Tacna to La Serena… about 1700km and a lot of desert. The Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth apparently – goes on, and on, and on. It took me three long days of riding to cross it. Arica is long behind me; I passed Copiapo yesterday. But Santiago is still over the horizon.
They say watching a kettle boil makes it take longer to do so. Driving down Ruta 5, Chile’s principal road which runs the length of the country for about 3500km, you experience the same effect. The route is sign-posted every kilometre counting down the distance to Santiago. And like an irritating itch, once you have noticed the signs, you can’t help yourself from looking out for each one. I became obsessed. It crossed my mind that if I were a historian, I could pass the time thinking of significant events associated with each passing year as I progressively stepped back in time to the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, History was one of my more mediocre subjects at school.
After about 300km of Ruta 5, I turned off and headed for the coast, to Iquique where I would stay for the evening. This would also allow me to break the monotony of Ruta 5 by following the older Ruta 1 along the coast for several hundred kilometres. It is a beautiful stretch of road, following a narrow coastal plain which is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and a 1000m high ridge-line that runs the entire length of this stretch of coast. I rode mostly under cloud. A cold ocean current runs along the coastline and cools the air, causing clouds and mist to form and role on to the shore. (It is also this current which causes the desert, as it means all precipitation falls over the sea where the air has been cooled, and hence no rain whatsoever falls over the land.)
After about 450km, I re-joined Ruta 5 inland. Whoever is in charge of road signage in this region must have a sense of humour, for when I returned to the principal route, I found the ‘Santiago countdown’ signs now every 100m! It was only a brief respite from cloak-watching. Fortunately they later ran out of either money or interest, and the signs reverted to being every kilometre.
The Atacama is constantly changing. In some parts it is truly spectacular, with deep valleys cutting their way from the Andes to the coast and mountains rising in the distance. On the coast, the desert stretches all the way to the shoreline: there is no way of demarcating the beach from the desert. And in other areas it is flat and utterly featureless.
But it is behind me now. From here Ruta 5 becomes a dual carriageway all the way to Santiago. Arid mountains and roadside service stations will become my backdrop. And only 540km to run – a short day by the standards of those I have just completed.