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Dirt under my tyres at last

First day out on the bike and I decide to take a look at a mountain pass I’d been studying on the map, just an hour or two north of Santiago. I couldn’t believe the number of switchbacks on this dirt road across the Andes and I just had to take a look.

I didn’t realise it at the time but the top of the pass, though not particularly high at 3200 metres, was in fact the border between Chile and Argentina. There were some pretty big signs up there in Spanish but I can’t read Spanish, so onward we go. In hindsight, the message I received up there from my cell phone data provider saying ‘welcome to Argentina’ should have been a giveaway, but I was too busy enjoying the ride to figure it out.

Once over the pass and down the other side, I hook back up with Ruta 60 and ride back in the direction I’d come from, this time through an amazing tunnel, only to find myself confronted with Chilean immigration and customs control. Here I was, not stamped out of Chile while trying to re-enter Chile.

I explained to the immigration official what I’d done as he was checking my papers (I was speaking English and he was listening in Spanish) but I could tell by the rolling of his eyes and the shaking of his head that he understood what an idiot I was. He pointed at the exit and said “vamoose”. That was my cue. Goodbye Argentina, it’s been brief but nice!

Riding north I chose minor inland roads and made my way to Illapel, a dusty mining town squeezed between a mountainside and a river. Here I stayed at the interesting hostel Sherpa, where host Erick welcomed me to his rustic accommodations, best described as ‘interesting’…

Erick’s claim to fame is hosting racers from Dakar Chile and his walls are festooned with Dakar Rally posters signed by competitors. He worked in one of the support crews and proudly displays his Dakar tattoo on his leg.

It seems everyone in Chile has a side hustle, and Erick’s is astronomy. That night he sets up his telescope and in no time he’s using his cell phone to photograph close-ups of the lunar landscape. It was quite a crude set up, but he got some great results.

Erick asked what my profession was. I replied that I was retired. He commented that people don’t retire in Chile, they go from work to the hospital and then to the grave. A sobering thought.

Speaking of graves and such… in NZ, if someone is unfortunate enough to die in a road accident, it’s not uncommon for a small white cross to be placed at the scene in memory. In Chile, things are much more elaborate, there are many memorials on the roadside, but I quite liked this one.

This is by no means the most elaborate, but I admire the patriotism.

The scenery changes as I drift away from the towering backdrop of the Andes into rolling hills of mesquite and cactus.

Erick showed me an alternative route to the town of Vicuña. The route takes me through a beautiful wine growing region, and I can’t help but notice the similarities to our own Marlborough wine region in New Zealand.

The roads are narrow and winding, often dirt but the scenery is great, and at lower speeds I manage just over 500 kms from my 25 litre tank. I carry a spare litre of fuel in my pannier but was glad not to need it.

I use the IOverlander site to find recommendations for hostel accommodation and in Vicuńa I strike gold. Hostel El Colibri is delightful and the elderly English-speaking owner is very welcoming. I decide to stay a couple of days.

I awake in Vicuńan and it’s Election Day. Voting is compulsory and the town is full of people from the surrounding area, all come in to vote. There is a large police presence, and I can’t help but see the contrast to election days in New Zealand, where we wander down to the local hall or school to cast our vote, if we choose.

I very much enjoyed my stay in Vicuńa, but tomorrow it’s goodbye to pleasant meandering on winding rural roads as I must take the dreaded Ruta 5, the Pan American, north to the Atacama desert.


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