If one looks at a map of Chile you realize that it is almost 6,000 kms, tip to tail and after almost 9 weeks of riding, plus an occasional hitchhike and short bus ride we had covered only 2,800 kms. If we are to get to Columbia in 6 months we will need to cover some ground. Luckily Chile has an incredible bus system. Cheap, comfortable, reliable and frequent plus, for a small fee they will squeeze our bikes on. (Yeah! Jim is taking the bus without my insistence ….and fancy they are, some with wifi and even fully reclining seat/beds.)
Our ride along the coast had got us to Cañete, a vibrant market town and home to an important Mapuche (indigenous peoples) museum. It was a cool stop but ill conceived lighting that emulated the low lighting of traditional Mapuche housing had us struggling to read the explanatory text. We stayed for two nights in a humble B&B that promised, at first glance, a comfy stay. The hosts immediately invited us to have ‘onces’ with them, the typical light dinner of Chile but for the 2 nights we stayed the racket of dogs, roosters and late night carousing made for some poor nights sleep (more savvy people use ear plugs-CH).
Despite the negative reviews from some Chilenos we met, we took the bus to Concepción, Chile’s second city and major port. Chile’s history has left a divided country on political lines, with a big left/right split. My simplistic assessment of Chilean politics along the line of Allende = good, Pinochet = bad doesn’t apply on the ground. Concepción represents the left and is largely off the tourist route, we enjoyed it and stayed a couple of days. We ate at the fish market, wandered the university campus (needing some maintenance) and hung out downtown listening to the frequent karaoke buskers. We then took the long, 8 hour bus ride to Valparaiso, a more tourist friendly port. At a brief stopover I hustled off to get something quick to eat. I got back just in time to see the bus pulling out with a frantic looking Claire hanging out the door (I had things under control – CH).
From the bus depot we loaded up the bikes and rode to our decidedly down market, but great stay at Carolina’s place (I.e., a room in her small apartment with shared access to the kitchen, bathroom, etc. booked through AirB&B – we much prefer this sort of arrangement to a hotel). We should have known by looking at the map to her place that it would be hilly but we were not prepared for pushing our bikes up a 30% grade. The town is a warren of roads, staircases and funiculars all built on a steep hillside surrounding a few streets of flat ground along a congested waterfront. Wandering the alleys of upper town I thought this would be a perfect place for one of those urban downhill races one sees on YouTube. Lo and behold Valparaiso is host to the most famous one – check out the insanely intense winning run at the 2018 Red Bull Valparaiso downhill . The town is dirty, rife with dogs, dog shit and in sad need of maintenance but also an artistic hub with music and fantastic murals everywhere. We liked it.
From Valparaiso we got back on the bikes for the 3 day ride to Santiago which was, how should I put this………’divertido’. We got great beta on getting out of town on back roads but struggled to find a place to camp later that day. When we finally found Camping Pelumpen it looked great, quiet and spacious but the urban hordes descended later that night and partied till 4 AM. At 5 AM, our nemesis, the ‘teros’, a large pigeon-like bird, started squawking. We call them ‘tero-istas’. The next day it was up and over the Cuesta La Dormida, a 1150 m climb. The grade was doable but relentless and the heat bearable but we were done in by the top. A fast rip down the other side of the pass to Tiltil for a ‘lost in translation’ lunch wherein we ended up being served a loaf of bread with some olives on top. The final push in sweltering heat on a garbage strewn road to Lampa was a bit much. Despite being the size of Squamish there was NO accommodation in Lampa. Some store owners, Deli and Patricio, whose kids were away on vacation, kindly invited us to their home…..another fine example of Chilean hospitality and our good luck.
The next day was into Santiago (pop. 7 million). Riding into big cities is rarely fun and this one involved a 20 km traverse of the city. We got off to a bad start being misdirected by a driver into a highway interchange that we escaped by riding through a dank, garbage filled pedestrian underpass that led into some rather sketchy neighbourhoods. Nevertheless as we progressed things improved and thank God it was Sunday so the roads were not the usual mayhem. In fact every Sunday they close one of the major thoroughfares to traffic and it was an unexpected delight to suddenly be riding with hundreds of other cyclists in glorious weather on a tree lined boulevard through the heart of a modern city. Our heavily laden bikes stood us apart from the crowd but the vibe was all about inclusion and empowerment….it was very cool.
We arrived more or less as planned at the home of Alberto and Veronica. Their son Vicente had done a 6 month student placement in Squamish with a colleague of mine who suggested we contact Vicente’s family. Despite our tenuous connection we were received with open arms. The evening of our arrival Alberto cooked up his amazing paella, the best we’ve ever had. We stayed 3 days and got a small taste of life in Santiago courtesy of Vicente, a very mature and bright young guy (17) who also must be a very strong mountain biker – he won his qualifier and was awaiting acceptance in this years urban downhill in Valparaiso, every mother’s nightmare! The juxtaposition of life behind walls and assorted security measures so typical of Latin America and the friendliness/kindness of the people is hard for us to understand. To put things in perspective Vicente told us he no longer rides from his home. He recently lost his expensive bike to five gun wielding thugs. We’ll have to be less naive!
Our big challenge has been to figure out how to get over the Andes to continue north into Bolivia. All the passes north of Santiago are well over 4,000 M for which we are not acclimatized and would be absolutely foolhardy to attempt. We decided to take the 18 hour bus trip north to the mining centre of Calama in the heart of the Atacama Desert then another bus to the tourist town of San Pedro from where we could catch a final bus over Paso Jama to Argentina and then have a more gradual climb into Bolivia. The bus left Santiago in the morning and as we headed north on the Pan American highway things got progressively drier. The last stretch from Antofagasta on the coast to Calama was otherworldly. Monochromatic, barren and utterly lifeless, reputedly the driest place on earth. The remnants of abandoned mines, the indelible footprint of man’s assorted intrusions on the desert and the litter strewn highway made for a grim landscape but nevertheless fascinating for a waterlogged Squamaton.
At present we are now in Pumamarca, Argentina, a funky little town surrounded by multi-hued geography. Tales of the desert around San Pedro (beautiful) and our haphazard crossing of Paso Jama will have to wait.