Turning to Tocopilla

We end a long drought without a song place by visiting Tocopilla, Chile, place 59 of 92. We pucker-up to a dromedary, wander the desert, explore a ghost town and try to keep our legs from becoming dog food.


Thursday, May 17th

Alright. We’re in Chile. Let’s hit the road.

The first order of business was getting access to power. I resolved to not be confounded by the abstract outlets here again. I stopped by a hardware store to get hooked up.

Ahead of me lay one of the most desolate passages of my whole trip. Maybe the most so since my ride up to Labrador. After filling up in Arica, there would be no access to gas for around 200 miles (it ended up just being 177) through the desert. Normally, that distance wouldn’t bother me too much, but this would be my first tank of Chilean gas. I had no idea what efficiency to expect from it. I had the attendant fill my tank to nearly overflowing and got ready to ride off.

But then I saw it:

A coolant leak.

My emotions were a mixture. Of course I was concerned, but I also felt a ton of relief that I noticed this before venturing into the wilderness. A loose hose appeared to be the culprit, but I was not going to take it for granted. Sometimes a leak from above can collect on the mouth of hose and fool you. Don’t ask me how I know.

I inspected the radiator thoroughly and found no damage. Level was good:

I tightened the hose and decided I would keep a close eye on it. Away we go.

This desert was different than the ones in Peru. There were noย  collections of shacks or much sign of any life. However, there was lots of free parking, which you know I like:

I bet I saw at least two dozen abandoned, derelict vehicles in northern Chile. I don’t recall seeing many in any other country. You would assume that they would just be hauled away and sold for scrap, but the distance to the closest population center must keep that from being cost effective.

Roadside memorials were a real common scene. Even though the road was mostly straight well maintained, lots of people have lost there life on this stretch. Some of the memorials were ornate, having benches or even a little shelter….

…Others were pitifully simple.

There was often a gravel road running alongside the main route and I took that sometimes.

I knew I didn’t have too far to go for the day, so I took my time and got some different media.

(the tread on my tire almost makes “smoke rings” in the dust…really neat)

As I’ve mentioned before,ย  I actually quite like riding through deserts, mostly the peacefulness and the awe-inspiring expanse.

As I got back into the next patch of civilization, I was excited by the first sign I saw.

Tocopilla! My next song place. It had been toooo long since we crossed off a place. Padilla, Colombia was the last one.

I knew I would reach there the next day, leaving me with the afternoon free. With all of the desolation I had seen during the day, I did the only natural thing: Visit a ghost town!

This is the former town of Humbertstone. It was mine and refinery for saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which was mostly used for fertilizer.

The city was built to house workers and their families in 1872. It operated until the 1960s. After it was abandoned everything was pretty much left.

Entrance was about $7, but it was well worth it. I spent all afternoon wondering around the place.

The city was well planned out and divided. In the panorama below, the industrial sector is to the right. The urban, administrative zone (offices, stores, etc.) is in the middle. The residential sector is to the left.

I walked first to the industrial sector.

I saw a sign that made my jaw drop.

Nebraska! I asked a few of the staff people and tried to find something online, but I’m still not sure what this means. Perhaps some of the fertilizer made it to my home state?

The site, as of 2005, is now a UNESCO heritage site. The signage is very good, but it is not overly developed. You are still free to fall into any number of pits. ๐Ÿ™‚

One of the two diesel generators that powered the city.

There are lot of houses and you can go in pretty much any of them. Besides some graffiti, they almost feel untouched.

Being a community this far in the middle of nowhere, they had to be self sufficient. There were offices for a doctor, dentist and numerous different engineers.

Other than feeling like you were on the set of a horror movie and some masked lunatic was about to jump out and kill you, it was fairly pleasant.

Administrative building:

By the time the city was abandoned, they had done quite a bit to improve the lives of the residents there. They even had a nice theater.

The inside has been fixed up, I think.

The swimming pool:

Inside the hotel:

The church was still in nice condition too:

What a neat experience! I wasn’t really planning on visiting it ahead of time, just kind of stumbled upon it. I almost feel like I need to apologize for all of the pictures. There were lots more that didn’t make the cut. The place was photogenic in a very different way.

I met an English/France couple who had bought a Kawasaki Versys 300 in South America. We had a good time chatting.


After that, it was time to get back to what I do best: Find a clandestine place to put up my tent. After paying $39 the previous night, I was set on having a $0 night. Chile is possibly the safest country I’ve been in in Latin America so I felt pretty confident I could find an adequate spot.

The problem in the desert is finding coverage, not just from sight but from the unceasing winds as well. My tent is pretty cheap, so I knew I needed some wind block. I came upon some brush land and started to search for a way in. The ground was a mix of powdery dust and big rocks. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t think I would get stuck.

After some searching, I found a spot that was fairly picturesque and had good protection from the prevailing west wind. Welcome back, maroon cocoon!

My amalgamation of camping gear has been mostly dead weight in Latin America. Though it was absolutely essential in North America, it has hardly been utilized down here. It’s possible that the gear makes up almost half of my total weight and volume, so maybe this chapter would have been better without it. Still, it’s a cozy place and most of my best writing has been done inside here.

I had a pretty terrible night, hardly getting any sleep. The temperature was in the 40s and I think I just wasn’t used to it. Additionally, I have a slow leak in my mattress. I have to re-inflate it every hour or two during the night.


Friday, May 18th

Despite only getting a handful of hours of sleep, I felt pretty energized. I took it pretty slow in the morning since I had another short day of riding.

Getting out of my hidden spot was a bit of an adventure, but we made it without too much trouble.

The road ahead was more wide open desert riding.

I actually got a little worried about gas for awhile. This section ended up being 208 miles without fuel.

The descent down into Tocopilla presented some nice wide sweeping curves.

Tocopilla rose to prominence as a shipping port. Throughout the years, unimaginable tons of resources have made this same journey down to the coast.

I was really happy to be in a song place again. Tocopilla is number 59 of 92. Visiting this place ended a drought of 60 days since our last stop. Too long!

Perhaps fittingly, I got into town right at the same time as the “Russian Circus on Ice.” They were driving around, honking their semi horns, with various Disney characters hanging out of the windows.

The first words spoken to me in song place 59 weren’t really spokenย to me, or evenย at me for that matter. Rather, the were spoken around me as the guy pumping my gas tried to get the attention of his coworker at the next pump.

“Hey! Hey! This guy has got blue eyes!” I couldn’t help but laugh and joke around with the guy. ๐Ÿ™‚

First order of business was finding a place to stay. I ended up at Hostel Altos Cerros. They initially told me $32, but came out and told me $24 as I was preparing to leave. It’s a high price, in the context of this trip, but not too bad for Chile. It was a private room/bathroom with a big TV.

I was able to get my fix of Royal Wedding coverage.

The family that runs the hostel was really friendly and helpful. I got to know all of them to some degree. With Annie secured on a little gated patio, I went out to walk around. I hadn’t done too much research on Tocopilla and just wanted to soak it in.

I’m not sure why, but it kind of reminded me of one of those post-industrial rust belt towns in the US. You can tell there was a lot of money at one point to build lots of things, but the funds required to maintain them have been lacking.

Still, there were signs of rebirth all over the place. Lots of things were under construction and very few properties appeared to be vacant. The city is home to a plethora of industries despite only having a population of 24,000. My hosts told me that there is an ample supply of laborers, but that their workforce lacks professional education. Many of the administrative and technical jobs are filled by Chileans from other cities.

Tocopilla is one of the most ethnically diverse places I’ve been to in awhile. There seemed to be nearly every hue of skin tone represented here.

I stayed in for the night, attempting to get some work done. Unfortunately, the internet was not cooperating. Still, my wonderful room was a nice contrast to my patch of desert from the previous night.


Saturday, May 19th

So what is the picture to represent Tocopilla? I was up early to try to find out.

My first stop was at the statue dedicated to soccer star Alexis Sanchez, who was born in Tocopilla in 1988. In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably note that he used to play for London club Arsenal, the rival of my favorite team (Tottenham Hotspur). I can’t say that I am his biggest fan.

Like many soccer players, he can be a bit….hmmm….dramatic?

I thought it best to incorporate this attribute into my photo:


In all honesty though, he’s a great player. I hope nobody is offended. ๐Ÿ™‚

Tocopilla is known for its large mountains that encroach almost up to the sea. This means that the effective sunrise is about an hour after the real sunrise.

One of the iconic symbols of Tocopilla is the Piedra de Camello (Camel Rock). This will probably end up being the “official” photo to represent Tocopilla:

Other side is pictured at the top of the article.

A little ways to the south is a nice beach. None existed here naturally, so they just built their own:

I came to a stoplight and a guy with a squeegee was sitting in the median. Windshield washers are probably most common type of stoplight entrepreneur in Latin America. As I pulled away from the light, he yelled at me, “Tu falta mi firma!” (You’re missing my signature.) On my way back, I corrected that.

I still don’t know what the rules are for the signing of my bike. I’ve met lots of great people who I’ve neglected to have sign, while other random people have left their mark. In this case, I felt like it would mean something to this guy (Joel from Argentina), so it was a no brainer.

A new fact for me was that Easter Island, home of the famous rock statues, actually belongs to Chile.

A nice statue commemorating Tocopilla’s mining heritage:

What a photogenic place! It felt so good to be back on the hunt of trying to understand and tell the story of a song place. Pretty much the only negative thing I can say about this place was related to their four-legged population.

By now, I’ve encountered thousands of stray dogs along the roads through Latin America. Most are pretty docile and will hardly give you a second look. About 5%, though, seem intent on biting your legs. In Tocopilla, it seemed the opposite. Aggressive dogs were the norm. Here, I had four of them in a row:

Just watch the road and keep kicking at snout level. ๐Ÿ™‚

Back at the hostel I shared a nice conversation over a cup of coffee with my host, Laura. She’d been a big help, so I asked if she would strike Tocopilla from my sign. She said she was honored.

59 down, 33 to go! Nice to be back on track.

One of my favorite things about following the path of this song is that it has taken me to places I never would have visited otherwise. Tocopilla is definitely not known as a tourist destination, but that doesn’t mean it should be skipped over. Like any place, from Schefferville to Diamantina, it has a story to tell. I’m thankful I got to listen to it.

Keep kicking, everybody.



Realtime update: Ahhh….the sweet nectar of decent internet….too long have I been without it. I’ve now made it to Salta, Argentina. Every day is full of new surprises and challenges. I’m still doing well. I’ve got a good spot here, so I’ll probably stay for a few days while catching up and plotting my next course.






Author: BA


18 thoughts on “Turning to Tocopilla”

  1. Thanks for the great posts!

    Your Uncle Arden and Aunt Marcia are best friends! Riding our KLRs from Alaska to the top of South America was on our pleasure list. Instead, we were called to missions in Argentina. Maybe that ride can still be done.

    When you come back to finish youโ€™ll know someone in Argentina.

    Wanted to let you know their power is 220 as well and it is a different plug also. Some modern electrical will work with Chileโ€™s.





    1. Great to hear from you! You have a good choice of friends. ๐Ÿ™‚ I am in Argentina now, currently in Salta. In what part to do live? I’ve already discovered the abstract “diagonal” plugs down here. Crazy….. ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. It’s great to see progress being made again, I’m thankful for your continued safety. BTW, If you ever want to plan a canoe trip to Easter Island, I’m totally in for it.


      1. I’ll start building a canoe just for the trip, although I rarely need an excuse to build another boat.


  3. I appreciate how they captured Alexis’ habit of always rolling up one leg of his shorts. Also, it’s an honor and pleasure to make the blog a few posts back.



    1. I’m soooo glad you read this one. I was hoping to hear your reaction. ๐Ÿ™‚ The statue is really well done. You can tell that they are very proud of him there. I got to the statue early in the morning so that no one would see my questionable pose. ๐Ÿ™‚



  4. The ghost town is so interesting! Great pictures! You look pretty dramatic in this blog too-kissing a camel even! Another place crossed off your list! Can tell you are excited about that! Love you, son! Mom


  5. Brett, though I don’t usually write you a message, just read yours and all the comments, I was intrigued by the Nebraska connection to the nitrate mining in the Atacama. I found this: “Natural Sodium Nitrate, a.k.a. Chilean Nitrate- OMRI listed (15-0-2) is available in a dry, flowable prill form that is also 100% water-soluble. This product is sustainably derived from natural rock deposits found in the Atacama Desert in Chile. ” on a site selling fertilizer used in organic farming.


    1. Great to hear from you! That’s a really interesting piece of information. I’m still sort of baffled about the connection, but it makes sense that some of the product would have made it to the agricultural mecca that is Nebraska. Thanks for sharing that!


  6. Remind me to share our dog story while riding bicycles around the island of Cozumel, Mexico. I found myself trying to lift my legs off the ground as I watched your video…. Enjoying your wonderful adventures. Bev Henke


  7. Hi there, I am a camera operator from Belgium … I was filming all MAY a chilean picture in Tocopilla, and … WE MET … remember . El Tatio, on May 21, close encounter of a 3rd kind !
    You are right to say that tcopilla is a strange place … and I saw statues you showed me and I never saw, spending one full ponth over there, shooting in the city … even that small you still miss things !
    I am keeping following you my friend . make it happen !


    1. Absolutely! I really felt like a celebrity that day! I should have spent more time in Tocopilla. It seemed like an interesting city. I think it would be better in summer too. Great to hear from you!


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