We leave from sea level in Antofagasta and ride with the Pacific Ocean at our left side for San Pedro de Atacama, some 300km distant and 2,400 metres higher. A five hour journey through the Atacama desert.
Antofagasta is a thin sliver of a city caught between the pounding pacific ocean breakers to the west and and soaring arid mountains to the east which seem to have colourful painted houses reaching up as far as angled foundations will take them. Then the city is gone, no sprawling suburban mass around the city, the landscape sees to that. We wind our way up a smooth road built in a dried out riverbed back towards Ruta 5, our mainline track north to Peru. Today we only have 100 km on Ruta 5 before we head towards the city of Calama.
On Ruta 5, wherever a dual highway section exists, a toll payment is required. As we have mentioned before, south of Santiago each section was a uniform 700 pesos for a motorbike per section, easy to prepare for. North of Santiago it had been different for each toll and again as we approach the toll booth on this section we try to guess the amount, wrong again, 650 pesos this time, yet another new amount, you would do better with casino odds than work out each toll section costs here.
A brief refuelling and pit stop at Carman Alto which seems to be a petrol station at a road junction has me pondering the strange location of the ice-cream freezer, in the building containing the men’s and women’s toilets, seemingly served by the lavatory attendant. I have seen this in a number of places as we have travelled in Chile. I cannot bring myself to buy an ice-cream there – it just seems wrong, even if the locals do it all the time.
We see a train pulling a line of wagons carrying what I assume, from all the road tanker vehicles in the mining areas we have seen, to be sulphuric acid. Only our second train we have seen since leaving Santiago. If you look at a detailed map of Chile you will see many railway lines. Some appear to run only to mines and others connect the major towns north and south of Santiago. The latter appear to be mostly abandoned, the railways twisty and tortuous path is no match for Ruta 5 which cuts a more direct swathe through Chile’s landscape. I have wondered if these abandoned lines would make great tourist cycling tracks as they do not have the steeper accents and descents of the roads, none of the road traffic or ancillary habitation that we see at the roads edge. In many cases, the rail track is still in place, maybe a simple conversion device to place a bicycle on. Come on all you inventors out there, come up with a solution. Alternatively could we cut discarded tyres into two strips and flatten them out lay them over the track to form a rubber pathway, not an original idea as rubber covers for short distances have been developed already, but could we use discarded tyres instead. This is the kind of stuff that comes into my mind as we ride, most of it, thankfully, does not make the blog.
As we progress towards Calama, the road is full of trucks and pickups going about their mining business. They constitute the bulk of traffic activity and I am certain that if it were not for the mining industry, the quality of roads would be greatly diminished. We see dotted along the landscape signs of both current and historical mining activity. The landscape has been carved open in places, the scars remain far longer than I would have thought. In such a dry and arid environment the healing actions of rain and vegetation that in more benign environments help soften the impact our activity do not exist here. The landscape appears devoid of even a blade of grass, a massive contrast to say our Australian deserts that are dotted with trees, bushes and wildlife. Interesting how the term ‘desert’ is used from place to place. After seeing this, I think that some of our Australian deserts may fall foul of ‘Trade Descriptions’ legislation.
Another train passes, flatbed wagons loaded with gleaming copper ingots and pulling, probably empty, sulphuric acid wagons for refilling at the sulphuric acid plants outside Antofagasta. In this area with a large concentration of mines the rail option is more economically viable.
Passing by Calama, a mining services town, our excitement starts to grow as we are now only 90 kilometres from our destination. The distance flies by and suddenly we can see the north end of the Salar de Aticama with a line of impressive, 5,000 metre plus volcanoes forming a stunning backdrop to this vista. I will let Anne’s photographs do the talking as they express a beauty that is hard to put into words.