13. The Atacama Desert.

Well I never saw him!...Who you ask?..The man, the man from Delmonte!
A few days prior to Copiapo the route had veered inland, away from the coast, this emphasised the desert even more-so, but after Copiapo it firstly headed west, then a gradual curve back north that brought me to the coast once again. From the day's start a tail wind had eased me along at a good pace, leading into..
At the first coastal town of Caldera I meet three back-packer girls from Santiago, taking a break before thumbing another lift...20 kilometres later they passed me, tooting and waving! It was good to know they'd got a lift.
Up until now the Pan-Am had been a dual carriageway but from my map I was aware it would soon end, nevertheless when it did the hard-shoulder still continued thus being just a safe. Many holiday-home resorts and fishing villages were dotted along the coast;
 As seen, a great road, no traffic and some good scenery!
These bus stops seemed 'standard' all over Chile and made a great place for lunch, there would normally always be one at a main T-junction.
Slightly concerned at riding through the world's driest desert, arriving at a town/village of reasonable size I was dubious whether or not to continue to the next place listed on my map as sometimes they were just a few shacks!...still with sufficient time to ride another hour or more I carry on and arrive at Puerto Flamenco, happy at achieving 140 kilometres. It was quite a large tourist town with many homes dotted along it's two kilometre shore. Being told at a restaurant there was actually a campsite at the other end - back two kilometres! - I firstly take a break, guzzling a chilled bottle of cola, then the proprietors invite me to some free food!..soon wolfing it down I'm offered another serving!
I'm not so sure what the exact purpose of this was, but some sort of religious alter, over-looking the south pacific.
Chanaral was the next town, at only 35 kilometres from Puerto Flamenco...
 ...my map showed nothing thereafter for 125 kilometres, heading back inland away from the coast I was concerned at achieving what would be 157 kilometres in one day, in the heat of a desert, with unknown water sources, so for that reason called it a day. Unfortunately the town's 5-star Michelin-rated hostel was fully booked..
..but luckily a cemetery-neighbouring park offered just the ticket. A bird-song, tree shaded area complete with benches, clean toilet facilities and running water!  Perfect!..well, up until some local turned up with a retro style ghetto blaster - plugging it onto a mains socket dangling from a tree - drowning out the bird-tweet punctuated silence with death metal! Must have been rather nice for visitors in the cemetery....luckily later on he becomes rather drunk and his friends send him on his way.
Stocking up on water the following day I head out, passing this key kilometre marker, into four figures now (from where I joined it I'd rode about 800 of them).
Heading inland again the road slowly climbed upwards over long ascents - due to the barrenness, distance becomes difficult to gauge and the climbs never actually looked that long but they most certainly were! (not easy to see but the road switches back, climbing up the left-hand side).
After 60 kilometres of climbing and long fast descents through the desert I was surprised to see some greenery coming into view!..
Getting closer I see there's also a building on either side of the road, one of them being a cafe', open and serving food! If I'd have known about this place I would have continued the day before. Just walking away from the entrance door was a vagabond, he looked quite tattered and had simply called in for his single water bottle to be filled, how he'd got here, walking, heaven knows. Nevertheless, I invite him back in for a cup of coffee.
My cousin informs me that the idea of Crazy Paving actually originates from sun-cracked earth like this, it sounds believable. 
Toward the end of the day I was zapped! The heat had certainly sucked my energy levels dry and I realised that reaching Taltal would be a push, fortunately lady-luck - or is that truckers-luck? - comes to my rescue in way of desert pit-stop. A few tyre-change garages and a cafe'! Calling in for a hearty meal and chilled cola I then ask about camping, bothered not-the-slightest the lady nods and I inform her I'll pitch behind the cafe somewhere.
I was content I'd camped here and not pushed on for Taltal, free from light-pollution, the night revealed a truly star-filled sky along with the typical silence expected in such an area.
Riding off the following day in the mornings coolness I was even more content I'd not rode this the previous day. Three kilometres in and it's a left-hand turn, departing Ruta 5 to descended 1200 metres, freewheeling for 23 kilometres into...
...the coastal resort of;
This town was an absolute gem! Maybe the desert had ran my eyes dry of colour but this place most certainly replenished them! And the greenery, the life, it was great! I was well-off the 'traditional' path that most cyclists take and most glad I made the detour. The only town between the 400 kilometre stretch from Chanaral to Antofagatsa.
I managed to find this excellent snippet of information about the town's history:

Taltal dates back to the 1850 when it was in Bolivian territory, sixteen years later became Chile’s most northerly outpost after a border treaty. The village soon flourished into a centre of the booming nitrate trade, being the end of the line of the Taltal Railway that ran through the mining towns, or oficinas, of the nitrate pampa.By the 1950s when the global demand for nitrate had well and truly come to an end, Taltal began dismantling its infrastructure and the bustling nitrate port became a fishing town once more.But the wealth and glory of the nitrate days live on in Taltal in the form of the handsome, if slightly dilapidated, colonial buildings around the central plaza, many of which have a distinctly British feel, no doubt acquired from the powerful British industrialists who controlled much of the nitrate trade.

Next up, a slight change of plans, and a new ride buddy!
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