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First taste of the Atacama Desert

Leaving Vacuńa early, I head for La Serena and hook up with Pan American, Ruta 5 and head north.

The Pan American is a beast. The world’s longest motorable road at 30,000 km long. It begins in Prudoe Bay, Alaska, and runs uninterrupted, save for the Darien Gap, to Ushuaia in southern Argentina.

In Chile, the Pan American spans almost 3500km and I join it at the coast, in the fog. From time to time, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean are visible. A rocky coastline interspersed with tiny fishing villages, not as picturesque as you might think with litter along the highway and flapping plastic bags caught in every wire fence. The trucks are unrelenting. In places the highway has been developed into a multi lane freeway, a toll way with no alternate route north.

Eventually the road turns inland and climbs, into the Atacama Desert. My destination today is Caldera, a small coastal town around 400km north. As I crest the climb I get my first taste of the Atacama. I am only on the edge of this 130,000 square kilometre desert, but already there is no plant life. The desert is the driest in the world. Scientists calculate that some areas haven’t seen rain since the 13th century. No plants, no animals, no birds, not even an insect on my windscreen.

It’s easy to understand why NASA chose the Atacama for testing equipment for lunar and mars missions.

Eventually I roll into Caldera and find myself a hostel. I dine at a local restaurant on seafood (which I regret for the next 24 hours).

The beach is golden sands and azure seas, but it’s as cold as a witch’s tit and the place is deserted. Along the Chilean coast the wind and currents from the Antarctic merge with those from the north. This creates a rain void from the ocean, and this combined with a rain shadow from the Andes is responsible for the formation of the Atacama Desert.

Next day it’s the long haul to Antofagasta. I calculate the distance is well within my 500 km fuel range then hit the Ruta 5. Here I make a grave miscalculation. Previously I’d been cruising through rural villages at low speeds. Today the highway has a speed limit of 120 km/h and even the trucks are traveling fast.

Every vehicle has a ‘sweet spot’ and with my gearing the bike feels really good at around 110km/h, so that’s the speed for the day. Besides, there’s a gas station about halfway. Unfortunately the gas station is closed for renovation (I’m sure there were signs in Spanish warning me, but…) and by this time I’m left with less than half a tank of fuel. It dawns on me that even with my 1 litre of spare fuel, I’m unlikely to make it to Antofagasta.

I spend the afternoon riding the shoulder at 70km/h in the heat of the desert, watching my fuel dwindle away. I envision myself standing by the roadside, fuel canister in hand, begging for "gasolina". Fortunately the last 50 km are downhill, and I limp into the first gas station on fumes. When I fill the tank and my spare bottle my suspicions are confirmed and I doubt I’d have got a km further. Lesson learnt.

The section of Ruta 5 I have ridden today is littered with massive mining operations. The Atacama is a rich resource of iron, copper, gold, silver, and lithium. All the major global mining companies are here, including those from China. Huge overburden dumps fill the skyline and many of the mining companies are in breach of their agreements with indigenous owners regarding the lowering of groundwater resources.

Check out the size of this overburden dump compared to the massive pylon in the foreground

About 60 km from Antofagasta I come across ‘Mano Del Desierto’. It’s a giant hand emerging from the desert and is meant to represent a halt to the human rights violations perpetuated by the Pinochet regime.

Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron fist. He seized power as a military general in 1973 and ruled as President until 1990. During this time his regime was responsible for many large infrastructure projects (including the building of the Pan American section in Chile), but was also notorious for arresting, torturing, and ‘disappearing’ dissidents. Many were loaded aboard military aircraft and flown out over the Pacific Ocean where they were ‘unloaded’… no mass graves to be discovered later, I guess. Chile certainly has a grim history.

As I rode down into Antofagasta, it looked from a distance to be a vibrant and modern city.

I had passed some ugly iron foundries and other industrial plants belching smoke and pollutants into the air, but down towards the ocean things looked better. Until I got up close.

Rubbish everywhere and the stench of raw sewerage in the streets. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like Mogadishu without the armed militia.

I try 3 hostels which no longer exist thanks to the crippling Covid 19 restrictions and finally end up in a rat-hole joint high above the city.

When I write my bestseller ‘Shitholes I Have Visited’, Antofagasta will feature prominently, as will that rat-hole hostel when I write the sequel ‘Fleabag Hostels I Have Slept In’.

Not my finest hour, as I drifted off to sleep wondering ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’…


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