pacific coast access in one single move. Chile possessed all mineral rites, mines, cities, towns, people and ports as a result of this conquest. Further north, in Arica, Chile won this area from Peru in the same war.
Onward to San Pedro de Atacama, the tourist capital of this Norte Grande region. Prices were slightly higher here in reflection of its sole means of survival...the tourist dollar. The place abounded in local, gringo and European travellers on this long weekend.
At Laguna Chaxa we observed an Andean phenomena...that of feeding flamingoes in this intermediate altiplano region that resides at 8,000 feet. Contentedly going about the daily routine, we approached these brightly colored, giant birds and observed them in their environment. Feeding on the over abundant protoazoa and tiny fish that inhabit the saline lakes, their life seemed like an easy one although one can only imagine how they choose to inhabit this forlorn and desolate region over the more tropical climes where they are most often found. The Parina Grande was one of two such birds that inhabit this region.
Valle de Luna was another adjacent area in this region of salars and salt mines. The late afternoon sun played with the shadows making it a photographers delight. Every turn held a new and wonderous image in this 'other worldly' place. Tour buses and tourists abounded in the late afternoon, whereas during the middle day the place was almost deserted.
Back in town, San Pedro de Atamaca has been preserved rather than improved. Rough dirt streets butt into adobe, single story structures that belie the human comforts lurking within. Vehicular traffic is minimal; foot traffic being the accepted norm.
We spent three nights enjoying the company of many motorcycle travellers who happened to be here this long Easter weekend. Visitors from England shared our campsite. They were more or less travelling around the world or at least a part of it. Argentinian and Brazilian bikers roared through town seemingly competing in an Iron Butt Rally this long weekend. The Paso de Jama connecting San Pedro de Atacama with Jujuy and Salta Argentina is now paved reducing this once treacherous, day long journey to a few, high speed hours. When Peter and I passed this way in 1999 we fought high altiplano dirt roads fraught with sand traps and other hidden hazards. We arrived at dark at Jujuy. Salta was unattainable in a day.
The small but well stocked museum in San Pedro holds many pleasant surprises. Choice pottery pieces and an abundance of Atacama preserved mummies will please even the most discerning tourist and archaeologist alike.
It was in San Pedro de Atacama that we met the French family who were staying at the same hostel as us. They were a family of five (5), mama, papa, Anna, Lucie and Peter aged thirteen, eleven and nine. They were travelling the Americas for a year, from north to south. Home schooling their children they travelled with a truck load of baggage, books, corrrespondence lessons and clothing.
Eleven year old Lucie was the most outgoing of the trio. She sauntered into our camp and entertained us with her wisdom beyond her years. She rattled off countries, places and events with the precision of Brittanica. She dazzled us with her calculations of costs and prices in the various countries. I asked her how many suitcases she had. Two she replied without hesitation...one for my clothes and one for my toys. I was staggered. Wise beyond her years she was not too proud to state the importance of toys in her daily life, lest she grow up too soon. Thank you Lucie for adding a new dimension to my day. I added a CANADA pin to her treasures. Hopefully, she will cherish it and perhaps even the memory of me and the few hours we spent together in San Pedro de Atacama.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 10:30 PM
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.
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.
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.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at 10:31 PM