Crossing into Chile has given us some of our coldest riding yet. As we climbed up to the frontier through the beautiful Nahuel Huapi National Park we hit the snow line. Thank goodness for the emergency coffee and media lunas (croissants, to you and I) we scoffed in Villa La Angostura giving us warming energy. Obviously Imogen had to make a few snowballs just for the novelty of it before making a hash of the border. We've done so many over the past 10 months, I'm not sure how it's still so tricky! At this crossing, you're given a piece of paper with a few boxes on it. Well, apparently you need the boxes stamped by each section before you can leave/enter and hand it in to the final border sentry, so we ended up going back and forth to avoid and infractions. We had also foolishly purchased some honey which we now were hoping to smuggle through. I did mention we were carrying produce on our customs declaration but after the officer saw our much needed mountains of bran fibre, we were waved through into country number 14.
The pass was glorious but as we descended, we left snow and hit the rain. Lots of it. It makes for super lush and green fields which reminded us a bit of dear old Blighty, apart from the ranges of snow capped volcanic peaks that is. We decided to treat ourselves to a hostel - not a very welcoming place and it was darned nippy, but there was a hot shower and a supermarket near by which had an entire aisle dedicated to (cheap) wine boxes. Result.
We were kicked out at 9am when the owner proceeded to make quite a show of having to clean the baño. Hey, we weren't THAT filthy! As the weather was pretty grim, our route was to head north PDQ, sucking up the expense of the tolls on Ruta 5 for ease of covering the miles.
A brief stop at the Salto de Loja waterfalls and a fix of James's melted boots, which has been popped a tad too near to a log burner to dry out and we were back on track. After several days of wild camping in some of the most beautiful places along the coast, watching sunsets (and fewer sunrises!) we needed a shower, a bed and to fix the leaking fuel pump again, so we stayed a few days in Valparaíso, which had a big military feria on the Monday. We'd been welcomed into the Hostel Polanco with beers and fun company, which alas all turned a bit sour when Imogen was filmed taking a well-needed shower. She then imagined the headlines of "45 year old biker woman in hairy armpits shower shocker" and hoping against hope that the images were to go no further. Sigh.
Feeling a little "meh" about the rough n ready dodgy vibe of Valparaíso, despite the joy of finding some pesto and watching "Deadpool 2" in English at the local cinema for our birthday treat, we donned gear and headed north again.
Such a difference in feel and nature as we hoovered up the miles on Rutas 43 and 5 to the first of our observatory visits. ESO La Silla is at 2400m and was fascinating. Some of the world's largest telescopes are here, and to be in the desert wild camping, watching the setting sun turn the mountains a dusky golden rose with a full moon rising, made us realise why we did this crazy trip.
We dropped back down to sea level and our final view of the Pacific. It's been our on/off companion for a long time now, but we had a good send off with sea lions, pelicans and boobies, all accompanied by crashing waves before we started the long ascent towards the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert.
The riding has been interesting in an endless desert kind of way. The feel of the area, as well seeing the landscape altered by the vast scale industrial copper mining (and filthy mountains of rubbish) is so different from the southern parts of Chile and Argentina. It's been quite eye opening to see the poverty and filth in the two most expensive countries in Latin America, and also a tad depressing.
Our final stop in Chile was the unbelievably touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama, making a sharp contrast to the rest of the area. It's famous for the incredibly clear skies at altitude which makes for the best star gazing on the planet.
We had planned on crossing the Paso de Jama back into Argentina, but 40km in, the bike started wobbling and we found a huge bulge had appeared on the rear tyre. Heading slowly back to San Pedro, we then got a super luxury bus to the nearest town with big bike shops, Calama, 100km away. Luckily we were able to source a Conti Escape in the 90 minutes we had before our return coach. Yay to iOverlander and previous travellers tips.
The enforced extra day meant we were able to visit ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub-Millimeter Array. It was a wonderful observatory to visit, although due to the extreme altitude of 5000m, we weren't able to see the 66 radio telescopes hidden on the Chajnantor Plateau. We did get to sit in the telescope transporters and chat to the astronomers in the control room before having a longer than anticipated stay when the bus coming to pick us up crashed. Luckily no-one was injured, but how it crashed on a straight track, taking out an Atacameño adobe wall, we'll never know.
Heading over the Paso de Jama, with concerned warnings for snow from the campsite, we put on all our bike gear, with James cranking up the temperature on his heated grips to max. Yes, it was cold. The incredible scenery made up for it, with a bleak lunar landscape, frozen lagunas, crazy wind-blasted rock formations and huge salt lakes all adding to the great ride, hitting up over 4000m. Back into Argentina and the usual border shenanigans. At Jama, the Aduana guy entered in the wrong details for the bike on the TIP but refused to correct it, yikes. Fingers crossed for the next border and hope that they don't look too closely at our papers.
Our final night in the desert and we finally get hard-core wild camping kudos with our water bottle freezing. Huzzahs all round for our baby alpaca hats and the Softie 9 sleeping bag.
With 3 more countries to go in 3 weeks, we head off on the long road towards Paraguay and waving goodbye to the Andes.
Next installment: meeting the narco cops brandishing guns at us in our, we thought, nifty wild camp spot on Ruta 81.
Photos as usual on Imogen Burman-Mitchells facebook page.