Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chile Norte Grande Salt pan

During our time in El Salvador we had discovered that there was a Salar (Salt Lake) about 100km to the east.  We headed out on the good salt roads and before we knew it were weaving through a valley between amazing coloured mountains.  We passed neglected mining houses and started climbing higher and higher.  The temperatures also started to dip, and we were in a way happy for this taking a chance having bought pieces of meat for dinner. 
Somewhere along the line we had missed our turn off, and were happy to see some locals pulling purple flowered plants from the ground.  We asked them where the Salar was and were happy to hear that it was ‘only’ 5km down the road.  This landed up being 20km but nevertheless we arrived. It was an incredible sight, a big white salt pan with dam in between a long mountain range in the distance, although hidden by big grey clouds.  We stopped in and admired a few flamingos in the dam before heading towards the desert to find a place for a very late lunch.  Luck was on our side, we found an excavation site off the road which was well hidden and a good supply of firewood.  Assuming it would be a very cold night we figured this excavation would be good protection from the wind, hidden from sight and we could make a fire to braai our meat – Sold!  The evening was spent in awe of the silence that surrounded us, bar from the occasional donkey calls in the distance.  The full moon rose over the clearing mountains and we lapped up the heat from the fire a little worried about heading into the cold tent!!
Vultures every where like our indian mynahs 

Salt Lake

Altitude making the bikes a little unhappy !!

just chilling !!

Nothing like an old truck filter for an improvised braai grill !!

It gets a little chilly at 3500 meters above sea level !

Fire pit



Yummi steaks , grill worked like a treat 
 Being the earlier riser, Nick jumped out of the tent first in the morning and jumped back a step when he realised he was being watched by a curious fox!  Quite a shy creature, but clearly used to man as every time we took something out of a plastic packet it perked its ears and looked closely for potential food.  It was like our pet in the morning laying a few steps away relaxed while we drank our coffee and nibbled on muesli.  The morning views were amazing, snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, white salt pan all against a crystal blue sky!!
What does the fox say??!!

 After the chilly night it was an easy decision that we need to head to lower altitudes.  Wanting to avoid the Ruta 5 we travelled along a very good salt road past many more mining sites.  A short section of the Ruta 5 before turning off along the 37km dirt road to Cifuncho. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we arrived, it was like being in the med with calm seas and white sand.  There were quite a few campers on the beach so we figured we’d join in.  Nick went to get us fresh fish and chips for dinner and we enjoyed watching the stars and the full moon with our toes in the sand.

Top of the world !!

Amazing colours

Fish and chips yummo !!

The med ??!!

 The next morning we couldn’t resist a swim in the sea and were amazed by how many fish, jellyfish, seagulls and pelicans there were.  Children were playing in the water and we landed up only leaving around lunchtime after another delicious fish and chips!  The coastal road took us past the town of Taltal where we filled up with fuel.  The drive thereafter was like a cross between Chapman’s peak and the Wild coast in South Africa. We passed so many beaches that were filled with tents and locals enjoying the spectacular day.  Finding camp that night was a little more challenging as the road had become more rough without many offlets into the dunes.  After going up and over one dune we decided to flatten the ground and set up camp without finding much shelter from the wind.  The tent needed to be weighed down with sand as the wind was so strong and after a quick meal we jumped into bed to take shelter.

The wind had died down in the morning and it turned out to be an great spot we had chosen.  We had seen quite a few cars come along the road both during the late afternoon and evening and assumed the road should improve again. So we headed along the very rocky, rumple stripped and sandy road and after 80km thought we may actually be on the wrong road!! It was quite strange to see these make shift shelter homes come out of nowhere and many of them had a pack of dogs that were thoroughly excited by our motorbikes.  A few times we had to wait for the dogs either to get bored of us or for the owners to shoo them away because they can be quite aggressive and persistent as you drive past!!
The ride was probably the hardest we’ve had yet in Chile, and we both wished that we had brought our kidney belts to help with the vibrations and jerks our bodies were enduring.  This was all numbed suddenly when we saw about 15-20 dolphins jumping and swimming south! It was an incredible sight and we are so lucky to have seen them!
Route 1 ...bumpety bumpety all the way !!!

 Eventually we saw the road that would take us back to Ruta 5 and on to Antofogasta.  At the freeway we made a detour south to see the sculptured Mano del Desierto, a really impressive yet arbitrary artform in the middle of the desert.
The wind towards Antofogasta was crazy and we were flung around when either a truck passed us in the oncoming lane or overtook us.  At some stages we had to slow down to 60km to make sure we could control the swerving in our lane…not for the faint hearted! 
Antofogasta is the second largest city in Chile, but there are not as many high rise buildings as in Santiago.  We found a great hospedaje and were lucky enough to take our bikes off the main road and into the open court area right ourside our room.  We have now managed to print a copy of our padron for the bikes, organise international insurance for the Mercosur areas from Penta Security, buy spares for the motorbikes, stock up on a few more supplies and catch up on the blog. 


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dakar - El Salvador

Needing to kill one more day, we headed out of El Salvador, past the Bivouac being constructed for the Dakar and down to a camping spot for the night.  Dilapidated houses were built along a salty stream and provided a hidden campsite for the night. 
The next day we were bubbling with excitement to watch the much anticipated Dakar Rally.  After hearing and seeing loads of backup vehicles heading towards the Bivouac, we stopped in at Diego de Almargo and asked where would be the best place to view the contestants for the day.   Only 8km out of town the route passed over the main road and as we headed out we spotted trails of dust coming over the dunes, a helicopter overhead and loads of spectators off road…it hit us… it was real… we are in South America, Chile and the Dakar is here!! A dream come true.
We must have spent about 5 hours watching bikes (moto’s), cars (auto’s) and trucks (caminos) pass the number 3 check point of the route on stage 11.  We couldn’t have had a better spot, they trailed along a mountain top in the distance, down a dune towards check point 3 where they accelerated quickly around a bend and over a jump only to accelerate again and disappear into the distance leaving a trail of dust.  Awesome!!
The next view spot we got to see a real Dakar picture moment where the dust cloud looked like it would engulf the cars/trucks  as they battled through thick fine sand.  The trucks were the most entertaining to watch as they didn’t seem to use their brakes much and in some cases got some serious air-time which got the crowds going!
That night we met some local avid motorbike riders and spectators outside the bivouac and camped near them chatting about the ins and outs of the Dakar rally. We hadn’t realised how tough the event had been through 45 degree temperatures in Argentina, and how nearly 50% of the contestants had already dropped out.  We fell asleep that night to the rumble of the generators and noise of the engineers fixing bikes, cars and trucks in preparation for the next gruelling day.
Around 7am the contestants started to leave the bivouac.  Nick was standing right by the entrance and got to see Mark Coma (the 4 times winner of Dakar Rally) leave for his day, as well as seeing some contestants arriving back after having spent a night in the desert!!  Intrigued we stood for a few hours watching them leave seeing burnt out cars and other vehicles that have been eliminated from the race being towed from one bivouac to the next!
Dakar Rally exceeded our expectations and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Valparaiso – the colourful city onto Chile Grade Chico

The apartment was so luxurious and the company so great.  We took a guided tour by Sam (the Belgium traveller staying in the apartment too) around the city and up to the look out point at San Pablo’s house.  It is impossible to avoid the hills in Valparaiso and as you go up and down along small passages and along main roads you see a contrast of sturdy houses made of brick and houses that look like they could crumble into the valley.  The wooden staircases up to the houses were crazy, and there were a few times we imagined what it would be like arriving home with a boot full of groceries.  New years eve was a great party, and we spent the wee hours of the morning dancing with the locals in the street to a live band.  Not a bad way to welcome in 2014.
We spent Nick’s birthday enjoying the luxuries of the apartment and making sure everything that needed to be charged was charged.

amazing street art


 Kristine had a look on the website to check the progress of our padron and unfortunately saw some bad news…the application had been rejected! Not knowing what this meant she whatsapp’d the contact at Honda and asked him to clarify.  He replied that we should come back to Santiago as soon as we could.  So Friday we left Valparaiso and headed unhappily back to Santiago.  Turns out that some of Kristine’s paperwork had been lost but it would only mean we’d have to wait another 10 days for the padron.  Their solution was for us to come through on Monday and collect a new primero inscription and travel with that into Argentina.  This paperwork would be valid for a month and by that time the Honda chaps would scan us a copy of the padron.  Not 100% convinced with this solution we decided to head back into the mountains near Santiago and wait the weekend out till Monday.  We also organised for our bikes to have their 1000km service on Monday so had a few kms to clock up over the weekend.
We arrived around 9:30am Monday morning impressed at our early rise and departure! The bikes were in for their service and we had a day to kill in Santiago, so we headed back to Lira to look for a powerpoint to attach to the motorbike as well as exchange money into US Dollars for Argentina – as suggested by a number of travellers.
We received the paperwork and vamoosed quickly out of the city and headed north towards Las Andes. Ruta 5 is the main freeway north and pretty busy, it definitely takes some getting used to the change from the KLR650 to the XR125.  We average around 80kmph, which is what we were travelling through Africa, however the lack of acceleration is a little daunting on the free way with the amount of traffic and large cargo trucks.
We arrived in Los Andes in the eveningand started to look for accommodation for the night. The first place we found at a reasonable rate where you could even pay by the hour, was rather interesting with red and green lights out side each room and some suspicious activities going on… we were not too sure about this so decided to look around a little more. We eventually found a little hotel in town called Hotel Manuel Rodriguez for 20 000 pesos (R400) for the and rested up for the night.
peanutbutter and bread staple lunch!

 The next day leaving Los Andies  was beautifull passing numerous vineyards and some wonderfull windy roads which were great fun on the bikes.  Going up route 5 was rather uneventfull but we decided to skip the tunnel just before La Ligua as you had to pay to go through it, so we climbed up and over the mountain instead for some more breath taking scenery and continued towards Los Vilos getting back to the Pacific ocean.
After stocking up in Los Vilos we went on the search for a camp spot and landed up at Chigualoco at a camp ground which we later found out had only opened that day and we were there second guests for the season and managed to get the price down from 10 000 pesos to 5000 pesos for the night. The camp site was situated only 5 meters from the beach and the sunset that evening was just amazing even the pictures don’t do it juctice !

 Wanting to head north and get some kms done we carried along route 5 and turned off towards Ovalle , it was nice to be off the freeway and once we got supplies in Ovalle we started the hunt for accommodation for the night. We drove along the dam wall of Embalse Recoleta and tried to spot a place to camp on the edge of the dam how ever it became evident that this was not going to happen as we could find no roads going down to the dam. We twisted our way to Samo Alto and found a camp site with a swimming pool oh bliss as it was a scorcher of a day. So we set up camp and were then told that we are not allowed to swim today…. Not very happy about that I tell you! Any how we made a fire that evening and enjoyed a lovely meal cooked on the fire with a bottle of Gato wine !
We left Samo Alto and ended up on a dirt track through the mountains, absolutely amazing ride with so much to look at , all the different rock shapes and colours and not to mention the fields of cacti.  We arrived in Vicuna and it felt a lot more touristy being the gateway for the Elqui valley were they make the local pisco which is the equivalent to our brandy. We had a local lunch called Pastel de choclo chilian corn pie. We then headed to La Serena the coastal holiday city which was very busy and crowded so we diceded to head up the coast a bit. We pulled off route 5 towards the beach and inbetween rocks we found some locals and asked if we could camp there for the night they said it was no problema !! so we watch yet another amazing sunset that evening and the local herder try and gather all his goats for the evening.

cacti fields

 With not much to see along the route 5 the next day traveling inland we covered about 350 kms and arrived backed on the coast in a odd little fishing village called Puerto Viejo and made our way up the coast looking for a camp spot for the night , we stopped and asked a local chap if it was allright for us to camp in the dunes for the night and as allways he was friendly and helpful, warning us where the still water was and the mosquitos and where we would be protected from the wind. This camping on the beach is getting dangerous cause we are getting used to nice soft ground to sleep on !!!
Continuing along the salt road we passed many shade cloth shelters which seem to be established for families to come down and camp in.  Many cars passed us with mattresses on their roofs and at a few shelters we saw tents as wells as mattresses laid out.  Bahia Inglesa, our first stop of the day, is another holiday town which apparently has the warmest coastal waters in Chile.  We had a coffee and enjoyed watching the pelicans dive bomb into the water while the seagulls chase after them trying to steal their catch. 
woops !!


tucked away behind the rocls for the night

one of the more extravagant road side reflections and tributes to the saints 

 The next two towns Caldera and Chanaral were not particularly interesting but the coastline towards the Pan de Azucar National Park was beautiful with long stretches of white sandy beaches and crashing waves.  We saw a turn off down to the beach and went to investigate and eat some lunch.  A family had driven their bakkie onto the beach so we waited for them to leave and discussed the possibility of riding the bikes across the sand to set up camp in between the rocks.  While we were sitting there the tide came in, and suddenly realised we may have parked a little close to the water line…thankfully the family decided to leave and so we kitted up and rode the bikes round some rocks judging the time between waves hitting the rocks and receding again.  We were impressed with how far the little 125s got across the soft sand fully loaded, only just not making the little hill up to where we had decided to camp. So using a few rocks and left over firewood we made a ramp and pushed them the last few meters.  Using our ramp for a fire that night, we played cards and enjoyed being so close to the beach.
After a great night’s sleep we woke up to a misty morning feeling nice and relaxed and couldn’t resist the fact that there was no urgency to move on so we decided to stay another day (ahhh the joys of no time constraints).  
before the tide came in!!

look no hands or kick stand!!

tough life !!

 Having loved our secluded beach, we decided it was time to head to El Salvador to prepare for the arrival of the Dakar Rally.  It was very clear that we had entered into Chile’s mining district as along the road were lots of signs for ‘Mina’ (mines) and what looked like excavation tunnels into the mountains. We then met up with the railway and passed what seemed to be an old abandoned railway station until we saw the train passing by.  It doesn’t seem that they need to upgrade the system as this train looked like the original train, as did the buildings.
El Salvador reminded us of Secunda, developed purely because of the mining industry in the area.  Not much to see in this town though as it consisted mostly of housing with maybe one or two hotels.  We booked into a Residencia and enjoyed the luxuries of a TV, wifi and hot shower.

ready for the dakar !!