North from San Pedro

From San Pedro I backtracked to Calama then set off via Chiquicamata, the worlds largest opencut mine to rejoin the Panamerican highway. Near Chiqui - on a deceptively long, slow straight uphill road I was set upon by a group of fearsome dogs. I'd heard them barking way, way off in the distance. So distant that I didn't see myself as the cause of the excitement. For about fifteen minutes I watched their slow approach but still didn't consider myself the target. They were a mangy, bedraggled lot and fought amonst themselves even as the neared. Eventually I realised I was in trouble and used my usual technique of going faster. As I sped up so did they. I stop and lobbed a few stones their way. They backed off, but a few minutes later were on my tail again. This time actually snapping at my panniers. Fortunately a passing ute slowed and swerved at them and I had time to reload and hit home with a few well aimed lobs. The dogs turned tail, the driver gave me a friendly wave and drove off. I'd had my excitement for the day, and being too late for the mine tour continued up and over a minor pass before a long straight drop west to the highway. Uuugh, all that downhill into a strong sou'wester. Had to pedal downhill. I hate that.

Near the intersection was an unmanned police checkpoint. Well, unmanned by police. It was sheltering a travelling ice-cream salesman and had a water tank with an external tap. I was in heaven. The travelling ice-cream salesmen were a miracle of the desert. They hitched with their ice boxes between the desert towns, catching lifts and selling to the passengers on the major form of transport in the region - intercity buses. Between lifts they happily sold to passing cyclists! This salesman recognised me from a small village on the Salar de Atacama the week before. Sometimes I'd come across these guys sitting on their ice boxes quite literaly in the middle of nowhere. Once spotted the race was on to reach them before the next bus passed. I was once gazumped within a few hundred metres - Oh the pain! I'd seen a speck beside the road many kilometres before I'd reached it and had been fantasising about the posiibility it was an ice-cream man. It was, but hey, who's going to wait for one ciclista when their are thirty potential customers in the bus.

Geoglyphs appear on many mountainsides, often right next to the road. These ancient pictures were thought to be waymarkers for traders moving between the fertile high Andes and the seaside communities. Some were elegant, others crude. Many featured pictures of llamas, others were geometric designs. I remembered some of the images on the pictured hillside from those awful "Chariots of the Gods" books from the '70s. Quite why advanced extraterrestrials would have visited this neck of the woods was never very well explained. Perhaps they were on a bicycle tour too.

The night before I reached Humberstone was spent camping in a forest, on a salt lake. The unique trees were almost all chopped down to provide fuel and materials for the mining industry. Today they are being replanted by CONAF the Chilean forestry department. The trees spend the first four years of their life barely growing upwards. All their energy goes into sinking their roots deep down to a freshwater aquifer. The campground was gorgeous and empty apart from myself. A few forestry workers from the CONAF HQ across the road sauntered over for a picnic and chat, but being good public servants all used the "not my job" line when it came to my paying the camping fees. The campground fee collector was away so the night was a freebie. In all my time in Chile I was only asked to pay three times at a CONAF campground. One of the advantages of travelling out of season I guess. Actually I hadn't planned to stay the night but after the first shower in days and a chance to wash some clothes and sit in the shade I just lost all momentum and stayed put.

All through the desert remains of Nitrate mining operations are found. Usually no more than standing walls. Humberstone, at the junction of Ruta 5 and the Iquique road, is the best preserved of the abandoned mining towns. It was named after a British engineer I believe. I had the whole town to myself for the first few hours I was there. The town featured an iron clad swimming pool - lined by iron sheet salvaged from the port at Iquique, an art deco market square, houses, telephone office and town hall. All it lacked was tumbleweeds or a De Chirico child with a hoop. Active measures are being taken to preserve the town.
Humberstone pool
Humberstone market

Santa Laura
Santa Laura
Just across the road from Humberstone are the remains of the Oficina Santa Laura nitrate mine - the first established in Northern Chile. It was great fun to scramble around the old buildings.

The nitrates are what's left of ancient sea organisms. One evening I noticed some rocky outcrops with a sandy base and decided they'd be a good place to look for a camp site. Closer up they reminded me of coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef. In the morning a closer look revealed them to be just that. I picked a semi hemispherical rock off the ground and noticed the intricate geometrical latice on its surface. I'd camped in a fossilied coral reef.

The desert supports a surprising number of very big towns. Iquique (picture) is one of them. It started as a port for fishing and to serve the mining industry. As the mines died out it became a duty free port and attracts huge numbers of bargain hunters from the prosperous south on shopping holidays. Unfortunately it doesn't have too much else going for it and its duty free status was under review at the time of my visit. The road to the town drops 800 or so metres down a very steep escarpment. In a region known for its earthquakes I wondered at the wisdom of a single narrow exit road for a whole coastal city. Especially one hemmed in by a near cliff face. Tsunami anyone? Yikes. At the top of the escarpment paragliders make the best of the ridge soaring conditions.

Towns with populations of more than 100,000 in the Atacama include Copiapo, at the southern edge of the desert, Antofagasta, Calama, Iquique and Arica. A number of others have populations greater than 10,000. That's a lot of people for a desert.

Big Valley
Some days, especially in the far north, what looks to be an endless flat horizon was broken by kilometre deep valleys (pictured) that you can't see 'til you're upon them. First sign is usually the "Trucks use low gear" sign by the roadside. That's followed a little while later by an abrupt turn in the road as it drops into a steep sided chasm. Some of these descents are scary, the road but a scratch in a mountainside so steep I couldn't bring myself to look over the edge. The road is lined with memorial crosses for drivers and passengers who have sailed off the edge.

There was always somewhere to find water each day - a lonely police post, or customs posts (thanks to Iquique's duty free status there were customs posts on the road south), small cross roads settlements, large mining towns, truck stops, even, if you're lucky, flowing water at the bottom of those huge and unexpected valleys.

Beyond Arica, the northernmost town in Chile, Ruta 5 continues to Peru or you can take the road to Bolivia as I did. Over about 200km it climbs to an altitude of 4660m at the Bolivian border. In the first 50km it rises only 500 metres, then takes a sharp turn upwards. In the next 16km I climbed another 1100 metres before camping by the roadside. The views were restricted by the terrain. The next day, another 35km of ceaseless uphill saw me reach Posada Maki (pictured - a.k.a. Camping Solar Eclipse, 3200m) where I stopped for tea and ended up staying for two nights. The food on offer was excellent (in my time in South America this was a very rare occurance), the hosts and their young family as sweet as you can imagine. On my rest day they took me to see cave paintings in the next valley, to see the pre-Inca fortress (picture taken from fortress), just around the corner and generally kept me entertained. They had plans to offer Llama treks along a nearby Inca road. This is a highly recommended stop for a passing cyclist. One New Zealander apparently didn't leave for 6 months! As I got higher, cactus began to appear by the roadside and grasses on the flats.

Between Posada Maki and Putre (3500m, 44km) the road is a roller coaster. The scenery changes dramatically. At one point a sad cactus botanical garden is passed - the cactii didn't look to be doing too well. Guanaco and Vicuña are encountered by the roadside. Putre is approached from above and presents a view of green patchwork fields (pictured) - quite a sight after all that desert! Although over 1000m of vertical is climbed. I end the day only 300m higher than the previous night and decide to spend a day in Putre to further acclimatise.
Posada Maki
Near Posada Maki


Llaretta shrubs
After Putre, the road climbs to the Lauca National Park. I saw more wildlife here than anywhere else on my trip. Open grasslands have Guanaco, Vicuña (pictured) and Alpacas aplenty. Rocky Knolls hide Viscachas - they look like large Hares when sitting, but on the move display a long tail and hop like Rock Wallabies. Foxes eye them, hoping for an easy meal. The solid (they look and feel like green rounded rocks) Llaretta shrubs (pictured) dot the hillsides. I stop for a dip in a glorious covered hot spring. By days end I've only covered another 39km and climbed as high as 4400m. Near the hamlet of Chucuyo I stop to photograph Pink Flamingos in a red lake with Alpacas and Volcanoes for a backdrop. I spend the night at an Inn and discover that at this altitude I wake in the night gasping for breath.

On my last full day in Chile and I covered only 25km to Lago Chungara. The scenery was gorgeous, lakes, grasslands and volcanoes. I met a couple of German cyclists heading the other way. Although they had a lot of downhill before them, I hoped they'd take it slow to admire the dramatic scenery. It must also be noted that I had an A+ tailwind helping me ALL the way up, I hope it didn't stifle their freewheeling descent too much.

Parinacota I detoured to the lovely village of Parinacota and once I'd found someone with the key to the church (pictured), admired the fresco that depicts the Romans, escorting Christ and his cross as Conquistadors.

A Llama tried to eat my bicycle and a little girl couldn't understand why there were no pages left in my guide book (I'd been tearing them out as I went). I tore out the last page of pictures left in the book and gave it to her. A minute later her little friends were each wanting pictures from me.

My last night in Chile and I camped by Lago Chungara. A busload of daytrippers arrived from Arica - some of them looked very green. I don't think sea level to 4,500m in one hit was a wise move. They said they'd passed two other cyclists coming up the mountain behind me. I later figured out they were Phil Cross, who I crossed paths with earlier on my trip and Bruce Cuff who I'd meet later. At 4500m it was my highest camp of the trip. By 11.30pm, my 1.5litre water bottle had frozen solid. From this point on I always slept with a bottle inside my sleeping bag.

All text and images copyright Syd Winer 2004