North into the Atacama

After exploring the Elqui Valley with Anita, we stopped in La Serena only for some groceries and a quick email check at a coffee shop before heading north out of town on the PanAmerican Highway. One thing of note while in the Elqui Valley was an earthquake that woke us up while we slept in our tents at a campsite east of La Serena. It was the rumbling sound that woke us followed by the shaking that lasted maybe 30 seconds. A little disconcerting but no problem going back to sleep.

Look at that fantastic bike path.
Look at that fantastic bike path.

Riding north with Anita, we found ourselves on a newly paved section of road not yet finished and not yet open to traffic. We had this all to ourselves for many kilometers, thus avoiding having to ride with the big trucks on Ruta 5.

Looking south to La Serena and Coquimbo.
Looking south to La Serena and Coquimbo.

The road follows the coast and is mostly level to the town of Los Hornos where we arrived at sunset and found a cabaña. We were treated to yet another spectacular Pacific sunset creating a fire in the sky.

Checking GPS near Los Hornos.
Checking GPS near Los Hornos.
Sunset at Los Hornos.
Sunset at Los Hornos.
Fire sky from Los Hornos.
Fire sky from Los Hornos.
Contemplating a swim at Los Hornos.
Contemplating a swim at Los Hornos.

From Los Hornos, the next day, the road went up as we climbed the first pass above the town. Unfortunately, our private 15-metre-wide bike path was gone now. We enjoyed a long descent before starting another climb where our private bike path reappeared and we cycled as far as the tiny hamlet of Incahuasi at the base of the next climb. We tried to find some accommodation but the hospedaje was fully occupied with road workers.

Squaring up the view near the top of the pass above Los Hornos.
Squaring up the view near the top of the pass above Los Hornos.

After riding around town looking for possible camping spots nearby, we went back to the hospedaje to buy some beer. The woman asked if we had found any accommodation and when we told her no and that we would camp nearby, she had a worried look on her face and told us it was going to be cold and raining. She said to wait a minute and disappeared. A few minutes later, she came back smiling with thumbs up and told us they made space for us and we had rooms for the night. Jan and I in a small unfinished room and Anita in her private room. We shared the bathroom. We also had dinner and breakfast included in the deal.

Jan and Anita with Monica, our hostess at Hospedaje El Minero in Incahuasi.
Jan and Anita with Monica, our hostess at Hospedaje El Minero in Incahuasi.

After breakfast, Monica, our hostess at the hospedaje wished us a safe journey with a big hug and sent us on our way further up the mountain. Such great hospitality. A few kilometres up the road, the highway was closed as the steepest section was torn up in preparation for twinning. The detour was on a small, paved road with many switchbacks bringing us into the pass. It was a hot, steep climb with many trucks going equally slowly.

Jan with the trucks on the climb out of Incahuasi.
Jan with the trucks on the detour climb out of Incahuasi.

Once through the pass, the Cordillera appeared in the east draped in fresh snow. With this gorgeous view to our right, we got back on our private bike path that stretched for many miles down into the valley to Domeyko where we stopped for lunch and waited for Anita to catch up with us as she had fallen behind on the climb.

Fresh snow in the Andes to the east.
Fresh snow in the Andes to the east.

The weather changed a bit as the day progressed and clouds rolled in. Climbing up through the bleak landscape into the next pass at 1,100 metres we had to add some layers to fend off the cold. We stopped for a snack, hoping Anita would catch up but it was too cold to wait long so we began the descent to Vallenar. It was a 30-kilometre downhill run and went very quickly.

A tea break at a roadside "cafŽé".
A tea break at a roadside “cafŽé”.
Cabañ–as Pussy: we had to check it out.
Cabañ–as Pussy: we had to check it out.

About 10 km from town, we stopped at a roadside shack for a cup of tea and to wait for Anita, who appeared soon after. She is faster than we are on the downhills. The three of us sailed down the final 10 km to Vallenar, again on a private bike path. It was late as we entered the town on the hunt for accommodation. There was no camping nearby, so we checked out some cabins with the dubious name Cabañas Pussy. It turned out to be a dump that looked more like an hourly rental than a nightly one.

The only other place nearby offered a big, two bedroom bungalow but it was kind of expensive. The owner did not want to bargain, so, we took it as it was. Already dark, and riding all the way down into the valley not knowing if we would find anything else was not that appealing. We had hot showers and made dinner and went to bed soon after, tired from the previous days cycling and climbing through the mountains.

Freirina Plaza des Armas.
Freirina Plaza des Armas, on the way to Huasco.

We were in need of a day off but decided to ride back to the coast. It was a 50 km downhill run to Huasco under a brilliant blue sky. The Huasco valley is green and fertile as Rio Huasco flows year-round providing water to the farms and vineyards.

Huasco beach.
Huasco beach.

Huasco is a port with several terminals where iron ore pellets are being shipped out, mainly to China. While sitting on the pretty waterfront promenade having lunch, a man riding his bicycle stopped and asked us if we needed any help. We chatted with him for a while and then he invited us to stay with him. We told him we were waiting for Anita and would like to take him up on his offer but did not want to leave our friend hanging. He gave us his phone number and said to call him if we wanted to stay with him or if there was anything else he could do for us.

Taking a break near the pass above Los Hornos.
In need of a shave and a trim, perhaps.

After several hours waiting for Anita we decided to accept Andres’ offer and rode to his house where he warmly received us. Andres is one of two harbour pilots in the town. Once we were settled in, he took us around town and the harbour telling us all about Huasco and the area. We ran into Anita who had arrived and found a room at a local hostel.

Andres creating his fantastic Pisco Sour.
Andres creating his fantastic Pisco Sour.

To reciprocate Andres’ generous hospitality, we took him out for dinner to a local restaurant before he had to go to work piloting a freighter out of the harbour. Jan and I stayed in town for a bit longer and then walked back to Andres’ place. He showed up not long after, having successfully guided the ship out into open water, and treated us to his favourite drink, Pisco Sour.

A picnic with Andres.
A picnic with Andres.
Andres letting some air out of the tires to get us out of the soft sand.
Andres letting some air out of the tires to get us out of the soft sand.
Lomo, onions and potatoes on the parilla.
Lomo, onions and potatoes on the parilla.

The following day, Andres packed a picnic and took us to an area south of town showing us the desert landscape along the way. We had a great afternoon exploring. We nearly got stuck in the sand on one of the beaches but after letting some air out of the tires, Andres got us out and back on the road to Huasco where he prepared Pisco Sours and the three of us made dinner: a BBQ of lomo (tenderloin), potatoes, onions and a salad. It was a great weekend with Andres. Again, we were the recipients of fantastic hospitality of a total stranger. We said our goodbyes in the morning to continue our journey north along the coast into the Atacama. Anita decided to stay in Huasco another day but our paths may cross again as she’s heading in the same direction as we are.

With Andres in Huasco.
With Andres at his home in Huasco.

We decided to take a small road along the coast out of Huasco, instead of going back to the PanAmerican Highway. There was almost no traffic on this road and the scenery was amazing as the Atacama stretches out to the horizon on one side and the Pacific on the other.

The road north from Huasco.
The road north from Huasco.

We rode into the small town of Carizal Bajo where we bought some water and continued another 25 km until we found a nice spot to camp among the cacti and were treated to yet another spectacular sunset. Once the sun was gone, the temperature dropped quickly but it stayed amazingly warm in the rocks near where we had pitched our tent. We made ourselves comfortable against the rocks radiating warmth as we prepared and ate dinner and watched the Milky Way appear. The night skies here are beyond anything we’ve seen elsewhere.

Our camp in the desert north of Huasco.
Our camp at dawn in the desert north of Huasco.
Greeting the sunrise with a shot of espresso.
Greeting the sunrise with a shot of espresso.

The morning was a bit foggy and damp but as the sun rose, so did the temperature, and the fog disappeared. We packed up and got on the road when the sick sound of a broken spoke in my rear wheel ended the illusion of perfection that our lives have taken on over the past year. However, as described in the previous post, all turned out well and we made it to Caldera three days later where we caught a bus to Antofagasta and had a new wheel built.

Paseo El Pratt in Antofagasta.
Paseo El Pratt in Antofagasta.

Antofagasta is the home of Héctor Zavala Baez, a cyclist we met on the road in Patagonia twice. The first time we met him north of Cochrane at the Chacabuco turn-off where he and his girlfriend and another friend were hitchiking south. The second time, several weeks later, when he rode into Santa Lucia after dark, joining us in the town’s sports field where we had camped. The three of us rode to Chaitén (see post) the next day where Jan and I spent the night but Héctor chose to continue.

And the band played on.
And the band played on.

We stayed in touch via email and learned that Héctor had planned to get home to Antofagasta on May 30 completing his nearly two and a half year-long bike tour of Latin America. He cycled through every country from Mexico south, including the Caribbean. The local newspaper reported on his amazing journey. Héctor arrived home the day after we got to Antofagasta and we met for coffee in the centre the next day. We were ready to head out of town but he convinced us to stay an extra day to spend it with him and his family. Again, we were welcomed into people’s home and taken care of. We spent a great day with Héctor and his parents, Jaime and Patricia, as well as other relatives.

Having lunch with Héctor and his family in their home in Antofagasta.
Having lunch with Héctor and his family in their home in Antofagasta.

After a great lunch, Jaime took us out to La Portada, north of town. Afterwards, Jan spent several hours at a baby shower for Héctor’s sister Gabriela, who is expecting her second child, and I had supper with Héctor and Jaime. We capped off the evening all together with some drinks and food at the family apartment.

With Héctor at La Portada near Antofagasta.
With Héctor at La Portada near Antofagasta.

All set up for the next leg of our journey with a new wheel and yellow fever shots, and full of the warm hospitality we had received, Jan and I headed off into the Atacama on a route suggested by Héctor, one he had taken out of his home town when he began his two and a half year Latin American odyssey.

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