Friday, January 06, 2006

Arica to Antofagasta, Chile

A river carves its way to the coast south of Arica, Chile.

Holiday Inn Express, Antofagasta, Chile

At 8:00 a.m. this morning, back in Arica, the sun hadn’t been up long, but it was already warm. It was so nice having the sound of the ocean to soothe me all night!

On the road by 9:00. Fueled up and asked directions south, then took off. Enjoying the cool breeze as the highway ran through fertile farm country, past groves of olive trees, fields of corn and pumpkins. It reminded me of California. But after half an hour of blissful riding, I began to sense something was wrong. I was heading east for too long. Stopped to ask a young fellow directions to the highway south. He pointed back where I had come from. I was way off track, having missed a key turn in Arica. (The gas station attendant, as they often do, just told me to keep going straight.)

There are many theories about the civilization that created this ancient petroglyph.

After a one-hour deviation, I was on the correct highway, driving south. And the landscape was very different: this is the "Desierto de Atacama", a lifeless expanse of sand, rock and rugged mountains. But the air was cool, with a stiff crosswind blasting in from the Pacific.

To me, this region is reminiscent of the southwestern United States. Unlike the U.S. though, I wasn't seeing gas stations! Counting my little detour, I had driven 170 miles, and not a single one. (Though I was sure that if I became desperate there must be some 55-gallon drums of gasoline out here somewhere.)

Once again, I found myself trying to stretch out the fuel, going easy on the throttle, and coasting down hills when possible. The wind had taken its toll, and earlier I had been sailing along carefree. I was on my last gallon when I turned west for Iquique. The city was 27 miles away, and my range was about 40, so it looked like I was okay, though a bit too close for comfort.

Along the corridor to the coast, billboards advertise new cars, electronics, Swiss Army Knives and sunglasses. Apparently Chileans have more disposable income than those in other Latin American countries, and they are being heavily marketed to.

The relative affluence was obvious too from the cars: though most are modest (Toyotas, Nissans, Hyundais, etc.) many are new. And I started to see Mercedes cars, trucks and busses. This looked unlike any other Latin American nation I've seen.

Reached Iquique and refueled. Gas station attendants clear the pump and draw your attention to the "zeroed" meter. Then they give you a receipt, even if you don't want it. But forty cents to use a toilet and $1.50 for a "Coke" came as a shock.

I'm adjusting to the new currency "on the fly." About 500 of these Pesos to a dollar, so you learn to take a price, knock off three decimal places and double it to get the dollar equivalent. And no one even inspects the currency when you hand it to them. They simply trust it's not counterfeit. Wow, this is a different world!

Approaching Iquique, you first arrive in an upper suburb (where I stopped for gas.) But continuing down the highway, you come to the edge of 1,500-foot bluffs overlooking the beaches and city below. A couple of hang-gliders were launching off the bluffs and drifting overhead.

Sand dunes at Iquique

The city is backed by mountain-sized sand dunes and descending the highway cut into the bluffs, the views are spectacular. I would have very much liked to stay here tonight, but I had come less than 200 miles from Arica, and I was counting on some big travel days to get me to Santiago quickly. Today, I had set Antofagasta (the name I can never remember) as my goal: another 250 miles south.

The city of Iquique, Chile backs up to huge sand dunes. (According to Max Mills, this dune is called the "Dragon Hill", and may be the largest sand dune in world.)

After dropping into the city, I had to take another drive back up the bluffs just to soak up the views one more time. Then I drove a loop around the Iquique, riding the waterfront as much as possible.

Chile is holding a presidential election in the next ten days, and banners of candidates Piñero and Bachelet line the parkways.

South from Iquique, the highway follows the shoreline, much like California's Highway 1, but unlike that shoreline, this one is devoid of any vegetation. It is incredibly harsh and barren, almost as if being on another planet. At the same time, this brutal terrain is amazingly beautiful. The soils, rocks and mountain slopes are painted in a broad palette of colors, from deep umber and rust; ochre, copper and rose; to bright red orange. Against the blues of ocean and sky, the contrasts are striking.

The Pacific winds lift sand thousands of feet, sweeping it up the face of this coastal range. And beneath the cliffs, vast fields of rubble and huge boulders dwarf passing trucks and buses. What a meeting place of the elements!

I found myself stopping often, sometimes to photograph the scenery, sometimes just to gaze in disbelief at this land, and wonder at those who came to build mines, highways, bridges and ports here.

Reached Antofagasta, the city whose name - even when I remember it - I cannot pronounce, around 9:00 p.m., (twilight time in this part of the world!) I had been on the road about twelve hours, traveling 500 miles.

In town, I kept to the coastal boulevard, hoping to again find a nice little beachside resort. But this is a bigger city, with a well-developed waterfront. Just for fun, I stopped at the "Holiday Inn Express" and inquired about room rates. $75. (Ouch! I'm longing for Bolivia again.) They said I would find cheaper hotels in the city center, "but it's more dangerous." ("You haven't seen dangerous!")

Down the street was a "Radisson". Again, just for fun, I asked the rates. I think he said it was $110. "Okay. I'm back in the States again."

But I didn't want to spend two hours looking for a hotel. It had been a long day on the road. I went back to the "Holiday Inn" to negotiate (plead) for a better rate. We agreed on $55. (I rationalized it by telling myself I had done three days' worth of driving, so I could pay a little more.)

I've decided I would have no trouble adjusting to a lifestyle of the "rich and famous." I do enjoy the comforts of a nice hotel room. A cart to carry all my baggage, elevators, wi-fi, BIG TV, air conditioning, fluffy towels and a big clean bed!

After heaping everything inside the room, went for dinner at the "Puerto Bahia" restaurant right across the street from the hotel. Tried the fresh corvina, with "Astral" cerveza from Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine, Chile.

In the "Holiday Inn Express" garage in Antofagasta were parked three BMWs. I thought my bike was loaded down!

REALLY loaded!

I was considering "borrowing" a tire. They had way too many. (I like the socks hanging off the back!)

(I never did meet the riders. They were gone before my 10:00 a.m. wake-up call.)


Anonymous said...

If you had panned the camera to the right, so as to remove the water, it would look just like the images being beamed back from the Martian lander....wild.

Dicky Neely said...

It looks like Mars with an ocean!
Looks like the previous comment is on the same track.
See ya

Anonymous said...

Look--Water on Mars!!!!!!!!

timtraveler said...

You got that right! A brutal, lifeless landscape, but truly awesome at the same time.