The Riding Reporters: Chile and Argentina - Capturing the Story of the Wichí
Irene and I are ready to ride to places only two wheels can reach, to tell the stories of those we meet. Our rugged KTM 690 Enduros have landed in Valparaíso, Chile. Finally, after eight months of serious preparation, we start the first miles of our journey.
From the Chilean port we ride along Ruta Nacional 5, the well-paved coastal road north. As Dutch we are accustomed to the sea, but the Pacific Ocean is a whole different animal. Even our earplugs cannot prevent hearing the waves roar. Drops of salty water spray all over me as the rollers hit the rocks. I inhale the smell of the ocean while screaming seagulls fly above. This is why I need to ride. Not only to see another country, but to taste it, to smell it, and to hear it. Six months on a motorcycle through South America. My smile hardly fits in between my cheek pads.
In a week we reach Copiapó, where we decide to cross the border to Argentina via Paso de San Francisco (the San Francisco Pass), 15,577 feet over the Andes. The mountain road is largely unpaved, without any facilities for eating, drinking, or even refueling for 300 miles. We buy two 2.5-gallon jerry cans, which I carry in my panniers. Not ideal, but needed.
The Andes consist of so many different shades—mosaics of brown, orange, yellow, and even green. Powdery white snow makes us realize just how high we are. The mountain’s colors are a striking contrast with the surface surrounding us, which consists of flattened beige mud. On wet parts, my bike slides like my rear tire is flat. I hold still to check in with Irene as she shouts, “Is your bike slipping and sliding too?”
Irene and I met half a year ago during a motorcycling trip through the Indian Himalaya. There, the altitude subtracts the oxygen from your lungs while you handle a heavy-packed motorcycle in sucking mud or deep snow. Freezing meltwater flows into your boots. If there is any asphalt, it is filled with holes, killing your rear suspension so your kidneys absorb the blow. How can this thin Andean layer seem so difficult?
After a few hours, we arrive in Chile, where the customs official stamps our documents and passports. In 70 more miles, at the top of the pass, we will enter Argentina. But today we will not reach that border. Irene’s fuel light is on, so she takes the lead. Unexpectedly the mud changes to grit and she sways back and forth, falls off her motorbike, and rolls into the gravel where she remains still for a while. Her new helmet has a crack all the way through, but miraculously she is OK. The KTM is not that lucky. It has a broken handlebar.