Chile: Rewards and Just Desserts
With 10,000 miles clocked on the odometer since kick-starting our trip in South America five months ago, I’d stopped seeing it as an extended vacation. Traveling had become a way of life for Jason and me. The honeymoon period wasn’t over—it was a new chapter, having learned the ropes of moto travel. By journeying into the unknown and coping with all the twists and turns, we’d been gifted sublime experiences, mingled with the odd misadventure. Pearl, my bike, is infinitely more than my trusty steed: she’s my home, a people-pulling icebreaker, a “get out of jail free” card, and sometimes a life raft.
Let's Not Do That Again
Packing up the Dome Sweet Dome, we meandered back from a brief but intensive visit to the Hand of the Desert, 37 miles outside of Antofagasta. Back in the saddle, I kept pace on the highway, unaware that fatigue was taking its toll on Jason. Seconds whizzed by, and unbeknownst to either of us, he’d fallen into a micro-sleep at 50 mph.
To Jason’s horror, he woke up with the dawning realization of what had happened and what could have happened, sending a 240-volt shock through his core. In half a heartbeat, he pulled over under a ‘no arguments’ instruction barked down the intercom and passed out on the roadside. He was snoring like a truffling hog the moment his head hit the ground, assuming the stance of a slumbering starfish. It was the wake-up call needed to jolt us both into winding our necks in and slowing the pace.
The time had come to seek out a base and replace the weekly mile-munching for some daily sorties. What better place to recharge the batteries than San Pedro de Atacama, an adobe oasis nestled on a high plateau in the Andes of northeastern Chile. It’s surrounded by rock and sand amid dreamy layer-cake landscapes, steaming geyser fields, and symmetrical volcanoes.
Our first foray into the desert saw us wend through the Valley of the Moon. Its resemblance to the moon’s surface was remarkable, owing to its different stratifications and weird salt formations. When the urge took our fancy, we took ourselves on a cruise-y circuit, sauntered among the odd dune, bobbled over salt-stiffened roads, and siesta’d in the sun. My axis of biking bliss.
The following morning took us a bit deeper into the Atacama Desert, to Lagunas Cejar and Tebinquiche. The first lagoon, located near Ojos del Salar, brought us to a pair of surreal sinkholes whose circular outlines were crystallized in salt, puzzlingly positioned in the middle of a volcano-fringed desert. Courtesy of the drone, it was like looking into two appetizing pools of sugar-rimmed, mint green liqueur.
Motorcycles & Gear
2008 BMW F 800 GS
2001 BMW F 650 GS
Helmets: Touratech, Shark
Jackets & Pants: BMW Rallye, Hein Gericke Womens
Boots: Sidi GORE-TEX Adventure Boots
Gloves: Gerbing 12V Hero, Gerbing 12V Vanguards
Laguna Tebinquiche, meanwhile, should have been home to a flamboyance of flamingos, but at least the puna plover birds were in attendance. I’d brought my swimwear to see if I had the backbone to float in these saline waters; it turned out only my big toe had the courage to dip into the icy water.
Another route led us to Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat, on a ride farther north. This, in turn, took us to Laguna Chaxa, about 40 miles from San Pedro de Atacama. And what do we have here—a flamingo breeding site! Three of the five known species of flamingos come here to feed and breed: James, Chilean, and Andean. I was content knowing the wading birds were there at all, though. All were feathered in signature coral pink plumage with their protruding bent bills filter feeding in the lagoon.
Not for the Fainthearted
At the start of our next sally, an hour’s ride east of San Pedro, I assumed the will of a nervous Nellie. Destination: ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. It is an enormous high-altitude telescope at an astronomy facility, and one of the world’s most important international observatories. But I started the ride with my bottom lip out at the bottom of a volcano, blocking me from ALMA.
Jason’s inner astro-geek was determined to negotiate the Chajnantor Plateau by any means and discover this revolutionary radio telescope. Alas, ALMA’s security guard tersely insisted we would be going nowhere near his highly protected pride and joy. Without a media pass (taking four weeks to issue) or a certified medical, we reached an impasse.