Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama

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.

One of the many mines along Ruta 5 and 25

One of the many mines along Ruta 5 and 25

Sulfur mine

Sulfur mine

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.

Train carrying copper ingots

Train carrying copper ingots

More windfarms means more wind on our way to San Pedro de Atacama

More windfarms means more wind on our way to San Pedro de Atacama

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.

Our first glimpse of the Salar de Atacama

Our first glimpse of the Salar de Atacama

Photos cannot capture what the eye does - part of the Salar de Atacama

Photos cannot capture what the eye does – part of the Salar de Atacama

Last rise before San Pedro - what is this across the road, surely not water?!?!

Last rise before San Pedro – what is this across the road, surely not water?!?!

Cordillera de la Sal, just before heading into San Pedro

Cordillera de la Sal, just before heading into San Pedro

Photos cannot capture what the eye does - part of the Salar de Atacama

Photos cannot capture what the eye does – part of the Salar de Atacama

Just rode through the Cordillera de la Sal

Just rode through the Cordillera de la Sal

Our home for 5 nights

Our home for 5 nights

Inside our Atacama Loft cabin

Inside our Atacama Loft cabin

The sunset view from our cabin at San Pedro de Atacama

The sunset view from our cabin at San Pedro de Atacama

Storm shower at San Pedro on our first night

Storm shower at San Pedro on our first night


A great meal out at San Pedro de Atacama

A great meal out at San Pedro de Atacama


Anne's delicious dish of mushrooms for dinner

Anne’s delicious dish of mushrooms for dinner

– Anthony

Vicuña to Antofagasta

After a beautiful breakfast of fresh fruit, avocado, home made jams and good coffee, we finally leave Vicuña for our slow ride up to Antofagasta. The morning is so cool at 13 degrees that we pull over after 30′ to put one layer of thermals on – what a difference that makes!!

So often on our trip, I’ve found that I forget to mention or take photos of commonplace sights. We see them so often, we forget to even mention them. Time to mention one of them now as the road from La Serena to Vicuña had some of the more elaborate ones we’ve seen: roadside shrines. The first ones I’d noticed outside Santiago looked more like small colourful kennels – you may have noticed the odd one in some of my previous photos. I had taken a photo of some of them where we stopped and had some of Mitch and Mary’s sandwiches but didn’t post it as they were just before Anthony’s accident!! Anyway, the shrines we see are either religious ones (to the Virgin Mary, Christ, a local patron saint), or to Difunta Correa (Deolinda Correa had set out with her infant son in search of her husband who had been forced to join the army in the 40’s – she died of thirst, but not before putting her son to her breast and he survived. Bottles of water are left to calm her thirst) or to victims of car accidents. Sometimes, the accident ones are often placed at very distracting places, often on both sides of a bend or on straight stretches of road with several crosses, presumedly where many people died, in a coach accident maybe?? You know never to focus on an obstacle whatever you are driving as if you do, you are likely to end up where you are looking, maybe that’s why we often see multiple shrines in one spot… I haven’t wanted to take close up photos feeling it was intruding, but the first ones here were taken where we stopped to put on that extra layer of clothing.

Roadside shrine in Chie

Roadside shrine in Chie

Shrine to Defunta Correa

Shrine to Defunta Correa

Shrine to accident victim in Chile

Shrine to accident victim in Chile

It is cool today heading north of La Serena

It is cool today heading north of La Serena


The Ruta 5 north of La Serena is being upgraded so we end up stopping many times as the traffic is controlled one lane at a time. North of Vallenar, it is back to perfect dual highway. We feel we might even make it to Bahia Inglesia which I have been told many times by different people is an absolutely stunning place and worth a visit. But the road is so perfect and easy, it quickly becomes boring and as we get close to the Copiapo by-pass, Anthony tells me he is getting tired. Time to stop, change of plans and find a place for the night in Copiapo.
Shades of grey of the Atacama region heading into Copiapo

Shades of grey of the Atacama region heading into Copiapo

Outside Copiapo and time for a change of plan

Outside Copiapo and time for a change of plan

The sole reason for Copiapo being of any size is to support the mining industry in the area. It soons become obvious that people are there because they have too. One miserable place, miserable hotel receptionist, sad hotel which had seen better days but had been left to slowly decay, and very very aggressive drivers. We couldn’t wait to get out of there.

No photos of Copiapo!!

A short ride to Bahia Inglesia where I have tentatively eyed a place for 2 nights, on the outskirts of the village. We park the bikes and go for a walk along the beach. It has a gorgeous little bay, as per the photos, many restaurants along the beach front, but that is it!!! It was too cold and windy for us to have a swim so we had a lovely lunch. We pick one of the few places that doesn’t have music blaring. Oooh those fresh scallops were delicious!!!!!!!

Heading west out of Copiapo to Taltal

Heading west out of Copiapo to Taltal

More shrines on our way to Bahia Inglesia

More shrines on our way to Bahia Inglesia

Bahi Inglesia in the distance

Bahi Inglesia in the distance

Bahia Inglesia beach

Bahia Inglesia beach

Bahia Inglesia beach

Bahia Inglesia beach


We ride out to the cabanas I’d found. Oh dear…. On a rocky desert beach, with a couple of trees planted for the website images no doubt – so unappealing… Quick turn around and change of plan again, and we head to Chañaral.

Fabulous shades of grey of the Atacama

Fabulous shades of grey of the Atacama

Heading to Taltal

Heading to Taltal

Another shrine outside Bahia Inglesia

Another shrine outside Bahia Inglesia

This is definitely mining region outside Chañaral

This is definitely mining region outside Chañaral

Heading north to Chañaral

Heading north to Chañaral

Lava flows down to the ocean south of Chañaral

Lava flows down to the ocean south of Chañaral

It is now early afternoon and the winds have definitely picked up. The road hugs the coast and the scenery is quite dramatic, with lava flows right down to the ocean. Yet again, a geologist’s paradise. Our neck muscles strengthen as we ride at angle for a while.

Chañaral

Chañaral

After riding around Chañaral for a while, we find another hotel listed on Anthony’s GPS which has a nice name: Aqua Luna. It is interesting how places always have an instant feel. The receptionist at this tiny hotel was so friendly and shows us to our room. It is a funny little hotel where all the rooms are towards the back so the only natural light and fresh air come from a central passage way. Outside our room is a plastic fountain with trickling water – maybe not to our taste, but they did try!!

Outside our hotel room in Chañaral

Outside our hotel room in Chañaral

At one stage, I asked for some water and the receptionist immediately organised a huge urn. Later she asked if we needed some more. For dinner, we went through town to a restaurant she recommended. On the way, we enjoyed seeing what shops in Chañaral stored. We find our favourite type of store: it has everything from the brightest bras to industrial strength compressors. At the restaurant, we ordered pizzas, zin queso for me (no cheese) explaining that I am allergic (all in Spanish!! i don’t know much but . When they arrive, I take my first mouthful and immediately taste the unmistakable taste of queso. I quickly grab a tissue, dispose of my mouthful,and inspect my pizza. It’s not too bad, it will be fine I tell Anthony. But the young waiter spotted what I had done and comes over. I say that I can cut the piece off and I’ll be fine. No, he will get another one made he insists. What service!!! A tiny restaurant, in a tiny place and what unbelievable service.

Outside our hotel room in Chañaral

Outside our hotel room in Chañaral

Chañaral was a lovely spot to stay over – time to head off to Antofagasta. First main stop was Taltal, also on the coast. I got chased by two big dogs which was a bit unnerving but we stop outside the Victor Hugo school for a fresh juice. Although the waterfront has been renovated, and the council wanted to make it a pleasant place, the locals thought otherwise… The public toilets are permanently locked, need I say more… We did enjoy watching the seals and birdlife but decided to move on and have our lunch on the road.

Atacama shades of brown

Atacama shades of brown

Atacama shades of grey

Atacama shades of grey

Atacama shades of beige

Atacama shades of beige

Always look back and admire the scenery

Always look back and admire the scenery

More shades of the Atacama desert

More shades of the Atacama desert

Atacama shades of brown

Atacama shades of brown

First sign of  life and vegetation - moss surviving on dew coming into Taltal

First sign of life and vegetation – moss surviving on dew coming into Taltal

Taltal

Taltal

Vultures in Taltal

Vultures in Taltal

What a ride to Antofagasta!!! Absolutely stunning. We chose to take CH1 then B710. Yes, it was windy, very windy at times and a painter’s paradise. Any home renovator would know how many shades of white there are: natural, china, bone, limed, porcelain, shell. The scenery was magical. We saw more than 50 shades of grey: celladon, mallard, bilby, yarwood, dove, moon. So many shades of brown: raw sienna, burnt umber, Gold oxide, nutmeg, walnut, leather, burnished bark, caramel; of red: burnt sienna, indian red oxide, burgundy, carmen, terracotta . So many shades of beige too. It is difficult to capture the beauty of this desert but I hope some of the photos show some of it.

More dramatic scenery north of Taltal

More dramatic scenery north of Taltal

Shade of reds and browns of the Atacama

Shade of reds and browns of the Atacama

Shade of reds and browns of the Atacama

Shade of reds and browns of the Atacama

Atacama

Atacama


Atacama

Atacama

More neck strengthening hours on the bike. We find a sheltered spot to stop and have lunch, near the Paranal Observatory, which is closed except on Saturdays. As we eat our tuna and dried crackers on the edge of the runway, a truck slows down, the driver shaking a carton of juice at us. We do a thumbs up, he stops, he hands over a full litre of apple juice and he takes off again. So nice!!!!

Thank you for the apple juice!!

Thank you for the apple juice!!

Time for a selfie in the windy Atacama desert - runway in the background

Time for a selfie in the windy Atacama desert – runway in the background


The Atacama is vast and beautiful and deserted

The Atacama is vast and beautiful and deserted

A couple of hours later, we get to a great sculpture, El Mano Del Desierto.

El Mano del Desierto

El Mano del Desierto

The hand in the background

The hand in the background

Every new corner gives us new shades

Every new corner gives us new shades

We make good time and get to Antofagasta just after 4pm. We head to our apartment on the northern end of Antofagasta for the next 2 nights but the concierge was only given a bunch of envelopes with apartment numbers on, but with no name, so couldn’t help us. We ring a few numbers, but I have been given wrong numbers. Hmmm, strange… So we are left with having to find another hotel!! At 6pm, rush hour, not my favourite time to find accommodation. We turn the bikes around, I get chased by a very angry barking Alsatian, and stop at another hotel. After being told they are full, they search some more and miracle, they have one last room!!! Bliss. Thank you!!! It is luxurious. Great place to catch up on washing and photo uploading :-). I immediately contact booking.com who apologise and tell me they will do what they can to compensate us for any additional costs incurred.

Heading back into Antofagasta in search of a new hotel

Heading back into Antofagasta in search of a new hotel

Antofagasta coast

Antofagasta coast

Another selfie in Antofagasta

Another selfie in Antofagasta

Made in Bath, UK

Made in Bath, UK

Surfing and texting is a worldwide phenomenon

Surfing and texting is a worldwide phenomenon

Loved this way of training bougainvellias into 'trees' in Antofagasta

Loved this way of training bougainvellias into ‘trees’ in Antofagasta

Part historic part mural in Antofagasta

Part historic part mural in Antofagasta

The Andes coming into the ocean at Antofagasta

The Andes coming into the ocean at Antofagasta

View from our hotel room of the colourful houses of Antofagasta

View from our hotel room of the colourful houses of Antofagasta

We spend a day stroling around Antofagasta and basically lounging around in our room.

– Anne