Thursday, 27 October 2011

From Coquimbo to Bahia Inglesa, beaches and desert

Hi again folks.  As you guessed it this is another rest day by the fact that I am able to post.  We are now in the Atacama region of Chile in a place called Bahia Inglesa after leaving Coquimbo 4 cycling days earlier.  The going has been pretty tough, with most of the days spent on rougher terrain and very little time spent on paved roads.

Firstly an update on the mysterious illness that was taking down the cyclists one by one.  Well last night it got its latest victim, Sven a Canadian guy who is sharing a cabana with Eric and myself.  He is an experienced cyclist and has been on quite a few tours so if it can take him down I am sure it has still the possibility to take down a few more victims.  He spent a few sleepless hours running between the bed and the toilets wretching, before he finally managed to get a bit of sleep, and now today he has been sleeping for most of the morning.  I have been disinfecting my hands like someone possessed to try and avoid being the next victim.

Most of the route has been along the coast, so we have had the sea on one side of us and desert on the other.  The first day we stayed at Punta de Choros, which offers some nice dolphin and penguin excursions to the Isla Damas, but unfortunately we are in the off season right now and we weren't able to do it.  At the same time being in the off season means we don't get that much traffic along the highway, which is a big plus. 

Lots of beach camping...

During the second day we entered the Atacama region of Chile, a very dry arid region, which also contains the infamous Atacama desert (the driest desert on earth).  It was here that I spotted a South American gray fox. He disappeared into the desert as quickly as he had appeared.  The second night we stayed in a ghost town, an old abandoned copper mining village with a few ruins remaining.  Some of the crypts in the cemetery had been smashed into, leaving the skeletal remains exposed.  It may seem pretty harsh to us in the developed world, but I guess if people are struggling to pay for food and they know there are some valuables in the crypts they will do anything they need to survive.  Opposite the cemetery was an old water well, which still had water inside it.  To the side of the well was a ladder leading down into the shaft and a few of us decided to go inside and take a look.  The ladder was pretty old and rickety though, so we had to proceed with caution. 

Old abandoned water well in the ghost town

The day after the ghost town was a really hard cycling day - it was 108km but none of it was on paved road and there were lots of ups and downs.  The riders notes warned us there was a lot of climbing but none of us were prepared for quite how much we encountered.  Sandy patches on the climbs made many riders come to a halt and only the toughest made it all the way up without putting their feet down.  In addition the temperature was somewhere in the 30s, so that didn't make life any easier.  Some of the descents were also pretty hairy, with rocks the size of our fists or bigger strewn all over the path, making it hard to choose a good line that would allow smooth riding.  Almost everyone fell off their bikes that day, some several times, except for the most cautious riders who are also often the older riders (proof that wisdom does come with age you may say).  I myself fell off once trying to overtake someone on the inside, and finding a patch of deep sand greeting me.  The day was very long by our normal standards and noone arrived at camp before 3pm, whilst on easy days the fastest riders arrive around noon or so.  For a few the day was too tough and they had to take the truck.  The camp where we stayed on the third night was in a national park, on a beach called Playa Blanca (white beach).  It was a beautiful place and very remote.

Cool switchbacks, but sandy corners so watch out...

The final day before the rest day was not quite so tough as the previous one, but still it was not without it's challenges.  The riders notes mentioned 1,250m of climbing and 1,250m of descending spread throughout the day on mostly broken pavement and covering a distance of 150km.  In the end the notes turned out to very accurate.  The road was rather mixed and sometimes it was fairly smooth and at other times extremely bumpy and rough.  I set off at a good pace and reached lunch ahead of the others, with the last section before lunch spent cycling into a strong headwind.  By the time I fnished my lunch, which was huge by normal standards due to the extra distance and work done climbing and battling the headwind, some of the other riders were there too.  I set off, knowing that one or two of them would be trying to catch me in the afternoon with the following day being a rest day and them not having to worry about conserving energy.  About 15km after lunch I wished I had not set off alone, as in addition to the headwind 3 dogs decided to chase me and the house from where they appeared to come was a long way from the roadside and too far for the owners to notice what was going on.  I had waited for 5 minutes at the top of the hill for the dogs to pass and to wait for the other cyclists (aka dog bait), but when the dogs didn't move away and noone came I decided to take my chances.  Two of the dogs were big hounds and the one that seemed most aggressive was a short ass and not half as intimidating.  I tried to keep an eye on all 3 to get ready to kick them if they came in for a bite, but it was quite difficult as they were running all over the place and on both sides of my bike.  In the end I got out my water bottle and sprayed them with water.  At that point they slowed down enough for me to start sprinting away, and at the same time I heard the people by the far off house whistling to call them back.  Noone else had any encounters with the dogs so maybe the owner chained them up after that.  About 22km from lunch I had stopped to take a photo when I saw 2 familiar silhouettes in the distance, Paul and Augusto.  Both are strong cyclists and a little competitive and I knew they would start chasing me down now that they had seen me.  I got back on my bike and decided to make them work like hell.  22km is short enough that I can keep up a really good pace.  On the rolling hills I easily pulled away from them, and at the start of a long downhill stretch I decided they were far enough back that I could take it easy and freewheel down the hill.  When I reached the bottom and turned round I saw Paul only 100m behind me, and knew that now the race was really on.  At various points I hit over 40km/h and the distance was only closing ever so slightly.  With about 4km left to go till the end I decided the chase had gone on for enough and eased off.  Paul and I then cruised into the camp ready for the start of the rest day (today).

The next rest day will be in Antofagasta after 4 more cycling days.  From there onwards the going will get much tougher, the roads much rougher, the climbing more extreme and the areas much more remote.  Internet will be non existent, hot showers only a distant dream.  We will be staying at altitude and chewing coca leaves to help us to deal with it.  The people will be dressed more traditionally and everything more basic.  This is the part I am really looking forward to most.  If I had wanted a tour of 5 star luxury I could have stayed in Switzerland for that.