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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

Into Chile!

Updated: Dec 12, 2020


The new hotel in Tacna I moved into was nice and I was able to chill while waiting for Jules and Christine to arrive in town. They would be coming from Arequipa a day later, so I had a day to explore the nearby square and upload a couple of blog posts. Tacna was the last town in Peru before crossing into Chile. It, as most of the other coastal towns, was not attractive or picturesque, however there was a tranquility to the dusty place and it seemed to draw a fair number of tourists from Peru.

My Canadian friends arrived the next day and the following morning the border crossing to Arica, Chile, was just a few kilometers away. It was rumored to be an easy crossing and our travel day would entail less than 60 km or roughly 40 miles. As with all things Latin America, nothing is as it seems and the roadway between Tacna and the border was being worked on, so we had many long traffic delays. Once at the border, it was a bit confusing despite having read other traveler's descriptions. It wasn't clear exactly where we were to check out of Peru and continued on to the Chilean side.

The buildings were new and modern, however there were no signs indicating where to go or what to do. Having been told Chile was about like the United States, I was hoping for a less confusing border crossing. This was not to be the case despite instructions from other travelers.

We parked the bikes, got in a long line, and as we neared the officials behind glass, another official came over and asked if we were on the motorcycles, then pointed us to a different line. Before we could walk to that line, about 30 people overhearing him, rushed ahead of us. After a long wait we were next for the window, but of course the officials shut the window for a lunch break. One official said he would be back shortly so we continued to stand and wait. At this point another official came over and ordered us into a third line. As we continued to move forward, another official came over and told us that we needed to go upstairs and get some papers. I had been advised of this by Louise Jobin, a solo lady traveler who had been following my blog and was a few hundred miles ahead of us. However, the building wasn't obvious, but the official had pointed "up", so as we attempted to walk over towards a lone 2 story building, a construction worker yelled at us and told us we couldn't go up the staircase, so we had to go around a different direction.

After finally getting in the building and going to the second floor, the only thing there was a cafeteria for the employees. I saw a hallway at the back end and as we walked that direction, a lady began yelling at us. I turned to see a lunch lady complete with hair net standing at the cash register and waving at us disgustedly. I walked back over, and sure enough she was the person selling the Aduana forms in triplicate. Perfectly logical that you would get to buy an Aduana form from the lunch lady in a cafeteria, rather than with the other forms we were given in the actual Aduana office. The lunatic Latin American crossing logic was still on display in Chile. Honestly, the entire hours long process could so easily be solved with a few signs and painted numbers like: Step 1, Step 2, etc

There were no moneychangers at the border nor was there an ATM or any method of either getting or exchanging money. That morning I still had a few Peruvian Soles but got a bit paranoid that there would be some unknown fees and had grabbed a few more from an ATM in Tacna. Despite the price of the form being in Chilean pesos, of which we had no way of getting any, the lady grudgingly accepted my soles.

We paid our money and filled out the forms as best we could, then headed back down to get in line. This was our fourth time in line and luckily a large family in the front of us moved to a different one. At the immigration window at last, we were stamped out of Peru and then into Chile. From there we were pointed to the Aduana window and after being given some forms, we finally got the bikes checked out of Peru and into Chile. The most satisfying sound in our world truly is the thump of an official stamp.

We now had to remove all our gear from the motorcycles and carry it inside the x-ray building to be run through the machine. This was going to be a real nightmare as a few of our cases had no carry bags. We rode around the barricades to get closer, and after I pulled out my clothes bag and the rear duffel bag and my tank bag, the attendant indicated just to put them on the belt and not to bring everything off the bikes. The x-ray procedure seemed more symbolism more than substance, and we finally got the bikes loaded again.

Christine located an insurance salesman at a portable table on the sidewalk, and luckily she took American bills for our 30 day policy. We now had our insurance, aduana, and immigration papers, complete with four stamps. We were pointed back to the motorcycles and geared up, riding to the exit gate, where I was refused an exit because I only had “cuatro stampas” and not “seis”. We turned around and rode back to the Aduana and I showed my stamped paperwork to the x-ray attendant and said “seis?” He had pity on us and lead us back over to another harried official inspecting a car. We pointed to the motorcycles and he told us to wait, then when he finished the car came over, looked at the bikes and hurriedly stamped our papers. I counted six and was happy, as well as the guard who then let us through.

Very quickly the short ride to Arica, Chile was done and the search for food and a hotel began. We stopped at one of two hostels listed on iOverlander but they were fully booked and knew of no one with rooms. We decided to head downtown and one of the first things I noticed were people dressed in Carnaval costumes. Not a good sign. The previous night on had shown the town as 98% booked.

Each hotel we attempted to find that afternoon was completely sold out. It was obvious the carnaval weekend was horrible timing on our part so we began to look for campgrounds on the edge of town. Locating one, we rode out in the failing light having spent the afternoon looking for lodging. The “cabanas and campground” were located behind a restaurant on the beach. The camping area was not much different than a junkyard, replete with dogs, pallets and old rusted vehicles. We had little choice, as we were starving and the day was gone.

Jules and Christine re-stacked some old pallets so that we had enough room to set up two tents. The area reeked of dog poop and urine, but we had to make do. The restaurant was very good and I had some outstanding fresh fish. The waitress was a very sweet girl, a refugee from Venezuela, incredibly nice and helpful. As in several instances, it has been Venezuelan refugees who have been working in hotels and restaurants. The story has been the same and it is a very sad one, as they love their country and miss it, sending any money they make back home to try and support mothers and family. This girl told about how they had to leave, typically only being paid about $4 a week in their country. Needless to say they could not live. Now, in the other countries they find their employers requiring double shifts and more since they know the refugees are desperate for a job. My heart goes out to them, as I have heard this story multiple times in South America.

Our “easy day” had, of course, turned into a challenge. I capped off the night with a Pisco Sour to celebrate being in another country and crawled into my tent falling asleep quickly. Chile's time zone is two hours ahead of Peru. We'd stayed awake until midnight which correlated to 10, but for some reason I woke wide awake at 2 AM and could not go back to sleep. There were many dogs around the tent throughout the night and I think that's what kept me awake.

From Arica, I booked an AirBNB home in Iquique, which was the only reasonably priced accommodation for three people to share. We quickly found out after having been told by others, that hotel rooms booked up very fast and the prices in Chile were roughly the same as, if not higher than, the United States. After paying $10-$18 for hotels for the last two or three months, suddenly seeing $100 dollar hotel rooms was difficult to swallow.

The ride from Arica to Iquique was incredible, heading through the Chilean desert which was a grand scale of dry desert mountains and subtle colors. It lacked the blowing sand and huge sand dunes of Peru, but was no less desolate. Not a blade of green was seen. The northern Chilean desert is incredibly impressive. Gas, food or towns is quite rare in the huge distances, so one must plan accordingly.

As we rode through high scenery and dropped into valleys, I began to feel the fatigue from not having slept the previous night. I was overcome with sleepiness and really needed to pull off and stop, but traveling at 80 mph behind Jules and Christine, I figured I could shake it off after a bit. Unfortunately in my extreme sleepiness, I slowly had caught up close behind them rather than maintaining several hundred yards as usual.

As we passed into a steep canyon at high speed, I suddenly saw Jules swerve hard to the right and Christine behind him swerve hard to the left. Why, I could not see, but it happened so quickly I instinctively swerved to follow Christine. Unfortunately, I should have gone right as I was to that side, and at 80 mph a big, square-edged block of stone freshly fallen from the cliff edge came directly under my front wheel. I hit it directly at 80 mph and the bike went airborne, landing hard but luckily I didn't crash. I expected a flat tire at any moment and could feel a wobble in the front, knowing I'd bent the front wheel. My stomach turned as I knew this was serious and we were in the midst of a huge, desolate area of the world. Due to the road, I could not stop but had to continue slowly down a hill until a bridge crossing where there was a little shoulder I could pull off onto. Christine and Jules had no idea of course and had ridden on, finally realizing I had stopped and returning.

On one side, the rim had been seriously bent out and it was hard to believe the tire had not blown out. I'll admit, I got very angry at yet another piece of bad luck, having been continuously plagued with problems on this trip. I had lost so much time and had missed so many things I wanted to see in trying to get the bike repaired. Disgusted, I threw my gloves on the ground and cursed out loud. I was sick inside at yet another expensive repair and yet another forced route to a major city to solve a problem. I was very blessed that I hadn't crashed and that the tire seemed to be holding enough air to continue, but I felt so gutted inside that I couldn't even look at the blessing and bright side for another day.

Christine and Jules felt so bad for me, that Jules gave me a hug.

Iquique was still far ahead and I rode with uncertainty in silence, feeling the wobbling handlebars and wondering at what moment the front tire might blow out. After another couple of hours in utter desert desolation, the coastal city appeared. Having received confirmation from AirBNB earlier, we had not received an address for the house, only for the street. Christine and Jules had ridden slowly behind me and I arrived about 30 minutes before them. I sat in the heat and sent multiple emails to the homeowner but had the feeling this all had gone awry. When Christine and Jules arrived, they walked the street asking residents if they had heard of the woman's name, but everyone said no.

I went back through my emails and finally discovered a phone number, calling it to no answer. I tried again multiple times and finally a male voice answered. He hung up quickly as I begin to speak. I called again and he answered, and after mentioning the homeowners name, a woman's voice came on the line. I tried to explain in bad Spanish about the booking and confirmation, however in Spanish she said there was nothing available and there was no booking, then hung up. Christine's Spanish is much better than mine, so I had her call again and this time the woman stayed on the line. After denying again that there was a booking, the lady disappeared for a bit then came back on the line speaking perfect English. She had not checked her email and said she had no idea that AirBNB had confirmed a booking.

It seemed to me she had no experience, later borne out when she admitted this was her first booking. She said nothing was available where we were, but to drive to a large apartment complex a ways away, which we did. No one was there and as we prepared to leave to look for a hotel, someone began whistling loudly. A man and woman waved at us to come up the street where they were, The man seemed annoyed and distrustful, and I couldn't help but focus on the giant, bite-mark hickeys on his neck as the woman with him spoke to us. The fruition of the long discussion was that they had no place available, and when I said she could return the money and we would try to find a hotel, she suddenly remembered her brother's apartment and said we could all share one room and one bathroom only. We were then sent back to the very same spot we had just left, and were tenuously shown around the apartment as if we were thieves. I was frustrated as hell and ready to go find an expensive hotel, but the attitude of the woman and man lightened.

The next morning I aired up my tire and we packed to leave, waiting for the final inspection by the couple to make sure we hadn't stolen something. The coastal cities of Peru and now Chile, were similar in that they had no appeal, despite being on the coast. They were proving to be dusty, sand-filled, dirty towns with only industrial character. One had no desire to explore the streets, only to spend the night to move on.

Christine & Jules had picked a small town between Iquique and Antofagasta, but with my bent wheel concerns I was trying to make it to Santiago as fast as possible and told them I'd continue to Antofagasta instead.

The coastal road south toward Antofagasta was an incredible experience, reminiscent of Highway 1 in California but on a scale so massive it was hard to comprehend. Huge mountains came down into the sea with the highway cut just along the bottom. To the left lay steep mountain walls, at times, and to the right the Pacific ocean exploded against black lava formations and rolled onto yellow beaches. The ride was yet another memorable day of so many.

It was frustratingly hard to capture images that could show the scale or the scenery in the haze. At some point, my two friends peeled off for their town and I pushed on, making my goal late in the afternoon and on a tire with only 12 lbs of air I was to discover, rather than the 40 it was designed for. After the initial impact, the tire had seemed to hold air well, or at least leak very slowly, but now the pressure was beginning to escape at a faster rate.

I was pleasantly surprised at Antofagasta and the hostel I'd found. Antofagasta was a bit cleaner and more upscale than previous towns. The hostel was new and in a quiet neighborhood, with private parking a block away. The rooms were unique in that they were all identical and small, yet very clean and just large enough. There was a large openable skylight in the ceiling for air and a view. The place was very serene and I immediately booked a second night. I took a nap, falling asleep easily, and then got up to ride the motorcycle down to a large shopping mall to try and locate an AC adapter for the Chilean wall outlets. In all the previous countries, the standard US plug was normal, however Chile had none. Somehow I managed to leave my lone adapter in Dallas, so sourcing one was necessary and not as easy as I thought. I rode the motorcycle to the mall and got in line for the liftgate for parking, only to discover that tickets are not dispensed and I was stuck between the car in front and a lot of cars with angry shoppers behind. When the arm raised I got as close to the car in front as I could and squeezed under the bar as it came down. I was now in parking and tried to find a place to pay, however the machines in the lot would only timestamp a digital card for you to prepay for your exit. There was no way to simply pay to leave the parking lot.

I wandered the mall to no avail, then spotted a big home store further down the block. I had no luck finding adapters until one lady remembered where they might be and I bought two. Getting back out of the parking lot was going to be a challenge as there was a guard near the exit watching each car. I waited until a couple of cars pulled in and used my tailgate touching exit technique as the guard watched me go past. I was actually amazed she didn't begin yelling at me. What a wild man I am. Next I'll be tearing tags off mattresses.

That night I walked the beachfront and watched people jogging, kissing and hanging out. I slept very well and woke refreshed the next morning. Though Iquique had a much nicer vibe and cleanliness then most of the other coastal cities, I had no desire to explore and spent the day napping. It was also time for my annual toenail clipping and eyebrow comb-out. I was excited to finally discover what the strange tickle on my cheek had been while riding. Apparently a random 4" eyebrow hair liked to coil in the eyebush and come out like a snake stretching its nonexistent legs to tickle my cheek and then hide again.

Refreshed and groomed for yet another year, I inflated the sagging front tire and loaded the bike for the next push southward. Copiapó was roughly five hours south and about halfway to the city of Valparaiso. There were two choices of highways going south from Antofagasta, Ruta 1 along the beautiful coast and Ruta 5 a bit further inland. I would've preferred the coast, but I had discovered that the Mano del Desierto, the huge hand sculpture in the desert, was about 70 miles south on Ruta 5.

One thing good about Chile is that the weather had been rain free, and other than a few hours of overcast, had generally been clear and sunny, a more than welcome change after months of rain on my journey. I was in the groove and enjoying the slight cold air and crisp sunshine when I spotted the sculpture ahead more quickly than expected. As I exited to take a short dirt road to the hand, there was not a soul in sight. I pulled up to the sculpture and began trying to figure out where to take a selfie, when I turned around to see two giant tour buses exiting the highway and starting up the road...

I can't tell you how excited I was when the buses pulled up and a hundred people, apparently Bolivians heading to an Herbalife Convention somewhere, poured out like ants swarming around the statue and my bike. I waited patiently as they took photos with the Bolivian flag, Herbalife products and countless selfies. After their initial excitement, they spotted the bike and spent time posing near it as well.

Still, the few moments before all the people had arrived were enjoyable, getting a chance to observe the huge sculpture alone in the wind against the eerie desert backdrop.

The bleak and desolate desert continued as I rolled southward. The Chilean desert is on a scale hard to comprehend.

Every 20 or 30 miles it seemed, the skeleton of a car lay on its side or upside down, as if a metal skull in the desert. In each case they lay off the highway fifty or a hundred yards, every conceivable part stripped from them. I was surprised at the number of wrecks as I rode, and found it somewhat odd that these aluminum and steel bodies had never been picked up. Maybe that was the point, a constant reminder of the people who had died on the highway from running off the road or who knows what. Stranger still was the fact that the landscape was completely flat and made one wonder how the wreck had occurred.

I had found a somewhat reasonably priced hostel in Copiapo, and after difficulty locating it, the owner seemed absolutely stunned at my arrival. When I showed him the booking reservation he decided to look on his phone and was perplexed. It's hard to explain, but at almost every hotel or hostel in Chile, people seem to be absolutely overwhelmed and perturbed that you have actually booked their place and they seem to know nothing about it. It's kind of weird.

Once settled in the crappy room, I texted Christine and Jules, to find they were in Copiapó at a different hostel. As I left the room to park the motorcycle in the secure parking area of the little hotel, the owner offered to lead me with his Ford F150 4x4. After several blocks of one-way street intrigue, we’d finally made it to the back of the hotel and when he had seen the bike we suddenly became friends. He fixed some coffee and we sat at the table having a conversation with our translation apps. There were quite a few laughs as we discussed motorcycles and his previous Triumph Rocket.

The route from Arica to Iquique and Antofagasta

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