Kat and I are back in central Chile after a couple of amazing weeks in the northern parts of this country doing and seeing some unusual things. When we left our story in the last blog, we had just entering into Chile from Bolivia on the right side of the map (top finger). We spent the New Year holiday in and around the quaint, if touristy, town of San Pedro de Atacama, crawling around in surreal caves and freezing while watching hot geysers blow off steam. From San Pedro we once again took the back (i.e. dirt) way south across another salt flat and miles of empty desert before hitting the Pan American Highway at the finger on left side of map. But before we could make a quick run to Copiapó (a small city we spent time in last September trying to get Kat well) we had to spend a day and two nights with some ghosts while attending to Charlotte’s needs… Read on.
Within 10 miles of crossing the border into Chile we were back on pavement and already seeing signs we were in a much more advanced country. This particular border crossing is unusual as the Chilean entrance is in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, 27 miles southwest from the Bolivian exit border. In between is a no-man’s land that runs between the two countries and also touches the border of Argentina. Within this no-man’s land is the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. We headed there to kill some time and to eat up all the fresh food we still had, not wanting to hand it over to the Chilean border guards. Chile is the only border we have crossed that is extremely strict, enforcing its laws to the letter when it comes to protecting crops by restricting the importation of foreign food.
We marveled at some more amazing rock formations within the Reserva…
Done playing with the rocks, we headed into San Pedro and officially crossed the border – only losing some eggs in the process. The adobe town of San Pedro is full of tourists from all over the world. Some are there to take the Land Cruiser 4X4 tours we saw in Bolivia; some for the numerous attractions around San Pedro itself. The town is brimming with trinket shops and good restaurants. We stayed in a cute hotel, washed off the Bolivian dust, wrote the previous blog and re-stocked Charlotte for the journey south.
We spent one day exploring the Valle de la Luna Parque Nacional (Valley of the Moon).
The scenery was spectacular…
…and did look a lot like the moon (we guess).
A maze of caves and caverns was a highlight. All were open with no restrictions or safety precautions for anyone to crawl around in to their heart’s content.
Some heads are as hard as rocks.
On New Year’s Eve we drove 70 miles up hill to Geysers el Tatio. San Pedro is at a low 8,000ft, but once again we found ourselves back at 14,000ft for the night. We passed these guys munching a watery meal along the way.
Boiling hot water for the unwary to step right into. No warning signs or ropes around here!
This pool was designated for swimming but we found it rather tepid – except when a boiling hot jet would suddenly shoot out of the bottom and burn your butt! Yikes!
We arrived late in the afternoon and found we had the entire place to ourselves. The dozens of tour busses and hundreds of tourists that visit these geysers every day were long gone. We soon found out why. First, the wind… we took cover behind this crumbling shack in order to cook our New Year’s Eve dinner. Even at 8pm it was still this light out.
Shots!! Bummer, the last of our Mexican Tequila for the last of 2014.
Then the cold… It was 19.7F inside Charlotte at 6am New Years Day when we got out of bed. However, at 4am when I checked, this thermometer read 14.6F! Note the ice on the window glass. Yes, we have a heater – a very expensive gasoline powered one that I installed especially for this trip. But, it won’t fire up above 11,000ft! I think it has something to do with jetting but I can’t get parts for it anywhere. So we freeze.
Ah, but the good ol’ Coleman stove (28 years and counting) always fires up and makes hot water for tea and coffee and warms Charlotte in the process.
The reason we got up so damn early was to see the geysers at daybreak, a time when all the tour buses show up, so we figured it must be good. It was.
The cold air really makes the steam show up and puts on quite a show. Despite the cold, we both agreed camping alone at this desolate place and waking up to this display on New Year’s Day beat the hell out of getting up at 4am in San Pedro and riding a bus for two hours to share the scene with us, as dozens of tourists did.
Back in San Pedro for a late New Year’s Day breakfast we were even happier we had our quite night at 14.000ft. The main drag looked a bit worse for wear the morning after.
On the road and goin’ south. The Salar de Atacama salt flats are a bit rougher than the Bolivian ones.
Ah, we love the desolate Atacama Desert.
Those Chileans think of everything… designated pee areas in the middle of nowhere.
There are some huge mines in remote northern Chile and huge trucks to go with them. Check out this monster in relation to the power pole.
Monster trucks make monster tailings.
Late on New Year’s Day we came across this sad, desolate graveyard, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There was no town of Yungay to be seen but the ‘yard did sport the remains of a Model A.
We had to stop and check it out. It seemed odd that in a country full of rocks and not a tree for miles, there were few headstones and everything was made of wood. Most of the dates ranged from the ‘20s through the ‘50s with a few as new as ten years ago.
The ornate designs of some of the crosses made eerie statements in the waning light.
Returning to Charlotte we found the ghosts didn’t want us to leave. This was the second of two flats we had had that day. Our trusty Generals that have treated us so well are getting pretty thin after a year of torturous roads. We had a slow leak in the morning in the right rear after returning from the geysers. That tire had a tube in it due to a sidewall rock slash back in Columbia, so I couldn’t plug the new leak. All the llanterías (tire shops) in San Pedro were closed for NYD so I opted to just put air in it every hour or so… that worked until about noon when POW, the tube let go. On went our brand new Bridgestone spare which had been along for the ride since Arequipa, Peru. I attacked this new left rear “ghost flat” with the tire plugs, but after wasting five of them, trying to plug the rather large stone cut in the center of the tread (which kept whistling air like the ghost winds blowing around us), I resigned to the fact that bigger labor lay before me.
We made camp where we broke, right in the middle of the road next to our new friends. So much for that pact about finding a hiding place every night. We hadn’t seen a car all afternoon so we figured it would be a pretty quite night. It was.
I opted to wait until morning to take the obstinate tire off the rim and patch it from the inside. All went well and our Australian Tyre Plyers tool had the tire dismounted in no time…
…then I discovered all our rubber cement for the patches was completely dried up!
After some head scratching (fleas?) and “what would McGyver do?” thinking, I decided that maybe silicone would hold a tire patch at speed and in this heat…? It won’t vulcanize the rubber like cement, but it is pretty tough…??
Pleeease Work! It’s a long way to somewhere hitchhiking with you oh rubber buddy, Old Pal. Reading the silicone tube three times I confirmed that for the stuff to reach maximum strength you must wait a full 24 hours. Kat and I have not sat in one place for 24 hours since we meet each other 10 years ago. Not on this trip, not with ghosts, never.
We waited a full 24 hours! All day and another night with the ghosts. In that time ONE car drove by – and he didn’t stop.
Kat took pity on fallen Angel, his/her cross was burned through and tossed carelessly out in the lonely desert, away from the others.
Repositioned on an unmarked grave we figured we’d earned some ghost brownie points – unless it was the other residents that cast Angel out into the desert…?
I christened the Model A with a Charlottamiles sticker. Hey, waiting 24 hours is a looong time!
Home on the highway.
The second morning I aired ‘er up and voila, silicone holds rubber patches! In fact it is still holding as of this writing about 900 miles and 10 days later!
After the graveyard we rolled 250 highway miles down to Copiapó where we restocked the fridge and headed out to the beach. There we met our good friends, the Varas family, and a bunch of their friends, all spending their summer vacation at Basecamp, a cool, private campground with showers, a kitchen, clean campsites, a beach and security for all one’s toys. Since we are all gear-heads, our main goal was to watch the famous Dakar Rally Race pass through the huge sand dunes nearby. After Dakar we shot straight south, retracing the route we took last September towards Santiago, the furthest point we’ve driven south so far. As I write this we are again on the coast in Viña Del Mar, a resort town northwest of Santiago. It’s a good place to scrub the sand out of every orifice, do our laundry and have good WiFi for this blog, but we are anxious to keep going south, south, south and make it to the tip of the continent by the end of January.
This is a terrible picture but it gives an idea of what camping at Basecamp looks like. Good friends, good times, happy kids, campfires, good stuff.
The Varas family has quickly become very special to us since we first arrived in Chile. Sebastian, his beautiful wife Luz and their two awesome kids, Amelia and Seba have gone way above and beyond to make us feel at home in their country. It was a joy to see this happy, close family at play on their summer vacation. It was Sebastian who arranged storage for Charlotte when we had to go home in October/November. He has hooked me up with shops in Santiago where I could work on Charlotte, introduced us to his friend, Boris, who races a Mini in Dakar and who loaned us our indispensible Polaris UTV to chase the race. He even visited us back in Nevada when we were home in October and he was in the States for business. He designed and built his Willy’s Jeep from scratch and it is one of the finest I have seen anywhere in the world. This machine ROCKS, especially in the sand where its owner is a master at driving in the stuff.
Amelia drew us this sweet portrait of Charlotte while we were watching the Dakar. It is so special to us! We plan to frame and hang it permanently in our rolling home.
Our “golf cart.” When Sebastian’s friend Boris Garafulic offered us the use of his Razor for watching the Dakar Rally I had no idea how perfect it would be and how much it would add to the whole experience. This generous offer by a man we barely know, so completely contributed to this experience of a lifetime, that I am at a loss for words on how to thank him. I don’t even know how to reach him since, as I write this, he is still out there competing in the two week long Dakar.
The big day arrives. Here we have just unloaded all of the toys for an epic day in the Atacama dunes; both watching the Dakar race up close, and having an indescribable blast romping through these mammoth mounds going from one race point to another. The experience and memories of this day will be etched in our minds forever!
I won’t go into detail about what the Dakar is and bore all of you non-motor -heads. Those of you who are, already know, but if you’re curious, Google: Dakar. I could spend pages explaining. Suffice it to say, it is by far the largest and most grueling motorsports event in the world. This year it pitted 665 competitors and 414 machines against nature for a full two weeks, covered three countries and 9,000 kilometers. It was watched by 3.9 million spectators worldwide in 2014 but strangely, it is not well known in the USA.
Being in South America during a running of the Dakar, there was no way I was going to miss it, even if we had to drive half way across the continent. As it turned out, Sebastian and friends never miss it either and know the dunes around Copiapó like the backs of their hands. These incredible sand dunes are also one of the toughest parts of the race. Having the best local guides and being loaned a perfect machine for the sand (our Razor) we were about to experience a chance of a lifetime.
Motorcycles made up 168 entrants this year. The leaders showed up first, about an hour before the first cars. At this point these athletes had already raced 500kms that day and had been at it for four days straight!
The factory team to beat this year, and for the last several, is Mini (aka BMW.) I thought these micro-cars looked silly as race cars tearing through huge sand dunes, but with enough factory money and backing, anything with wheels can be a contender.
This is Boris Garafulic racing a Mini under the colors of Chile. He was running about 17th overall on this day. He is the owner of our Razor so graciously loaned to us. He gave us a wave as he flew by. It was great to know he saw us, undoubtedly by spotting Sebastian’s unique Jeep.
Then came the trucks! These things are the show of Dakar. Huge diesel rigs with over 1,000 horsepower and four wheel drive, they run faster than many of the cars and were flying through the huge sand dunes like our little Razor, except that they weigh 14,000 pounds. Here a Russian Kamaz is running down a lowly Toyota pickup. The Razor with the Chilean flag in the background is a spectator.
The size of these machines is daunting. It’s a rush to stand 10 feet from them as they thunder by.
The top truck teams are these Russian Kamaz monsters.
This roller coaster-like area was particularly fun to watch as the competitors wound their way through huge bowls of sand. Here the scale of the dunes can sort of be realized as the huge trucks look like little toys. I have driven the sand dunes of Glamis, Dumont, Pismo, the Oregon coast and even a bit of the Sahara in Africa, all famous dune areas. All of them combined would make up a tiny toy sandbox in a corner of this immense dune system in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The sheer size (some are over 3,000ft tall!) and vastness of these dunes is incomprehensible.
YeeHah! Don’t mess with a pissed off big truck when you are in a little buggy.
“Robby! Robby! Robby!” Robby Gordon obviously has a bigger fan base down here than he does at home. You could hear the chant rise through the crowd as his bright orange Gordini approached. Putting on a show as always, the car was off the ground more than on and was obviously carrying more speed than most, but he was still running way back in the pack due to a breakdown on day two. Robby Gordon has been trying to win Dakar for ten years and is the only American to persistently try to conquer this European dominated event. His one-man, one-car, underdog approach is commendable when stacked up against the huge, multi-car, mega-money factory teams. Unfortunately, it looks like 2015 won’t be Robby’s year either.
As night fell the dunes became surreal as shadows played havoc with depth perception. Still, late running racers thundered on, their multiple HID lights making crazy patterns across the mounds of endless sand.
For some the shadows took their toll. These poor guys were just two kilometers from the night’s bivouac which was just over this one last dune. Instead, they rolled and may have spent the whole night there. Sebastian tried to winch the 14,000 pound monster over but all he did was drag his own Jeep and the Toyota attached to it several feet forward.
The bivouac itself was yet another unbelievable sight, a huge tent city which is erected every night and covers maybe 20 acres. It travels with the race, complete with kitchens serving meals and showers and bathrooms to accommodate all the teams. Huge team-owned semis, set up as support shops for the race cars, are lined up in rows with mechanics working all night rebuilding the race machines so they can tackle another grueling stage the next day.
Race fun over, we left our friends to their peaceful vacations on the beach and buzzed 500+ miles down the coast to the seaside resort town of Viña Del Mar. Here we holed up in a fancy hotel, regrouped and wrote this blog. Next… south, south, south to the tip of South America!