November 24, 2008 GMT

Chile. It fascinates me that two countries next to one another can be so different. With no prior knowledge of Chile I expected it to be like Peru - but its not. Things are proper in Chile, just like back home. Chile has proper houses - made from proper bricks. Chile has proper taxis - not pedellos, motorised tricycles or Daewoo Tico's. And most of all - in Chile people drive properly, with courtesy and indicators. Chile feels relaxed and laid back. Its really peaceful compared with more northern countries (dare I say Peru). I attribute this to two things - drivers only toot their horns if they have good reason (which is pretty rare) and buses have proper exhausts (rather than just a length of pipe). Driving here is relatively stress free. I must confess to a transition period when I first crossed the border, carrying my Peru bad habits with me - my finger was never of the horn.

Chile also means jet lag - its two hours ahead of Peru. This actually works really well, with daylight lasting until 8-30pm rather than 6-30.

Heading south into Chile I cross the Atacama Desert - there really is no alternative. The Atacama stretches from the border right down to La Serena - four days riding and 1200miles of next to nothing. Although its a desert its not all sand - there are big rocks. Most of it though is gravel - just like you find in a quarry. Greenery is non existent. Its also not particularly flat - in places its fairly mountainous with the road taking in swooping bends and occasional hairpins. However on the whole its fairly dull. I sit with the bike at 70mph - 400miles comes easy in one day. Traffic is minimal, other than the occasional truck - quarrying and mineral extraction is big business here. Its also nigh on devoid of habitation - running out of gas (petrol) would be a real possibility. I have to make a 30mile detour at one point just to fill up.

However rising out of the Atacama are the towns (cities?) of Iquique and Antofagasto. The approach to Iquique is special - you arrive at the top of a massive sand dune with the town stretching out on a coastal plain below. The road then makes a 1mile diagonal cut down the face of the dune to get to the coast - impressive. Iquique scores well as a popular beach resort. For the first time I am finding hotels fully booked with surf dudes - a reminder that its heading towards summer here. Iquique also allows me to purchase bike insurance (3rd party) - its a good feeling being legal again (oops!!).

After La Serena I make a detour inland from the main highway in search of greenery. Its there in the shape of vineyards. Wine is the only thing that I know comes from Chile. Fruit growing is popular also. They sell cart loads of strawberries in the street - the biggest berries I have ever seen. Inland also brings a rise in temperature from cool to pleasantly warm.

Just before Santiago I stop on the coast at Vina del Mar. I dont expect much, but it turns out to be extremely up market and affluent - very nice. And then Santiago - the capitol. Santiago provides the last opportunity to fettle the bike before the last push to Buenos Aires. I get new tyres and a new chain fitted - 9,000miles on my last set of Kenda's which was pretty good. The new chain will provide me with reassurance (hopefully) while in the wilds of Patagonia. Chile is well represented with main stream bikes - large bikes are relatively common here. In Santiago there is a whole street dedicated to bike shops - it makes things easy. I stop in Santiago for 4 nights to explore. Its a really nice modern city, although not particularly photogenic. Its flanked by the snow capped Andes - unfortunately obscured by mist for most of my stay. However the climate in Santiago makes up for it - blue skies and high temperatures requiring the wearing of shorts. Getting around is easy - the modern metro system costs 380 pesos (38pence) for travel anywhere. I like Santiago and add it to my list of nice places to stay.

After Santiago the landscape changes. It gets very green, starting with vineyards and then forestry and then farming. The countryside is rolling hills - it has a strong European feel. Possibly even Scandanavian in places. By Puento Montt, its the start of the lakes - the coast here feels just like the West Coast of Scotland. I have to keep reminding myself of where I am.

My plan is to stay in Chile as long as possible before crossing into Argentina. I have had reports of volcanic activity closing the town of Chaiten - it's at the start of the Carretera Austral and on my choosen route. Bypassing Chaiten will mean a two day ride through Argentina. However, thankfully, once I check with the ferry company (Naviera Austral) they advise that I can take the ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten and continue south okay. The ferry is very reasonable - 36,000pesos (about 36GBP) for both me and the bike on a reasonably long 10 hour crossing. Unfortunately the boat is delayed due to bad weather - we eventually sail two days later. The ferry is more landing craft than luxury yacht and the 10 hour journey is actually 12 hours. However the highlight had to be the 'in flight' entertainment - the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Honestly.

Chaiten has been hit by volcanic activity. The town is now abandoned and eerily ghostly - at least at 6-30 in the morning. There is a covering of thick gray ash everywhere while the volcano merrily hisses steam in the background. I head off south, in the knowledge that I have 260miles to cover on gravel roads before the next town. This is the Carretera Austral. Unfortunately after only 90miles the road is closed due to construction (road works). Its 3pm before I can get through and 10pm before I get to Coihaique. Thankfully daylight stretches to 9-30pm here.

Day 2 of the Austral is a further 240miles. Two long days on variable gravel - some parts are reasonably good, others pretty rough. 25mph is the best average I can manage. However the scenery here is pretty spectacular. The lakes are the bluest I've ever seen. The weather is perfect - if a little too hot. I'm wearing my waterproofs to combat the dust so sweating ever so slightly.

The Austral finishes and I head for Chile Chico, a delighful town on a lake just before the Argentinian border. My last night is in a hospedaje - I'd call it a bed and breakfast. I've seen lots on my travels but this has been the only one that looked habitable. It was really nice and excellent value, even if I did get locked out until close to midnight!!

From here its on into Argentina. Chile has been pretty good - very normal and just like home. Easy to like. I'd recommend it.

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Posted by Graham Shee at 10:59 PM GMT

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