Sunday, 9 March 2014

Into Chile

The Chilean flag
Gracias por el chocolate y el agua amigos
I cycled into Chile around midday on 20th of February 2014. As usual I was excited to be entering a new country although I was slightly worried that they were going to confiscate what remaining food I had left because Chilean border controls are known for being strict about food. Although they gave my bags the most thorough check that they've had anywhere on the trip thankfully I was able to hold on to the food. My first impressions of Chile were good, everybody seemed very friendly. The first people I got talking to were a lovely young couple who had hitchhiked thousands of kilometres from Southern Chile to go backpacking in Bolivia. They gave me chocolate and water. They knew how to make a good first impression. They didn't even seem to mind that I was filthy from head to toe. Once I passed through customs I was into the small town of Ollague. With the cost of everything being a lot more in Chile than most counties I've passed, especially Bolivia and Peru, it looked like my days of getting a cheap lunch were over. I still needed to eat and paid more for a pork sandwich than I would have paid for a soup, main course and accompanying drink in Bolivia. It the only sandwich I had eaten in months but one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten in my life. They did not seem to go in for sandwiches in many of the other countries I had passed in South America but they certainly knew how to do a good one in this small border town.
Barren, spectacular wilderness
This crater like dig out made for the perfect shelter, out of sight of the road
and more importantly better protected from the howling wind.
With my waterbottles refilled I got back on the road which reverted to gravel wash board about 2 kilometres out of town. The winds were so strong that evening that I had to find somewhere suitable to erect the tent that was sheltered from the wind.
I may have entered a new country but for the first few days in Chile the landscape was unsurprisingly quite similar to that of Bolivia - stunning, extremely dry and almost completely unpopulated.

The fake tan was probably unnecessary, what with all the sunblock,
sweat, dust, salt and general dirt already clinging to me.
Within two days I had made it to the small minning city of Calama. The nearby mine of Chuquicamata at over four kilometres in length and 3 kilometres wide is the largest open pit copper mine in the world. The fire station at Calama were kind enough to put me up for the night. It was here that I had a long over due shower and probably the best shower I've had in my life. It was almost a week since my last wash in Uyuni and even that had been in a large bucket of cold water as opposed to a proper shower! After the scrub it was over to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. "Eh, where am I?" I thought to myself and probably walked around the isles of the supermarket with my mouth wide open. It was a large, fully stocked supermarket with everything I could think of. It was quite similar to a supermarket from home and it had certainly been a while since I had been anywhere like this. Certainly not for my previous few months in Bolivia and Peru. This was probably amplified by the fact that I had spent a week in isolated desert where you'd struggle to get more than dried goods like a packet of crackers in the few remote villages I passed. I was also mouth agape at the price of things. This was a dangerous place to be as I was starving! My friends at the firestation told me that Calama and much of the north of Chile in general was more expensive than the rest of the country due to all the minning activities. Later that evening a few of us went across the road for a hot dog. A hot dog, hadn't seen one of them in a while, I think I was going to like Chile.

Los Bomberos in Calama just back from a fire
The following evening after being refused by the police and the local church and with the Bomberos (firestation) completely closed up it looked like the mining town of Sierra Gorda was going to be problematic in finding somewhere to stay. That was until I asked a couple who were out in their front of their house if I could pitch my tent in their back garden. Andre and Carmen said that I couldn't pitch the tent because of the large dog in the garden but that I was welcome to sleep in their spare bedroom for the night. Incredible act of kindness to a complete stranger. Wow.

The pretty central square in Antofagasta
I finally made it to the Chilean coast and the city of Antofagasta by the following evening. It was great to finally hit the coast as Panama had been the last place where I had cycled by the Pacific. Even though I was under a fair bit of time pressure I ended up staying two days with the lovely folk of the 8th company fire brigade at Antofagasta. The reason that I was under pressure was that two good friends were flying into Santiago to join me for a week's cycling. At this stage I knew that I wasn't going to make it as far as Santiago so the lads were going to hire bikes in Santiago, bus up to a town called La Serena and we would the following days cycling south in the direction of Santiago.

The first signpost I saw for Santiago had the city 1440 km away so I was much closer
by the time I took this photo.

I stayed a night with the very welcoming Alvarez family in TalTal.
They certainly made sure that I didn't leave hungry! 

This friendly truck driver Rodrigo gifted me his high viz vest so that I could be well seen on the road
The guy on the right was a Brazilian cyclist heading from south to north (he also warned me about
the Patagonian winds!). The guy on the left was a friendly and very generous shop keeper that initially
gifted us a chilled cola each, then he gave us both a tropical fruit, then some grapes
and when we were leaving he gave us two ripe avocados each. Phenomenal.

By this stage I had made it back onto fully paved roads with some of the stretches being on motorway so a nice shoulder for me to cycle in. Obviously with a trip this long covering tens of thousands of kilometres some parts are going to be more interesting than others.
Some of the days between Antofagasta and La Serena I felt a bit like I was eating, cycling, eating, sleeping, up and repeat. Going through the motions to purely get kilometres under my belt. Essentially this was all I was doing as I needed to be in La Serena by the 7th to meet the guys. Thankfully it rarely happens to me that I feel like I am going through the motions despite the length of time I've been on the road. I knew it would be well worth it anyway to see my friends and it's not as if they weren't making a huge effort to make it to Chile and to the town of La Serena.The landscape was baron with little or no vegetation. I had seen enough baron wilderness in northern Chile by this stage.

The lovely Tonsic family very generously invited me to lunch
Since the first hour of entering Chile I have been bowled over by the generosity of complete strangers. One encounter after the next, it has been very touching.
On the 7th of March at 9pm in the dark of night I cycled into La Serena. I had made it in time to meet the lads, now all I had to do was find them.

A fishing village that I passed not far from La Serena

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