Our journey continues as we visit the stunning sights of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. We get to see flamingos, geysers and vicuñas….and Annie reminds me that she is not a dirtbike.
Saturday, May 19th (cont.)
Full of thankfullness, that we’d gotten to experience another wonderful song place, we put Tocopilla behind us. If you’ve got two lanes, you might as well use them:
Our goal for the day was to reach San Pedro de Atacama.
This city is the main jumping off point for seeing all of the interesting things that lie within the Atacama desert. I wasn’t going to be spending too much time in Chile, but I knew a visit to this area would be a great experience.
I was maybe getting a little tired of the dead straight roads through the desert landscape, so I decided to take some of the little service roads that run parallel to the highway. Tocopilla supplies all of the electricity for the surrounding area, so there were plenty of little paths.
I immediately questioned my decision. This was not the nice packed earth I had been on a few days previously. This was dusty and powdery terrain. I decided that I should get back on the main road. “I’ll just go over this little hill first.”
In hindsight, there was no way I was making it up that, especially with my street tire on the rear. This is not classified as a “crash,” since I had plenty of time to jump clear. However, Annie landed in perhaps the worst possible position. Lifting her in this position would mean lifting uphill. Time to get creative:
This lift had to be done by the handlebars so that I could engage the brake. Otherwise I would have just dropped her again.
By this point in my trip, I feel like I could write a book about getting a heavy motorcycle “unstuck” from sticky situations. Despite her medium engine size, Annie tips the scales at a hefty 480 lbs. For comparison a BMW R1200GS (nearly twice the engine size) is only about 70 pounds heavier at 550 lbs. Add to this my luggage which may be 200 lbs. (I still need to measure it all at some point), and you have quite a load. My back was definitely sore for a few days.
I still had to get her turned around on the dusty incline which led to one more drop.
I did a pretty good job of keeping my language PG-rated, and after about 20 minutes we were finally back on the road without too much drama. I still need to do some repair to the side case, but this didn’t end up being too bad. However, Latin America has been pretty rough both for Hank and Johnny:
With most of the bad judgement out of my system, I continued on and had an easy ride to San Pedro. On the way I finally found a bed that I could afford in Chile:
No wifi though. 😦
As one nears San Pedro, the views get more dramatic.
The Atacama Desert holds the distinction of being the driest desert in the world. It lies at a relatively high elevation (2,400 m, 8,000 ft.) between two mountain ranges.
My home for the next three nights would be La Casa del Sol Naciente. Lodging is really expensive in San Pedro, but they offered a camping spot for $8/night. Oh boy! My very own shanty town!
The temperature range seems to be the same pretty much every day: High of 70F (21C), Low of 40F (4C). Most of my winter gear had been packed away for months. It felt like old times to be bundled up wearing two thirds of all my clothes for the night. 🙂
Sunday, May 20th
I spent most of the day trying to get some work done. The internet speed was really slow, so this was quite a task. Uploading one of my gifs (the little moving pictures) took about 10 minutes a piece and would fail about 30% of the time. Despite this obstacle, I got quite a bit done.
One quick question: How do you cat owners ever get anything done? It’s like they know when you have work to do and wait until then to be overly-cuddly.
In the afternoon, I felt like I had just enough daylight for a trip out. One of the things that I really wanted to do was to see flamingos. I made my way south to Laguna Chaxca, which is just about an hour south of San Pedro.
As I got closer, the topography transformed mainly into salt:
The area was really beautiful. There were little paths through the salty terrain.
I’ve hiked on quite a few paths during this journey, but this was definitely the first time that I tasted the ground on which I was walking. It was some high quality stuff!
One of the flamingo’s preferred foods is a little crustacean called the Brine Shrimp which lives in these salty pools. They are a good source of beta-carotene, which gives flamingos their pink color.
I learned quickly that these birds are very tough to photograph. They spend most of their time with their heads underwater, looking for food. As soon as they sense you snapping their photo, they hide their heads again. 🙂
I got a few decent ones though.
I spent a lot of time just sitting on the ground watching them. I had a moment of clarity when I just started repeating to myself, “I’m in Chile, looking at Flamingos.” It was almost as if I had to keep reminding myself what a special moment this was.
Maybe flamingos have a reputation of being a dainty, delicate bird, but any animal that survives in these conditions definitely earns my respect.
I probably stayed later than I should have, leaving just before sunset.
Just another unforgettable experience.
Monday, May 21st
The flamingos were to the south. Today I would be going north to see geysers at El Tatio. At 4,320 meters (14,200 feet), it is the highest geyser field in the world. To put that in context, this is almost the same elevation of the highest PEAK in Colorado. The Andes are no joke.
The classic experience is to be there at sunrise. The colder the ambient temperature, the more dramatic the steam. I was hesitant to ride on the road there in the dark, so I began my 90 minute ride at sunrise.
The way there was pretty miserable. It was cold, of course, but the sun was actually the biggest problem. I was riding right into it nearly the whole way. The road was rough and hard to read with my vision obscured.
The last 20 minutes or so were slow crawl over washboard terrain. I don’t think the video quite does it justice. It was a “shake your tooth fillings loose” road.
I did see my first vicuñas since Peru. These are wild relatives of llamas.
I rolled up to the site feeling worn out and questioning my decision to take such a punishing road. Fortunately, my spirits were lifted as I became an instant celebrity in the parking lot.
It’s a bit hard to explain: Sometimes no one pays me a second glance, sometimes I am the center of attention. I think there’s definitely sort of an echo-chamber effect, in which when a few people gather around an exponential number seem to be attracted.
In this parking lot I encountered people from all over the world who had taken tour buses up to the site. I was called a “hero” and made new friends from France, Belgium and Brazil. If nothing else, the encroaching throng helped warm me up. 🙂
The entrance fee, $16, was a bit tough to stomach, but I could tell right away that it was going to be worth it.
It almost felt like being on the surface of another planet. Another truly dramatic sight. In hindsight, the timing of my arrival was quite good. Shortly after I arrived, all of the tour buses departed.
Hot springs upon arrival:
About half an hour later:
I spent some time soaking in the sulfur-y water. There were just a few other locals by that point. The water wasn’t as hot as I would have liked, especially considering that the ambient temperature was probably still in the 40s. It was at least worth a tentative thumbs up though:
Another good thing about being later in the morning was that all of the security personnel left. I could roll Annie up anywhere I wanted.
I couldn’t help but thinking what a strange collection of circumstances led to me seeing the geysers in the Atacama before I see those in Yellowstone. Life is strange.
I saddled back up and prepared for another beating. I actually left the road for awhile to try to avoid the washboards.
I saw tons of vicuñas on the way back.
Eventually I stopped taking pictures of them and started yelling at them to get off of the darn road. I also saw some more flamingos and countless salty lagunas.
I got back to San Pedro around 2pm. Honestly, I was almost ready for bed. I probably should have gone out to see more things in the area, but I was exhausted from my ride. I spent the rest of the night getting some work done and planning for my pass over the Andes, into Argentina, the next day.
I met a lot of great people at this hostel. A German couple were really friendly and told me I should definitely ride home. A nice Chilean guy offered me weed multiple times, in utter disbelief that I had never tried it. A guy on a bicycle from Sweden had never heard of Swedish Egg Coffee. This is actually the normal response from a real Swede. 🙂
I knew my time was coming to an end in Chile, but I still felt very poorly equipped to offer any real evaluation of the country. There’s so much that I didn’t see or experience that will have to wait until….all together now…next trip. I think I will enjoy it a lot more at a stage of life when my budget is not so limited. It’s an expensive place, at least by Latin American standards.
For now, the Andes and Argentina beckon. I’ll answer the call in my next update.
Keep spouting, everybody
Realtime update: Still in Salta. Three days, three updates. He’s on fire!