atacamapacific-1280Of course, we’d seen a map before setting out, and we understood that the superlative springs from the area’s lack of rain rather than its natural setting. Still, we were unexpectedly startled to find that for a few hundred kilometres of our ride north through the world’s driest desert, we were overlooking the world’s largest ocean. A strong-armed throw of a stone from the Atacama would often have landed flush in the Pacific, and there were times when the only sound within earshot was the crash of wave against rock.

Nor was the Atacama Desert as deserted as we were expecting. It wasn’t the towns that surprised us; we knew about them, had even listed their locations in a notebook as potential sources of food and (especially) water. It was the holidaymakers who caught us off guard.

ruthsunset-1280The 420km of mostly coastal road from Antofagasta to the large and likeable town of Iquique is lined with beaches, and camping on any or all of them is a free-for-all. In summer, Chilean families set up little villages for a week at a time: tents and shelters, coolers and barbecues, generators and sound systems, gallon upon gallon of water. For these itinerant cyclists, the freedom was useful and the chance to pitch camp within earshot of the breaking waves was impossible to refuse. But from the road, these scruffy camps make for a pretty untidy sight, something not helped by the locals’ apparent reluctance to take responsibility for their own rubbish and the authorities’ equal lack of interest in clearing up after them.

 


 

antofagastasunset-1280The few settlements along Chile’s northern coast are mining towns or ports, sometimes both, and often a little rough and ready. Despite the town’s handsome aspect, no place felt rougher and readier than Friday night in downtown Antofagasta, where every bar appears to be a strip joint and there’s more than a touch of Wild West about the atmosphere. In the queue for football tickets the next morning, a born-and-raised local woman explained that the town’s men go away for a week at a time to work in the mines further inland; while they’re gone, their wives and girlfriends dance in the bars for their ships-in-the-night colleagues who’ve just returned home from their own seven-day stints. The white-collar mining executives avoid the blue-collar bars entirely, favouring the steakhouses and sedate hotels to the north or the gleaming modern mall to the south.

There’s nothing much in Antofagasta for tourists, but we hung around for three nights and liked it more the longer we stayed. Certainly, better an unvarnished town like this than the strangely charmless tourist honeypot of San Pedro de Atacama, which seems to exist purely to gouge as many pesos as possible from the pockets of the tourists who flood to it. Every door in the centre seems to house a hotel, a restaurant or a tour agency; the hotels are expensive, the restaurants are indifferent and the tour agencies are unappealing to a pair of cyclists who’ve grown used to travelling without having our hands held and our pockets picked. It felt less like a town and more like a holiday camp, and we were glad to see the back of it.

 


 

peruborder-1320With the possible exception of Bolivia, no South American country divides cycle tourists like Peru. For some, its Andean dirt-road climbs and descents are a continental highlight; others find the unpaved mountain roads a challenge too far and the tarmac alternatives a joyless slog. Many speak of the warmth of the locals’ welcome; others find the natives indifferent at best. The food draws thumbs both up and down; and depending on perspective, the cities are either thrilling and charismatic or chaotic and dangerous. Among those who’ve ridden here before us, there appear to be only three points of consensus: the drivers are unpredictable, the dogs are a menace and the whole place is chips-cheap, three characteristics that tell us nothing much about what it’s actually going to be like to spend the better part of three months riding through the country.

Having entered at the southern tip, we’ve been here for just three agreeable nights and 200km, far too early to have formed reliable impressions of our own. Our route from here winds along the coast before curving inland and climbing 2,500m towards Arequipa, the country’s second city. We’re excited to see what’s around the corner.

from Ilo, 18, Peru