Saturday, January 07, 2006

Antofagasta to ???

These little shrines to the memory of accident victims are everywhere along Chile's highways.

Slept until 10:00 a.m. this morning! I guess I was tired after that little ride yesterday.

I had planned on being up early to take advantage of the internet connection in the room to do some journaling. Asked Reception for an extra hour, until 1:00 p.m., then stayed even longer. It gave me chance to at least post some photos to the blog.

Before leaving Antogafasta at 2:30, had a sandwich and soda at the hotel. Figured I had six hours or so of driving ahead. My goal was to make La Serena, a town Patricio called very beautiful, but expensive. It sounded like a place to relax a bit before a final push into Santiago.

From Antofagasta, the highway turns inland, placing the wind at my back, which was a wonderful change. Cranked the bike up to 80 and 85 mph, making up for the slow start today. After a couple hours, my overall average speed was approaching 65 mph.

Much of Chile's wealth seems to come from mining. The Atacama Desert is covered with mines. Signs mark the turn-offs where lonely dirt roads lead off into distant mountains.

Refueling in Agua Verde, I noticed the rear drive seal leaking and spraying oil on the wheel and tire. I had noticed the smell of gear oil a day or two ago, but hadn't noticed anything obvious. Now it looked quite significant. The carefree miles were nice while they lasted.

In Chañaral, the highway again rejoined the coast. I stopped at a couple gas stations looking for 90-weight gear oil. At the second station, an attendant, mechanic and a couple customers came to lend their opinions regarding the oil leak. The consensus was that the oil level was sufficient to get me to Santiago, "no problem". Reassured, I continued on my way without buying any oil.

After hundreds of miles of barren soil, I now began to notice shrubs sparsely scattered over the sand. Approaching Copiapo the road turns inland along the Rio Copiapo, a fertile valley lined by towering sandy mountains. It's a very dramatic setting. To be suddenly engulfed with the sage-like fragrance of native vegetation and sweet smell of farm crops and orchards was intoxicating. Soon, I started to see vineyards and even a small winery, "Capel".

The sun set as I reached Copiapo. It was nearly 9:00 p.m., but I still had another three hours of driving to reach La Serena. While there was still some light, I tried to maximize my speed, while not blowing out too much oil. But I finally ran out of light and had to back off. Signs warned of deer, something I didn't have to worry about along the lifeless north coast.

It was close to midnight when I came over a mountain top and saw the lights of La Serena below. I was once again riding on the last few liters, coasting down hills. Followed signs to the Plaza de Armas in the town center, but didn't immediately see any hotels. I was surprised at how congested the streets were. Many young people still out "partying". Turned around to try the waterfront area.

The shoreline drive is crowded with hotels, cabañas, condominiums, restaurants and casinos. There was a solid line of cars heading in both directions, and thousands of young people out strolling. It was like Fort Lauderdale, Florida during Spring Break! I drove up and down the beach, checking out the hotel possibilities. Most were full. And even if there were vacancies, the rates were far too high: $85 to $130 for fairly average-looking hotels.

Drove south into the neighboring city of Coquimbo, which seemed to have much more character. A waterfront lined with commercial fishing boats and a vibrant plaza and tourist district with more restaurants, clubs and discos than I've ever seen in such a small area. If I were in my 20s or 30s, this certainly would be the place to come with my friends. But there seemed to be a dearth of hotels, which was strange.

Returned to La Serena and wandered the downtown district once again. It had now grown fairly quiet (at 2:00 in the morning.) I was growing weary of the search, and the idea of "hanging out" in this city was holding less appeal. I decided to just keep driving, to push on through to Santiago, nearly 300 miles south. I figured I could make it there by 8:00 a.m. I had spent so much time (nearly three hours) puttering around the La Serena-Coquimbo area that I needed to refuel before moving on.

The night had grown quite chilly, and the highway between La Serena and Santiago follows the coast for much of the way, assuring that it would be a cold ride. For the first time since Canada (I think), I pulled out my electric vest. Bundled up for a long, slow ride. It would just be an endurance test for the next few hours.

Occasionally, the road would climb into mountains, well above the moist ocean air and this afforded, really for the first time, a wonderful opportunity to look up at the night sky. Far from any city lights, it was an awesome vision, much more amazing than the Northern Hemisphere.

The Southern Cross was high in the east with brilliant Alpha Centauri close by, and westward, Canopus with a fiery blue sparkle. The Milky Way glowed brightly. To the north stood Orion, on his head! In the silence of the night, starlight can almost seem to scream out. It was almost too intense. I hope there will be many more nights when I can lie out under this sky. (I didn't know at the time, but just to the east is the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.)

Reached the town of Los Vilos around 5:30 a.m. and stopped to refuel. Three employees at the service station convenience store were busy cleaning windows and floors, and hosing down the parking area. I was unused to seeing such fastidiousness. It was still dark, but I could see the outline of mountains in the east. I would need light to help fight the drowsiness overtaking me. A strong coffee and a donut helped get me going again.

From La Serena to Santiago, the highway is a toll road, and I increasingly found myself fumbling for change as I approached the toll plazas. My brain was in a fog and at each successive toll booth it became more of a project.

Even with daylight coming on, I had to keep my body in motion to stave off the drowsiness: stamping my feet on the foot pegs, tensing muscles, stretching, talking to myself. The air was frigid, even as the sun was rising, and I looked forward to the moment it would clear the mountains and shine directly on me.

I was just pulling out my weather gauge to check the temperature, when I suddenly entered a mass of warm air, apparently heated by compression as it flowed down the western slopes of the Andes. The ride suddenly became easier.

Rolled into Santiago around 8:30 a.m. and drove to the center of the city. The Andes form an impressive backdrop, with snow-capped peaks glistening in the early morning light. Except for a slight haze hanging above, the city appeared remarkably clean. Drove east along the Alameda, the main downtown thoroughfare, admiring the modern cityscape. Decided I would just ask for directions to the "Holiday Inn" (there must be one here!) I had enjoyed the one in Antofagasta so much, I was ready to pamper myself again.

After receiving directions from a hotel bell captain, then stumbling around for half an hour, I found the "Holiday Inn Express". It was a very new, very "upscale" property, with a price to match: $85. I tried to do better. "Is there a corporate rate?"

"That IS the corporate rate."

"In La Paz, it only cost $8 for a nice hotel..."

"The price goes up to $95 during the week."

"Okay, okay..."

I gave in easily and accepted the $85 rate. ("I'll stay here a couple of days, while I look for something more affordable.")

But I was able to check in early, get cleaned up, then take advantage of the breakfast buffet.

After driving in excess of 850 miles, it felt great.


Drew Kampion said...

A great chapter, Tim! Beautiful weaving of the various threads -- impressions, psychology, information -- something for every brain!


Those 85.00 hotels have a way of wringing out the more expensive postings....

timtraveler said...

Mr. Kampion,

That's quite a compliment and honor coming from YOU!!!


timtraveler said...

Mr. Paynter,

What do you mean?



I mean that was a truly top posting....not that all your posts are interesting...but the story of driving 850 miles had it all-- drama, back ground, scenery and in the end--salvation for your sacrifices. Easy there Timbo--just trying to rationalize the expenditure of $80.00 more than Bolivian hotel....true, the hotel costs more, but yet you seem to have much richer writing material in Chile as on my man.

timtraveler said...

I get it! (Did you mean to say "expansive"?)

Thanks for your kind remarks!



Whoops, typo I meant "not that all of your posting aren't interesting".....I have a friend here from Mendoza, and I have a friend from Philadelphia living in Buenos Aires.....Keep on writing...the pictures are fabulous....