Monday, December 22, 2008

Caldera and Vallenar to La Serena Dec 18 -22

Leaving Caldera I decided to take a couple of off-road detours along the coast. The 200 km of dirt through Torotal and Corizal Bajo to Huasco was beautiful. I had an excellent lunch (congrio, a kind of eel) in Corizal, where some of the locals insisted that I share their bottle of wine. They also told me about the main industry in Corizal, collecting algae to sell to the Chinese and Japanese for use in cosmetics.

This was also the day that I saw the first real greenery in weeks. It might look like scrub brush to you, but after a thousand miles of desert it looked like a tropical rain forest to me!

On the 19th I decided to take another detour, along to coast to Punta Choros. I had been told it was good dirt, then a little bit of shallow sand, then dirt again. It was to go to Parque de Pinguinos de Humbolt, where I thought I could spot some penguins on the shore.

The dirt part was great. But then I hit SAND, and if there´s one thing bikers (at least this one) don´t like it is sand. This was truly deep doodoo, and on grades.

The first time the bike went down I had a hell of a time getting it back up. Fortunately there was some drunk (the only person for miles) lying under a cactus. He had tried to get me to pay for going to the beach, which I declined. I hiked back up to him and got him to help (promises of $$), and back on the road. Interestingly, he wouldn´t take any money from me for helping lift the bike.

A few hundred meters down the road, down I went again. Fell on my leg. After lying on the ground going through the routine ´leg´s not broken, arm´s not broken´ etc. I stood and This time got the bike up OK.

A few kilometers more and down she goes again. This time on my foot. Same routine, counting fingers and other extremities. I came up one short, but then I remembered that I have been one short for 30 years, so no new damage! This time I had to take all the luggage off and really struggle to get it back up. Took about an hour. Just as I was leaving that spot, about 20 yards further on, down she goes again! I just stood there and screamed OH F**K at the top of my lungs. I think they heard me in Peru (although they didn´t come to help). I eventually muscled it back up and semi-duck-walked to reach the hardpack.

All the while I kept telling myself: This doesn´t happen to me. This is my friend Oisin´s story (this stuff always happens to him) and I want out of it!

Anyway, I rode on to La Serena with a seriously sore ankle, knee, and back, where I stayed for four days, taking it easy and popping pain pills. Fortunately nothing serious.

As an aside, as I was riding into La Serena I saw this sign. I´m not sure if it was a veterinary hospital, a brothel, or simply some bad translation, but it certainly conjured up some interesting thoughts!

I also have to make a comment, and thanks, about Tonino motors in La Serena. I needed a new chain and sprockets while there. The chain was shot. I went to Tonino and he had a chain and front sprocket, but no spare rear. However, he had just gotten in two new KLR650s. He took the rear sprocket off of one and put it on my bike so I could get back on the road. This meant that his bike was out of commission. Now that´s service!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Middle Chile: Antofagasta to Caldera Dec 15-17

Searching for a hotel in Antofagasta was interesting. Although it´s a major city, it was very difficult to find anything. At a stoplight I pulled up next to Robert and Shaundra Vinet, a couple of Canadians on a BMW, also looking for a place to stay. After looking together, we were able to find one room with three beds. If you think politics makes strange bedfellows, try motorcycling! Actually, they were a very nice couple and we rode south the next day.

Riding south from Antofagasta was -- are you ready? -- more desert. Then, suddenly, a few hundred meters off the road we see this, the Hand in the Desert:

It´s just there, in the middle of nowhere. Now why, you might ask, would anyone construct a giant hand in the middle of the Atacama desert. A very good question. Personally, I think it´s the mummy of a giant alien being that was improperly buried, and his hand was left sticking out of the sand. Other than that, I have no idea... but it is pretty cool!

I spent the night in Taltal, a little coastal town of no particular interest, then got off the main highway to visit the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar (Sugar Bread National Park).

The northern entrance was a dirt road, but really pretty with many canyons and cliffs and incredible colors.

Then you arrive at the ocean, and more fantastic views. There was actually some plant life here, too, and after more than a month of nothing but sand I was thrilled to see something living. I even saw a fox cross the road, the first wildlife in a long time.

This place was so pretty I did something I haven´t done yet on this trip: I decided to camp! Although I have been carrying a tent and camping gear for months, I avoid using it like the plague. In Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru camping is neither common nor safe. However, I still much prefer a bed and a hot shower. But this time I spent the night on the beach, and enjoyed it.

A big part of the enjoyment was meeting Alberto and Ana Vargas, who were the only other campers in the area. Fortunately, Alberto is a Chilean chef, now living in Spain. We went to the next town, bought food and wine, and had a great barbeque... Alberto cooked and I poured. We all have to do what we do best!

From Pan de Azucar I went to Caldera. It was here that I finally saw a doctor about my breathing problem, and found out that there is a microscopic mite in that part of the desert that excretes a protein that many people are allergic to. This was evidently what was causing my sinus infection (damn them little buggers), and a course of antibiotics, decongestants, and antihistamine cleared it up. Unfortunately the little bastards had caused me to miss Bolivia.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

San Pedro de Atacama: Great Stuff in the Middle of the Desert - Dec 10-14

San Pedro de Atacama is located, as you might imagine, in the middle of the Atacama desert. More miles of desert before arriving at the town. Along the way, aside from sand, are many open-pit mines. Copper is a major income source for Chile, or at least was until the bottom dropped out of the market due to the current global economic crisis. Also, there seem to be more street dogs here than I´ve seen anywhere... which is why many people also call it San Perro de Atacama (for those who don´t speak Spanish, learn it!)

The first night I rode to the Valley of the Moon at sunset. Hundreds of like-minded people were there to watch the sunset, and we all climbed up the sand dunes for a good view. It was also at moonrise, and it was supposed to be the brightest full moon in 150 years due to the proximity of the moon to earth. As you can see, it was a bright moon, and the land is truly a surreal moonscape. I went back two nights later at 2 am with a group from my hostel after a very successful ¨wine tasting¨ (lots of wine, not much taste), but that´s another story :)

The next day I rode to
LagoChaxa, the the flamingo preserve. Pink, white, grey... seems they´ve preserved all kinds of flamingos (if you´ve never had flamingo preserves on toast... oh, forget it). This lake is actually in the middle of a large salt flat, miles and miles of table condiment in which the brine shrimp that the flamingos feed on grow.

The following late afternoon, after all the tourists busses
had gone, I rode out to Lago Cejar. I had been warned that it was very hard to find the lake, as there are only a couple of tracks through the desert and no road signs. This was very true, but it was hard-packed desert and I had a lot of fun dirt riding through it. Finally arrived at the lake, paid my entrance fee (it might be the middle of absolutely nowhere, but they manage to put up a hut to collect money), and had to rip off my clothes to take a short swim. This is a very salt-laden lake, so you´re supposed to float very well. Also, since it´s in the middle of the desert, I assumed it would be warm. Wrong! I really don´t know how well I would have floated. It was a quick in-freeze-out, then rinse and get dressed. The desert really gets cold and night. On the way back I had another fun ride, despite the fact that couldn´t find the trails. Fortunately, GPS worked fine and I just kept heading in the direction of the town for the planned wine tasting referred to above. No further details to be provided.

On my last day in SP I rode to a set of thermal springs for a swim. Not as hot as I would have liked, but a relaxing day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chile... Arica & Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama- Dec 5 - 11

Desert. Desert. Desert.

At last I had reached Chile, and the end of the Peruvian desert. Only to find (actually no surprise) that now I was REALLY starting the vast Atacama desert of Chile.

Sand and wind were to be my constant companions for at least a couple of weeks more!

On occasion I did get the company of a friendly ¨dust devil¨. Other than that, the only things in this part of the desert are open-pit mines... mostly copper.

This part of Chile does not attract many tourists. Can you imagine why? I spent a few days in Arica, mostly doing errands, then headed to Iquique to visit some people I had met in Peru and then head down the coast. Iquique is surprising... it´s literally at the end of the road in the desert, but is actually quite pretty. It was built for mining, and there are many old 1800´s buildings still standing.

The coast is pretty, in a very rugged sort of way, with the desert leading right down to the water.

Also at this point my helmet busted. I was upset because it is so comfortable, but what can you do? I gave it to my friend´s son Noah, who immediately decided that he wants to be a motorcycle rider when he grows up. I understand that he now sleeps in it! Noah, we´ll look for you in the next Dakar race.

Leaving Iquique I headed down the coast, and then across a few hundred more miles of desert to San Pedro de Atacama. Even though it was more sand, some of the colors coming into San Pedro at sunset were spectacular.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Arequipa: Last Stop in Peru - Dec 2 - 4

Arequipa is a pretty colonial town (are we seeing a pattern here?). It was a few days to unwind and take care of errands. Also a good chance to eat, as it has an abundance of good (and ethnic) restaurants.

One of the more interesting things, however, was visiting ¨Juanita¨. Juanita was an Incan girl sacrificed to the mountain gods about 5o0 years ago. She was found frozen by some arqueologists a few years ago, and they have built an incredible museum dedicated to the find. At the end is Juanita herself... still frozen in the ice, but now in a glass freezer.
Arequipa was my last stop in Peru. Since Bolivia had been scratched, it was now on to CHILE.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Plans Change: Scratch Bolivia; Sillustani to Arequipa - Dec 1

I was planning on going to La Paz, Bolivia, and then on to cross the Uyuni Salt flats into Peru. Mo and I had talked about doing this together since riding across the Uyuni alone is not considered to be a particularly bright thing to do. Unfortunately, Mo was probably partying somewhere and couldn´t find his typing finger: I hadn´t heard from him for more than a week, so had been having some concerns about riding this particular stretch alone.

But when I woke up in the morning health took the decision out of my hands. I was having a lot of trouble breathing. Remember, I was at more than 12,000 feet altitude and there is about 40% less oxygen there. I was feeling panicky from lack of air and felt like I just had to get to a lower altitude... FAST. La Paz is even higher than Puno, so that wasn´t going to do it. I had also wanted to see Arequipa, so there was some consolation to the sudden change of plans.

Aside - Fast Forward on Health: I found out a few weeks later (yes, this continued at lower altitude) that the problem wasn´t lack of oxygen. A local doctor in Caldera, Chile, examined me and found that I had a sinus infection. My nasal passages were so swollen I couln´t breath. It was probably an alergic reaction to some things in the desert, and antibiotics, decongestants, and antihistamines cleared it right up.

After leaving Puno I stopped at the town of Sullistani. The homes around here are different than other parts of Peru.. very interesting. Made of rock instead of adobe, and generally round. Lots of llamas outside.

Many had a special place for raising cuy... roasted guinea pig. Looks real cozy until you realize their ultimate destiny.

After the village I visited the pre-Incan funeral towers that make the place famous. These people were incredible engineers. They formed the blocks in such a way that they have withstood centuries of earthquakes. The blocks are even different sizes so that they won´t set up a harmonic vibration... ingenious!

Leaving Sillustani, back in the village, I came across a parade. Lots of local color, and men parading around as bulls. Everyone was very enthusiastic until the heavy rains started.

The ride from Silustani was again across the Altiplano, mostly at 13,000 to 16,000 feet. It was barren, lots of llamas and vicunas, and COLD! Just to make sure I wouldn´t be too comfortable, someone threw in some high winds and rain. It was the first time on the trip that I had to break out the electric jacket and gloves, and was I ever glad I had them!

Finally arrived at Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru, fought the traffic, found a hotel, a HOT shower, and had a great Turkish dinner. Go figure!