The power had been shut down for the night. In the darkened hall, my hand slid along the second-floor wall, guiding me around the corner to the men’s bathroom. I took a look out the window into pitch-blackness and uncountable stars above. Somewhere below, our bikes sat in the freezing dirt under laundry lines with some chickens and an old rusty truck. Orion hung upside down in the sky to my northern eyes. We were just inside the border of Chile, at Colchane. The morning would be here soon enough and volcanoes would emerge outside this same window. We would descend the western slope of the Andes, touch the northern edge of the Atacama Desert, and end up on the coast.
I was looking forward to seeing this region, and dropping down to a reasonable elevation after existing so long at altitudes above 3,500 meters (~11,500’). We had been cold and short-changed on oxygen for many weeks, and it would be good to warm up a little and breathe normally again.
In the morning, we pulled on our cold-weather layers and started across the dry western Andes. The road rose and fell between high volcanic peaks in shades of red, brown, and black, with only a thin covering of brush and sparse grass to betray the traces of water found here. Our goal was to make the Chilean coastal city of Iquique, which took us on a descending route southwest to the ocean. Curving around peak after peak, we were like tiny insects on bikes, weaving between gigantic pylons. Once through the cone maze of the Andes, we started down a long valley and then emerged from the mountains onto a long slope high above the desert floor ahead. The broad apron of rocky debris that we descended, spewed from the high Andes, merged with others to the north and south, forming a broad slope continuing to the west. There was nothing on this gradual ramp of rock and gravel save for an occasional concrete marker, the rusted wreckage of cars and machinery, and the road itself. All else had been left behind, leaving us with nothing but the mineral world, no animal, no vegetable, just two tiny travelers and what we carried across this dry, earth-tone planar world. The landscape simplified into rock, sand, and air, and the view seemed vertically cropped or compressed, leaving the eye with only the horizon to rove in search of something, anything new. The temperature rose rapidly as we descended, and by the time we leveled out the sun and heat had us longing for cool air. Once again by changing our elevation we had simply traded one extreme for another.
We were on the northern skirt of the desert. I had studied my geography before we got into this area. Considered the driest desert in the world, there are places in the core of El Desierto de Atacama, still well to the south of us yet, that have seen no rain since record keeping began in 1570. No rain at all in over 440 years. NASA is using this area to test instruments on the Mars landers for water and biological activity, and they turn up neither here. If you hold an orange or red filter up to your eye, no surprise – there you are on the red planet. And it was hot.
As we neared the coastal mountains, we came alongside a small hill, and a sign pointed out El Gigante de Atacama, a huge petroglyph of a man, etched out onto the hillside very much in the same manner as the Nazca lines. Surface rocks had been scraped aside, exposing the lighter sand underneath to draw a shape in the earth. It turns out that this is the largest petroglyph of a man-figure in the world, at 119 meters (390’) tall. The lines extending from his head are indicative of the seasonal positions of the moon.
We turned southward toward a town with fuel and ATMs, to refill both our tanks and wallets. Having spent so much time in poorer countries, where just being able to buy gas was a relief, we were in for a huge surprise when, once we had milked a bank ATM of Chilean pesos, we found the Promised Land: gasoline in three different grades, a mini-mart with air-conditioning and two more functional ATMs, and every snack and drink imaginable. The restrooms were out of another world: toilet seats, hot water, soap, and paper towels – “…a four-point restroom!” For months we’d been happy with restrooms scoring one point or two. We grabbed some sandwiches and sodas, and sat there laughing in the cool air, overwhelmed by the sudden abundance afforded by being back in a strong economy. It was like the US again, and the higher prices did nothing to dispel the illusion.
After our indulgence of cash, fuel, and food, it was time to head just a little farther west to Iquique. The land forms a kind of shelf as you approach the ocean, and the highways drop down to the coast through gaps or gulches that funnel you downwards to sea level. The wind off the ocean is channeled through these gaps, and we were blasted by the rushing headwind until we turned north along the huge dune-like slope that runs parallel to the beach. A long grade took us down, down, down to the ocean in one smooth grade. The air forms a powerful updraft along the slope, creating a never-ending slide of air for hang-gliders and parasailers to play on, extending for miles and miles above the city. The last 1,000 meters down into Iquique was taken in one long unbroken grade along the face of the mountain that rose up from the Pacific.
As we rolled to a stop at the first light, Jalene’s bike died, and that was the last we would ever hear from her battery. We push started the bike, got it running long enough to find our hostel, and parked the bikes for the night. Once again, when we were in need, a new friend appeared. A taxi driver that had grown up there knew where to find batteries for motorcycles, and after trying two or three places, we zeroed in on a shop with a standard lead-acid unit for about $44 USD. As luck would have it, Jay’s battery chose a tax-free zone to puke out in. Turns out the Chilean government recognizes that it’s hard enough living in the extreme desert here, and has helped folks out with a little tax relief in the far north and south of the country.
On the way to find a battery, our driver pointed to the many wooden buildings in Iquique made from “Oregon pine” (Douglas fir). In the early 1900’s, ships carrying products from Chile northward would return with lumber from the U.S. west coast, traded for a good profit in this desert isolation. Many streets were lined with older wood-sided buildings, the paint peeling away, giving it the same look as some of the coastal towns back home in the northwestern U.S. And as you’ll see in many port towns, there were some pretty salty characters in the area of our hostel, but didn’t pay much notice. Later, a taxi driver commented that we were staying in the most crime-ridden section of town. The folks we were seeing on the street did seem poor, yes, but the signs of vice and alcohol were appearing again. Jalene and I hadn’t seen much of this since Bogota and other really big cities. I didn’t feel any threatening atmosphere here, but I was aware that people just a little more desperate for money might be watching us.
We enjoyed a couple of nights in Iquique to relax just a bit. Rolling out of town, we decided to push the easy button and stopped at the first McDonalds we’d seen in ages, kind of a cultural reverse adventure. Inside, we received a surprise, as we found nothing appealing for a breakfast menu, and settled for the same meager fare we’d been having for breakfast for months -- white bread, white cheese, sliced ham, coffee, and tea. No egg or sausage McMuffins here! We didn’t survey any other McDonalds on the trip, before this or after, so I have no idea what we’d find in a big capital city.
But we’d come on this trip to see other worlds, so we left the golden arches behind and took off down the coast of Chile, looking for something new. As usual, it didn’t take very long to find it.
Take a look at more photos HERE.