With the enduro ride behind us, we bid our farewells from our new amigos in Tongoy and headed for Pisco Elqui. The practical off-road experience proved invaluable almost immediately. The pavement opened up into technically challenging dirt that a week previous would have surely seen me take a fall. The trail took us over a mountain range and through piles of sand as roadworks were constant. The harsh conditions left us alone on the road, except for a brave cyclist. His stamina was insane to be at such an altitude. We descended through grape fields that hosted a plethora of rich colours, marking our arrival into the Pisco Valley. After a tumultuous six hours we arrived in town, finding a campsite a mere stones throw away beside a stream. We setup our tents beneath some stunning weeping willows, which unbeknownst to us dripped sap, bugs and spiders. Attempting to sleep, it was quite disconcerting looking up as these giant dark and murky patches slowly engulfing my tent.
The next morning while Nathan undertook some bike maintenance, I attempted to wash my clothes in the river. This was rather difficult as I can barely operate a washing machine, let alone a bar of soap. Across from the main plaza we found ourselves in front of the famous Mistral distillery. Tours were half price during the special pisco month of May, and so for $6 we were treated to the history of pisco and its distillation process. To finish the informative tour, we were given a few tastings of various aged piscos, learning to appreciate the fruity flavours that they presented. We also were given a free pisco sour in the restaurant that overlooked the surrounding grape fields. With our newfound love for pisco, we truly were turning into Chileanos.
After spending the better half of the next morning waiting for my clothes to dry and attempting to get rid of all the creepy crawlies from my tent, we finally hit the highway to La Serena. Turning north on the coast, the winds picked up immensely as we rolled over the hills, our heads popping in and out of clouds. My heated grips weren’t enough to fend off the cold and the accompanying misery. The asphalt transformed into dirt and then sand as we neared Punto de Choros, dodging bulldozers and 4WDs in our endeavour to reach the town before nightfall. Pitching the tents 10 metres from the ocean, I played fetch with a stray dog as the seabirds circled overhead and the last of the fishing boats returned to shore.
As we bought some fuel-like mixture from a local fisherman at the dock, we witnessed small groups of tourists heading out to the hazy islands in search of nesting penguins. Knowing that the active season was well behind us, we bypassed the tour companies and got the hell out of the sand. The road wound along the coast, the compact dirt beneath us flying by as we opened up the throttles. Naturally it turned to absolute shit. Hairpin turns, steep inclines and a sandy surface littered with rocks. Keeping the bike upright was a nightmare, made all the more nerve-wracking as we skirted the edges of cliffs. My muscles ached and begged for reprieve, but we had to push on, with no space to stop or risk almost certain demise. Despite all the dicey moments, we endured, with no falls to write home about. The final stretch to Huasco saw us zigzag down the mountain, with panoramic picturesque views. Stopping briefly to refuel, we were a mere 30 minutes away from where we had planned to wild camp in the desert when tragedy struck.
Heading out of the provincial town, a street gang of a half dozen dogs gave chase. Nipping at our feet, we picked up speed to try and lose them. The pack that had me gunning it were soon left in a trail of dust, though one determined canine was still hot on Nathan’s wheel ahead. When he too finally pulled away, the tenacious dog took up its qualms with me, pelting down the road in angst. My mistake was respecting the dogs survival instincts and general intelligence, believing it would continue to my side before it too would be left behind as I maintained my speed of 50 km/h. However, as the dog came within 1 metre of my front wheel, it foolishly took a 90 degree turn and subsequently went straight under it. With zero time to react, all I could hope for was to hang on. But the bumpy ride proved too much, and after a few sideways bounces of my wheel, the bike slid out from underneath me, hurtling me violently forwards onto the bitumen.
I landed hard, using my outstretched hand to take the impact and tearing holes in my boot, tent and side bag in the process. Nathan was instantly aware of what had transpired, copping an earful of swearing through the headset. He helped me get the bike upright, fortunately starting up again readily. With the dogs nowhere in sight, I sat down on the side of the road to let the adrenaline subside and check myself for injuries. Two local women who witnessed the incident helped me out, acting as nurses and providing me with an ice pack for my disturbingly discoloured and swelling ankle. An ambulance soon arrived, and as they rolled out the stretcher I realised that the nightmare of an insurance claim was a far worse ordeal than what I had just encountered, and so vehemently refused. We holed up at a hotel conveniently located 50 m down the road and began to numb the pain with beer, both as cold packs and down the gullet. I had pretty significant pain in my knee and wrist for the month following, though thankfully it’s now but a distant memory. I don’t know what happened to the dog in the end, but I hope it turned out better than I did.
After the long night of tending to Ciaran’s injuries, we decided it would be best to keep moving. Partly because where we were staying was much too expensive, and that getting back on the bike is the best way to overcome any lingering doubts. We continued our ever northwards journey along the Chilean coastline towards the town of Caldera. Our route took us along a very bumpy and winding dirt road with constant views of the ocean, and the gusting winds to go with it. From the commentary I was hearing, Ciaran’s wrist wasn’t enjoying the journey. Arriving in Caldera, we found an empty hostel to take over and promptly set off to find ourselves a late lunch.
We discovered that Caldera is a large seaside fishing town as we walked past the dock with scores of brightly painted fishing boats. Our hopes for fresh seafood were dashed as we remembered that it’s currently the off-season and very few shops are ever open. Instead, we stumbled into some sort of fair where we watched groups of children performing traditional music and dances.
We stayed in Caldera for a couple of days to give Ciaran’s injuries some extra time to rest, and for our washing to dry in the overcast weather that had been with us since Punto de Choros. Our next stop was to be the city of Antofagasta, our last along the coast before heading inland. However the distance was too far to make in one day, and the prospect of a long day on the highway instead did not entice us. So instead we planned to camp somewhere along the road about halfway to Antofagasta, we assumed somewhere nice would pop up.
The roads took us further away from the coast and reminded us of exactly where we were – The Atacama Region. I don’t remember seeing any wildlife during the ride, and plant life was just as scarce. That said, the landscape still proved to be incredible.
We returned to the coast at the town of Taltal and decided we would go a bit further along before stopping for the night in a hopefully protected area. The coast was an impressive array of mountains falling away directly into the sea interspersed with rocky outcrops and small sections of sandy beaches. We rode along the coastline slowly, keeping our eyes peeled to try and find the perfect camping spot for the night. We settled on a small area that sandwiched our tents between two rock walls, to hopefully provide enough cover from the winds during the night. While Ciaran investigated an oil leak on his bike, I setup my tent and then sat back and watched a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Living on the east coast of Australia, I haven’t had the chance to see many sunsets over the ocean, so I relish any opportunity I get.
Rising late in the morning to a delicious breakfast of bread and jam, we set off along the coast road that seemed to stretch on forever. Occasionally we had a glimmer of sunlight to tease of the warmth we could be feeling; instead, the howling winds took over again. The winding road eventually came to an end and we began to climb up and over the mountains that straddle the Chilean coastline. We climbed high and finally peaked our heads out from under the clouds to find ourselves back in a desolate region of the world. But, it did make for some nice photos.
The road into Antofagasta was a long winding downhill path that seemed never ending as we weaved around truck after truck. Eventually the coast line came back into view, and with it, the start of Antofagasta. In this region of Chile, there is about 20 km between the ocean and the closest mountain range, and in between lays Antofagasta. A thin, but very long stretch of civilisation, somewhat similar to the Gold Coast in Australia. We spent two nights in a very odd hostel/hotel with a giant billboard on the roof advertising rooms. The owner was very keen to show off his Harley Davidson to us after walking through his house to get to the garage. Our time in Antofagasta was spent replacing my well worn front tyre and exploring the town and hardware store. Antofagasta has an impressive fish market where we tried our 2nd meal of ceviche, even more delicious than the first.
Our last major stop in Chile was San Pedro de Atacama, however, we had 2 options of getting there. Our Harley riding hostel owner suggested taking the highway to Calama and onto San Pedro – “only 3 hours” he said. We quickly decided on the alternative route, a very faint road marked on the map once you zoomed right in – perfect(ish). Before setting off we grabbed ourselves some spare fuel and topped off at the last petrol station before commencing the trip to San Pedro. The road we had chosen started off very poorly as we rode through a small fence opening off the highway onto a terrible dirt and sand road, It took awhile, but eventually we made it to the first salar of the driest place on earth. The route we were on took us along the southern limit of the desert before heading north along the eastern edge to San Pedro. It was at this very south-eastern point that we made camp for this night – in the backyard of a store owner in Peine.