A sand dune near Iquique (the Pacific Ocean in the background). In the Atacama Desert, Chile.
Preparing for the Atacama Desert. Arica, Chile.
The bike with the "hand of the desert." Atacama Desert, Chile.
Carvings in the Atacama Desert.
Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn.
Having ridden more than 2,000 miles through Chile, most of the country is now behind me. Today I am in the town of Puerto Montt, the gateway to the most remote, rugged and spectacular region in South America. I'm now less than 1,000 miles from Antarctica.
I took the liberty of checking in to a nice hotel overlooking the bay. The view from my window is intimidating. The bay is filled with white-caps. The wind is often howling, and bands of icy-cold rain sweep over the town. Tonight at 8pm the bike and I board a ferry bound for the villiage of Chaiten, even closer to Antarctica. The trip will last for 10-12 hours depending on the conditions. Never on this trip have I wanted more for a riding partner. On this vast continent I have met only five riders, all of whom were northbound: Grant from Australia, Alex from Holland, Marco from Italy, and two friendly Canadians. "Hi" to you all.
Tourist season here ended two months ago. There was virtually no southbound traffic on the road to Puerto Montt. I've been told there will be little or no traffic further south as winter is on the way. The forecast calls for less rain over the weekend, this is when I hope to make a run for Argentina. The section between Chaiten, Chile and Esquel, Argentina could be difficult. The road there is unpaved and could become sloppy if too much rain falls. There are no hotels or services for over 100 miles along this road. I've taken on plenty of food and a waterproof tarp in case of mechanical failure. Once again, it's just the bike and I. If I fail to cross the Andes here it will mean a retreat via the same road, perhaps all the way back to Santiago.
The ferry ride from Puerto Montt wasn't alot of fun. When I arrived at the docks it started to rain. I was then advised that the ferry would be running 3 hours behind schedule due to rough seas- departing now at 2300. The waiting area was a dimly lit and uncomfortable place so I set out in search of a meal. I was lucky enough to find a great steak place. I was skeptical at first because the chef's were all young women. Those young women proceeded to grill up the finest cut of beef I had experienced on this continent! The entire meal was fantastic as was the Chilean wine.
At 2300 a throng of people, cars, and one idiot on a motorcylcle, waited in the wind and rain to board the ferry. I was glad to have my helment on as it kept my head dry and warm. By looking down I was able to use the visor to keep the wind-driven rain off most of my face. As I waited there a man approached me and claimed he was from France. I didn't believe him, as I mentioned some of my favorite places in France and he seemed to draw a blank. After a few seconds I realized he was drunk out of his mind. He set his myriad of soft luggage into a deep puddle next to me and made his way to the ferry. The workers were denying his ticket and he was getting upset. Finally he disappeared into the night and I was glad to see him go. After an hour of getting soaked on the dock, I was able to get the bike on the ferry and strapped in under a staircase in anticipation of a rough ride. I had to drag all my gear through many a tight spot en-route to the passenger cabin- often climbing up wet steel ladders in my heavy boots. It wasn't easy. The actual cabin was dark and smelly. The seats were like an airliner- only 6 across. Lucky for me I had an aisle seat. This meant that every time one of the four people to my left wanted to use the head or stretch their legs throughout the night, I would have to stand up. At least the seat to my left was empty and I was able to keep my tank bag there with water, etc. A kid in the back row had a stereo he plugged into an outlet on the wall, sadly, he didn't have headphones. Lucky for all of us he had speakers- if only he had some Sinatra, Cline, or relaxing Latin music!
It was midnight by the time we were ready to set sail. Just as we were about to get underway, a group of people clambered into the cabin. I wondered if there was a connecting ferry that just arrived! Can you guess who was in the group? Yes, my heart sank as my drunken buddy stumbled into the compartment. His bags were soaking wet and so was he. His face lit up when he saw me. The night just kept getting better as he happily took his place at my side. After I moved the tank-bag to the baggage area I returned to my seat. My buddy soon began slapping my left thigh repeatedly and getting his face as close as he could to mine as he went on about his night. I couldn't believe I would spend the next 12 hours like this. What had I done- who had I pissed off?? I soon discovered my new friend didn't put alot of stock into personal hygiene as he removed his wet, steamy boots. This act unleashed a funk unlike any I had known since I followed Freddy to my hotel in Honduras. It turns out my buddy works in the salmon industry and had been visiting family up north- and he ain't from France! I had purchased an Australian guide book in Santiago and now clung to it like a life-preserver. I felt that if I stayed focused on the book my friend would get the hint- or fall asleep. An hour after we departed Puerto Montt the crew turned the lights out. All that remained were some dim "Hunt for Red October" lights. I was now unable to read. Thankfully I managed to sleep fairly well, getting at least 3 or 4 hours of rest between everyone's bathroom breaks.
And there I sat, miles from home, sitting in the dark as the ferry trudged southward. The seas were rough, heavy rain was pounding against the side of the ferry, driven by powerful winds. From time to time throughout the journey I peered through the curtains into the night. Of course no land was visible, just the large waves breaking over the bow of the ship. I felt like I was ready for whatever happened next, and resolved that night I would cross the Andes no matter what it involved. Several times I worked my way through the wind, rain, dark and seas to go aft and make sure the bike was still upright. If it had tipped over there would have been nothing I could have done, it just made me feel better to know the boy was okay.
When I arrived in Chaiten the wind was blowing hard and it was still raining. I spent 3 days waiting for the weather to break. The forecast called for one day of good weather on Saturday. I woke up at 0600 on Saturday (disappointed to hear heavy rain falling) determined to make a hard push for Argentina. In Chaiten I had purchased large garbage bags to wrap around my boots as the waterproofing is no longer effective. The garbage bags worked just fine. It rained hard the first couple hours, but eventually the skies parted and the sun kept me company through the mountains. The ride was spectacular. High mountains covered with glaciers were everywhere. I rode among powerful rivers and deep-green fjords. The area is pristine- and I had it all to myself.
There were quite a few places to stay along the way, though virtually everthing was closed for the season. At one point I entered a tiny village and spotted an "empanada and coffee" sign ouside what looked like a house. In fact it was. I've seen places like this in Alaska and Canada. Families in remote areas sometimes offer services like this to supplement their income. I settled in for lunch with several helicopter pilots working with geologists searching for minerals in the hills. We were served a hearty meal of lentil soup and thick sandwiches followed by plenty of coffee. I mentioned I planned to spend one more night in Chile before crossing into Argentina. One of the men smiled and remarked the steaks would be better in Argenina. Next stop: Argentina!
Lunch-break deep in the Andes. Patagonia, Chile.