Posted: Thu, 5 March 2009
CALAMA to SAN PEDRO de ATACAMA
CALAMA to SAN PEDRO de ATACAMA
The Atacama Desert surprised us today—Big Time! We had become accustomed to the stark
landscape of the desert all the way from Antofagasto to Calama. But at the end of our 100 km ride today we
were treated to the MAGNIFICENT views outside San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis
tourist town of 2000 people.
Our ride today was
for me a great one. I felt good the
whole day. I was rested and apparently
acclimating well to the altitude.
The longest climb
today was in crossing the Cordon Barros Arana, the first of 2 cordilleras we
would cross before reaching San Pedro de Atacama. The Cordillera de Los Andes
–the Big One- is next on our agenda. The
climbs were less intensive today, more gradual, but we did reach 11,300 ft, and
we could feel the effects of high altitude.
The roads in Chile that we
have biked on are excellent for the most part.
We have a wide bike lane on the shoulders, the vehicle drivers are
considerate and give us a wide berth in passing. It has been very safe cycling.
As we get closer to
the Andes, we can clearly see the snow capped
mountains and cone shaped volcanoes in the distance. Lican Cabur is one of the most popular
volcanoes due to its perfect cone shape.
We will see many more in the upcoming days.
A long beautiful
descent into the Valle de la Paciencia was a highlight of the day. We cooled off in the otherwise dry sauna-like
heat as we sailed down the mountainside.
The final climb
over the Cordillera de la Sal, a mountain of salt caused by the uplifting of a
part of a salt lake, brought us to the spectacular views of the Valle de la
Luna and salt flats below. We could see the green vegetation of San
Pedro de Atacama-a marvelous change to the barren landscape of the desert of
the past few days.
A rest day in San
Pedro awaits us tomorrow. We will
explore this former indigenous town, now a major attraction to young
eco-tourists from around the world. They
are here to mountain bike, sand-board on the sand hillsides, climb and
hike. Many accents are heard in the
narrow streets of San Pedro. We enjoyed
a dinner together in town tonight.
Posted: Wed, 4 March 2009
MARIA ELANA TO CALAMA
There was a desert
morning chill at 6:00 am as we rolled out of our sleeping bags and tents at
“Camp Maria Elana’s Municipal Swimming Pool”.
We all knew the result of last night’s soccer game between Chile and Brazil by 2:00 am. Chile had won, and the town folk
partied loudly all night…all night! We
learned that all the stray dogs in town meet at midnight at the swimming
pool. They fight, bark, howl and growl
together all night. Unfortunately, the nylon walls of our tents did not block
the sounds of the night. It was a
restless night for me and many others, but hey, as they tell us “IT IS AN
EXPEDITION”. And so it is!
Only 11 km into the
110 km ride to Calama, I had a flat tire, losing my “team” of Dan, Fritz and
Germano. As a result I rode alone for
many miles in the desert before hooking up with Monica and Michele, our
guides. Then Javier, our Argentine
guide, took over as we climbed steadily and slowly-mile after mile- in the desert
sun. We were again without scenery except the brown, baked rocks of the
Atacama. For me it was a grueling
day. Tired and cramping, I was
On the outskirts of
Calama, a commercial and residential center for the nearby copper mine, we saw
Chuquicamata, the world’s largest open copper mine. It employs 8000 workers and produces 500,000
tons per year of refined copper. Passing by the mine with its mountains of
tailings piled high around the pit was quite an impressive sight. Armed security guards protect one of Chile’s most
The first 2 days of
climbing have been difficult, and tomorrow we have a 100 km ride to San Pedro
de Atacama. We will reach and altitude of 11, 300 feet at the high point
tomorrow. That is equal to the altitude
we reached while crossing the Rockies at Monarch Pass
“Agua del Desierto”
(Water in the Desert) is the name of our hotel in Calama. Incidentally, my
Spanish is improving, and my Italian comprehension is also getting better. Each day we have biked with Germano from Italy. He speaks to us mostly in Italian, we talk to
him in English….and we all seem to understand each other.
Posted: Tue, 3 March 2009
TOCOPILLA to MARIA ELA
Our first full day
of cycling was an exciting and varied experience. We pedaled 70 km from Tocopilla through the
Atacama Desert to the small, isolated town of Maria Elana (pop 7700, altitude 1250
meters). It is the only town that still
mines and produces nitrates…naturally.
Nitrates for fertilizer and gun powder are now able to be produced by a
chemical process more economically. The
town sits alone—off the main road—in the middle of the desert. Mining and fertilizer production is the only
game in town, and it clearly gives that appearance. Dan asked me how could I “possibly gussy up
this town to make it sound more attractive on my website?” It is not possible.
Typical of desert
climates, the temperatures here drop 50 degrees at the end of the day and
strong winds scatter everything not tied down.
Mid- afternoon temperatures hit 86 degrees today. Tonight in our
TENTS—yes tents—we expect a cold 36 degrees. Tents you may ask. Let me explain. The only accommodations available for our
cycling group, as a result of mining groups taking over our rooms, is at the city
of Maria Elana SWIMMING POOL!
The mayor learned of our predicament and offered to close the large pool and
allow us to camp out there. We have 12 individual dome tents set up on the
fenced in grounds surrounding the pool.
We have a covered area (South
American style) next to the large pool where we can relax…and take part in
Mary’s yoga class. Air mattresses have been inflated, sleeping bags are ready
and we set out our warmest clothes to sleep in.
leaving Tocopilla we climbed for the first 20 km. It was a steady pull as we headed into the
vastness and silence of the desert.
We had an
appointment to tour a working copper mine this morning. On arrival at this hole in the mountainside,
we were met by the crew and immediately entered to a depth of 110 meters into
the mine. With flashlights shining and ducking our heads in the tunnel we
reached the working vein of copper rock that was being worked. This was a very
small scale operation using old technology, but nevertheless an interesting
Back on the road,
we continued climbing in the heat until some flat terrain finally presented
itself. The afternoon winds were strong
and “going our way”, so we hopped on for some fast miles. The landscape was stark, barren, rocky,
lifeless mile after mile. No towns,
vegetation, or visible wildlife exist on this road to Maria Elana, only mineral
deposits being mines from time to time.
We visited a
geological museum on the way to dinner and watched the Chilean fans root for
their team in a soccer match vs Brazil. We were to find out later who won. We headed
back to “camp” in tent city.
Posted: Mon, 2 March 2009
ANTOGAGASTA and TOCOPILLA
ANTOFAGASTO and TOCOPILLA
Our schedule today:
5:15 am Breakfast
6:00 Depart hotel (Starbucks in terminal)
7:30 Flight leaves for Antofagasta
9:30 Arrive Antofagasta
and shuttle 180 km north to Tocopilla,
where we meet up with our
bikes and Michele, Javier and Juan Pablo,
our “trusty” guides.
Sounds like the
start of a GOOD DAY to me! We will be on
the bikes by mid-afternoon.
in Quechua Indian language means “town of the great salt lands”, was for
several decades a major port city exporting nitrates and then copper. My guide
book goes on to say that the inclement Atacama Desert nearby in the direction
is a land of “sun, baked rocks, miles of ghostly solitudes, ruined buildings of
adobe and wood. It is a dry heat where
not even flies survived, inducing a thirst that is unquenchable” Come on!
It can’t be that bad, and San Pedro de Atacama, where we are headed in a
few days, is said to have spectacular desert landscapes.
Situated on the
edge of a bay, Antofagasto is the largest city in northern Chile and is a
still a major port for the export of minerals, particularly cooper from the
world’s largest copper mine at Chuquicamata.
Our final destination city, Tocopilla,
is situated along a rugged
coastline, and is a town dominated by a thermal power station that
supplies electricity to all of northern Chile.
Immediately upon landing in Antofagasto, we
boarded a van for the ride to Tocopilla along a coastal highway with beautiful
ocean views most of the way. The blue
ocean crashing violently against the rock formations near shore was, as you can
imagine, spectacular in some areas. But the marvel of the environment was the
uniqueness of the landscape…unlike anything I have previously seen. We are in a mountainous desert, the driest in
the world. Some areas go 100 years between rainfalls. Initially we saw brown, barren desert sands
near the shoreline backed up by eroded hillsides. We progressed to a moon-like
setting of rock piles and steeper, parched and vegetation-free mountains coming
down toward the ocean. Pictures on the moon or the surface of Mars are no more
amazing to see than this region of Northern Chile.
The importance of
this region, Norte Grande, is best stated by guide books: The “Big North is
inhospitable and rough, guarded by the high mountains that hide in its entrails
an inexhaustible treasure of minerals”.
Active copper mines dug into the mountains dominate the area. Nitrates and other minerals are mined here as
well. Trucks and trains busily carry the
mineral wealth of Chile
to the ports for export. Small,
ramshackle fishing villages on the
beaches appeared from time to time, isolated in this dry barren land.
This region of
Pacific Ocean coastline and immense mineral wealth was once a part of the territory of Bolivia. We, in fact, passed the haunted ghost town
ruins of Gatico, founded by Simon de Bolivar as Bolivia’s main port. Following the naval victory of Chile over Bolivia
and Peru in the War of the
Pacific in the late 1870’s, Bolivia
lost its access to the sea and the region was acquired by Chile. Bolivia, however, maintains to this
day an active Navy …although with no access to international waters.
A dense fog is always present in the morning hours. It is
called “Camanchaca” by the indigenous people, and is actually a heavy sea mist
caused by the cold water of the Humboldt current meeting with the warm, dry air
As we entered
Tocopilla, a poor, unclean city of 8,000, we could see by the crowded FEMA-
like pre-fab village on the outskirts of town that the effects of the 7.5
earthquake in 2007 were still being addressed.
The lifeless, steep mountain behind the city seems to trap the people
against the ocean. This is not a pretty place!
At 3:00 pm the
staff presented a safety and general information talk to the 10 cyclists on the
trip. Much of the information was regarding the possible health complications
sometimes associated with high altitude exertion. The message was positive and reassuring. We know causes, symptoms, and actions to be
taken if necessary. A paramedic will accompany
our group on the high altitude days as an added precaution. We discussed the
importance of hydration and sun screen protection in this high and dry climate.
Bikes were fitted
and a trial ride along the waterfront in Tocopilla took place this
afternoon. I love my new, light Merida 27 speed road bike
with my new saddle installed.
I’m ready to ride!
Our cycling group
is an experienced and varied mix of interesting individuals from all over the
map. Five of us are friends from the Expedition from St
Petersburg to Istanbul:
Dan (CA), Fritz (WI)), Mary (FL), and Polo from Mexico. Our other international cyclists are Bob (UK)
and Germano (Italy). Harold and Carolyn reside in Utah, and Walter is from Vancouver, WA. Our ExpeditionPLUS guides Monica and Michele
reside in Italy,
Javier is Argentine, and Juan Pablo is Chilean.
I know already it is going to be a very compatible group.
Posted: Sat, 28 February 2009
Visiting Vina del Mar and Valparaiso
VISITING VINA del MAR and VALPARAISO
Last evening we took a cab to the Bellavista neighborhood for dinner. We found this “Bohemian” section of the city to be very popular on a Friday night. The young people of Santiago crowd into street-side cafes and bars, each with a quart-size bottle of Escudo beer. We found a table inside the acclaimed restaurant “como Agua para Chocolate” and enjoyed an excellent and inexpensive seafood (“mariscos”) dinner.
As the house wine settled, I persuaded Dan and Fritz, biking buddies from the ExpeditionPlus tour of Eastern Europe, to join me on Saturday for an organized bus tour to the Pacific Coast resort town of Vina del Mar and the port city of Valparaiso. The proximity to Santiago (120 km) and a favorable climate attracts large numbers of visiting Chileans and Argentines in season. In fact, Vina del Mar is one of the most famous resorts in South America.
“rrrrRodrigo” is our bilingual guide today (only Spanish and English). He explained that Chile is a country of contrasts and is 80% mountainous. As we headed west to the ocean we would cross the Coastal Range on Route 68. This range is much older and much less severe than the incredible Andes. The extremely dry valley of the Santiago area is a dramatic contrast to the green, moist landscape on the western side of the mountains. The temperatures are also cooler due to the ocean’s Humboldt current coming from the south. There are many such micro-climates in Chile providing excellent conditions for a great variety of agricultural production. We saw lemons, avocados, almonds, and table grapes being grown in the valleys and on the hillsides. We also passed be an open copper mine and ranches of grazing llamas. The major white wine vineyards of Concha y Toro were seen as we passed through the Casa Blanca valley 50 km from the sea.
At 11:00 am we arrived at Vina del Mar, Chile’s “Charming Garden City” with its special architecture and upscale neighborhoods. It is a newer city on flat land and therefore very different from Valparaiso, which is an older, less organized city on multiple hillsides called “cerros”. Vina del Mar is a beach resort town, whereas Valparaiso is a major tough and tarnished commercial port city.
We stopped in Vena at the “Quinta Vergara” formally the mansion of a shipping magnate and currently the venue for an internationally famous Music Festival. Vena del Mar is the favorite get-away spot for Santiagoans and expands to a population of 1 million in summertime.
At the Museo Fonck we were introduced to a Moai statue carved of volcanic rock from Easter Island and learned of their culture and demise from Rodrigo.
Before boarding the bus for Valparaiso, lunch was served at a seafood restaurant on Renaco Beach, where sea lions rest on the off shore rock formations.
The principal port of Chile and the seat of the country’s Parliament, Valparaiso, is located on a sweeping bay with a crescent of 47 hills behind. It reminded me of Positano. It is a working city of historical importance to Chile. The city combines the flat land (“El Plan”) reserved for commercial and financial buildings and the hills for residencial neighborhoods of every class. The lower and upper cities are connected by steep winding roads and 16 “ascensores” or funicular railways.
At the house museum of the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I had the opportunity to sit down for a chat on the subject of poetry with Pablo.
The old heart of the city of Valparaiso is the Plaza Solomayer. We walked from there to the passenger quay where cruise ships dock and fishing boats are moored. Upon leaving the city we had a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean as we headed back to Santiago
A very interesting day “at the beach”!
Posted: Fri, 27 February 2009
Sightseeing in Santiago
SIGHTSEEING IN SANTIAGO de CHILE
“Hola” de Santiago!
Santiago, Chile is a city of 2 million people located in a valley between the Coastal Range of mountains to the west and the towering peaks of the Andes to the east. It is the 5th largest city in South America and is today a bustling, modern city, the political, economic and financial capital of the country.
Chile is a country 3000 miles long, and for the most part only 150 miles wide. Santiago is near the center of this vertical country. In the words of Isabel Allende, author and niece of the former President, “Chile lies at the end of all roads, a lance to the south of South America, 4300 km of hills, valleys, lakes and sea. This elongated country is like an island, separated on the north from the rest of the continent by the Atacama Desert—the driest in the world. To the east rises the Cordillera of the Andes, a formidable mass of rock and eternal snows, and to the west the abrupt coastline of the Pacific Ocean. Below, to the south lie the solitudes of Antarctica” It is a nation of dramatic topography and diverse climates. Chile remains a seismic country with 122 volcanoes, of which 43 are considered dangerous, and 2 are currently erupting.
Today was a day to explore the city before beginning the cycling adventure. I chose a bus tour with our guide, Sergio, to get acquainted with the historical sights of Santiago. He talked the entire 4 hours in a non-stop lecture in Spanish, English and Portuguese. That kind of facility with languages always amazes me, a struggling French student
We first visited a hilltop in Metropolitan Park to get an overview of the city. Due to “thermal inversion” a heavy fog combined with the ever present smog to diminish our view of the mountains in the distance. Some clarity appears in the afternoon as temperatures rise. It is still some view! In a matter of a few days we will approach these mountains while cycling.
We learned from Sergio that copper and other minerals are the main exports from Chile, followed by forest products, and agricultural products such as wine, fruit and vegetables. The economy has greatly improved since 1980 when Milton Friedman’s structural reforms were adopted.
The bus took us through the modern suburb of Providencia with its beautiful homes, gardens, and foreign embassies. Then on to Bellevista, famous for its restaurants and night clubs; a kind of “Bohemia” neighborhood. We passed over Rio Mapocho, a river that originates in the Andes and flows through the center of the city –open in some areas and tunneled in others. It is the river that provides irrigation water to the vineyards and fruit farms of Chile.
We next stopped at Santa Lucia Hill to view a “live history show” to demonstrate the founding of Santiago by Pedro de Valdiva in 1540. A photo was taken here of Pedro, his girlfriend, and an Indian---and an IMPOSTER! Can you locate the person who does not belong in this photo?
Plaza de Armes and the Cathedral presented an excellent opportunity to walk around this historical site which in now the central square of Santiago. I plan to attend a Spanish mass on Sunday at the “Catedral Municipal”.
Having just finished reading a book with the title; “Pinochet and Me” by Marc Cooper, I was most interested in our stop at the President’s Mansion called “La Moneda”. It is where President Salvador Allende died on the first day of the military coup d’etat by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. The coup was financed and encouraged by the CIA in Nixon’s Administration. Allende was an activist Socialist/Communist, a friend to Fidel Castro, but duly elected in a country which at the time was almost equally split between the parties of the Left and those of the Right. The reign of terror under Pinochet that followed nearly destroyed the country.
We continued on the main avenue named “O’Higgins” (the Irish were everywhere) and viewed Almada Blvd, a jammed packed pedestrian-only street. The tour concluded with a sample of the national alcoholic drink, a Pisco Sour! Unfortunately, it was offered at the “compulsory visit” to a Chilean jewelry and handicraft store. All in all it was an enjoyable and informative 4 hour tour of the city.
Walking later in the afternoon to find SOMETHING written in English, a newspaper or book, I came to the corner of Pedro de Valdivia Blvd and 11 September Avenue. Because of my “tourista” tour I KNEW why these streets had these names. My history lesson was paying dividends. By the way, I found a bookstore with only English books. Hoorah! Unfortunately, no one on the staff could speak English, but we did conclude a transaction.