Published: January 2nd 2010October 29th 2009
Chilean border post
how smart is this? but note the little portacabin for issuing temporary import licences
For the very first time we see absolutely no differences in landscape as we cross a border - its just one continuous stretch of desert running from southern Peru to northern Chile. To cross the border you need to complete a vehicle transit form in quadruplicate - these are not available at the border you have to get them from the taxi rank in Tacna, the last town before the border!! The border is very plush - its was wooden huts when I passed by 15 years ago and got involved in a tuna smuggling ring. Now its big modern buildings, except for the vehicle import office - they obviously forgot they needed one so its in a little porta-cabin popped in-front of the main building.
Not far from the border is Arica is a cute little coastal town with all sorts of interesting bits and bobs including the iron church designed by Eiffel, prefabricated in France and shipped over to Chile. But most amazing of all are the Chinchorro mummies - they are over 4000 years old!!. From 5000BC to 1500BC the Chinchorro culture actively practised mummification, removing internal organs, drying the bodies out with stone and covering them
inside Iglesia San Marcos - the iron church designed by Eiffel
in mud. They are the oldest known mummies in the world - how exciting and they look much friendlier than Egyptian mummies.
From the border the Atacama desert stretches south for 1000km. We ride nearly 500 miles of it in one day. Its not a flat, sandy desert, its more of a gravel plain and its up around 1000m. The
road is long and straight but every now and then you have to cross a deep valley cut by a river heading from the Andes to the sea. Its early in the day when we pass through so the valleys are still full of clouds. Each time its the same - you descend down through the clouds via a long, steep, straight descent and emerge under the clouds to cross the green, fertile valley floor. Then head back up through the clouds and re-emerge on the sunny gravel plains above. The gravel plains are the perfect hunting ground for geoglyphs and any slope seems to be covered in them including El Gigante de Atacama - the Giant of the Atacama, at 86m its the worlds largest geoglyph. He doesn't look that big when you're looking up at him and
the oldest mummies in the world
he looks very spaceman like.
These plains are also crammed full of nitrate hence all the nitrate mining towns that sprang up in the 1800s, now they are ghost towns slowly decaying in the middle of the desert. At Humberstone there are the workers houses all rowed up, the main square surrounded by the art deco hotel complete with cast iron swimming pool, the theatre and general store complete with adverts for Chilean Nitrate. As Edwin observed the derelict remains are in a better state then some Peruvian villages.
After 250 miles or so we drop down the 800m coastal cliffs to Iquique and take the coast road wedged in the narrow strip of land between huge sand dunes and cliffs to the left and the sea to the right. Its still pretty desolate but there are some impressive views. This road is also dotted with small enigmatic ghost towns e.g. 3 or 4 houses and a hotel at Gatico the remains of a port that operated until the 1930s. A few miles beyond the town is the graveyard next to the sea, each plot surrounded by a decaying wooden fence and each bearing a nameless wooden cross
but each with a colourful flower attached that makes it look abandoned but still loved.
For the last few weeks the boys in the group have all been admiring the Latin American ladies. However, in Antofagasta its the girls turn - the hotel is full of airforce pilots from around the world all in uniform. Luckily I've sewn my SAG (Strategic Air Command) badge from the Titan missile museum onto my motorbike jacket so when I get in the lift with the American pilots they immediately engage me in conversation. Unfortunately they all get out on the 3rd floor.
From Antofagasta to El Salvador its another 300 miles of desert but riding hundreds of miles through the desert is not as tedious as it sounds. The landscape is constantly changing, especially the texture and colour. One minute the gravel plain in decidedly black then you suddenly realise that now its gone pink or now its brown and more sandy. You never seem to spot the transition you are just suddenly in the middle of it. Along the roadside there are regular shrines to people who never finished their journey. Some are really grand affairs and the are all
Crossing the Atacama desert
descending into a cloud filled valley
proudly flying the Chilean flag, due to the dry desert climate they all look like they were completed yesterday. Other 'objects' also suddenly appear out of nowhere - a giant hand, a memorial statue to a local hero, a little church - all in the middle of nowhere.
Up near El Salvador there's a dramatic change in the scenery. The hills are green - not with vegetation but the rocks themselves are really green and the rocks next to the streams seem to be encrusted with a yellowy sulphurous like deposit. I suppose this is not surprising as they have mined copper here for a 1000 years and its why El Salvador exists. The importance of mining is demonstrated in the main square; the statues are not of heroes of the War of independence as in most Chilean towns but are of miners. The hotel is composed of a number of portacabins linked together. Buts its the place to be, everyone comes here to eat and the chef proudly demonstrates his Crepe Suzette making skill in the middle of the dining room - a bit scary when the flames lick the wooden ceiling.
That's the end of Chile,
Crossing the Atacama
emerging from the clouds on the valley floor. Why use the tarmac bridge when there's a perfectly good gravel road?
and 800 miles of the Atacama, for now. Tomorrow we cross the Andes into Argentina. But we will be back, the Andean passes between Chile and Argentina make for perfect riding roads. So no direct route down to Ushuaia for us - but then when have we even done anything the easy way?
PS - sorry about the photos - in Chile they have 'health & safety' - this means that when there are steep drops and hence good views there are also crash barriers - a real bugger when you are trying to take photos from the back of a moving bike.
There are more photos below