ADV Americas Ride – Chile to Brazil

June 8, 2012
By Danny Morris
The roads through Northern Chile crossed over the rolling desert hills; road surface was perfect and the distances were just awesome.
The roads through Northern Chile crossed over the rolling desert hills; road surface was perfect and the distances were just awesome.

My adventure across the Americas ride continued into northern Chile, where I made my way south through the most amazing desert l had ever experienced. I rode into Arica, changed my Peruvian money into local Chilean currency and set out towards a town sign posted Iquique. I fueled the bike-up, but for some crazy reason l didn’t fill-up the spare fuel container and why, l will never know. I motored on across the Atacama, oblivious to the lack of petrol stations, which l later found could be 200 miles apart and not so good when my tank was only capable of 150-mile range, then you were sucking fumes.

However, l was happy at this point, as l always managed by pure luck and coincidence to make it to a fuel stop and never ran dry. l had no major bike problems, no punctures, just a right hand that was badly bruised and pretty useless for a number of weeks that lay ahead thanks to my spill in Peru. The road was fantastic, perfectly smooth as l cut up into the desert mountains. It was a complete lunar experience, the sunshine, desert and clear bright blue sky was almost blinding and the road just visible in the distance as l made my way high-up and across the huge rolling desert hills.

After hours of riding, l realized that l was completely low on fuel and so pulled back on speed before pulling into a small town to ask if there was any fuel available. Both stations were ghost-town empty. I continued on across the Atacama and could visibly see for miles and miles in all directions that there was nothing but sand. Then l began to panic. After a while a police car approached which l quickly flagged down and pointed at the emptying petrol tank.

The policeman just looked at me and laughed, then told me that the closest petrol station was over 100 miles away. He then made a gesture with both hands that l should push the bike. He again laughed loudly, and l let out a nervous laugh which increased his laughter. He drove off still laughing and l was alone in the Atacama freezing my nuts off. Having not seen a vehicle for some time, the silence wasn’t funny.

You have to put a cemetery somewhere right  It just seemed weird next to the Highway. Remind me not to be buried in Chile.
You have to put a cemetery somewhere right? It just seemed weird next to the Highway. Remind me not to be buried in Chile.

I dropped the bike stand down and leant the bike on its side and splashed across what tiny bit of fuel was left. l started the bike and set-off with low-revs until l was literally limping along the desert road. The sunshine beat down, the day was very cold and l knew at that point it could be a lonely night for me in the Atacama.

After a few miles riding, l saw a small building in the distance. As l approached l could see it was a café – it was just the luck l needed. I pulled the bike up to the front doors, went into the store and asked for petrol. But my suspicions were confirmed – they just sold coffee. I asked the other customers if they had spare fuel, but it seemed all the cars outside were running on diesel. I realized if l was going to run out of fuel, this was going to be my lucky day. My imagination ran wild and l saw myself laid at the side of the road frozen to death, bleached bones under a desert sun and my Honda XR keys hanging from a skeleton hand, awaiting a new owner. I did the sensible male thing at this point, l took 20 minutes to bury my head in the sand, grabbed a hot coffee, chocolate biscuits and tried not to think about the inevitable cactus forming in the tank. I realized that the journey to Iquique was going to be like the policeman’s gesture – powered by my hush puppies and l had to get used to it.

It was just at that point l had a Eureka moment. In the distance l could hear the sound of a small 2-stroke engine, high on the hillside, and there was a group of men installing new power lines. Could l be in luck?

I jumped on the bike, slowly made my way across to the five guys working and one of them came over to me. l unscrewed the cap and pointed out the problem. The man laughed, so l laughed. It seemed to be a norm in the Atacama, laughing at someone else’s expense. He went across to the generator, grabbed a plastic bottle half full of petrol, handed it to me and l quickly poured it into my tank, barely seeing any movement. He told me there was a small town maybe a 40 minute ride away where l could buy extra fuel. I knew there was nothing more l could do but accept my fate and ride on a wing, prayer and a fume.

We both looked in my tank once more and then both laughed out loud. We shook hands and l tried to offer him money for the fuel, but he grabbed a chocolate biscuit instead. I rode-off towards Iquique at 15 mph and after 40 minutes l saw street lights some five miles ahead. l felt the biggest sigh of relief. I made it to a town called Huara and asked villagers where l could find petrol. Everyone looked at me with blank faces. I circled the town and kept ending up at this creepy looking house, which made me recall the ending scene of ‘A Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, so l didn’t hang around for long.

After hours limping across the desert  a laughing Policeman  coffee and biscuits - I finally made the town that sold moonshine for the tank.
After hours limping across the desert, a laughing Policeman, coffee and biscuits – I finally made the town that sold moonshine for the tank.

Finally, a villager pointed out where l could get fuel and l tapped on the door and an old man came-out, looked at the bike and we filled her up for a small fee. It wasn’t long before another car pulled-up and then it was obvious that the old guy was doing a roaring trade. I pressed on, with the fog dropping. By 8 p.m. it was pitch-black. It was probably another 50 miles ride to Iquique, but I was happy l had a full tank, double-happy to make it to Iquique after a long and eventful day’s ride, and triple-happy to pull into town, immediately stumble into a hostel and make it my home for the night.

I pushed south across this beautiful slither of a country, hugging the coast road with a mountainside to my left that was shaped like a huge surf wave for most of the day’s journey. Finally I pulled into a small town called Antofagasta. After hours searching numerous places to stay, l realized that this was an expensive town, around £60 per night minimum, probably due to the wealth of the region from natural minerals and resources. l rode into town still looking for a room and feeling a little frustrated, when a side-street door opened and a young guy stepped out, looked at me and said, “stay here.”

l pulled over and asked, “where – is this a hotel?” He said it was his mother’s hotel and l could have a room for £6 per night. I couldn’t believe l had randomly stumbled into this guy after circling this town for two hours looking for a place, so l pulled the bike into the courtyard. The young guy called his older brother (both around their early 30s) and that night we grabbed beers, ate pizza and hungout and chatted about life in this town and my trip. They were good guys, l felt lucky to have landed in this spot and realized like many of my lessons from this trip – some things are just meant to be.

The next day l pulled out of the hotel and set off across the desert again, passing the famous ‘hand of the desert’ monument and continued to ride south into Copiapo, for an overnight stay. The place was quaint, but my choice of hostel felt more like a halfway house. But it was safe enough, and so the next morning l fixed up a new chain at the Honda dealership and then pushed south towards La Serena. Both towns are pretty famous for being routes for the new Argentinean/Chilean Dakar Rally. So, l continued south and after many miles of desert, cooler days and nights, l finally pulled into Santiago with over 11,500 miles on the clock. The bike was running perfect and I was in my element. After so many months sat on a motorbike l was connected to the journey and felt totally relaxed.

I got the green light to cross Argentinas border along one of the coolest  windiest roads ever ridden.
I got the green light to cross Argentina’s border along one of the coolest, windiest roads ever ridden.

l hung-around in Santiago for a few days, it was very different from the start of the journey from Mexico where temperatures hit 113 degrees, Santiago dropped to below freezing and the cold ran deep into my bones. Santiago allowed for relaxation and rest, plus a new back tire. After making provisions, l heard that the mountain pass was clear from snow and l could now make my way across to Argentina. I packed-up my bags and made my way up through the mountains and crossed the border.

The motorcycle gear that l was wearing was not good quality for the low temperatures. I pushed on through the mountain pass, alongside South America’s highest peak ‘Aconcagua’, running the gauntlet with crazy truck drivers delivering their goods cross-country. Then I descended back into the warmer climes of Mendoza to watch a beautiful sunset burn the sky. It had been a great ride, this was a super city, the people, the wine and steak just perfect, but after a couple of days, it was time to leave and make my way toward Buenos Aires. All the time l felt the need to keep moving and enjoy the days l had to ride, because let’s face it, before long l would be sat back in the office at work wondering what just happened.

I pushed on that day, heading towards Rio Cuarto for a few hundred miles, it was just plain open road and so different from the beautiful Andes Mountain passes and the sights l had experienced in all previous countries. The roads were flat and straight, neatly tree-lined and completely opposite to the initial first weeks ride across Baja. As l pulled into Rio Cuarto l could see it was a modern town and l set about looking for my £6 per night hostel fix. After an hour riding through the streets a guy in his early 30s came across the road on a skateboard, he spoke great English and said he loved the bike and asked what was l up to, where was l heading?

He told me that the town wasn’t for tourists and that l would struggle to find somewhere decent to sleep, and in the same breath said l should stay the night with him and his family. After 10 minutes of meeting the guy l was pushing my bike into his front room, meeting his grandmother, grandfather, auntie and wife. I showered and joined them for dinner. Later we headed out for ice cream and they told me how they lived in the US and he was hoping to ride his KLR back to Argentina, but after a mountain bike accident that had broken his wrist badly, his plans were delayed. It was a pleasure to meet such a super family, l felt privileged to stay in their home as a complete stranger. This kind of spontaneous hospitality was the foundation for the trip. The good nature of people to a complete stranger restored my faith in the human spirit and my belief that we don’t live in such a dangerous, crazy and negative world.

After planning on passing Pergamino  the gear-shift came loose and I free-wheeled to the mechanics door-step for coffee and a fix-up.
After planning on passing Pergamino, the gear-shift came loose and I free-wheeled to the mechanics door-step for coffee and a fix-up.

The next morning l rode on towards Buenos Aires. l thought this would be a long haul, but l was looking forward to the push towards the Atlantic Ocean. The wife in Rio Cuarto told me l should spend the night in a town called Pergamino along the way, but l knew l wanted to go direct to Buenos Aires. As luck would have it, as l was bypassing the outskirts of Pergamino my gear shift came loose and l couldn’t change gear. Through pure luck the bike just free-wheeled along at 50 mph down the highway without stopping, I crossed onto a dust track and rolled up and sat outside a mechanic’s workshop.

This was just my luck. The mechanic came out unable to speak English but able to see my problem, so we got to work fixing the gearshift. I told him about my trip, the journey in broken English and offered money for his time, but he flatly refused and wished me a safe trip in Argentina. It’s only when you ride away from these situations that you can truly let go of your fears and put a little trust back in the human race.

It looked like Pergamino would be tonight’s rest stop, so the prediction seemed correct. I rode into town looking for a hostel and circled the streets before pulling across to a delicatessen and chatting to the owner about the town, my trip and where l had just come from. He jumped onto his scooter and we rode all around town looking for my £6 hostel fix. After a while riding in the cold evening temperature we found a roadside motel for £10 per night. I showered, dropped the bags and rode back to the deli to say thanks for the help. The owner had invited friends over to meet me and chat about my route and we discussed what life was like in Pergamino over ham, cheese rolls, cold beers and wine – which was a good end to the day. The next morning l rode back to the Deli to offer my thanks and appreciation for a nice evening and help finding my room for the night and then ordered two more delicious sandwiches for my onward journey, and a bottle of red wine before pushing toward Buenos Aires.

Hanging with an old school friend in BA. We reminisced about the old school days over wine and super  tasty steaks.
Hanging with an old school friend in BA. We reminisced about the old school days over wine and super, tasty steaks.

It was a great ride, a beautiful day and l felt alive from top-to-toe. It was a super feeling to ride into Buenos Aires that afternoon and it felt amazing to have ridden there from Los Angeles, though l was pretty exhausted from the days, weeks riding and was actually beginning to look forward to the final chapter of my journey. I decided to spend a few days in Buenos Aires as an old friend that l went to Comprehensive school with in Nottinghamshire coincidentally landed in B.A the next morning. She was travelling South America on a six-month break from working in London. We reminisced about our days at school, laughed about old times and friends – who was married, who had children, who still had hair, all grown-up conversation at everyone’s expense. We had a fun time exploring the city in the daytime and the evenings spent tucking into the best Argentinean steaks washed down with the finest red wine. We also headed out to watch the locals practice their tango techniques in underground clubs. It looked beautiful, but for my two left feet, way too difficult. There and then l vowed that l would always remain a professional watcher.

l caught the ferry from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, it was foggy for most of the crossing and when l reached Colon, it rained heavy and hard all afternoon. The border checks were completed quickly and l rode across to Montevideo, through the heavy rain and spent the evening drying my clothes in the hostel room before grabbing some sleep. The next morning l pushed along the coastline north towards Chui and towards my final border where l spent the evening watching Uruguay win the South America Cup.

The skies began to warm as I pushed north towards Brazil and the sunsets just left me breathless.
The skies began to warm as I pushed north towards Brazil and the sunsets just left me breathless.

The next day, l crossed my final border into Brazil, my 15th and final country. I let out the biggest shout of joy – what a feeling! The border was simple, administration was pretty quick and l pushed north alongside the Atlantic Ocean towards Pelotas. At that point l realized that l hadn’t changed currency again and was almost completely out of petrol.

I pulled of the road into a small restaurant and was greeted by the owner, wife and their son. I tried to explain that l only had Uruguayan Peso and no Brazilian Real and that l was pretty hungry, gesturing with a circular hand motion across belly. So with lots of smiles we managed to agree to a currency conversion and the restaurant gave me a good hot meal and 1-liter Coca-Cola bottle full of petrol to get me the 25 miles to the next petrol station. We topped up the bike, l paid the bill and left a good tip, so everyone was happy and rode-off towards Porto Alegre.

The coincidences had been perfect, the family very helpful and we shared a few photographs together standing with the bike. People’s hospitality, friendship and desire to help strangers left me a little dumbfounded on this trip, but every time it happened it just made me smile more, relax and feel content in the knowledge that we do live on an amazing planet. Despite media speculation, we all have this inner desire to help the next person, no-matter what race, color or creed.

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