October 05, 2011 GMT
Episode V: Huasco to the desert

Leaving Huasco, we left behind the first hotel we stayed in so far this trip...it is so lovely to sleep on a bed, and not have to do contortionist acts just to get dressed in the morning.


On sound advice from our friends in La Serena, we decided to take the coastal road from Huasco north (rather than the highway again). We were assured that we would see plenty of the desert flowers phenomenon there. In fact, people around the country take time off just to travel through to see this - given that it only happens in particularly rainy years. Although I enjoyed cycling on quiet (paved! Hooray!) roads, I must say though, the best bit was actually a few days back where we camped right outside of La Serena. All in all though, I counted 18 types of flowers - not quite the 800 species that the signs at the national parks told us about, but I was pleased with myself!

There were some helpful signs to tell us what else to look out for along the road...


Sadly we came across our first bit of rain on the trip...note the drip of water from my rear mirror...Luckily it was really only a drizzle (we´re used to much more back home!) and did not last more than the morning.


We didn´t stop much along the coast. Went through a ghost town (Puerto Viejo) to refuel. It was scarily quiet and empty. Everything was shut. The roads were deserted and the houses boarded up. Could not figure out what was going on at all. In the end a lady took pity on us (as the dogs were barking our arrival), came out and took us to a shop that she knew, banged on the door and we managed to get supplies that way. Bizarre.


The discrepancy of these houses to those we have seen in cities and rich areas emphasizes the wealth gap between people. We even spotted ingenious ways of building...must be kinda cool to step into the ground floor of the house, aka the truck!


On further cycling we met our first fellow cyclist this trip. A Chileano! He was just doing a short hop for three days...but I´m sure he had almost as much stuff with him as we did for six months!! This shows the typical scenery from those days...fairly empty roads, and not much sunshine on the coast.


We arrived at Bahia Inglesa after three days of free-camping, to an actual organised campsite with hot showers!! Hooray! It really makes you appreciate being clean...

With all this cycling, we still had much of the north to cover, and time is running short for us. We had set an articifical limit for ourselves to turn southwards by the end of October. At this rate we are not going to make it. We had some serious soul-searching to do. Should we, or should we not...cheat???

We decided that it was the only way that we could cover some distance quickly. After being cold-shouldered by the bus companies - who said that we couldn´t get bikes on the buses - we rode to the side of the motorway, stuck our thumbs out, and crossed our fingers! Truck after truck went by. The drivers honked, and shrugged their shoulders. They looked genuinely sorry that they could not help - especially the huge petrol tanks! One actually stopped, was going almost to our final destination 8 hours away...walked round and round his truck and scratched his head to see if he could tie the bikes on somehow. Alas it was not to be. After only half an hour of trying, we managed to get a ride. The guy spoke no English, and our Spanish is poor. He chucked his son behind the seat to make room for us! Both looked at us curiously but did not attempt much conversation. We did not think to get a proper picture before he left us in Chañaral - 80km away - a full day´s ride for us.


Whilst I was dancing about at the side of the road, waiting with crossed fingers for another ride, Alejandro the truck driver was having a nice old chat with a mate and noticed us. They whistled us over and soon both Alex and Alejandro were circling the truck again to see how we could get the bikes on. This was a HUGE truck. He was carrying a pre-fabricated house up north. Each of these cost about 20000 pounds apparently...and the guys who commission these will build a town with them...who has the money to build these??


We managed to squeeze the bikes in front of the house and hopped on.


Alex sat in the front, with a beady eye in the wing mirror on the bikes, whilst I sat on Alejandro´s bed behind the driver´s seat!


As these drivers spend a few days on the road at a time, they have a bed, a toilet, and a gas stove! Alejandro was a chatty driver, and through many gesticulations we managed to have a conversation. We spent about 2 hours on the road before he pulled over to bed down for the night, at a truckers´ stop on the side of the road. We toddled off with the bikes and found a spot to put up our tents - hoping against hope that the truckers will be able to see the reflective strips in the night and not run us over!!

In the morning we missed our alarm, and instead of the normal 2 hours to pack up and go, we had 45min before Alejandro was leaving again. Let me tell you, we have never moved so fast!!


We did it however, and I was rewarded with a cup of hot coffee in the truck as he boiled the kettle again just for me! Another three hours or so passed. Our Spanish was getting more and more impressive. We talked about our families, jobs, the global financial crisis and unemployment, politics between China and Taiwan (!)... Amazing how much we can understand with a phrasebook and a sympathetic ear (who kept turning around and looking at me and not the road - but showed his skill avoiding huge potholes in the roads with the truck!)

We were set down at La Negra, a worker´s town. We tried to find a shop to buy bread and milk. Nada (nothing). There were just huge trucks and mining plants. All the workers are fed in their canteens, and needed for nothing. The only food shops sold junk food such as cookies and cakes, fizzy pop (they´re very fond of those here, there´s just about every colour under the sun!) I saw the biggest tyres in the world at the petrol station!


We pedalled to the coast - Antofagasta - the second largest city in Chile, to rest and refuel. The next day, headed back inland to start our journey to the Atacama Desert proper. The first bit was s-t-e-e-p. On that first day, we managed to ride about 80km and up 1200m in elevation. Quite an achievement with 40kg of bike and luggage, I think! We passed through the Tropic of Capricorn...


The desert view was quite something. The vastness made me feel very insignificant indeed. Kind of like the feeling that I get by the roaring sea.


Camping every night out on the desert was lovely. The stars were incredible. With our new-found knowledge from the Mamalluca observation tower tour in Vicuña, and Google Skymaps, we enjoyed pointing to stars and trying to figure it all out.


It wasn´t easy to find shelter from the sun in the desert. Every now and again there would be a monument to someone who had unfortunately died on the road, or a shack for water pipelines, or even a large advertising sign. We´d hide in the shade for a few minutes and have our lunch or a snack bar, before braving the sun again. This kind trucker let us hide behind his truck whilst he did some essential repairs.


He also made sure that we had enough water before heading off again. Everyone takes care of each other out here. I was very aware of our water consumption, and how quickly I felt thirsty again. Trying to ration water was just not possible and we pedalled hard to get to the next refuelling stops. We arrived at Calama on day 3 and made sure all our bottles and water bags were full. It took us about an hour to fill and filter all this!! Sadly, not long after this picture was taken, the Camelbak died an untimely death, having fallen from the bike and split open. That´s 3 litres and counting!!!


Another sad event - our stove broke. On our final day on the road we had a cold supper :-(
The biggest problem now is to find a replacement or replacement parts...

Just before arriving in San Pedro there is a fantastic downhill for a few kilometres...it was a job to keep an eye on the road and enjoy the view as we sped our way down...


This place is also not flat like the other bits of desert we´d travelled through...


Four days later we finally arrived at San Pedro de Atacama. We had cycled 80-90km every day...uphill! The drivers on the roads were generally friendly, and frequently honked to show support (some trucks have such a loud honk that it frequently scares me off the road!!) Some people took pity and spontaneously offered us lifts. One fantastic driver gave us an entire packet of our favourite cookies out of his window of his moving car!

Here´s an interview of me whilst cycling...it was a bit impromptu and I had no time to think about a script...

San Pedro is the most touristy place we´d been to yet. It´s supposed to also be one of the most expensive places in Chile - after Santiago. Unfortunately we have to stay a few days to sort out the water carrying and stove issues. One thing we have found out - there is very little outside of Santiago - there are adventure shops here, being a touristy, adventure place, but shopkeepers shake their heads sadly and say "Santiago" when we ask about stoves and large water bags. Hmmmmm, only a 24hour bus ride away. We´ve ordered some parts from the UK - only to be told afterwards that one merchant sent something which took a month to get to Chile. Still considering what the best option is. In the meantime, today we´re having a chilled day. Finally. I´ve even put on a skirt so no cycling for a few more hours anyway!!

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Posted by Ping-Yi at October 05, 2011 07:45 PM GMT

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