Monday 5th April was a sad day, it was the day we peeled ourselves away from El Castillo. On the previous evening we celebrated our departure over a plate of Ceviche – a Chilean delicacy consisting of several kinds of raw fish & seafood marinated in lemon juice, coriander leaves and some cumin. Maria’s mother made it especially for us, and it was a scrumptious treat! I have to say that we rode off with big lumps in our throats as we waved farewell to all at El Castillo. We had opted for a northern route into Chile, first taking the road up to Jujuy (a lovely word – pronounced ‘whoo-whooey’ by locals who sounded like little steam trains when they said it!). As the road into Argentina from Chile through Bariloche way back in January was one of the best of the trip, so it was to be with the road out! It started with a narrow track winding through a jungly valley to the city of Jujuy, which was set against the most fantastic backdrop of over-sized mountains you could imagine. We rode up into these to the delightful little pueblo of Purmamarca, which made for an excellent lunch stop in it’s setting up against the ‘mountain of the seven colours’ a huge rock face slashed with rainbow coloured strata like some crazy modern art. The afternoon took us back onto some Ripio – actually it was a really good ‘bad’ road winding higher and higher up over incredible mountain scenery. Altitude would now start to play a role in our trip as we were climbing from 1200m (4000ft) altitude in Salta to up over 4000m (11,000ft) as we headed towards Chile.
The road to the Chilean border is in the progress of being paved and a good section had been completed taking us out over the Salinas Grandes to Susques, the last town in Argentina before the border. The Salinas Grandes are a vast salt flat startlingly white and penetrated by a road so straight it would have made a Roman weep. It was an awesome ride and at one point we took the bikes down off the road (which is elevated on a causeway as the flats flood during the rainy season) to ride out onto the salt and take some photographs against the shock white background. The whole area was ringed with splendid mountains and the net effect had the hairs on the backs of our necks tingling in response to the beauty of it all. We reached Susques around 5 in the afternoon, a little tired but elated at the end of this wonderful day on the road. It was a tiny little place, where we found fuel for the bikes but no rooms as both hotels on the road out of town were fully booked for the Easter week. We didn’t fancy heading on, as the next stretch of road was 70km of Ripio to the border & then 150km of paved road into San Pedro de Atacama, our destination in Chile. There was only an hour or so of daylight left and it didn’t seem wise to continue. Riding back around the village we found a Hospedaje (a B&B) that we’d missed and so pulled up outside the low windowless dwelling. Apart from the sign outside, there was nothing to suggest that accommodation could be found here. We gingerly knocked on the door and a scruffy Indian teenager answered it. We asked for a room and his toothless mother appeared wearing a bowler hat and a filthy sweater with about a months worth of dinner dribbles represented down the front of it. She mumbled something and gruffly led us inside to show us the room whereupon we entered her hovel to witness a scene of unimaginable poverty and filth, a dark dungeon illuminated solely by the light of a small television set around which there were several more grubby children. We were led through a dirty alley into a reeking courtyard to a door behind which lay the bedroom. We didn’t go into it. There was no need. We could see in the dim light, the filthy bedspread draped over the ancient bed and a quick look at each other led to profuse apologies and a hasty retreat. We would rather have slept out in the cold night air than risk our health in that place.
The sun was sinking fast so we rode back out to one of the hotels to see if we could maybe camp there and at least use their facilities. The lady owner rang a friend in town and we were told to go to Glady’s house, opposite the church on the main street. Gladys was an angel, but even better she was an angel with a room! She has a lovely little house with several rooms out the back. She doesn’t advertise – there were no signs that accommodation was to be had there – but she does provide rooms when the hotels are full and does enough business that way. There was covered secure parking for the bikes and she even cooked us a dinner – steak and gravy with mashed potatoes that tasted just like home. What a perfect end to a stunning day’s motorcycling!
Next morning we were up for an early start, eager to tackle the Ripio and get back into Chile. It was not to be. First one bike refused to start, then the other. It had been a bitter cold evening with temperatures below freezing and we were up at some altitude. We pushed the bikes out into the sun to let them warm up and eventually got them going by push starting them down the street. So much for BMW reliability! Once running they were fine and behaved for the rest of the day. Unfortunately the road did not – Ripio with heavy roadworks, gravely patches and sand. It took us 5 exhausting hours to ride the 70km to the frontier with Chile at the Paso de Jama. Still the landscape was a continuation from yesterday with more salt flats and once again volcanoes on the horizon. The Argentine guards and customs officials were a great bunch and we were quickly stamped out of the country. It was a sad moment as neither of us wanted to leave this fantastic place. In our original plan we were only going to spend a few weeks here, really just to get to the Moreno Glacier and to see Ushuaia. But it has been such a wonderful land that we ended up spending the best part of 3 months exploring the delights on offer. It is quite simply the best country we have ever visited and the memories we carry away now will stay with us as the most valuable treasures for the rest of our days.
We had been lead to believe that the road to San Pedro de Atacama was all downhill from the frontier. Not true! Instead we climbed on paved roads through vast mountains, eventually peaking at over 4,600m. It was freezing cold and we ended up with thermal fleeces and wetsuits on in the chill early evening. We rode on past azure blue lakes and fantastic red and cream mountains until eventually the road began to drop into the Salar de Atacama, another salt flat set in a huge bowl in the mountains at the head of which stands San Pedro, back down at 2,400m. First glimpses of Bolivia also lay across to our right behind the most incredible volcano yet – Liconcabur, a majestic and imposing monster that dominated the scenery for miles. We were officially signed in to Chile at a straightforward border crossing (the customs post is in San Pedro itself) and found good welcome accommodation in the Hostal Katarpe. San Pedro de Atacama is a little oasis in a vast wilderness and made an excellent base for exploring the area, full as it is of volcanoes, mountains, thermal springs and geysers. Set in the altiplano, a high desert where it is warm by day but freezing cold at night, it would be our home for the next 5 nights.