In November, I did a last-minute but much-needed reccy ride through Chile and Argentina to scout out as much of the route as possible as well as take some measurements on the weather conditions, temperatures and solar radiation we can expect when we do the ride. Starting in Santiago in Chile I rented a Yamaha Tenere 660, packed my meagre supplies on board and headed North. The plan was to head as far up as the monumental sand dunes and plateaus of Arica as covered in the 2012 Dakar rally route, stopping in Iquique, Antofagasta and Copiapo along the way before crossing the Andes and looping back down through Argentina tracing the eastern base of the mountain range.
I pushed on up along the coast (beautiful) and quickly came to realise I had bitten of more than I could chew with my route plan. At this point I had around 7 days left and the math just didn’t stack up to make it Iquique and Arica as well as back down through Argentina. Bad times! For me, Arica was one of the main reasons to visit Chile but the alternative was to dismiss visiting Argentina completely which seemed like madness. Time had run out to save that leg of the journey so it was amputated and I headed north-east through Calama to San Pedro de Atacama. Interestingly, Calama was summarised in Lonely Planet by the following excerpt, “How do we put this delicately? Hmmm, there’s just no other words for it: Calama is a shithole.” With this in my mind, I wasn’t planning getting to know the place intimately but there was nowhere else around for considerable distances across the driest lands on Earth and the bike was savouring its last few drops of fuel before empty. Totally undeserved though, Calama was nice. Not an oasis exactly but the petrol station pumps worked and they had coke. What else is there?
After a brief awe-struck moment appreciating the beautiful fluffiness of the cold, damp air carpeting the peaks a sour realisation hit. ”Ah f@#k. I bet I’m gonna have to ride through that now.” Not one to be right very often, I presented with some uncharacteristic accuracy here and was soon enveloped by “can’t see my hand in front of my face” fog. Pressed for time as the evening got darker I pushed on as quickly as I could. My progress was hampered by the bewildering decision to leave the corners only of the descent road unsealed. Fair enough, I’ve often said that corners on windy mountain roads are just way too grippy in the wet….. After a couple of hours of madness and pretty much brought to a stand-still by fatigue and stinging rain on my eyes (I couldn’t close the visor as the visibility was terrible), I pulled into a ramshackle hostel run by some nice but clearly past their prime Argentinians. Ten minutes after an awkward and confused exchange with the geriatric couple about the validity of paying in Argentina with Chilean pesos I was fast asleep in a bed which smelt suspiciously like someone had had an accident in.
The next morning I made a quick exit and promptly got lost outside the riverside town I had found myself in last night (San Salvador de Jujuy apparently. Nice place. Another one of those “I wish I had more time moments”). Time was running short so I settled into the 750km to get to La Rioja. Quick and fairly uneventful ride. Sighted a lot of good dunes off to the east where the ’12 Dakar route came through a few months ago. Wanting to head straight to the hotel I’d booked for that night, I stopped on the outskirts of town. A quick address check confirmed that I had in fact booked a hotel in La Rioja, Spain and not La Rioja, Argentina. Not to worry, anyone could make that mistake….
With time running thin and all the route-relevant sections of Argentina covered, I quickly made my way to Mendoza and back over and through the Andes using the Cristo Redentor tunnel. This involved more epic battles with Argentine and Chilean customs officials which I’d really rather not relive in words. There’d be far too many expletives. Back to Santiago and back home. I left with a good feeling about the route. It was there, it made sense and it seemed quite doable. It was just time, as ever, that was the problem.
Given where we are with the project at the moment we need to be realistic about our goals which means we’re pushing the ride back to late 2013. The decision wasn’t taken lightly but we’re unfortunately not in a position to push for our original date of March ’13. Not great but it’s still on, that’s the main thing.