San Pedro de Atacama, Back to Sea Level, Iquique and Arica

We had a fabulous time at San Pedro with days out to see Chile’s Valley of the Moon, the nearby Tatio Geysers and the pink flamingos at the Salar de Atacama on Lago Chaxa. It is a place of staggering beauty perhaps best left to the photographs to describe. The town itself is fairly small and consists of a grid array of low adobe dwellings some of which have been transformed into colourful Andean restaurants so night time eats were always something to look forward to. We also spent a little time checking the bike cold start problem. The battery levels were low on Mags bike and about half on mine so we topped them up with distilled water. They still will not start on cold mornings with a bit of altitude and a look on the F650 owners club Website revealed that we are not alone with this problem. We now have to leave them in the sun to warm up (which fortunately it does fairly quickly) or push start them. Once they have started, everything is fine and they ride well all day, restarting first time at each halt for food, fuel, photos etc.

In San Pedro, we met some more fabulous people, fellow travellers on the road. Doris Mason is on her way home to Canada after 3 years travelling round the world on her Honda 750 Magna. She only has to complete the South, Central & North American legs and then her trip is over. Her friend Norma Davis, also on a 750 Magna, has joined her for the Pan-American section. We had a great dinner together and cracked a few beers on Good Friday in the little plaza in town. Doris & Norma are headed next to Mendoza & Argentina so we agreed that maybe we will meet up again somewhere further north. We also met a decent big Chileno lad by the name of Julio Cesare Pizarro on a BMW GS1100, currently vacationing in the north of Chile. He was headed in the same direction as us and we met up a day later in Iquique on the Pacific coast.

Iquique was our first city halt back in Chile. The run from San Pedro took us over the ugliest road in the world through the Atacama Desert. It was a big straight road lined with cold steel pylons drooping sad cables under which the desert landscape looked like the builders had been in and not done a great job of clearing up after them with spoil heaps everywhere and vehicle tracks running all over the place. Everything looked grey and sullen, the sort of landscape that can dampen the brightest spirit. Fortunately we only had an afternoon of it as far as the ghost-mining town of Humberstone, where the road split off to the sea and Iquique. The run into Iquique itself was spectacular, dropping out of the coastal cordillera like an aircraft coming in to land, with awesome views over the city and the massive sand dunes that utterly dwarf it. We found a decent little hotel and decided to check out the batteries and charging systems on the bikes before heading next into Bolivia & Peru. The following morning Julio was up early and went out to find some local cops. In Iquique, they use an older model F650 as a police bike so maybe they could help. We had breakfast & the 3 of us set off to a police roadblock on the main route into town (both bikes started first time now we were back at sea-level). Here we met Manuel, a bike cop, who was busy at work nicking speeding motorists as they arrived in town. We hung around for 10 minutes until he had filled his quota and then set off on a high-speed pursuit across town to the house of the police mechanic. We had to hang around for another 10 minutes to wait for the guy to turn up and we noted that the police bike had a baldy back tyre that would have earned him a hefty fine back home! The mechanic duly turned up and checked the charging circuits on the bikes. Everything was OK so next we went to a battery shop to have the batteries checked and their acid changed. Again everything was fine so it is looking like we are stuck with this cold / high start glitch. It seems it may be a feature of the fuel injection / engine management system and our next step will be to contact BMW for advice.

Next day we said farewell to Julio, who went off to visit a little mountain town called Pica & we agreed to try and meet again further north in Arica or Putre. We needed a day or 2 for some making & mending so we both had haircuts and did some work on the Website & answering emails. Iquique has a fine old city centre, with lots of wooden buildings. It hardly ever rains here and we spent a pleasant afternoon walking along the beaches watching the surfers in action.

A one-day ride took us back inland to Humberstone and then on a spectacular swoop of a road through the Camarones valley to Arica the last big city in Chile, just short of the Peruvian border and allegedly the driest place on Earth! Where Iquique had the feel of a busy business centre, Arica was a lovely laid back seaside resort. It has a beautiful plaza overshadowed by the Gibraltar like ‘El Morro’ – a huge rock and scene of a major battle of the War of the Pacific in 1879, which resulted in a Chilean victory and Bolivia losing all access to the sea to become the land locked country that it now is. The Bolivians still harbour a lot of resentment over this and to this day Chile and Bolivia have not exchanged embassies. The dry climate in Arica is lovely and is made tolerable by its proximity to the crashing rollers coming in from the Pacific Ocean. We had a lazy day or two here, mooching around the narrow alleys and market stalls before heading inland towards Bolivia.

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