After the taxing day yesterday, I was eager to make my way to the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama. In Calama, I experienced a leisurely morning with the usual cadre of gawkers surrounding my bike as I loaded my things. This led to more conversations and subsequently a later departure.
The road was heaven — that is considering my ten-hour ordeal well into the night the day before. Several motorcycle travelers passed heading the other way. Two stopped. An Irishman and a Swiss guy – Roger and Sam. Roger, the Swiss rider beat the hell out of his bike on the route that I had taken the jeep tour in Bolivia. His sub-frame cracked on the GS1150 Adventure he was riding. Now it was braced with a few tie downs, tire irons and hose clamps. They were heading back to Calama to take the highway and easy road to Santiago where they hoped to find help and get the bike repaired. So is the life of adventure motorcycle travel.
Rolling into the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama one can’t help but wonder why. Why did the Spaniards settle in this outpost in the middle of nowhere a scant 50 years after Christopher Columbus set his sails for the new world. Shopkeepers and eateries regularly emerge from the dark caverns of their abodes to toss buckets of water on the street in an effort to tame the dust — especially when the wind threatens to rip a major gust through the streets.
At first glance it appears to be sleepy. But a regular stream of busses drop weary backpackers from Bolivia or Argentina onto the dusty streets. And while the adobe facades of many of the buildings don’t look like much, walking into any of the number of restaurants, hotels or tour agents I am wildly surprised at the design, furniture and modern yet seamless integration into the desert surroundings.
After driving a couple loops through the town I decided to tame my hunger and popped into a fine looking restaurant with table cloths, fine table settings and an open patio tastefully decorated. Ckunna. A must stop for anyone finding themselves in SP de Atacama. The attentive staff and a few of the customers helped me develop a short list of potential hotels. A fine idea except they were all full.
For the fun of it, I stopped into the Awasi. With only 8 cabanas, it’s the most expensive hotel in town. And after hearing the $300 plus rate, I explained to the fine-looking receptionist that while I spend lots of time with my motorcycle, I think I’d be better suited to sample their fine accommodations instead when accompanied by someone much softer and with less of a growl. She suggested a few other hotels, one of which at less than a third the price was also full. So the story goes in San Pedro.
I finally found a hotel with parking and settled in at a cost of about 15% of the Awasi. Yet at these prices it’s quite a culture shock for someone emerging out of Bolivia where accommodations cost a few bucks and you can dine like a king for less than five. I was in Chile. Credit card logos graced the doors of artisan shops and restaurants. There was even an ATM in town – something you only found in the largest Bolivian cities.
The attraction here is the dry yet intense desert heat. Tours embark to Bolivia, nearby Petroglyphs and interesting rock formations and gorges. Sand-boarding is big, as is mountain biking. Like a ball and chain, my ankle keeps me put and walking only a small circumference of the tiny town, it’s old church and dodging obnoxious barking dogs.
Taking a break from the heat the next day I the rumble of an engine that could only be a F650GS Dakar woke me from my siesta. Two bikes pulled into the driveway at my Hostal Katarpe – Jeremiah and Ming. They just emerged from Bolivia and the infamous route of volcanoes and lagunas. Yet another reunion for us weary bikers.
For the next few days we lazily spent time talking about routes, plans and taking care of menial tasks such as laundry, internet and looking for insurance t — to keep the Argentinean police off our backs once crossing the border into South America’s second biggest country.
Ming, the American Indonesian-Born Chinese descendant who calls Corvallis, Oregon his home is on a more aggressive schedule than me or Jeremiah. So on Thursday November 30 he took off for Argentina hoping to make it to the bottom of the world in Ushuaia by Christmas.
The next morning Jeremiah and I found an agent who could sell us Argentinean liability insurance. Prior to returning to Bolivia Jeremiah had problems with the police and was turned back to Paraguay because he didn’t have the insurance demanded by the Argentinean police. At $80 for the month of December, I was a bit reluctant to pony up the cash. But rather than deal with bribe-conscious corrupt cops, I bought the policy.
Getting out of Chile seemed to be a bit tougher than it was getting in. And I’m not referring to the road. When we told him we were on motorcycles, the cranky immigration officer sent Jeremiah and I to the end of the line after we had been waiting for nearly a half an hour. We weren’t the only motorcyclists that were discriminated by the sour sun-baked power wielding bozo. Two Argentinean motorcyclist, Daniel and Juan had waited two hours to clear immigration, getting sent to the back of the line twice.
With our passports officially stamped the four of us headed to Argentina, crossing the Andes at Paso de Jama. The Argentinean immigration and aduana (customs) went much smoother and again we ran into our two new friends and cruised into Argentina – another border successfully crossed.