Outside the hotel, still in the desert.
I needed to plan my next move, Argentina was not far away. I had made email contact with Dakarmotos in Buenos Aires (http://www.dakarmotos.com/) a year a go, I had heard great things about Javier and Sandra, the husband and wife team who run the show. It had always been my intention to stay at Dakarmotos at the end of the trip and use their knowledge to fly the bike back to the UK. I emailed from Arica to tell them of my progress and ask about the weather further south, most importantly the border crossings across the Andes. They emailed me some links to Police websites which listed which border crossings were open. It seemed that snow and ice were a real problem, further south in Patagonia it was really cold. I had some big decisions to make, it looked like getting into Argentina was going to be difficult never mind reaching Ushuaia. I spent sometime chatting with Deborah back home in the UK, she was due to fly down to Australia later in the year to visit our son George, 'why didn't I come ?' Why not indeed. It would mean missing southern Argentina but then I hadn't started in Alaska either, the 'classic' north to south route along the panamerican. I could do Oz instead, be back with the family (except Jack who was in Istanbul) and still see much of Argentina, it was an easy decision really, Oz it was. I focused on getting across them mountains.
The Paso de Jama crossing, advised by the riders I met in northern Peru and said to be open most of the year, was, ummmm ... closed (http://www.theguardian.com/travel/gallery/2013/sep/20/andes-by-bus-argentina-chile#/?picture=417768042&index=0). A freak weather event had brought snow to San Pedro de Atacama, the start of the pass on the Chilean side, the first snow there for 30 years, it made the national news. Given the uncertainty about weather further south I still felt the Paso de Jama crossing would be my best bet, not knowing when the pass would open I decided to head south to Iquique and keep an eye on the Police websites. I changed more money in Arica and got some Argentine pesos. I also bought a petrol can, there was the Atacama desert coming up.
The Atacama, extra fuel on board.
The Andes in the distance, somehow I have to get across those.
Still love it ...
You reach the edge of Arica and then head out into the desert, another amazing ride. Iquique was over 300 + K's away, nothing much in between. The journey was broken by road construction, I sat in a queue for about an hour watching the workers dig into the dunes by the side of the road, big JCB's at crazy angles hanging over a valley. The road turned to gravel for about 30 K's, winding it's way down hill, dust everywhere. This would occasionally happen in Chile, the tarmac would end and 'off road' you would go, just added to the adventure. I left the panamerican and headed the 40 or so K's to Iquique and back to the coast. I reached Alto Hospicio on the hill above and after finding the road down I was greeted by a view of a city spread along the pacific coast, a great ride down.
Coffee in the square at Iquique, a lovely city
The sea front at Iquique, the sun not out, the hills guarding it's back.
A great place to stop ..
I checked into a hotel and walked into the city centre, found the main square and had a coffee and some food, felt like a 'real' South American city, I loved it. There are two routes south from here, along the coast or back onto the panamerican in the desert, I decided to try the coastal route so set off the next day, in no rush, that border crossing was still closed. I aimed to spend a night further south at Tocopilla. Well, that 'freak' weather event that brought snow to San Pedro had also sent rain to the coast, it caused a landslip which had cut off the coast road. It took me 150 K's to find this out, I was stopped at a customs check. Chile is split into different regions, when you cross from one to the other the Police and customs check your papers. As I tried to exit Region One I was told the road was closed, the Police were really helpful, showed me alternative routes and wished me luck. I decided to head back to Iquique and spend another night there. To get to Calama, my target for the following day, would have meant a long old ride. Can't mess with El Niño and I liked Iquique. After another night on the coast I re-traced my steps back to the desert and headed for Calama.
Back on the moon, look at that sky
The return of the tarmac covered rest areas, first since the good old US of A, thank you Chile.
I was still watching those police websites, the Paso de Jama was still closed but there had been no further snow. Assuming I could eventually get across I decided to hatch a cunning plan to help me acclimatise to the altitude, the pass peaked above 4000 metres (Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK is around 1300 metres), first stop was Calama, a big mining town, for a night. Turning off the panamerican and heading for Calama was a bit of a moment, I was going east, not south for the first time. After a restful night I took a steady ride to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town well known as a base for exploring the Andes. Checking into a hostel I asked the receptionist about the Paso de Jama, he told me it was still closed, snow on the Argentine side. I smiled and walked to the local Police station, 'El paso está abierto', I was on my way.....
Heading towards San Pedro de Atacama, getting close to them mountains.
Drinking coffee in San Pedro
I stayed in San Pedro for two nights and felt no ill effects from the altitude. I knew that the immigration and customs post on the Chilean side of the pass was here in San Pedro, this was about 160 Kms from the actual border with Argentina. You signed out of Chile and then rode for those 160 Kms up into the mountains to the border and the highest part of the pass. The Argentinian border post was about 30 K's further on. After that there was about 300 + K's to the first reasonable sized town, Purmamarca, a sort of mirror of San Pedro. With the paperwork, it was going to be a long day, I had also heard that ice and snow was still covering parts of the pass. After the all build up and the fear that I wouldn't be able to get into Argentina I went to bed strangely calm, it was my 14th border crossing, 'what the hell' I thought, it was going to be one amazing day ......
This is what it's all about. Approaching immigration/customs at San Pedro, after this a day crossing the Andes into Argentina, what's not to like ?