3rd December 2015

3 – 7 December: San Pedro de Atacama and the countless „rutas del desierto“ around it…..

Again an early start on Thursday as it will be a long, hard day today: 420km to Calama, Chile, most of it either gravel road, "I-was-once-paved" or a so-called “carratera vichufita” (red earth, mixed with salt and water = hard as concrete); on the route 2 tiny villages and the border crossing. Fuel: no; other traffic: virtually none. So I'm pretty on my own and ‘m very aware of that circumstance. The originally planned route along the beautiful lagoons I skipped as Robin, the local motorcycle tour provider, had told me that it is even longer, with many sandy parts and no villages (or similar in between). Impossible, since I no longer have the tent with me – and in this case a stopover would have been necessary. Next to the fact that with my dualsport tires and my lack of sand-experience I just did not dare to take any risk. The weather as always here quite fresh in the morning but with bright sunshine I drive the first 50km or so towards Chile. The road first nice gravel but after I turn onto the Ruta 5 it changes to an energy-guzzling corrugated track. In these case normally more speed helps but as there had always been sandy parts in between and the “waves” partly quite deep I was forced to slow down. That’s an underground I really have to work on in the future! But after more than 30,000 trouble-free kilometers I just did not want to take the risk of an accident or damage the bike. After more than 150km of that corrugated gravel road the road turned onto a salt flat; this is great to drive but I was really happy to have my GPS with me as it was not always clear where the various car tracks actually lead. But here again a very impressive (ok, sometimes also a little queasy) feeling to drive on this Salar. Far and wide not a soul, no animals, no vehicles. Only the great Salar and me with my Suzy.

So I reach the border to Chile without any problems and see that this border is in the same time a freight border crossing for trains: as Bolivia has no sea port a part of the minerals - in that case copper - goes by train and via Chile into the rest of the world. The obligatory stamp in the passport, a small form to fill out and on the Chilean side then they checked whether I hide some fruits, plants or similar in my luggage. These first part of 220km took me almost 5 hours and as I was quite exhausted I made a short stop (with some water, nuts and Snickers) before driving on; meanwhile I had the chance to chatted with the train driver who had to wait at customs at the end of the lunch break. And so I could obtain information about the mining business firsthand ;-) 
Hardly on the Chilean side, a large part of the route was paved and the few gravel parts quite easy -passing small salt lakes, smoking volcanoes, many llamas and vicunas, just gorgeous. Needless to say, the whole time, of course always in bright sunshine. I even arrived early enough in Calama - the first city in Chile – to buy the necessary chip for my cell phone, a new power adapter (th eone I had with me had been stolen together with my trekking stuff) and get some Chilean Pesos. Besides that my Suzy finylla gets some "decent" gasoline, speak with an octane rating of at least. 95 instead of the Bolivian 81, 84. While it is all quite expensive in Chile (near Swiss level) the differences with Bolivia are immense: first the roads – for example it finally has road signs showing where the road leads -, the traffic behavior, friendliness of the people .... I feel home here straight away. Tired I book the nearest and cheapest – what is cheap in Chile - accommodation and go to sleep quickly. This day had definitely cost me a lot of energy –but it was a good day! And I’m aware that this is my last country on my trip! The next morning at breakfast coffee I speak quite a while with the owner. He tells me a lot about the economic situation, the immigration of workers and refugees (especially around the 1990 from Colombia) from the surrounding countries. Somehow very many similarities with Switzerland and Europe show up; but again impressive the way they try to make the best of the situation, rather than simply lamenting.
The trip to San Pedro de Atacama then short and painless: 100km on perfect asphalt.
However the scenery just breathtaking again. The sight of the Atacama Desert is absolutely impressive. The colors mostly red-orange, interspersed with white spots. Several volcanoes dominate the mountain range; including the Licancabur (5920m) with one of the highest, lively crater lakes and the recently active Lascar. 

I will spend 3 nights in San Pedro and make day-trips to the surrounding  "rutas del desierto" around San Pedro; on the first day I even meet a Swiss motorcyclist pair; she is on the road since 4 months in South America (and will be another 4 months in the direction of Miami); he joined her for 2 months before work calls him back home. So we drive together towards the lagoons Miscanti & Miñiques - honestly, I defenitely go slow on superlatives.. too beautiful these landscapes - and after the lagoons I drive on to the pass Sico – while they drive back and visit the lagoon Cejar. 

In the evening we meet for supper in the village and it is nice to speak with some Swiss after such a long time. San Pedro is actually a small village with just about 5’000 inhabitants but is for some time now a popular starting point for 10'000 of tourists which start from there tours to the numerous salt lagoons, various valleys with impressive rock formations, geysers, multi-day tours to Bolivia and even volcano climbing. According to that fact San Pedro consists almost exclusively of restaurants, travel agencies, souvenir and small grocery stores. But at least it's built pretty; no modern or even tall buildings; just white houses in bungalow-style. In spite of all the tourists walking around feels quite nice.
The second day I drive in another direction towards the Argentinean border, to the "paso Jama" which leads to over 5000müM. It is freezing cold in the morning and I quarrel with myself that I have indeed put on the long-arm shirts but not the warm rain gloves! Again and again I stop; this time not only to make pictures but also to bring somehow back some life to my fingers. Thanks god, with the increasing sun the temperatures rise as well and so I spend my break shortly before the border in the sun, dozing and watching flamingos, vicunas and lamas. I just don’t get enough of this scenery and the infinity which the mountains show. It looks as if Chile could throw Colombia from the throne ;-)
On the last day in San Pedro I’m already picked up at 4:30 clock; I booked a tour to the geysers; at a distance of 90km there is the highest, large geothermal field "el Tatio"; countless geysers spew more than 80 ° C hot water up to several meters high in the air. An impressive natural spectacle, of course especially just after sunrise when temperatures still be around freezing point – and at an altitude of  4200m. The immense temperature differences a typical desert phenomenon: during the day about 25 ° C, at night sinking depending on the month down to freezing.

So tomorrow I will leave San Pedro de Atacama with many incredible impressions and move for a change again towards the coast - Antofagasta will be my goal for the day. In theory, there are still around 1500 km to Santiago de Chile. But already one or other detour is still scheduled. And I'm already sure that I will enjoy every moment of my last days here.