Touring South America: Running on Dry
Chapter 7: April 1st, Iquique, Chile.
Before leaving home my sister had given me a tiny keychain compass. Had it not been for this little compass staring at me as I mistakenly headed east towards Bolivia, I would’ve ended up in San Pedro de Atacama instead of Iquique. After a rightly deserved facepalm, I corrected my course and was back on the road cutting through the desert instead of a lush green valley.
The winds seemed stronger than on previous days and while they weren’t kicking up sand, they were gently pushing me into oncoming traffic. The only reason I wasn’t sweating through all of this is because the weather was too dry for it. It would almost immediately evaporate. I had to ride while leaning to the right most of the time just so I could go straight. The wind was so strong that I even had to lean to the right on left turns to avoid ending up as a trucker’s hood ornament.
It seemed the wind couldn’t make up its mind in which direction it wanted to blow. All of a sudden, the direction would switch and I’d have to quickly lean to the other side to stay on the road. Fortunately roads in this area were really wide and allowed ample space for maneuvering.
Along the way I came across 10 other motorcycles heading towards Arica, where I had just come from. Every single one of them waved to me as we crossed paths and I felt validated as a true motorcycle traveler. I wasn’t some guy pretending to be an adventurer. They were accepting me as one of their own and welcoming me to the club.
About 150 kilometers from reaching Iquique the fuel indicator was signaling that I was on the verge of being stranded. I stopped next to a wooden bench on the side of the road and took a little break under the bamboo shade. It was time to bust open the fuel reserve tank for the first time. By “reserve tank” I mean the plastic jug that I had strapped to the back of my bike. My first attempt to pour gas into the tank failed miserably. The wind was too strong and I couldn’t bring the mouth of the jug close enough to the gas tank’s cap to avoid it spilling everywhere.
Luckily there was a half-liter Sprite bottle that had been discarded on the side of the road. Also to my fortune, it was full of dirt instead of trucker urine. I rinsed out the bottle and used it as an intermediate container so I could pour from the jug into the bottle, and then from the bottle into the gas tank.
I know, I know. In retrospect it would have made a hell of a lot more sense to cut the bottom off the Sprite bottle and use it as a funnel. You live and learn.
After the whole gas conundrum I sat back down to eat something. Hindsight kicked in again and I realized it would have been preferable to eat before I covered my hands in gasoline, but the order of operations of things was at that point irrelevant to me. As I opened my tuna can, two BMW motorcycles sped by and waved. More club members.
The backup gas tank would only provide another 100 kilometers or so. In other words, I’d still be quite far from Iquique when it ran out. I asked a few people whether there were any gas stations ahead but the general consensus was that I wasn’t going to make it to any of them. What I would be able to reach was the dusty town of Huara, where I could find an old lady that sold gasoline straight out of some barrels that she had behind her house. When I got there, the woman assured me that it was 93 octane gas but it smelled like anything but gasoline. Either way, I had no options. I put in just what I needed to reach Iquique.
Thirty kilometers outside the city I reached the end of a ridiculously long line of slow-moving cars. They couldn’t have been going faster than 15 mph. There was a massive tow truck transporting an even bigger bucket for a wheel loader. It looked like an upside down barn roof. It wasn’t just blocking traffic behind it but also the oncoming traffic from the other lane. Every single one of those cars had to get off the road for it to go through. After 40 minutes of enduring this snail’s pace, it pulled over to let cars go through.
In just 20 more minutes I was entering the lovely city of Iquique. The view coming down from the hill was fantastic. I couldn’t pull over to take pictures but believe me when I tell you that it was wonderful to have reached my destination. I let out a sigh of relief and kept heading down. What wasn’t so wonderful was getting lost for an hour trying to find the hostel that someone had recommended. Remember that I did not have a GPS device with me so I was doing all my navigation on paper maps.
I searched and searched but I had wound up on the wrong side of town. Instead of being surrounded by hotels and beaches, all I saw were shipping containers and dozens of auto repair shops. I was at my wit’s end. All I had wanted to do for the past two hours was to collapse on a bed. After a few more laps around the Duty Free Zone (which was useful since I had to go back to get some motor oil) I finally found the place. Half a block away I had this available to me:
It slowly started to feel like the one night I had planned to stay here would become three.