Rejoining the Pan-Am meant either climbing back up the route I'd descended or, firstly follow a short - 50 kilometre - coastal route northward to a village called Paposa and from there climb back up, joining the Pan-Am 1oo kilometres further along, as covering the same road in reverse always feels like a wasted journey, the coastal route wins.
Just up from Paposa I could see the coastal route took a right-hand turn, climbing back along the side into the towering curtain of mountains I'd been following.
Being so far from any city, the Atacama region night-time sky is clear of any light-pollution and smog,as a result makes a perfect location for a space observatory to which there are two, several kilometres off the road I'd follow back to the Pan-Am. These are all there is along this section, nothing else, so again I play safely and decide that road would be tackled the next day.
Paposa was a ram-shackle of houses, a couple of shops and cafe's, dogs lounging around that would make a rake look fat, a small park area and a few anchored fishing boats near a slip-way, an intriguingly strange place and without doubt would never be featured in a Chilean travel brochure. I've passed through places like this many times and thought "how do people live here, what is there to do?" Having only ridden the measly 50 kilometre to get here there was still ample time in the day to find out.
Calling in at the cafe', talking to the lady who serves me I inform her that I'd being camping somewhere in the village that night. After my coffee I wander around looking for a suitable spot, but with nothing better than the kids park I return to the cafe as there was little else to do. In the heat of the days scorching sun, after downing lunch and another coffee I actually start to doze off! yes, I was becoming like a true local! Seeing this, Valeria offers me a bed to lay down on for my little siesta - It turns out she had two large rooms with many beds, this place doubled-up as the lodgings for the electricity pylon riggers whom were working in/ around the area running lines across the desert.
In the afternoon I'd noticed lorries and coaches labouring up [what appeared to be] the not so steep start of the climb along the side of the mountain and I wondered why they going so slow. Informed the climb continued for 30 kilometres several people advised me against cycling it as after the climb the sun-scorched desert section awaited me. In the evening a passing customer tempts me with an offer of a lift but Mr. Pride declines it.
Later the workers return and have dinner, and I was also given a good portion of food. Afterwards asking if I could pitch my tent aside the cafe Valeria offers me a vacant bed for the night, result! Unfortunately every Ying has its Yang and the following day I awake with a touch of diarrhoea, feeling totally drained of energy there was absolutely no way I could attempt the route. Opening my first aid-kit I reluctantly resign for the day just reading and resting, whilst keeping food intake simple I lunch on bananas and bread. In the afternoon her husband - Mateo - was re-painting the metal railings that fronted the cafe, bored of sitting around doing nothing and wanting to reciprocate the help I'd been given I grab a piece of sandpaper and help in preparation, after a quick dust-down we then start applying the Hammerite-type enamel paint, two hours later it's looking like new, with the both if us happy - just what I needed to perk-me-up!
Although fortunate enough to have met these kind people there there was no way I could take the following day off, with no internet I couldn't even write another blog-post. In the evening I mange to eat a descent amount, fingers crossed it would processed correctly!!
Awake at the crack-of-dawn I felt good-to-go, here are my excellent hosts,Valeria, Mateo and their waitress.
How deceptive looks can be! The climb was relentlessly steep from the start and as the first few bends commenced I hoped I'd get an occasional relief of gradient but who was I kidding! ( They say the camera never lies but it also never shows gradients too well)
One by one the kilometres v e r y s l o w l y ticked past, reaching eight - just over a quarter of the main climb - I decide it's time for some vehicular help and thumb a lift from one on the passing pick-up trucks, the driver says he'll be turning off in five kilometres, although not far that still equates to about forty minutes of cycling so I gladly accept, five minutes and five kilometres later I'm back on the saddle. Further along the route did start to straighten out, along with a slightly lesser gradient, the only downside now was - nearing the top of the plateau - the wind had picked up, a constant headwind, impeding my desired speed. If only a tailwind I would have cruised along, a long never ending road into the distant climbs with little/no traffic and a blue sky but that winds changes everything. At thirty kilometres in I estimate at my present speed just how long the day could be, and more-so - with the Sun still to reach its apex - just how long my water would last .
A change of plan and again, my thumb's put to use at passing vehicles, soon a big red pick-up nears and with no passengers or carrying anything in its rear it pulls over. Marcelo was more than happy for some company and soon were motoring along , both singing away to Bob Marley songs blaring from his radio, totally oblivious to that evil wind blowing against the windscreen.
This desert section was strange, for miles upon miles rocks of various sizes scattered on either side of the wide flat terrain on both sides of the road, almost as though they had been placed there but clearly not as was thousand upon thousands. Some of the larger rocks - boulders - had artistic paintings on them, one of them resembling a trainer shoe so had been painted to look like a Nike trainer!, another was almost cube in shape so had been painted to look like a die (single dice), I regretted not being able to photograph them but I guess one can't have your cake and eat it!
Further along was a long clearing, a runway for astronomers and scientists who needed to fly-in and use the two observatories.Marcelo's destination was the coastal city Antofagasta, albeit passing some large mining factories and petrol station / truckers stops upon the plateau I decided to stay seated until we reached the city - an approximate 130 kilometre lift all in and we arrive around mid-day. Thanking Marcelo I immediately head out the city, fortunately the climb back up was much easier and upon re-joining Ruta 5 was greeted with a tail wind!
Passing through the mining areas, although the excavators below were merely on display at the entrance.
I had previously crossed this in Namibia heading south to Cape Town, but now, I was heading north.
Taking the day's slow start into account, and sitting in a vehicle for ~ two hours I was certainly content to have rode 112 kilometres ...something to do with the afternoon's tail wind! The town of Baquedeiro made it even better as there was a truckers-stop toilet/shower facilities and also a couple of Belgium back-packers travelling in a hired midi-van that I had a good chat with.
Me and the dogs! I expect they never get the sort of attention I give them so they soon take to me. The following day the Labrador just couldn't handle saying goodbye and decided to follow me...and follow me... Riding through the town to the slip-road back onto Ruta 5 was about two kilometres and he tailed me, having long legs he was merely 'jogging' along by my side and every time a car went by - in either direction - he'd stalk it then chase the car, literally trying to bite the tyres!! (later someone said that he may actually have been trying to protect me) He was an absolute fruit-&-nut case but had a great personality. As I start to climb the slip-road he's still there, I tried to shoo him away but he was having none of it, it was love! My only option was to ride back to the truck-stop and ask someone to hold him for five minutes, as I re-enter the town a pack of dogs see him and come running over, he was clearly in the wrong end of town, in their territory and they were not happy!! The alpha male pounces for an attack and my poor friend yelps, making an immediate submissive posture laying on his back, as quick as I can I race over, ready to kick the other dog's arse! Fortunately my friend's back on his feet and off pronto, back to his neck-of-the-woods!
Looking back to Baquedeiro from the slip-road, my camp-spot being right over the far side.
Parked up outside a cafe, I expect this over-sized load was awaiting his next escort convoy? From here I depart the Pan-Am / Ruta 5 for a north-easterly direction on Ruta 25 to Calama.
Becoming single carriageway again I've still a good hard-shoulder to ride on, although now with even less traffic it hardly mattered.
Old ruins of a village??
Another Saint's watering point although I still had sufficient for the day..
This reminded me of the Sante Fe rail trains I saw on ol' U.S. Route 66. The wagons contain sulphur, extracted from the mines.
Sierra Gorda was today's goal, and as ever seeing the town's greenery approach was pleasing. It was a small town but had a a nice plaza area with greenery to shade under.
One of the old building's along the main road, similar to a U.S. mid-west cowboy town building, except made from corrugated tin. I could almost envisage the town Sheriff coming out the doors firing at me with his revolver!
Noticing some greenery at the rear of the town I start walking over to investigate its camping potential, two men walking away from it inform me it's actually the town's swimming pool and if I wanted a shower to get one there to which they walk back with me and ask the attendant. Also advising me of a nice area to camp at just before the town that I noticed on the way in.
Someone had certainly put the effort into this place, such a perfect retreat in the afternoon's heat. The abundance of greenery flourishing from the neighbouring water-works, this green, quiet haven was the last sort of place I'd envisaged to be camping at. I was even given a hose pipe from the water-works!
Out of the town the following day it's back to the sandy scenery as normal, sixty kilometres later and Calama comes into view. Eventually crossing its boundary line I head for the centre and whilst using the plazas free wi-fi I'm befriended by a local cyclist Luis. I Explain I'm looking for a cheap hostel or hotel he takes to to the nearest one but they unfortunately have no space for bicycle storage but we soon find another. Luis later invited me to dinner at his mothers house, being a Sunday it would be like being back home with my parents for the Sunday roast! so obviously I accept the offer.
After dinner Luis takes me on a ride around some of the city's features, one of them being a giant Christ statue perched on a hill that over-looks the city - it was donated to the city from neighbouring Argentina.
Calama sits at an altitude of 2260 metres and is the capital of Chile's El Loa province and with just 5mm of annual rain is one of the worlds driest cities, the River Loa runs past the city.
Whislt taking a few days off I ponder over my next move. Bolivia would be next up but its rainy season in full-swing would prevent me from cycling across the epic Salar de Uyuni salt flat, something that all-and-every cyclist whom enters the country cycles across. Ideally I needed to postpone it by about a month, my other option was to swing east, back into Argentina and head for the awesome Puerto Iguazu waterfalls, at about two thousand kilometres away, and then needing to head back west to Bolivia via the eastern border that would certainly kill a month...if not more!
This proved to be my dilemma, ideally I wanted to continue in the more-so northerly direction, but with the Bolivian rain against me I felt uncomfortable choosing/ forced into others routes.
So from here, which way would I be going?
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