Shades of brown, rocks and sand for as far as the eye can see, no people, no vegetation, no animals; nothing to look at and nothing but the hot sun beating down on us all day long. The monotony of the desert gets old very quickly and after only a few days of enduring the heart of the Atacama we were ready for a change. We took a little detour away from the Panamerican Highway and rode the winding and hilly tightrope of the coastal highway where the endless desert meets the infinite sea.
Cari escaping from the sun.
Where the desert meets the sea.
The slight change in scenery was pleasant and the towns were more frequent which made it easier to refill water, but we were still in the desert, growing bored with our surroundings, and though not wanting to admit it, somewhat dreading the next 1,000 miles of riding through the same old scenery. I'm not sure why I can be perfectly content riding through the monotony of a forest and not that of the desert, but riding was beginning to feel more like a daily chore than a daily pleasure. In addition, my knee had decided to rebel after our first few days of riding and big mountain climbs and though I pushed through the pain for several days, we concluded it would be wise to rest for a while and let it heal rather than pressing on and potentially killing our chance to ride the southern, more beautiful half of Chile.
Mike walking down the street in Iquique.
A fishing village as seen from the highway.
A very old cemetery.
In the town of Michilla, after a week of riding the Atacama Desert with a bum knee, we both agreed that we'd had enough. We stopped for lunch and instead of getting back on our bikes to ride the second half of the day, we walked them to the side of the highway, stuck out our thumbs and in less than 30 seconds got picked up by Juan who towed us to the city of Antofagasta in his empty semi-truck. It was nice to watch a small section of the desert pass by quickly from the cab of a truck instead of slowly and painfully pedaling through.
Mike and Juan loading the bikes on the truck.
In Antofagasta we met up with Mario, a guy we found through Warmshowers.org, a website set up for hosting touring cyclists. Earlier that day we had commented on how we were missing meeting and having conversations with many random people everyday, as we did while riding through the US. Here, it's difficult for us to talk with anyone because our Spanish is so elementary and though we have each other to talk to and our Spanish is improving little by little, meeting people and outside conversations were huge aspects of touring that were now missing. To our surprise (and relief), Mario spoke English very well and we enjoyed his company and hospitality for a couple of days. He showed us around his city and we cooked dinners for him; how nice it was to have an actual stove and oven instead of our little, one burner camping stove.
Mike, Mario and Cari in Antofagasta.
Not wanting to overstay our welcome and with my knee not quite feeling ready to ride again, we decided we'd head down to Santiago, by-pass the remainder of the desert and allow me a few more pedal-free days. We had such luck with hitchhiking to Antofagasta that we opted to give it another try instead of dealing with the frustrations of getting our bikes on buses. Mario gave us a ride back out to the Panamerican Highway, dropped us off on the side of the road and gave us the phone numbers of a friend in Santiago we could stay with when we arrived. Once again luck was on our side and within minutes an empty 30-foot flatbed trailer on it's way to a city just outside of Santiago pulled up, we loaded our bikes on top and climbed in. Mike took the passenger seat and I got the bed that lay behind the two front seats. We spent the next 30 hours with Patricio, living the life of a trucker; driving long hours, eating at roadside diners and sleeping at truck stops. Patricio was a very kind guy, but unfortunately didn't speak any English. We would have loved to learn about his life, his family and his country, but our questions were simple and we rarely understood more than a few sentences of his responses. It was very clear that we didn't really know what he was saying, but he just continued on talking; I think he was lonely and was happy to have some company along for the long haul.
Mike, a little dog and our bikes on the back of Patricio's truck.
In the truck somewhere along our 800-mile trip.
We set up camp for the night on the back of Patricio's truck.
Cari, Mike and Patricio.
We watched the desert pass by from the excellent vantage point of the truck; the complete barren nothingness slowly transitioned into a land with sparse cacti, then shrubs and ultimately trees and abundant vegetation. Part of me was happy to watch the Atacama whiz by so easily yet part of me was disappointed that we didn't press on and ride through it. I know we'll enjoy the southern part of the country much more than the north, but it feels a little bit like we cheated on our ride across Chile.
We are now in Santiago, staying with Mario's friend, Lorena and her family. Though they speak only a few words in English making it very difficult to communicate, we were welcomed into their home and are experiencing firsthand how I expect the majority of South American families live. The house is modest at best in a not-so-nice-looking part of town, shared between 2 families, with a sheet metal roof that rattles in the wind and paper thin walls. Furniture, decorations and possessions are sparse, but there are an abundance of televisions and they were excited to show us that they had cable TV. It is run down and grungy, but the people inside are a tight-knit family, cheerful, friendly and very welcoming to a couple of complete strangers. There has been a party to attend every night, entertaining ourselves until the wee hours of the morning by teaching them English phrases, learning Spanish phrases, singing together to the American Rock and Pop music that they love to listen to, dancing in the kitchen and building friendships in spite of the language barriers that exist between us.
My knee is improving, but I'll continue with the rest, stretch, anti-inflammatory regimen for another day or two before betting back on the bike, just to make sure it's actually better. You'd think we would have learned our lesson about starting out gung-ho way back in California with Mike's knee injury, but apparently we didn't. For now we'll continue to wander around Santiago, which we've discovered is just another monstrous city like anywhere else in the world with the exception that public displays of affection are apparently normal here. Everywhere, people are doing way more than smooching in the streets...it's very strange!