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Days 16-18: Chillin’ in Chile

In which Pete successfully leaves Peru and enters Chile, finds himself lost without a map and picks a random road south, sleeps in the desert, runs out of gas on the coast, rescues himself by pushing his moto for an hour, then sleeps on a beach… still lost. Eventually a map is found.

Day 16
Tacna, Peru @ 10:30AM
End: Unknown Location, Chilean Desert @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 243km (~158mi) in ~6 hours (~40KMH / ~25MPH average, 1hr for customs)Average Gas Mileage: N/A (calculations fried)
Stopped by Police: Only at the border…

I have to admit by this point I was looking forward to getting out of Peru and into someplace new. I do really enjoy Peru, but it has a justified reputation of frustration for travelers with the constant police checkpoints everywhere. Plus I was at sea level now and Red was like an entirely new bike, the pickup in 3rd and 4th gear was amazing!

I woke up early and walked downtown to try to find some breakfast but didn’t have much luck – it can be really frustrating sometimes in a South American city you don’t know because it’s not at all like an American or Canadian city where there are places to eat every couple of blocks. Instead there are entire neighbourhoods without food, and as I discovered last night walking around, mine was one of those (I did find some street food). This morning I finally found a bakery and grabbed a couple empanadas but I have to admit they did not settle right – whether it was the remains of the street food from yesterday or both, I was pretty yucky that morning.

After packing my stuff I walked over to the Honda dealer and picked up Red, all shiny and clean! A full service only cost around $20USD, but they didn’t fix all of the problems and I didn’t want to stick around to deal with it… I’ve made it this far with the kickstart, I guess that’s the way it’s going to be. I did remember to pick up a pair of goggles since my sunglasses have not been cutting it in strong crosswinds, but of course they have the same problems I’ve always suffered with goggles: they give me a headache. Oh well, better than not being able to see or permanently damaging my eyes.

The drive out to the border was about an hour on a very straight road through the desert. The entire time, I was playing out in my head all the different things that could happen to screw me over. With the border finally coming up, I decided to wing it and do my best, which seems to generally get me through most situations. At first I was excited because I pulled into a vehicle lane that looked just like the Canada/US border, but the guy yelled at me to park and go get a bunch of forms first.

No problem, I can do forms! I walk inside a building where I see people waiting in line and get my passport and vehicle ownership card all ready. When I get to the front of the line, the guy looks at me and asks for my vehicle form. “Sorry, what form? Where do I get it?” He tells me to go around the corner and get the form, so I go around and find another door, where I tell the security guard I need “some sort of form?” He has me sign a guest book, then gives me a “Vehicle Information Form” where I have to write all sorts of stuff about my vehicle, from the engine # to the chassis # and other esoteric stuff beyond just the plate. I get that all filled out and go back inside to try again.

This time the guy looks at all my stuff and asks for my vehicle registration card. I give it to him and next thing I know he has stamped my passport and my form and taken one off and told me I’m all set. Outside, some cool older ladies are taking photos of each other standing in front of my moto, reminding me for all the world of my mum. I talked to them for a bit and they were so excited for me that I couldn’t help but be a bit nostalgic.

Back at the drive through port, I pulled up with all the forms and the guy happily took them without any complaint. He asked me if it was the first time my moto was leaving Peru and I told him that yes it was. He dithered around for awhile before asking me for my driver’s license, so I gave him my US driver’s license. This he did not like – “You need a Peruvian driver’s license to drive here!” I showed him my international driver’s permit that explains that I can drive temporarily on my US license, but he responds by saying “That is issued in the US too! It’s not valid here!”

This is odd – I have had police insist on seeing my international driver’s license, or insist on seeing my US driver’s license, but never both and, more oddly, never has one or the other been insufficient. I pulled out my second international driver’s license (I have one for the “world” and one for Latin America) and he finally either got tired of trying to figure it out or was familiar with the “world” one because he closed up all my paperwork and wished me a good journey!

Now to get into Chile… I drove up to where everyone was stopped and pondered for a moment. There is not a single sign explaining what to do, so I turn to one of the guys in a military style vest and ask what I should do next. He tells me to go talk to someone at one of the little windows of a building across the way, so I do. This guy takes all my Peru paperwork and my passport and has me fill out a Chile immigration card, then gives me a Chile version of the “Vehicle Registration Form” and tells me I need to have it stamped by S.A.G. (some sort of security) and Customs before I can go, then he provides his own first stamp.

Realizing the guy I had spoken to earlier was a S.A.G. guy, I went back to him and he told me to take my stuff through this building in the middle for it to be xrayed. While I did this, he stamped my paper and when I came out he told me to head down to Customs at the end of the building.

At Customs, a nice lady asked me if I would only be going to Arica (the nearby town) or if I would be going further south. I explained my plan of going around Chile for awhile, to which she responded with “well then you need to fill out this form.” I see. This was the hardest form to fill out yet because there were a bunch of words I didn’t understand!

I guessed at a few and decided to ignore an entire chunk of the form which looked weird (when I asked I found out that’s for bringing in boats and stuff), but apparently got almost everything right because she stamped my other form and gave me back this new form all happily stamped up, telling me I have until July 29 to get my moto out of Chile or the police will impound it!

Next thing I know, I’m handing in my completed form on the way out and heading south into Chile, a country which I am so unprepared for that I don’t even have a map or any idea where I’m going! I figure South can’t be too wrong, so I just follow signs that say South… I make it through the unexpectedly huge city of Arica without too many problems, though it’s clear that Chile is not Peru.

First of all, they love round-a-bouts in Chile. Second, there are a ton of pale skinned people everywhere here it seems. Third, the city itself (Arica) had much more greenery and was generally less dirty than most desert cities in Peru, as if maybe they even use water to clean things sometimes! Most importantly, I did not see police on every corner and didn’t get stopped at all!

Before long I was fueled up and on the highway southbound, figuring it’d get me somewhere (and hopefully I could buy a map there). I did not at all expect what happened next – five hours of a desolate desert road with only one little diner where I picked up some water. It was an interesting road at first, with pristine desert views and these amazing desert canyons, but before long it all started to blend together.

IMG_5183If anything, it’s a reminder that for a large portion of its route, the Panamerican highway is just a giant “easy button” to travel, mostly flat, straight, and endless. I don’t want to travel this way, but I don’t have any choice right now as I don’t have a map and I know it’s taking me in the direction I want to go!

Night begins to fall without any real progress made, as far as I can tell. I’m just in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of kilometers to the next town, so there’s nothing for it but to find a place to sleep. The cool thing is that the desert here is mostly solid sand with a lot of salt rocks, so I pick a little teeny side road that has a weird pipeline next to it and drive off the highway about half a mile before pulling over into the desert to set up camp.


I read for awhile as the sky darkens, then turn off my light to look up at the sky. It’s perfectly clear, with most of the haze from the day fading with the sun. The sky is alive, marvelous, a beautiful ménage of lights, colors, and shapes. You don’t just see stars, you see bands of them, nebulae, galaxies, more colors and shapes than a life of light pollution can ever prepare you for. With this endless diorama circling over me, I sleep.


Day 17
Unknown Location, Chilean Desert @ 7:30AM
End: Unknown Location, Chilean Desert / Coastline @ 5:15PM
Distance: approx. 319km (~200mi) in ~7 hours (~45KMH / ~28MPH average, 3hrs in stops)
Average Gas Mileage: N/A (calculations fried)
Stopped by Police: 1x, plus Aduana checkpoint

Last night was surprisingly comfortable, some bran cookies keeping my stomach pains in check as I read late into the night before closing down to sleep around nine in the evening. I didn’t get out much of my cold weather gear since I was at sea level, just draped my sleeping bag over me and called it a night. As I woke up in the morning, it was a bit chilly, but I just tucked it tighter around me and dozed until the sun came up completely and started toasting everything right up.

IMG_5219Finishing off the last of my water (in the middle of the desert, ut oh!), I hit the road wondering how long it would be until I found anything at all. Luckily, the next interesting thing was only a few hours down the road, a cool little rest stop on the side of the road in a fruit orchard. The nice lady sold me a great steak and cheese sandwich on very hard bread as well as some excellent fresh fruit juice and some waters for the road. Fed and hydrated, I took off towards Iquique, the next big city apparently, some hundred kilometers to the south.

As I turned off the endless desert highway towards Iquique, I was stopped by police for the first time in Chile! Also for the first time (on the entire trip), the first words out of this officer’s mouth when he saw me were “Hablas Español?” In fact, I think that’s the first time anyone has ever asked me that at all this trip, maybe my opening “que mas” or whatnot is usually fluent enough sounding to preclude it. Regardless, we had a quick conversation where it became apparent the officer was more curious about me than anything, and once that curiousity was satisfied he confirmed Iquique was a big city and I should be able to buy a map and gas there and sent me on my way.

More humdrum road through the desert followed, when with nearly no warning it dropped. The “nearly no warning” is because there was a sign for a “mirador” (viewpoint) to the side which I foolishly ignored, as I immediately found out that Iquique was built in a half mile wide stretch of ground where the ocean had eroded the desert, and I was coming in from about a third of a mile up! The only thing between this huge cliff face and the city was a giant sand mountain smack dab in the middle of the cliff and the city, which made no sense at all.

IMG_5229What did make sense was all that paragliders hanging out flying through the air – man, what an ideal place, just drive up the cliff outside the city then sail down! I told myself that I needed three things in this city: Gas, a Map, and more Cash. I would not leave without these three things! It was nice to be by ocean now, the breeze coming in cool and wet, and I sort of checked out as I drove through the city.

Long story short: I left without any of those three things. There was gas going into the city but not leaving the city, and somehow I avoided any sort of district with stores or banks. Before I realized what was going on, I was outside the city following a small road south along the ocean – not to worry though, there is an airport a few kilometers out of the city, and signs for all sorts of other towns, so there will be tons of places to stop and get gas.

Yeah, uh… let me just skip ahead to a couple hours later as I coast to the side of the road completely out of gas, my reserve stuttering dry and my spare can completely empty. All those towns were actually clusters of maybe four houses with a restaurant, not a single gas station amongst them. I’m an idiot…  but not to worry, I’ve seen plenty of SUV’s with gas cans on the roof, someone will hook me up!

For an hour I sat on the side of the road holding up a “Need Gas” sign at every car and truck that drove by. Almost all drove by waving and smiling… but only one stopped. This guy was really nice and said he had a ton of gas but I needed a hose to siphon it! I don’t have this because I shouldn’t need to siphon gas from someone. >_< With no easy way to get the gas from his tank into mine, he sadly bid me good luck before quickly coming back to gift me with a bag of marshmallows (???)… um, ok? Actually this was just what I needed, to stuff my face with half a bag of sugar. It kept me in good spirits at least!

I finally decided to start pushing Red down the road. By my calculations I was only about five km from the next “town” and maybe I could get help there. After pushing it about a kilometer, something made me stubbornly try to start it… and wtf, it started! And ran! Could it be that pushing it had sloshed some fuel around? Or maybe, wait, I was just cresting a steep hill when it died… either way, there’s something left! Vroom!

The remaining fuel got me around two kilometers before it died again, this time for good. From here I could see some cell towers that hinted at maybe a bigger “town” than usual… could I dare to hope? I kept pushing Red but the grade started to change slightly uphill. The going was rough, but I figured out a way to walk backwards pulling it up the hill, using my weight more than my muscle power and slowly got myself to the top – from which I could see a small cluster of buildings about a kilometer off to the side!

P1010654Grabbing my gas can and the bag with my passport and paperwork, I left Red and the rest of my stuff beside the road with my finger’s crossed that no one would try anything out of expectation I was hanging out at a beach nearby watching. As I got closer to the buildings I realized it was a cluster of about five houses, but one had a huge collection of junked cars and motorcycles and other crap outside it… a mechanic of some sort? Surely he would have gas!

As I walked up to the house I was laughing desperately inside. Two large, overweight guys were working on giant speakers in the back of an SUV, with a generous portion of butt being shown by both of them. With the ambience of the front yard full of junk, it could be a random cluster of houses in West Virginia… until I politely asked if they knew where I could buy some gasoline and the entire house erupted!

P1010659Well, actually, the analogy stayed, it was only the calls in Spanish that decried the truth. The two guys outside started yelling that I needed help out here RIGHT AWAY and cussing at someone inside to GET THE @%#%# OUT HERE! Five or six overweight women of various ages came running out to see what was going on, look at me, then run back inside before finally the patron of this family came out to talk to me in the craziest accent I have ever heard. I can only think to describe it as “pikey Spanish” – remember Brad Pitt in Snatch? Yeah, that.

Holy crap, I found a nest of Chilean pikeys. As I desperately quelled the urge to ask them if they liked dags, I managed to understand that this guy would happily sell me some gas but that it was over a hundred kilometers to the next gas station! He couldn’t sell me enough to get there because he only had around eight liters and he needed some of it. I told him I was on a motorcycle and he got all excited, saying five liters should get me there (correct, I hope) and that he could spare me five liters.

P1010658He then fished around his junkyard for about five minutes trying to find a funnel, then poured gas from a giant blue can into a five liter earthernware jug that, I kid you not, looked for all the world like it usually held moonshine. During this process we chatted about my trip, where I was coming from and going, how long I thought it would take, and other such niceties. For every response I gave, he would spout off about ten sentences in rapid pikey Spanish of which I would be lucky to understand a few words near the end, but he didn’t seem to mind that I only ever responded to the last couple of words I heard.

Gas in hand, I paid 5000 pesos (normally 3500 pesos worth of gas, he asked for 4500, I didn’t want to deal with change) and walked away from this utterly surreal experience shaking my head in wonder. How bizarre, how bizarre.

Fuel in moto, I tore off down the road towards what I thought was the next big town ten km away. I had thought this because this Rio Loma (or something like that) place had been on all the signs since Iquique, so it must be big… but the guy who sold me the gas said it wasn’t. Not sure what to expect, I came up to it and found out it wasn’t a town at all; rather, it was some sort of inspection area.

I will admit at this point I was somewhat mentally and physically broken. Crossing into Chile, sleeping in the desert, running out of gas, having no idea where the hell I was going, it had all started to add up. Now I’m in some sort of weird inspection area which, like everything else in South America, apparently can’t be bothered to have any sort of signs explaining what you’re supposed to do… so I just pulled up, turned off my engine, and sat there, pouting.

This advanced “traveler in a strange land” technique worked, thankfully, and an official came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I had no idea at all what I was doing, and wondered if he could tell me what I was supposed to do?  Thankfully he either did not sense my sarcasm or chose to ignore it (or I was concealing my emotions better than I thought), and instead his face lit up in a huge grin as he actually looked at me and my moto for the first time. “You should have received some paperwork when you entered Chile, I need to see it” he asked me very politely.

I seem to recall having such – I dug into my bag and pulled out my paperwork, including four separate pieces of paper I received entering Chile, and showed them to this gentleman. He happily pulled one piece out and said “This is the important one, come with me please!” and walked me over to a nearby building.

Inside the building he spent a couple of minutes telling everyone inside that I had some sort of weird motorcycle and that he’d never had to fill out the form for one of those and wasn’t sure what to do! Oh no… wait, no, he’s laughing, it must be okay… sure enough, he catches my look of horror and tells me it’s okay, he was just joking. My relief must have been palpable because the entire room – as well as the three other Chileans going through the same process – all break out into laughter at this point.

He fills out a registry book of some kind (really Chile, no computers? I’m actually quite surprised here, you seem so modern in so many ways), then stamps and signs my form. He returns said form to me, explaining that I need to guard it carefully while I am in Chile, and to show his stamp and signature to the guard down the road. I thank him profusely for his help, he wishes me a safe journey, and I head down towards the guard.

He looks at the paper, looks at me, and with a look of disbelief asks me where I came from. “Lima, Peru” I say, “and I’m going to Santiago, then into Argentine” to preempt his next question. He shakes his head at me and smiles, returns the paper and also wishes me a good journey. I shoot him a grin and a thumbs up for his trouble and tear off in a squeal of tires showcasing the ultimate power of my ride (one of those things only happened in my head).

P1010660At this point it was closing on five and starting to get dark – the sun seems to be setting around 5:30PM down here right now. I am out of water again and haven’t eaten since breakfast, so the little roadside eatery next to the customs place has been calling me like a magnet. I pull in and see a sign that has a list of prices next to a bunch of “chicharrones, chicharrones + queso, chicharrones + tomato” etc. Under that is “ave, ave + queso, ave + tomato” etc.

I’m not a huge fan of chicarrones, but have no idea what ave is. When it’s my turn, I politely ask the lady what an “ave” is. She looks at me like I’m a total idiot and goes “an ave is an ave.” I’m still confused, so I ask “but what is it?" to which she replies “it’s a sandwich of ave.” My confusion must’ve finally gotten through because she then stopped, cocked her head, and said “ave is chicken!” (using the word “pollo” which I know).

I don’t know if ave is a local word, or a type of chicken, or what, but I know the word chicken! Chicken sammich for dinner! Yeah!

But wait, there’s more! What is that I see in the refrigerator? Why yes, it is indeed, a 1.5L bottle of Coke Light! Nectar of the gods with my name on it. As the lady hands me my diet Coke (which I am still drinking as I write this), she heads in back to prepare my sandwich. She pops out for a moment to ask me if I want mayonnaise on it (another sign this is not Peru – she would have just slathered it on), to which I reply “Yes please, but only a little!” During this interplay I notice she is slicing a fresh tomato for my sandwich, a sure sign of happiness.

The sandwich is delicious. The diet Coke is amazing. My body and stomach tingles as I stuff my face, but it’s definitely getting darker… should I push for the next town three hours down the road and hope there is hostal? Ugh, what if I run out of gas again? Screw it, I have been driving down this coast for half a day looking at the endless beaches, let’s put that soft sand to use.

Barely half a kilometer from the checkpoint, I pull off the road and drive onto the beach. It’s mostly hard sand, though I get stuck a couple times and have to push myself off. Likely spot found, I unload, set up my tent, and get to work.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I still don’t have have a map (though I had a high resolution .jpg on my laptop that I transferred to my phone to use until I find a map), and I’m not sure what the plan is from here because all my previous plans are shot.

I know I have a buddy who really wants to come down and hang for the last couple weeks of May, so within the next couple of days I need to figure out where we can rendezvous. Santiago maybe? If I stay on this easy button road and actually get gas appropriately, I should be in Santiago inside a week though – so maybe somewhere in Argentina? Can I make it over the mountains down there?

Ah well, those are questions to be answered with a map and an internet connection. For now, I can relax and let the sound of waves lull me to sleep.

Day 18
Unknown Location, Chilean Desert / Coastline @ 7:30AM
End: Taltal, Chile @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 450km (~280mi) in ~10.5 hours (~42KMH / ~26MPH average)
Average Gas Mileage: N/A (calculations fried)
Stopped by Police: 2x

IMG_5282Another “easy button” road day. There was an awful lot of driving down the coastline then through the desert, with the monotony only broken by a trip through a very large town called Antofagasta. After that, there was a considerable amount of more desert… however I did find a book of maps for Chile! So I sort of know where I am going now.

I ditched 5 at my earliest opportunity (though I’ll be back on it tomorrow) and shot off towards the coastline again heading out of Antofagasta. At one point I could see what looked like clouds below me through a gap in the desert mountains to the side, but that made no sense at all – I wasn’t high enough for clouds. I decided it must be some sort of fluffy white sand dunes or something, and was excited to be heading towards them.

P1010675Down and around a canyon, suddenly the temperature dropped almost 30F in moments – from a balmy desert 70+ to a chilly low 40’s. The reality became clear; they had been clouds I saw, once again I was descending rapidly down to the coast line, except here the entire horizon was full of dark, evil, horrible clouds in some kind of cold front ready to wreak havoc upon the coastline in one of those epic coastal storms anyone from the west coast of the US is familiar with.

I’ve no idea when the sun set, only that it was dark before and dark after. I could camp on the beach and weather the pending storm, but I needed power for my laptop and an internet connection so I could figure out some coordination with my buddy Adam, who is looking to join me down here for a couple weeks. I knew the town of Taltal was somewhere within range to the south, so I simply opened the throttle wide open and raced the storm.

P1010680After a few minutes, I noticed a slight orange glow far to the south and realized I was seeing the lights of what had to be Taltal or another big enough city. I kept at it and suddenly the city unfolded before me. At the very first corner, there was a sign pointing inland for highway 5 and a hostal whose sign said “Internet – Wifi.” Done and done.

The irony? The storm didn’t break… apparently it was just evil fog in a cold front. Doh!

Some random thoughts on Chile so far:

1. Chile is expensive! Holy crap. I had heard, but… see, I went to Easter Island (which is in Chile) and everyone talked about how expensive it was. I thought they meant “for Chile” as well as “for South America…” but I was wrong. As far as I can tell, Chile is just pricey in general. I’m paying $3USD for a 1.5L bottle of water vs $1USD for a 2.5L bottle in Peru. Snacks run a minimum of $5 instead of maybe $1-3 in Peru. Everything from candy bars to cookies to sodas are priced about what they are back home in the US, sometimes more. The room here was $30USD, considerably more than I paid even at nice “tourist style” hotels in Peru.

2. Gas is killer. Try $1.50 a liter – almost $6 a gallon! I have no idea how people can afford to travel, it’s costing me nearly $10 every 100 miles and I get better gas mileage than anything on the road here. Oddly there are very few motorcycles, everyone just seems to drive cars with this crazy expensive gas…  but not many people travel, I guess.

3. 99% of the terrain I have passed through – over a thousand km – is completely barren desert. Not the typical America Southwest kind of desert we think of in the US, but barren desert. I’m talking not a single scrub brush or cactus – no life at all. Just rock and sand. Life is very uncommon outside the little valleys and oasis. It’s bizarre.



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