North by north-west

I spent Christmas in Pucón – a very nice place to harbour for the festive season. Hooked a beaut apartment on AirBnB, did several loads of washing, treated myself to a haircut and beard trim, caught up with family and friends via WhatsApp and Messenger, and cooked myself a rather nice Chrissy dinner.

Chrissy dinner: chicken wrapped in pancetta and roasted, roast spuds with tarragon, carrots and peas, and a fine bottle of Chilean carmenere.

From there the plan was to keep moving north through Chile, trying as much as possible not to retrace my wheel tracks but find new places to explore. 

From Pucón, I slabbed it up the middle to Chillán and stayed for a night with the delightful Fernando at his hostal. Fernando is Venezuelan and like all the Venezuelans I have met on this trip so far, he was super friendly and unflaggingly cheerful. His four-year-old daughter was the epitome of cute and seemed to love the little koala souvenir I gave her. I carry one on the bike, and have a stash for handing out to kids and anyone else who I reckon might need some goodwill. Thanks to my sis Linda for that tip!

With the weather warm and sunny, the coast was beckoning so I pointed the WR’s front wheel towards the Pacific. Chile may be a very long country (about 4300km end to end), but it is also very narrow. Unless you’re way down south in remote Patagonia where there are lots of watery bits between the land bits, crossing from one side of the country to another never takes more than a few hours.

First glimpse of Chile’s Pacific coast since my journey started in Valparaiso.

Being summer, it was perfect camping weather and there were many places to choose from. I expected it to be harder to find places to stay, thinking that the Chileans would be all heading out on holidays. But most places were surprisingly quiet and I learned the rush comes later in January, so my timing turned out to be spot-on.

One of the best stops on my run up the coast was at Cahuil, a sleepy little riverside village about 30km south of Pichilemu. The campground was right on the river – my tent was less than metre from the water – with an easy walk into town for supplies and a choice of a few restaurants. Cahuil is only a couple of kilometres from the coast and I could hear the surf booming during the quiet nights.

The place was so nice I ended up staying two nights instead of the planned one. I love this part about my journey, being able to make it up day by day and stop or go as the mood takes me. I even had a shot at my first Chilean parilla on the barbecue that came with the campsite. Must admit it turned out pretty good.

My campsite at Cahuil. Tent right on the river, warm weather and muy tranquilo.
Morning mist on the river at Cahuil.

After Pichilemu I turned inland once more, bypassing the capital and Valaparaiso/Vina del Mar and stopping to camp in Limache and Illapel, where I was once again treated to the amazing kindness and generosity of people that has punctuated this journey.

Camping Arrayan was where I pitched up and it was meant to be a one-night stop. However, when I was getting changed the next morning a back muscle spasm grabbed me pretty hard and I was unable to do much more than lie down flat. It’s an old injury that flares up every now and then, and usually passes after a few days. But in the interim, it is painful and bloody annoying.

Pamela, the owner of Camping Arrayan, was an absolute sweetheart. She offered to run me to the hospital in town (which I gratefully refused) and was more than happy for me to stay as long as I needed. What topped it all off, though, was that she insisted on feeding me for the next two days, bringing down delicious home-made lunches and dinners to my campsite.

I spent New Year’s Eve at Camping Arrayan, not able to do much but serenaded by an excellent band playing what I think were Chilean traditional songs – until 7.30 the next morning. Have to take my hat off to the musos – they played for about 10 hours straight. Tough gig. I reckon the singer would have had to take a vow of silence for some days after to recover.

By January 2, the back was better and I was good to go. When I settled up with Pamela for the camping fees, I insisted on giving her money for the meals but she wouldn’t hear of it. What a legend. She did accept a hug though, and warmly wished me on my way.

Farewell snap with the wonderful Pamela from Camping Arrayan.
This stray perro strolled into Camping Arrayan and kept me company while my back sorted itself out.

From Illapel, I slowly made my way towards the coast again via a great campsite at Vicuna and a cheap hotel stay in Copiapó. I was well into Chile’s Atacama region by that stage, and the landscape is a world away from what I had experienced in the country’s greener south. 

The Atacama is huge, occupying about 105,000 square kilometres or pretty much all of northern Chile. It is also the driest non-polar desert in the world. Excuse me if I borrow a bit from Wikipedia to illustrate that point (the highlights are mine):

“The Atacama Desert is commonly known as the driest place in the world, especially the surroundings of the abandoned Yungay mining town, where the University of Antofagasta Desert Research Station is located in Antofagasta Region. The average rainfall is about 15mm per year, although some locations receive 1 to 3mm in a year. Moreover, some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Periods up to four years have been registered with no rainfall in the central sector, delimited by the cities of Antofagasta, Calama and Copiapó. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.

The southern fringes of Chile’s Atacama region.

Blows the mind, really. But if you think the Atacama is boring and monotonous, think again. The landscape is dry, sure, but quite varied. In some areas the terrain is all plains, slopes, red soil and absolutely no visible vegetation – you could be on Mars. In others, I was reminded of nothing more than the landscape of cowboy westerns, with rock formations and huge cacti galore. 

Then there’s the coastal strip, guarded by the Chilean Coastal Cliff, with treeless mountains in all shades of brown that tower over the blue Pacific Ocean – and often dip directly into it – for about 1000km. It’s a remote and magic place, with a few sizeable towns strung out along its length but many more kilometres of empty beaches, rocky crags, hidden coves and shanty fishing villages.

The Chilean Coastal Cliff butts right up against the Pacific Ocean and runs for about 1000km.

I had my first wild camp of the trip in one of those hidden coves, just off Highway 1 between Taltal and Paposo. Where the coastal cliff is set back a bit and the terrain allows, dirt tracks run everywhere off the highway giving access to the very edge of the continent. I followed one that looked likely and found myself with the choice of a small beach or, a short distance further along, the cove snugged between a headland and some smaller rocky outcrops. I was trying to make up my mind when a local bloke drove by. He stopped to say hello and I asked if it was okay to camp there. 

“No problema acampar,” he grinned and gave me the thumbs up for added emphasis. “Disfruta!”

Disfruta I did. While I could see trucks labouring up Highway 1 as it climbed the coastal range out of Paposo, some houses further back up the range and the lights of Paposo when the sun went down, I felt blissfully alone. I saw no other people for the entire time I was camped and my only company was pelicans and other sea birds, and a few dolphins. I thought I spotted a seal too, but can’t be sure.

My first wild camp of the trip, between Taltal and Paposo.
The view from my tent.
The neighbours.
Plenty of life in the rock pools.
And plenty of fish in the sea.

There’s something intensely liberating and refreshingly basic about just picking a piece of the landscape that you fancy and setting up home for the night. Being able to do it on that beautiful coastline was something I won’t forget.

Still moving north, I veered away from the coast at Antofagasta and struck out for Calama. There’s an interesting place. It’s a mining town, and has that rough-around-the-edges feel that so many mining towns do. The dusty desert air was scented with a hint of sleaze, red mine utes with yellow fluoro stripes filled the streets, and likely lads with an eye for the main chance loitered on corners and in the bars and barbershops.

Looking for a drink and a feed, I ended up in a delightfully dark and dingy heavy metal bar called El Mexicano. The absence of reggaeton was the main attraction for me. This dum-de-dum-dum, dum-de-dum-dum style of dance music is ubiquitous everywhere I’ve been in South America. Those who know me know my tastes in music are pretty eclectic, but if I never hear another reggaeton tune it will be too soon.

In El Mexicano I was collared by Marcelo, a local bloke in his 40s who was well into his cups. He suggested that he practice his English and I my Spanish as we conversed. We traded the usual life story information, then Marcelo launched into a withering diatribe against Chile’s ‘communist government’ and migrants from Colombia and Venezuela (“I’m not racist…”), blaming them for all of Chilean society’s ills as well as his own unemployment and general unhappiness.

I was saved by the manager announcing my burger was ready, so I gratefully made my excuses and headed downstairs to eat. A couple at the bar – also fairly sozzled – greeted me as I wandered past, asking where I was from. When I told them, they shouted “AC-DC!” in unison and fell about laughing. We chatted for a while as I ate, and the manager stuck a couple of Acca Dacca songs on the sound system, giving me a grin and a fist pump as the first notes of Thunderstruck rang out.

Calama is 200km from the Bolivian border, and my plan was to cross and make for Uyuni. But that plan came unstuck when I discovered there was no fuel between these two places. The 430km distance was too far to be comfortable for the WR250R, even with its expanded fuel tank, which is giving it a range close to 400km now.

I motored back to the coast, to Iquique, to spend some time working out a new plan. Sprawled along a narrow strip of coast a couple of hundred kays north-west of Calama, Iquique is a Chilean Surfer’s Paradise. High-rise apartment complexes and hotels line the beachfront, there’s a casino and all the brand-name shopping you could wish for, and a very Gold Coast mix of beautiful people, try-hards and families on holiday.

After poring over maps for a few hours, the new plan was formulated. Head east and cross into Bolivia at Colchane-Pisiga, then make for Oruro. It took me a while to find a cambio to swap my remaining Chilean pesos for Bolivianos, so I was late getting out of Iquique and didn’t hit the border until after early afternoon.

I won’t bore you with the details. It was a long and interminably tedious crossing, not helped by a general sense of disorganisation on both sides and the Chilean customs and immigration people taking a one-hour break right when the queues were at their longest.

About 6pm the WR and I eventually got the nod to enter Bolivia, which scuppered my plan to reach Oruro that day. As I rode through Pisiga, weaving in and out of the enormous queue of trucks awaiting their turn to cross, I was struck by the contrast between the Chilean and Bolivian sides of the frontier. 

Pisiga simply looked and felt much poorer. Buildings were ramshackle or half-built. Discarded plastic bags, bottles and other detritus lay everywhere and was banked up into dusty heaps by the constant wind. Weary-looking people trudged up and down the main street, burdened by bags and boxes, and by the look of it, life itself.

Not wanting to ride further, I looked for a room in one of the town’s two hotels. The nicer one (and I use that term judiciously) was full, so I wandered into the other. The front door was hanging by one hinge and wind-blown trash was scattered across the entryway. The foyer/dining room smelled of sewage and old meat. It was a warning of what lay ahead, but my choices were limited. 

A girl of about 12 showed me to a drab and dirty vacant room, then roused up her mother to open the side gate so I could park the bike in the backyard. That was a blessing at least. I didn’t fancy leaving it on the street overnight. 

Things didn’t improve. The shared bathroom was vile, with a grotty stinking toilet and sinks stained with God knows what. I’ve stayed in some low-rent places over the years, but this was by far the worst of the lot. It was worth every centavo of the 30 bolivianos (about $6) I paid.

I grabbed dinner down the street at a fried chicken place then retired to my room and slept badly before waking at sunrise, packing the bike and getting the fuck outta there for Oruro

It wasn’t the best first impression of Bolivia, but I am pleased to say that things have improved significantly since then.

Just a bunch of llamas strolling down the main street of Huachacalla, Bolivia.

I am in Potosi as I write this, having spent a couple of days in Uyuni to visit the famous Salar de Uyuni. More to come on that in another post. 

And a small postscript: I heard from my Dutch mate Remco a few days ago. He was back in Perito Moreno with the parts to get his stricken Himalayan back on the road. Fabio the mechanic was putting things right, and Remco was about to head for Chile. He sent me another message just yesterday from Chilean Patagonia, and is clearly stoked to be mobile on two wheels once more. I am stoked for him. I doubt I’ll see him again on this trip, given I am a fair way north and he has limited time before needs to return home, but I hope we do catch up sometime down the road.


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2 responses to “North by north-west”

  1. Ann Avatar

    Another very interesting read and an opportunity for this old girl to widen her knowledge of the areas where you are travelling. It certainly makes me appreciate the good people like Pamela who are looking after you so well…ok let’s forget the hotel in Pisiga…it sounds disgusting! Absolutely the wild camping experience looked amazing and the photos with it spoke of the beauty of that area and your lovely neighbours, the birds and fish. Enjoy Bolivia and travel well. Good news about Remco too.

  2. Greg Avatar

    Yet another enjoyable read. I hope the rest of Bolivia is a tad better than what Pisiga had to offer amigo.
    Would you like me to send you an AC/DC shirt? 🤘😎