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December 23rd 2009
Published: December 23rd 2009
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Pictures for this blog entry can be found here for Chile in general and here for gliding in Chile .
I crossed the border into Chile on November 20, I had spent the previous few days in Arequipa, Peru. The border with Chile was a distinct change from all the borders I have crossed, since entering the United States. Man, there has been a lot of borders: Mexico, Guatamala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru before I arrived in Chile. The Chilean border with Peru is out in the middle of the desert, really in the middle of nowhere. But, it was a modern facility, and devoid of the helpers, touts, and money changers that infested most other borders. It was a pleasant experience. The guy that did my moto importation into Chile was interested in my trip and we spent quite a bit of time talking. He was proud of his country, and was full of suggestions as to where I should go. As soon as I entered Chile, it was clear that this was a more prosperous country than most since the United States. Just the appearance of the roads: wide, well maintained, gave the indication that things were different here. Now, that said, Chile is a very long and narrow country: over 5000 kilometers long, and only about 200 kilometers wide on average. The climate varies widely over that distance. The top end of Chile is really just an extention of the desert that started around the Ecuador / Peru border. Called the Atacama in Chile, it extends a couple of thousand kilometers south. My plan was to get across the desert quickly, doing 500 km days or so. Given the lack of traffic and straight roads, this was no big deal. My first night in Chile was really just over the border in a town called Arica, and I continued south from there making time, staying the next few nights in Tocopilla, Chañaral, before I hit La Serena. Now, I had an option to get off the Panamerican Highway in the middle of the desert and head to the coast, and I was glad that I did. There was a road that headed west towards a city called Iquique that I took. I had no idea what to expect. Iquique turned out to be a large port city on the ocean. The road dropping down into Iquique from the desert gave one of the most jaw-dropping views I have had on this trip. Iquique is a fairly large city and the dramatic drop the road has going down into the city gives a fabulous view of this modern port. I didn´t spend much time in Iquique other than to get lost trying to find my way out to the south. I wanted to get some more distance behind me that day. The Chilean government gave this port city in the middle of nowhere a boost by making it a duty-free port, and it appears to have worked, it is a busy place. I continued south along the coast, on another good highway, until I got to Antofagasto, where the highway joins back up with the Panamericana. Just north of Antofagasto, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. This was sort-of a symbolic milestone for me, as from this point, the sun would be behind me as I head south. A strange experience for a northerner.

La Serena is kind of on the border of the hard-core desert and civilization. It is only a day´s drive from there to Santiago, Chile´s capital and largest city of about 4 million people. Around that point in the country, the desert changes from just sand to scrubby brush growing on the sand. La Serena is on a river that flows out of the Andes, and the river valley is fertile and contains many farms, most growing the Pisco grape, fermented and distilled to make a particular brand of fire-water used to make the national cocktail, called the “Pisco Sour”.

I had many hours of bike time just blasting across the desert in northern Chile. The highways were largely empty. I had lots of time to think. My mind wandered, dreaming up new Spanish words based on signs I saw on the highway, such as “Langostinomiento” (lobster parking) and “Cruce de Camerones” (shrimp crossing).

The second day in the desert, I put in my earphones and plugged into my GPS that has an MP3 player integrated in it, and listened to music. One of the things I started seeing was astronomical observatories dotted on the tops of peaks along the way. The dry, clear, climate of the Atacama is one of the best for observatories, along with the absence of light pollution. Many countries around the world have established observatories here, both for the good conditions and to take advantage of the star views not available in the northern hemisphere. The most advanced optical observatories in the world are now in the Atacama desert.

This was on my mind when I discovered that my hostel in La Serena could arrange a tour to an observatory, albiet one designed for tourists. I imagine the scientific observatories have better things to do than entertaining Hank and Gladys on a side trip from a vineyard tour. Astronomy was a one-time hobby of mine, and seeing all of the observatories piqued my interest in seeing some of the constellations not visible from my usual vantage point in the north. The equipment the observatory had was not astounding, just the kind of stuff a back-yard astronomer might have: a few Dobsonian reflectors and one Meade 16” Casselgrain with a computer star-finder. The lack of equipment was more than made up by enthusiastic astronomy guides who really knew their stuff, and by the light pollution-free location high on a hill outside of Vicuña. We spent a lot of time just looking at the sky with our naked eyes while the guide pointed out lots of stuff to us with a laser pointer. I enjoyed it very much.
After four days of hard-core desert riding, I decided I would stay in La Serena for two nights, which gave me the ability to get back to my hostel in the wee hours of the morning after the observatory tour, and not have to worry about getting up early the next morning to travel.

After La Serena, things started to happen. Being a day´s drive from Santiago, the population grew visably, and the highway turned into four lane divided. This also started the highway tolls, every hundred kilometers or so I would have to stop and pay the equivalent of about $1.50. This continued all the way to Puerto Montt. My next stop was Viña del Mar, a vacation community on the ocean just north of Valparaiso.

Viña, as the locals call it, is a town packed full of condo highrises, serving a local market of people who have retired here, winter homes for northerners, and vacation homes for Chileans who live inland in places like Santiago. It is definately an upscale place, full of nice restaurants and expensive hotels. I had a hard time finding somewhere to stay. I had picked four places out of the tourist guide and one by one discovered they were no longer in business. After about two hours of searching, I was hit upon by a tout. I was ready to listen to his story. I wound up renting a three-bedroom apartment on the main floor of a building about two blocks away from the ocean, and pretty central to many restaurants and services. I enjoyed it in Viña very much, and wound up staying 4 days. I found a Suzuki dealer there as well who was able to take my bike in on short notice for some maintenance. I also had the back tire mounted that I bought and had been carrying since Quito, Ecuador. I was glad to get that done, it was one less thing I had to pack up every day. I also decided that when Mariette comes down to visit me, we would stay in this area. Valparaiso to the south is a port town, and the waterfront is all docks and industry. I´m thinking about having Motosan shipped home from there on my way back. I think it would be easy to find a boat headed for Vancouver.

Humberto was the tout that found my apartment was around off-and-on during my stay. He helped me with a few things, and not so much with others. I asked him if he could find me an apartment on the ocean for the month of March. One evening we went off on an expedition by bus to see an apartment. It turned into a gong show. After a 40 minute bus ride, we arrived at a real estate office to get the key, only to discover the office was closed. He said, no problem, we´ll walk over to the owner´s house and get the key from her. After a 20 minute walk, the housekeeper told us the owner was on vacation in China. Humberto has a cell phone stuck to his ear all the time, and I was chagrinned that he had made no preparation for our outing by phoning ahead. Oh well, another allowance for cultural differences.

Rather than ride around Santiago, a city of 8 million people, looking for somewhere to stay, I did an internet search and made a reservation at a modest hotel right downtown. My GPS took me straight there without problem, so my fears of a big-city experience were unfounded. I stayed in Santiago for 4 nights, and explored the town mostly by foot. One exception was a trip just north of town to visit the local gliding club. Quite an experience, it is a large club with about 250 members. They have about 20 club gliders available to rent, and four tow planes. The club operates 7 days a week, and looks prosperous, with many hangars available for gliders, and a restaurant that is open all week as well. I met a number of members, and in fact had lunch with some while there. I then took a glider flight high up into the Andes. You can see pictures in my Flickr site. I met the club president who personally owns a Bell 207 helicopter he keeps at the same airport. In fact, 17 club members have privately owned helicopters at the same airport.

Heading south of Santiago, I was not in a hurry. I had a number of days before I had to get to Puerto Montt, where I had a reservation on a ferry to cruise down the southern coast of Chile. I stayed for two days in a town called Talca. My goal on the way to Puerto Montt was to have a look around the lake and river districts in that area. I wound up spending four nights in Pucon on Lake Villarrica. Pucon is another tourist town on the shore of a nice lake, and sits right under an active volcano with the same name as the lake. The volcano just quietlysteams away, I think the last erruption of any significance was in the early 70´s. The town does have evacuation routes posted though! Apparently there is a lava lake in the crater. One of the major local tourist attractions is to climb up to the rim of the crater, many local tour companies outfit tourists with the gear for the climb up the snowy slopes. The slopes of the volcano also have a ski area on them. One day, I rode Motosan up the ski area road to the snow line, then hiked a bit higher to take some pictures.

My tour of the rest of the lake country was dampened by some rainy weather, as was my arrival in Puerto Montt. I found a hostal, then went out to explore the town, and find the ferry terminal where I would be leaving from. Now, I haven´t trimmed my beard since leaving Barrhead in July, so it is starting to get longer. Getting close to Christmas, there have been a number of comments about “Santa Clause” and “Papa Noel” coming my way. While walking down the waterfront, I exchanged greetings with another man who had a similar beard to my own, which is quite unusual down here. After I had completed my walk south, and returned north, I met the man again. He ran a little shop beside the ferry terminal where he sold furnature and crafts he builds himself from wood. Fernando Conejeros was a very friendly man, and we hit it off at once. I wound up talking with him for an hour or more, and again the next morning when I was waiting to board the ferry. I have a picture of the two of us on Flickr if you want to see two hairy guys together.

The coastline south of Puerto Montt gets pretty rugged, and reminds me a lot of the British Columbia coast. Much of the southern coast is only reachable by water, and this is the buiness that drives the city. The only way to drive to Puerto Natales in southern Chile is actually to go into Argentina, so the ferry makes the travel time shorter, even at 2 ½ days. The ferry was full of transport trucks and tourists. Most tourists were of the backpacker variety from outside the country - my observation was the largest group were Germans followed by Americans, then various others. There did not appear to be many tourists who were traveling with cars. I met another moto traveler on the ferry, Dirk Kruiskamp. Dirk was born in Holland, but lives and works in Germany. He flew to Santiago from Germany and rented a motorcycle for his 7-wwek trip through South America. We stayed at the same hostal in Puerto Natales, and did some riding together, including the Torres del Paine park.

The ferry (Navimag Evangelista) ride down left on a Friday night. The trip reminds me of the inside passage in B.C., just much longer. The ocean channels are bordered by mountains, many snow-covered. There is an incredible amount of scenery. I was actually glad for dark to get a break from it all, it was the only time I didn´t feel obligated to sit and watch it go by. There is one rough bit where the boat must navigate in the open Pacific for about 10 hours. I was ready for it, having been warned, and took my seasick pills earlier in the day. I survived the rough parts well, but saw many others that didn´t.

The ferry had berth accomodation like the sleeper trains I remember from many years ago. Beds along side of a hallway with curtains. The bed was fine for me, and I slept well. The food was included in the ticket price, and was cafeteria-style but quite edible.

We had a few highlights along the way including a stop at a town called Puerto Eden, which is lonly reached by boat. The ferry is the lifeline for this town, and cargo was offloaded and people came aboard and left. There were a number of narrow gaps the boat had to navigate and we were all notified by the speaker system so we could go and watch. We also traveled for an hour or so out of our way to visit a large glacier that dumps ice into the ocean. Somewhere along the way, the winds picked up. In southern Chile and Argentina, they never seem to stop. I was suddenly using clothes that I had carried all the way from Canada without unpacking.

We arrived in Puerto Natales around noon on the following Monday. I followed Dirk to a hostal where he had a reservation and got a room for myself as well.

The Torres del Paine park is the reason all the tourists are on the ferry, and otherwise converge on Puerto Natales. This park is one of the main tourist draws in South America, along with other sites such as the Galapagos Islands, Machu Pichu, and Ushuaia (embarking for Antarctica). I have to admit it is a pretty special place. The mountain scenery there is some of the best in the world. Dirk and I spent a day riding through the park and seeing all the main sites. The roads are all gravel in the park, but in good shape and not difficult by moto. It was a long day, we left at 8:30 in the morning and returned about 7 the same night. The weather wasn´t the greatest, the tops of many mountains were in the clouds, but it was still pretty impressive.

I stayed in Puerto Natales for two nights, then Punto Arenas for two nights before catching a ferry over to the Porvenir on the island of Tierra del Fuego. The trip down to Punto Arenas was on a good road, with howling crosswinds the whole way.

Punto Arenas is on the Straight of Magellan, one of those places you heard about in history lessons. Before the Panama Canal, this place was a hub of activity for boats heading from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

On the ferry between Punta Arenas and Porvenir (to the Island of Tierra del Fuego), I met Arno and Margit Darnhofer, GWRRA (a motorcycle club I belong to) members from Austria. They had their Gold Wing motorcycle and trailer shipped to Rio and have been traveling in South America. This is the first Gold Wing I have seen in South America, and the second one south of the U.S. after a fleeting glance of one in northern Mexico. I was pretty impressed that they drove the notorious Ruta 40 in Argentina, which has something like 2000 kms of gravel, and pulling the biggest bike trailer I have ever seen.

Tierra del Fuego is an island that is divided in half between Chile and Argentina. The roads on the Chilean side are all gravel, but in decent shape for motorcycles. The road from Porvenir to the Argentine border was the longest single stretch of gravel I have done on this trip. I did see evidence of oil drilling on TDF, in fact, I think the only oil activity I saw anywhere in Chile. There was also activity on the Argentine side, including a refinery.

The border crossing was a bit chaotic due to the Christmas vacation traffic, and two bus loads of backpackers that arrived at the same time I did. Nothing particularly difficult, just standing in long lines. I had a chance to talk to other travelers. Arno and Margit were a bit behind me and caught up at the borders.

I made it to the town of Rio Grande on the Atlantic coast of TDF that night. It was still about three hours to Ushuaia, and after the ferry ride that day, the gravel roads, and the border crossings, there was no way I was going to make it all the way.

My next blog will cover my stay in Ushuaia, and my trip to Antarctica.


8th January 2010

John: You really need to write a book on your travels - I commend you for living your dream! You're style of writing makes it so the reader can almost listen to your voice (al la Rick Steves) describing in vivid coloure detail the sights and sounds of South America. I'm glad that Dennis Tomlinson reminded me of your Blog. Happy travels and perhaps we'll listen to more of your adventures at the campfire next summer! Best wishes to you in 2010. Drive safe. Kevin O'Neil

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