The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through
A Book by Bob
"Always strive to make other people feel important."
Click here for map
(and be sure to click your browser's 'back' button to return to this page!)
Arriving in Copiapo reminded me of most of the other large cities in Chile.
They all have the Plaza De Armas which is in the center of town and surrounded
by the typical vegetation found in that region and the main cathedral in the
town can be seen from the square in the true Spanish style. I must visit the
mineralogical museum here not only because it was highly recommended but it
will also be the first one I've ever been to. I brought my bike into the foyer
and was about to secure it when a man came up to me and asked where I was from
and how far I was traveling. We had talked for about 15 minutes when finally
he said the museum was going to close for lunch and I should get in now. I
went to lock the bicycle and he insisted that it wasn't necessary because not
only would he watch it for me, but he also spoke to the woman at the entrance
so that I wouldn't have to pay. I had to ask myself, do I look like a charity
case? Why is everyone I meet being so kind and generous to me? I honestly
believe its just the nature of the Chilean people.
Inside, there were rocks and crystals of every shape, size and color one
could imagine. Some of them actually looked like enlarged snowflakes and
there were little plaques under each one indicating where they were found
and which scientist discovered them first. The museum definitely merited
a visit for it was incredibly rich with unique wonders. Not willing to
spend a lot of time in a big city, I restocked on food and began the
320 miles journey to Antofagosta, the next big town along the coast.
Copiapo is the southern limit of the vast Atacama desert. The desert
stretches from here to the Ecuadorian border, 3000 miles away, although
the desert itself is no more than 100 miles wide. It is the driest desert
in the world.
Leaving Copiapo was the start of a new part of the trip for me. For the next
month I will not be seeing any trees, or even anything green, except for the
very rare river valleys. For the most part there is nothing but sand, rock
and the ocean. For the most part, the road is paved and in excellent condition,
relatively flat with occasionally low-grade climbs. There's a river here
that passes through town. Nothing I would consider drinking from or swimming
in. It actually has very little water despite that it has flowed over 100
miles from high in the Andes. The towns in this region get all of their
water from the river or underground wells which are fed from snow-melt in
the Andes mountain range where most of the precipitation falls, above 1500 ft.
After about 60 miles, I stopped at a restaurant for some tea and some soup
and around back, there was an abandoned building where I built a fire and
cooked up some pasta. I then took a walk over the hill and sat and stared
out into the vast desert. I just sat down and thought to myself how much
more comfortable this is than a 4-star hotel. Fresh air, scenery, no hassles,
as a matter of fact, it was so silent, I could hear my heart beat. This
perfect evening was completed by watching a bright orange moon rise over
the rapidly cooling sand. In the morning, the people who owned the restaurant
came over to where I was sleeping. Upon hearing their footsteps I awoke and
they invited me to the restaurant for a complementary breakfast. Again I keep
asking myself what I had done to deserve such kindness.
They had a 10 year old boy who was having breakfast with me before school.
We spent an hour talking in Spanish - for some reason I found it easier to
understand him than almost anyone else. After a friendly farewell, I set off
into the open desert. Considering this is still route 5 the only major highway
in the country, there is very little traffic. About one vehicle every 10
minutes, fortunately the wind is from behind, making it easy to hear them well
After about an hour, I stopped at a turnoff for a detour to the coast. This
side trip to Bahaia Inglesia will add about 10 miles to my trip, but it would
be well worth it to see the ocean for a while. Just as I was about to turn
left, I saw coming up the same road another cyclist. He was about 1.5 miles
behind so I stayed and waited for him to catch up. This guy looked like he
was from Indonesia, but in reality, he's from Holland. His father was
Indonesian and his mother was Dutch. He's been following the same route I
have so it's surprising that we haven't met before - perhaps it's because
he was always just 1.5 miles behind me. I started speaking to him first in
Spanish and he just looked at me and said "Dutch, French, German, Italian,
English? What?" So I responded in English asking him if he spoke all those
languages. He actually did because he had done a lot of work with young
children in all those countries. He also spoke Indonesian and I thought it
must be such a treat to have such communicative ability. After a brief
conversation, we decided to cycle together and take a detour to the beach
where we stopped for lunch. He brewed up a fresh pot of coffee and I made
sandwiches. We noticed a local couple down by the water, and Joery spoke the
language fluently and they had a long talk together and they invited us to
their place for dinner, a shower and a place to sleep for the night.
On the way there, about a mile down the road we noticed a dog with a litter
of puppies in front of a house. They went over and picked up one of the
puppies and strapped him under the bungy cords on the back of my bike. I put
aside my questions and as we rode the 10 miles to their place, the puppy fell
They lived in a very small house well off the main road, no carpet, cement
floors, tiny shower and everything was quite lived in and run down. We
dined on another wonderful dinner with great conversation, then we did our
laundry, showered and settled down for the night on the kitchen floor.
Naturally, we were spoiled with a sumptuous breakfast and headed off
again north along the coast. The road from here was completely deserted
surrounded by nothing but red volcanic rock sloping down to the ocean. No
sand, no trees, nothing built, nothing growing - just rock contrasted with
blue ocean and blue sky. Yet, it had an air of unique majestic beauty.
We rode about 60 miles and just outside of the town of Chanaral, we brought
our bikes as close as safely possible down to the ocean and managed to find
a small patch of sand and set up camp for the night. I had been carrying
a rather expensive bottle of wine that had been giving to me as a gift and
since Joery cooked up dinner, I decided him to surprise him with a delightful
Cabernet to accompany dinner. Joery recognized the value of the wine and had
immense interest in my appreciation of good wine. I told him it was given to
me as a gift but I was saving it for a special occasion. We drank a toast to
the beginning of a good friendship. The waves were crashing on the rocks and
the wind had stilled and the smell of the ocean mist was in the air. Despite
the moisture of the sea, we decided to sleep out under the stars without
setting up a tent. In the morning, everything was a little bit wet but well
worth the minor inconvenience for the serenity of the atmosphere. The
temperatures were about 50 degrees at night and 70 during the day. Of course,
this was winter. In the summer it would be unbearably hot here. After the sun
came up and everything dried off, we packed up and went into Chanaral for
lunch at a restaurant. We stocked up on groceries and bought another bottle
of wine. When you're traveling with 140 pounds, what's another pound or two
for a bottle of wine.
From here, the road turns east and then goes inland before turning North
up through the interior part of the desert. Just as we were leaving town
we saw the sign - the next nearest town was "Antofagasta 240 miles"! From
this point there will be nothing but sand for about 4 days. About a mile
later a flat bed truck pulled up in front of us and asked if we wanted a
ride to Antofagasta. I looked a Joery, and he at me, and almost in unison,
we looked at the driver and said "Thanks, but we'll cycle it". As the road
started to climb, we started to question our decision but fortunately, we
had about a 20 knot tail wind, which, together with the scenery, reassured
us that our decision had been the best choice. An interesting thing to
remember in this area is that the wind blows uphill during the day and
downhill at night. Very similar to a sea breeze in the afternoon along the
coast and a land breeze at night.
The first 3 days were basically uphill and with the wind so we managed to
cover about 40 miles each day. We climbed to a height of about 6000 feet.
The days were pleasantly cool but the nights actually got cold, down to
around 32 degrees. Each night we camped on the open sand in an area that
looked like the Sahara desert. The only difference is that to the east of
us, off into the distance, was the Andes mountain range. The rock varied
in color from brown in places to dark black. I was presented with quite
a challenge in setting up my Megamid pyramid tent in soft sand. My tent
is basically a nylon tarp with four stakes and a pole in the center that
is not freestanding. Driving stakes into soft sand was futile so I put
the stakes away and went on a rock hunt. Fortunately, it was not too
difficult to find four large rocks which I placed on each corner of the
tent. This proved to be more than sufficient. Only one time in my entire
life did I have to use my bicycle bags to help support the tent, and that
was on the deck of a ship.
On the fourth day, we cycled relatively slowly because the wind had come against
us because we were now going downhill. We came up with the idea that because
we had a full moon, we should cycle at night when the wind changed direction.
About 4:00, we stopped and did a long, early dinner and relaxed for about
2 hours. About 7:00 PM the sun set and a beautiful full moon rose over the
mountains. As darkness settled in, just as we expected, the wind shifted
to come from behind us, and by 10:00 pm, it was blowing at 20 knots so we
continued through the night for a total of 22 hours of cycling. At midnight,
we noticed that because we were near the tropic of Capricorn, the moon was
directly overhead, thus casting no shadow except directly downward. By
7:30 in the morning, the sun was up, the wind was back in our face and
125 miles were behind us - officially the biggest day of the whole trip.
We thought that we had earned our right to set up camp and get some sleep.
After about 4 hours, we were both up and by 1:00 PM we were back on the
bikes. We made it all the way into the grand city of Antofagasta. There
was a relatively steep canyon that led down into the city. Normally, we
would be flying down this hill, but because of a 25 knot wind right into
our face, we actually had to work to maintain any speed. We cycled all
the way through the city and found a place to camp just out of the city
and to the north up on a hill. It's now dark, and we're looking across
the peninsula back on the city of 150,000 people with lights that rose
up the hillside.
Joery had an amazing ability to drink coffee - he even actually drank 5 cups
of coffee before bed - 5 tablespoons of coffee, 5 tablespoons of sugar.
Just looking at the caffeine was enough to keep me awake. I also did an
experiment with eating. One time we made pasta and ate out of the same pot.
I'm often penalized by eating slowly so this time, I actually kept count
of the number of forkfuls throughout the meal. He ate 3 forkfuls of pasta
of equal size to every one that I ate. For this reason, I'm always very
insistent on having my own bowl whenever we eat or else I would always go
In the morning we cycled into the city with the idea of having some work
done on the bikes. We went into this one bike shop, Joery having the
language talked to the two mechanics, both of who were about 22-23 years old.
They started on his bike, I bought 2 new tires and the owner of the shop,
had one of the mechanics put them on for me. Next thing I knew he had the
bottom bracket off, and discovered it was well worn perhaps from an uneven
bearing. He dug around in the used equipment box and put together a new one
for me, and installed it with new bearings. He also relubed the wheel hubs
and bearings. They ended up doing a complete overhaul on both our bikes,
working for over 8 hours, scrounging around to salvage free parts and they
did an incredible job, all without accepting anything in return. This
same operation in the states would have easily cost over $100 in labor and
$70 in parts. We insisted on taking them for lunch, with only cost about
$3.00, but even so, THEY were very grateful to US. Once again, the boundless
generosity of the Chilean people shined through without even asking.
The rest of the afternoon we tended to all the necessary chores, repairs and
usual administrivia. That evening, we went to the fish market and picked up
an assortment of shellfish that I personally, have never seen before. To
add to the kind offerings of our famed bicycle mechanics, they had invited
us to sleep at their place and we stayed with them for couple nights.
As much as Joery and I enjoyed each other's company, having an uncanny
ability to make each other laugh, almost to the point of tears, we decided
to separate. Our decision based solely on geographical directional choices.
Joery chose to go North-east to the town of Calama, a town of close to
100,000 people, which, in the history of keeping records has never reported
rainfall. From there, he would continue on to the famous San Pedro De Atacama
an area known for its colorful rock formations and moonscape terrain. From
there he would return to Calama and proceed north-east to the town of Ollague
on the Bolivian border. This is an outpost community where the road proceeds
to cross over into Bolivia and then disappears. My choice was to follow the
coastline all the way to Arica. I have become obsessed with the idea of
cycling Chile from the southern tip to the northern tip - a distance
equivalent to going from Maine to Los Angeles. The road the going along
the coast is well-paved and, for the most part flat, with a steady southerly
wind, 10-15 mph. This region virtually never gets rainfall and is relatively
mild in the winter and brutally hot in the summer.
As the sun was setting, I left Antofagasto. About an hour out of town,
perched by itself out in the middle of nowhere was a building with screened
walls all the way around. Nothing but a short wall, no windows. Because
the weather was the same year round, there was no need to ever close up
the building, and when you were in it you were surrounded with the sounds
of the ocean and the wind blowing through. It was an outpost restaurant
and gathering place for truck drivers and people traveling along the road.
Inside, there were a few dining tables, but the life revolved around the
Ping-Pong table in the center of the room. There were a few people hanging
out, playing Ping-Pong and naturally, I couldn't resist the competitive lure
of the challenge and we played Ping-Pong until about 2:00 in the morning.
They invited me to sleep on the floor and I chose the cozy nook under the
Ping-Pong table. In the morning, not only did they spoil me with breakfast
but they also loaded me up with one of everything they sold in their store
such as coffee, tea, chips, bread, chocolate. I was always surprised
by the shift in treatment as soon as anyone realized that I was cycle-touring
through their country. As a traveler, they were polite and courteous, but
when they hear I'm a cyclist, it's as if they idolized me and went above
and beyond all expectations to cherish me and spoil me.
About 10 miles further north and 1 mile west of the highway is the great
arch. This is a unique creation of rock sculptured by the wind and waves over
many centuries. Here there was a little visitor center and a restaurant that
actually had a small swimming pool. Since it was not the season the owner
invited me for a free swim which normally cost a few dollars. The temperature
was about 65 degrees but it was refreshing none the less. Because of erosion
problems they don't let anyone hike down to the arch but you can easily see it
from the cliff top about 40 feet above it. After my brief little stop over I
returned to the main road and continued northward. The next 250 miles of
cycling will be along beautiful coastline scenery. To my left about 100 yards
is the clear blue south pacific and 100 yards to my right is a 1500 wall of
sand. At the top of the wall of sand is a 50 mile level plateau of sand
followed by the climb into the Andes.
Alone and with a good tail wind I'm averaging 60 miles a day, with some great
private, seaside campsites. The first night I cycled until after dark and
found myself looking for a place to sleep with the skill of a blind person.
I left my bike by the road and walked on all fours over rocks for 100 yards
looking for a good place to sleep for the night. I then returned to the road,
and waited for a car to pass, so I could see where I left my bicycle. I
returned to the road 50 feet further south than I left it, not too bad for
blind orienteering. In the morning I could not believe how foolish I was to
try to hike over such steep rocky terrain without the use of sight. But it was
well worth the effort for the spot where I slept was nestled on a ridge away
from the road just above a cliff with crashing waves sending a spray up over
my bed. I would have never found this spot for I would have never stopped here
if it had been daylight.
The following night I slept behind a piece of heavy equipment which provided
excellent protection from the wind and lights from the occasional passing
car. This time it was to the right of the road, just at the base of the wall
of sand. The reason I chose this location was because the front end loader was
digging into the hill side, exposing unusual colors of various layers of rock
for the purpose of which I had no idea. The wall of sand was steep and very
loose, but at this very spot the sand was very shallow (underneath was rock)
making penetration into the mountain relatively simple. The greenish teal
color of the rock indicates copper, a mineral that Chile has more of than
any other country in the world.
After my mineralogical discovery, I continued north and easily made it
to the town of Tocopilla. Just before going into town I stopped to watch the
large powerful waves crash onto the rocks just below someone's house. Nowhere
in the states have I ever seen such large waves except in Hawaii. Even North
Carolina during a hurricane had waves smaller than this. I guess they
accumulate a lot of momentum from the big storms in the southern ocean, and
travel as far north as southern Peru. Between 56 degrees south latitude and
Antarctica, there is no land all the way around the world. This ocean is called
the southern ocean.
I remembered that the women who ran the hospedaje in the little town north of
San Antonio had given me the address and phone number of her sister who lived
in this town. I called, disconnected. I went to the address, all boarded up,
rats! So I looked in the small opening in the door between boards, saw nothing,
turned around and saw a neighbor a few doors up come out. I asked him if he
knew the women who used to live here and where I could find her. He said she
runs the seafood restaurant down by the docks. Sure enough when I finally
found it and went inside, I recognized the face of someone I never met before.
They were not twins but had similar facial features. I told her I met her sister
who said I must look her up If I make it to Tocopilla. She asked a few
questions just to confirm that I was sincere, then sat me down with a friend
of hers, a local fisherman. We all had dinner together and what a feast she
Her fisherman friend had a brother further up the coast in a small village not
even on the map. He said its the second collection of shacks after you cross
the Rio Loa. There are no streets just a collection of shacks, go there and
ask for manual, he will take you in for the night and fishing the next day,
providing you can get up at 4:30 am. He said just tell him Roberto sent you.
Well that will be easy to remember. About 2 hours later unable to eat another
bite, she invites me to stay at the hotel where she is living. I had my own
room, good shower, caught up on laundry, I told her this wasn't necessary but
she insisted, she was insulted that I would not be her guest for the night.
While staying at the hotel I met a girl 16 years old with 2 kids no
husband naturally. Seems its quite common for girls to have a child by the
age of 16, and to marry much later. A catholic country yet this situation is
quite common and accepted. She lived and worked at the hotel but no longer
In the morning after much restocking of supplies and a tire repair, and more
good byes to a wonderful lady, I continued on to the north. After about 50
miles of cycling, I passed a small hut on the right side of the road, nothing
else around for miles. As I passed by I noticed a women with her husband
standing in the door way. They waved for me to stop and come to their house.
I had a good momentum going and felt especially strong today so I just waved
and cycled on. About a half mile down the road I thought to myself what a
great opportunity to meet a family who live in a shack in the middle of the
dessert. Then I did something I almost never do, I turned around and cycled
They immediately escorted me to the table and placed in front of me a bowl
of fried lapa. These are small abalone, a mussel that clings to the rocks
just below the low tide waterline. They are difficult to spot because they
blend in with the rock, but are easy to pry off the rocks with a crow bar.
Tear them out of the shell wash 'em off and then pan fry. There is no better
tasting thing you can put in your mouth. mmmmmmm goooood!! The kitchen
table was on the left side of the house outside, under a tarp supported
by four 2x4's. On the right side of the house was the same set up only this
is where her two brothers and I slept. They laid down a pallet for me to
sleep on. The house itself was four large pieces of plywood with a vertical
2x6 at each corner, a roof made out of rows of 2x6's with a tarp thrown over
the top. Inside was a dirt floor, a double bed, a small boom box powered by
two 12 volt car batteries, a propane light, a propane camp stove and a small
mirror. This is where they lived, no rent, no taxes, a comfy chair and a
couch outside facing the ocean and a friendly wave from just about everybody
that happens to pass by.
They regularly collect the plankton that washes up on the beach, lay it
in stacks to dry, and once a month load it on a tractor trailer, to sell
to manufacturing companies who will use it to make nylon. How about that
the original source of things like my tent, my rain jacket and my sleeping
bag. The people you meet, the things you learn just riding your bike down
a lonely desert highway. Everyday I insisted I was leaving the following
day, and this continued for six days. Everyday was something different. One
day we made bread, rolled flour, yeast and a little water into small rolls,
placed them on a piece of round sheet steel. Put the sheet half way down into
a tall barrel and put a lid on the barrel. In the small opening at the
bottom we put several small pieces of wood and lit the fire. Twenty minutes
later we had the best tasting bread. Another day we went down to the sea,
caught a few small crabs running around, broke them in several pieces, placed
them on a fishing hook. Then tied the hook to about 20 feet of fishing line,
wrapped it around a piece of drift wood, swing the line like your about to
lasso a small cow, throw the line into the sea, and in no time caught us six
of the ugliest best tasting fish I've ever seen in me life. Now this is living!
Another day we went out and pried Lapa off the rock, collecting about 100 or
so in two in a half hours. Another day we collected Plankton and dried it on
the beach. Another day we hiked up into the canyon and up to near the top of
the mountain. Each night we sat out side at the kitchen table and played gin
rummy, a game they have not heard before. It was a good challenge to teach a
card game in language I did not speak. I have a little Spanish from listening
to my cassettes, and a dictionary, but it was good fun. One time Anna, Raul's
wife got caught with a lot of points in her hand and in frustration threw
everyone's cards into a pile, just like a small child, it was so funny. She
later apologized and felt bad but we all said its not necessary since it was
After a week it was time for more good byes and moving on, I really enjoyed
their company and told them I would try to write them a letter in Spanish
when I got home. Shortly after I left these good people I crossed the Rio
Loa. At this point there was a major check point where they asked for my
passport and many questions. This is the northern most region of Chile with
road access to neighboring Bolivia and Peru, therefore security is tight.
With the formalities behind me I went back to the bridge that crossed the
tiny trickle called the Rio Loa, went down under the bridge to cook up lunch
and to see something green. In and near the water were clusters of moss and
small shrubs, it doesn't take long to miss seeing green, something, anything
as long as its green. Later I stopped in the small village to ask for Manual,
but naturally he was out fishing and since I was eager to progress after 6
days of rest, I just left of note saying I was sorry for not sticking around.
That afternoon I came to the salt processing plant, where 100 foot piles of
salt stood glistening, snow white and actually blinding to look at. One truck
after another was coming down the mountain from the mine full of salt. Not
wanting to cycle up, I hitched a ride with one up to the top of the 1500 foot
wall of sand and 20 miles across the plateau to the mine. Strangely, for
security reasons I wasn't allowed in which tells me they are probably doing
something illegal. Nonetheless this was a fantastic detour that offered me
the chance to see what was on top of this wall of sand I've been cycling along
for the past week. Nothing, just endless miles of sand and sporadic salt flats.
Realizing I was making no progress arguing with the guard, I hitched a ride
back down and continued cycling northward.
About an hour later I was treated to a spectacular air show. Five Air craft
were drawing stars, hearts, and other designs, going straight up, stalling
into a free fall and flying in formation. Apparently they were practicing for
a show this weekend in Iquique, the next city to the north. I cycled and
watched the show for about half an hour. At one point I looked up and a plane
was in a free fall dive directly for me, so I got off the bike and quickly
drew a bulls eye in the sand next to the road and got out of the way. About
100 feet before he hit the bulls eye, the pilot pulled out of the dive. I
couldn't believe he chickened out, what a wimp. I just laid down in the sand
and watched the rest of the show. It was great not to worry about security or
safety or even deal with crowds. It was my own private show, just for me.
That evening, just before getting into Iquique I stopped on a peninsula
on top of a hill overlooking the bay and the city. To my right looked like
a couple of abandoned houses so I went over there to investigate a place
to sleep for the night. I was about to unpack my bicycle when somebody
came walking over from behind another building. After the basic questions,
he immediately invited me into his house, about 100 meters further up the
hill. He brought me inside and his wife served us all dinner and dessert
with more questions about who I was and what I was doing. In the morning
the man brought me out to his truck to show me how he made surf boards.
I don't know what the substance is, but there were two jugs of liquid and
various colors. You mix the two liquids together with the appropriate
color and within a minute, it boils up into Styrofoam. He had a mold for
various size surf boards which he would pour the mixture into. He wanted
me to stay another day but I was anxious to get into the city and always
fearful of overstaying in a stranger's home. I thanked him and cycled
about 8 miles down into the Iquique.
As I got into the city, I could not believe what I saw. In all honesty, with
no exaggeration, waves in excess of 30 feet were crashing onto the beach. You
could feel the ground shake. I walked out into the sea until I was about knee
deep in water, and the next thing I knew it was over my head. Moments later I
was standing on the beach with no water anywhere. These were tremendous
currents. I thought about wanting to swim, but I knew that it would be a
fatal mistake to even take one more step further out. Never before have I
been so intimidated by the force of water. I talked to a couple local people
who said that every year, two or three times a year they would get such a surf
and I just happened to be there on that day. I guess this just proves the
theory about the horse shoe wedged up my butt. It was so beautiful to look
down the beach into the pipe of the waves. After the earth shattering crash,
the splash from the waves would rise up equally as high and the mist created
a thick fog down the beach.
Thoroughly wet, I got back on the bike and rode down into the city center.
I remembered that I had the phone number and address of the sister of the
husband of the woman who ran the hotel back in the little town down in
San Antonio. I called the number twice but it was no longer in service.
It turned out they had moved so I went to the old address and the neighbor
brought me to their new residence. They took me inside but were somewhat
reluctant to believe my story. Later they told me that it was because they
couldn't comprehend how someone could cycle that far. The made a call to my
friends in San Antonio who confirmed that it was me and I instantly became a
member of the family.
I stayed with them for three days to have an opportunity to explore all that
the city had to offer. Most of the time I spent wandering through the nice
hotels, swimming in their pools and of course walking the beaches. Much to
my delight I came upon a secured Yacht club and noticed that there was a
Canadian boat in there from Vancouver. Naturally, a little bit of security
fencing is nothing for old Ranger Bob, so I hopped the fence and inched my
way along the inside of the fence toward the boat. When I got within earshot,
I called out the name of boat "Orifin", and the owner came out to see what was
happening. I mentioned who I was and he quickly got into his skiff and rowed
over to pluck me off the fence and to bring me into the boat for some good old
Canadian hospitality. We poured over maps, exchanged stories and went out for
a sail. It was a little rough getting out and not a lot of wind but it was
soooo great to be back on a boat, how I've missed it. Ray, the owner told me
that most of the way down the South American coast was calm and always into
the swells, mostly a motorboat trip, but his ultimate destination is the
fjords of southern Chile. He asked me if I wanted to join him. I thanked him
for his offer but my cycle trip is the most important thing for me right now.
I offered to help him fuel up his boat. This is no easy process. We had to make
several trips to the yacht club in the skiff with empty 3 gallon jugs. First
fill them, return to the boat, pour each one into the main tank then return to
the yacht club for more fuel. Chile doesn't receive many foreign yachts and are
therefore not equipped to fuel them. After the ordeal. I thanked Ray again for
his company and returned to the city.
The north end of Iquique is lined with endless rows of wholesale warehouses
and retail tax-free shops of everything you could possibly imagine. Like a
Walmart city in the middle of the Atacama desert. I feel like a circus clown
as I cycle up and down these narrow streets packed with delivery trucks because
everyone stares and smiles and shouts "out donde venien?". Where are you from
gringo? This gets old after a while, so usually I just smile and ride past
with a wave.
My list of needs were very small - a new bicycle tire and a pair of ear plugs.
Camping in the sand without showers has it's drawbacks and since I was
starting to sense that sand dunes were building in my ear canal, I felt it
was high time I splurged the whole 5 cents for a new pair of ear plugs. And
so, not wanting to leave my one true love, the bike that is, out in the streets
alone and vulnerable, I decided it would probably enjoy a little tour through
the store for a change of pace. This was the grande finale to the earlier Clown
performance in the street and I wanted to ensure that everyone in the store was
satisfactorily amused. By contrast of course, in the States, my bike and I
would have been abruptly escorted right back out the door. No sense of humor!
On the way out of town, a guy in a van stopped to talk to me, thankfully
in English. He was a musician from Bolivia who was performing at a
music Fest at a very small community at the base of the Andes, about a
two hour drive from here. He personally invited me to the four day
fiesta that was starting today, teasing me with the tales of free food
and wine and lots of live music for four days and insisted that I join
him as his guest! I was very excited to take the directions from him
and kept the idea in mind as I continued along the road.
It was time to embark on the journey up to the Atacama desert plateau.
Now, when one hears the word "Plateau", it naturally brings to mind the
vision of a high, raised platform of land... with very steep sides
rising up to it. As matter of fact, the cliff up to the plateau rose
directly up from the edge of the city at about a 45 degree angle and
cliff was mostly loose golden sand the entire way up. The road up
to the top of the plateau started at the edge of the city and was a
straight, gentle climb all the way up the cliff face for about 2 miles
with no switchbacks. Now when one says "gentle climb" it may create
an image of a casual cruise along a pastoral country road. But the
reality of the matter is, I'm cycling up hill, requiring maximum
oxygen intake to do the climb, competing against the volume of
mini-buses and trucks coming up from the port town. Oxygen becomes
a rare commodity once it's polluted with the leaded fuel fumes from
the trucks that are pushing themselves in maximum overdrive leaving
massive black clouds of choking smoke. Luckily, their main destination
is the town at the top of the road, which means that once they've
made their deliveries, they'll turn around and go back down again.
This gives me great inspiration to continue, knowing that I'll be
able to leave the trucks behind soon.
Once I had climbed the 1500 feet to the top, I looked back out across the
ocean and the big city below and bid adieu to the scenic coastline and faced
the barren plateau of sand and rock and road. As I turned away from the coast
to head through the small town where the poorer people lived, I could feel the
chill of about 55 degrees due to the winds from the coast. By the time I had
traveled the 30 miles inland to the Pan Americanna highway, the climate had
shifted up to desert temperatures of about 80 degrees, and this is the WINTER
temperature. In the summer, the temperatures here would be unbearably hot.
As I get to the intersection of the Pan Americana, two guys in a pickup truck
stopped to ask where I was from. When I mentioned I was from Ohio, the one
fellow, who was originally from Chile, mentioned that he had studied in
Pittsburgh and was now an Engineer working for a mining company in northern
Chile. Interesting, I told him he was the second person I met on this trip
from South America who studied in Pittsburgh. They insisted that I join them
for lunch and we threw my bike into the back of the pickup truck. We drove
about 8 miles South to a really nice restaurant where we had our contented fill
of meat and rice for a change, we each had a glass of Coca Cola (which always
costs more than the meal itself!). Through the course of the two hour meal,
they managed to convince me to make a three day detour east up into the Andes
to the resort town of Pica. After lunch, they drove me another couple of miles
south to drop me off at the start of the dead-end detour road. Naturally, I
would have to come back this way to return to the Pan Americanna, but like all
detours, it proved to be far more attractive than the sticking with the Pan
Americanna stretch. Since I know that most of the joys and wonders of life
are discovered by chance when you venture off the beaten trail, I face the new
road with excitement.
After about 20 miles cycling due Eastward on a road that is pleasantly
flat with good pavement, as the sun set behind me, the Andes mountain
range ahead of me was illuminated with a brilliant fiery red glow. It
was as if the mountain range was rising like a phoenix from the flames
and I was so awestruck that I was hypnotized by it's beauty. Now, the
town of Pica was a spa resort town with a natural hot spring pool,
which, in itself wasn't very noteworthy, but the view of the sunset
was the inspired moment that made the detour truly worth every extra
After the sun set, I noted that perhaps it would have been a good idea
to set up camp before being hypnotized, for now I found myself feeling
may way around a field of thorny bushes to try to find a space to
lay out my camp. After a futile 20 minutes, I made my way back to the
road and noticed some lights toward the north about 300 feet from the
road. I made my way toward the lights and when I got there
I discovered that it was actually a water pumping station. Since there
is no rainfall or rivers in Iquique, it is totally dependent on an
imported water supply. Water is pumped from up in the Andes to this
station which regulates the flow into the city based on the demand.
I assumed that the source into the pumping was from an underground well
fed by the rivers up in the Andes.
I went up to the little trailer and asked the night watchman if I could
stay there. At the time he was very busy with work and he quickly agreed.
I found a spot under several huge Palm trees in a circle of about 200 feet
in diameter that are surviving solely on the water from the pumping
station. For hundreds of miles around this spot, there is NOTHING but
sand and rock - no trees, no grass, no tumbleweeds. I would assume that
the grove of trees had been transplanted to this area.
Underneath one of the trees, illuminated by the pumping station lights,
I excitedly spread out my tarp and thermarest and settled down to read
and relax. After about 20 minutes, I happened to look over to the right
and found myself almost face to face with the beady eyes of a suspicious
6 inch Scorpion with his tail raised up over his back waving a cheery
hello to me. Now my first thought was that perhaps I had not made such
a prudent choice for my campsite, but I relaxed and took the opportunity
to play "Stick" with my new pet. I would tickle him with the stick and
he would giggle so much that little drops of liquid would ooze from the
tip of his tail. I thought that it might be a delicious nectar to add
to my tea later for a soothing relaxing nighttime drink.
Soon my scorpion pet became tired of our play and started to show signs of
getting agitated. At this point I decided to stroll back up to the
office to ask if there might be a better location to set up a camp.
About half way to the office, the man came out and started walking
towards me. When we met, he spoke first and asked if I would like to
sleep in his house for it can get rather chilly at night. I agreed
without a moment's hesitation and then regaled him with the tales of
my scorpion encounter. He brought me into the empty building with
concrete floors and walls and I set up my thermarest in one of the
rooms. He cooked with a camp stove, had a tiny pot, couple of plates,
cutlery and cups and that was about it. There was no running water
so we had to carry it in buckets.
The next morning, I left my gear at the station and cycled about two
hours into Pica. There was a church with a bell tower and a man
invited me to join him while he did his bell ringing duty. We donned
the headphones and went up to pull on the thick rope to chime out the
11:00 hour. The hotsprings proved to be disappointing since it was
like a swimming pool roped off for swimming laps. The one redeeming
feature is that the one side of the pool abutted the natural side of
the cliff. The combination of the showers, change rooms, attendants
and $5.00 admission charge was enough to negate any interest I might
have summed up for partaking of the unnatural natural wonder. The
town itself, despite its remote location had a very touristy appeal
but held very little interest for me, keeping in mind that my tastes
are always the opposite of the general population and I'm sure that
there are many people who would delight in the relaxing atmosphere
of this quaint resort town.
As I cycled out of town to the east towards the Andes where the road
deteriorated rapidly into rough gravel. After about three miles I
stopped and looked out at the valley below. According to the map,
this road stretches out for over 100 miles with an icy cold barren
moonscape terrain as far as the eye could see. I coasted down the
hill back through Pica and the valley below and I came upon an orange
grove, obviously irrigated from the pumping station. I stopped to
ask if it was possible to buy some oranges and as usual the answer
was an adamant NO but they insisted that I take 20 pounds of oranges
for free as he handed me two bags full of oranges.
I headed back to my friend's house, gave him half the oranges and
cooked him up a feast for dinner to thank him for letting me stay
there. The next morning, I packed up early, thanked my host and
headed back out to the Pan Americanna to resume my journey northward.
About 4 hours later, I had made it back to the restaurant where we
had lunch before the detour. I decided go in to treat myself to lunch,
went into the washroom to clean up and came out to find that my friends
had also stopped in for lunch at the same time! We had a joyful
reunion celebration and settled down to share the experiences I had
Even though I had sacrificed the music festival invitation, I was
very grateful that I had taken the detour for it took me to a place
that I may not have otherwise seen. After I left my friends, I
retraced my trail back to the intersection where we met and once again
I was still just 20 miles outside of Iquique.
That night, I cycled a further 10 miles up the Pan Americanna to a town called
Haunan. Interestingly enough, this is where the turn off to the music
festival was and I pondered the mysteries of the choices we all make in life.
Who knows what would have happened or who I would have met if I chose to attend
the music fest. I have discovered in life we never regret the things we do,
only the things we don't do.
Today's new experience was attending a funeral in the traditional Chilean
custom. I wandered into the local church as I usually do when I enter a town,
but this time it was a funeral. The whole church was lit up and about 100
people gathered around. Not wanting to intrude I sat quietly in the back, but
soon a man approached me and we talked briefly in Spanish. He said that a local
women died at the age of 103. Not everyone knew her but everyone knew of her.
She was well known for her handmade blankets and quilts with native drawings
on them. He said the calling hours were all day and that every member of the
community made an appearance, over 6000 people.
As I cycled through the town, a woman came out of a dilapidated building
and asked me who I was, where I was going and whether I'd be interested
in talking to the town about my travels. Turns out that she was hosting
a local town radio program. I got my dictionary out, wrote down a few
phrases in Spanish and after she introduced me and handed the microphone
over, I talked about who I was and what I loved about Chile, where I
was going next. Finally I introduced the song I had selected, "Homeward
Bound" by Simon and Garfunkle and my 15 minutes of radio fame were over.
About 8 people from the town rushed down to the radio station to chat
with me after the broadcast, one of them was actually the mayor of the
town. You'd think I was Michael Jackson out for a stroll down Hollywood
Boulevard. The mayor thanked me for coming into the town, welcomed me
into the city and commented on how noble it was for me to be taking my
time to experience the country at a slow pace to fully appreciate it.
He made arrangements for me to stay at the minor's dormitories in the center
of town. This was probably the equivalent of the finest hotel in their
town and I was very honored by the offer.
Going north from Haunan, after about 3 hours, I noticed something odd.
Not a single vehicle had passed me and this is the ONLY road in this
part of the country and it's the main road heading into Peru. All the
traffic coming into Chile from Peru has to pass along this road. I'm
not complaining by any stretch of the imagination and I'm relishing
the peace and quiet. However, I still had a concern that this seemed
somewhat odd since the day before, there had been a fair amount of
traffic. I thought nothing further of it and chose to enjoy the peace
For the most part, the road was flat with a few dips down into dry
river beds. I came to a bridge where a 30 foot stretch of railing
was broken off. When I looked down, about 100 feet below, upside-down
in the shallow river bed was a tractor trailer. I went back to the
end of the bridge and started heading down the side of the hill. there
were no other footprints so there was a strong chance that I was the
first person to arrive. The cab of the rig looked like a tin can that
had been crushed flat but I couldn't see any signs of any person in
or around the cabin. I was fairly confident that it was empty. Later
I was to learn that he had only suffered a broken leg by jumping out
of the truck before it crashed over the bridge. The real excitement
came when I peered into the back of the truck and much to my surprise
it was half-full of UNBROKEN glass bottles of first pressed virgin
olive oil from Italy! An incredibly expensive delicacy for this area
and must have been imported for the upper class restaurants. Thinking
that these would make excellent gifts for hosts along the way, I gathered
6 bottles to take with me. At a kilo a piece, the added weight made
this a rather foolish idea however, for the next three weeks, I
thoroughly enjoyed the treat of having fresh olive oil on my salads
The following day I took the 9 mile long descent into the river valley
to the town of Cuyo where I confirmed that the officials knew about the
truck accident and that there was no problem with taking the olive oil.
Actually I was hoping that they would confiscate the oil so that I
didn't have to lug it back up out of the valley.
Cycling back up the river valley, you can see and smell the mist from
the sea that was 20 miles away as it rolled up the valley. The river
itself doesn't really contain any surface water since the water flows
underground. The water supply however creates a great mile-wide oasis,
a river of vegetation rather than water. Mother nature can sometimes twist
your reality. Since the descent into the valley was westward, there was a
strong headwind that forced you to peddle hard to go downhill. Conversely,
there was a tailwind as you ride the eastward road to come up out of the
valley, ironically making it slightly easier to go uphill. Psychologically,
it's frustrating to have to peddle downhill since you usually look forward to
the chance to be able to coast.
Because of the infinite nothingness of the desert region, the good flat road
and the lack of distractions like interesting people, I was able to cover
more than 80 miles a day for about 3 days.
The scenery continued on in much the same manner until I started my
final descent in Chile. Another river valley - only this one opened
up into the ocean with a meager flow of water through it. As the
road leveled out, up ahead in the distance, I could see a mob of people.
In front of the people there were no less than 35 tractor trailer rigs
lined up perpendicular to the road so that their trailers were completely
blocking the road. I got off the bike and wove my way around the trucks
for about 100 yards. By the time I made it past the last one, there
were approximately 600-700 people picketing on the road, waving their
signs. As I advanced towards them, they started moving towards me
en masse and shouting and screaming at me in Spanish. At first they
said that I had to go back the way I came and could not pass through.
Then, they said that if I wanted to pass through, I would have to pay
them. I asked them why and what the protest was about. They just
smiled and laughed at me and waved me through the crowd because the
protest was only targeted at the truckers.
I eventually found someone that spoke English and I learned that they
are trying to prevent any commercial vehicles hauling any form of cargo
from entering or leaving. All the trucks that were lined up were being
held because they couldn't pass through and weren't going to turn around
and go back so they joined in with the crowd. The protest was against
the government because there is a tax free zone in Iquique and up in
Peru was another tax free zone town called Tacna with a lot of commercial
goods. Arica itself, between the two cities near the border, was not
considered a tax free zone. The significance of this issue is that
nobody would consider starting up any business in Arica and everybody
goes up to Tacna or down to Iquique to shop. Consequently, this means
that all the tourism, hotels, shopping, businesses and most importantly
the jobs, leave Arica. I asked my friend who spoke English to announce
to the crowd that I was in full support of their issue. This resulted
in a big roar of cheers from the crowd and they took one of their
protest flags (a broom pole with a black plastic trash bag attached)
and secured it to my panniers so that it was standing up 10 feet into
the air. One of the guys warned my that the government and the military
police were not in support of this demonstration and that I should be
very careful moving through town. Totally unafraid, knowing it was for
a good cause, I set off into the city with this banner of justice waving
high above me. Without fail, everyone who passed me smiled or cheered
or honked their horn in support and seemed to be so excited to see a
foreigner understand and participate in their cause. I cycled around
the town for about an hour and then headed out towards the coast to
make my traditional pilgrimage to the end of the road.
The road ended at the coast where the plateau cliffs dropped off into
the sea. In Iquique, I went as far north as possible along the coast
to get to the end of the road and found myself blocked by the cliffs
dropping off into the ocean. I have now cycled south from Arica as
far as I could go along the coast until I encountered the Northern
face of the plateau cliffs. If I had a kayak handy, I would have
found it particularly fulfilling to complete the circuit by kayaking
AROUND the cliff coast line back to Iquique, but I'll have to save
that challenge for some future trip.
I spent some time on the beach with the waves crashing up on the
rocks and around the natural arches that continued north up the coast.
I could see in the distance a mile-long stretch of fish processing
plants running full steam ahead with smoke billowing out of the stacks.
I stumbled upon a hut and thought that this would be an ideal place to
set up camp for the night and breathe in the beauty of the sunset.
I stripped down to the old birthday suit and did the polar bear plunge
ritual into the ocean and frolicked quickly back to the hut serenaded
by the honking from the passing cars. The concession hut consisted of
one large room on the interior and a large roofed porch. I settled into
the evening rituals of making dinner and watching the sunset from the
porch and eventually fell asleep. About 2:00 am, I heard a loud drunk
staggering man stumble into the hut and passed out for the night. In
the morning, he found me on the porch and was thrilled to welcome me
with a hot coffee. I offered to make him breakfast but he declined
and had to run off to work at the fishery. I finished my breakfast,
packed up and cycled back to Arica.
I came upon a posh hotel in Arica called Hotel Americanna and decided
to go in to have a look. They had a fabulous all-you-can-eat American
style brunch set up in the restaurant which is free for the guests and
$10.00 for others. I wandered back into the lobby where I met 2 musicians
who were part of a traditional folk band from Hungary, complete with their
traditional costumes. They had been hired as entertainment for the guests
that were there for the Tennis competition. The Hotel manager was also
sitting with them. Naturally, everyone was very curious about who I was
and what I was doing. I hinted to the manager that I wouldn't mind passing
out some promotional flyers and writing about his hotel in the book that
I was going to write about this trip in exchange for an invitation to
partake of the buffet. He was hesitant to agree at first, but since
there was only an hour left for the buffet, he finally felt comfortable
and rolled out the red carpet for me. He put a sticker on my helmet
that said "Hotel Americanna" but wouldn't accept any of my offers for
promotional foot work.
The Hungarian band invited me to sit by the pool after lunch to watch
their performance. It was such a bizarre sensation to be listening to
traditional Hungarian folk music being played in a typical American style
Hotel in a Spanish South American country. While I was watching the
band, the concierge had filled all my water bottles with fresh water,
and replaced the old recycled plastic bottles with brand new sealed
bottled water. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the amazing
thoughtfulness of everyone I met that day.
I took some time in the city to stock up on more supplies, definitely
not any more Olive Oil. I headed out towards the North of the city,
past the high-rises and the condos. As I'm climbing upward and looking
back on the city, I come to a four-way stop about 5 miles north.
It is with great euphoric zeal that I stand and look out over the ocean
and think that I had just cycled the entire length of Chile, about
4000 cycling miles since I was Ushuaia. This was the biggest milestone
in the entire trip for me because it was the completion of a major
personal goal. It was such an exciting feeling to have achieved such
a significant goal safely and with such phenomenal warmth and
hospitality along the way.
3 miles to the north is the Peruvian boarder where the Pan Americanna
continues northward for 2000 miles through the desert up into Ecuador.
I'm not at all interested in continuing through the desert region any
longer and so it's time to make another end-of-the-road pilgrimage.
From the four-way stop, I took the unpaved bad gravel road-less-traveled
westward about 3 miles to the ocean where the river meets the sea.
Being that I'm a really Big Geography buff, I have a great passion to always
try to physically touch all the wondrous points of the globe. There's one last
geological landmark in Chile that I am determined to touch - the mouth of
the Llute river. This river opens up into the ocean at the major bending
point in the South American continent. Just a few miles south of Peru, the
coast to the north of the river bulges out towards the North-West with the
Peruvian coast. The coast to the south of the river does a turn outward to the
South-south-west. The mouth of this river is the exact corner of the 120 degree
angle which is the bend in the continent. I was surprised to see how obvious
this corner was when I actually was standing on it. But the biggest significance
of this for me is that whenever you look at the view of South America from any
satellite image, you can precisely pick out this geological landmark. Now, every
time I look at a map or an image of South America, I know that I stood on that
exact spot on June 3, 1998, where the ocean meets the land and the continent
I spent about an hour at that spot meditating on my accomplishment and
what it meant to me and basking in the glow of the moment. Considering
this was the tropics, you'd think that the glow would have been warmer,
but the reality is that is was pretty darn cold there, considering it
was winter by the ocean. I finally had to tear myself away from the
moment to continue on the journey. I cycled back up the road to the
same intersection. I looked back at the ocean and realized that from
this point, I would be leaving the pacific until I reach the northern
point of Peru. To bypass the north west desert region through Peru,
I now turn myself due east and start the climb from sea level up to
15,500 feet at the Bolivian border.