Touring South America: Starry Night in the Atacama Desert
Chapter 11: April 7th, Atacama Desert, Chile.
I spent the morning of April 6th in the hotel where I ended up the night before. I made good use of the WiFi and figured out my route for the day. The plan was to reach Chañaral taking the Ruta 1 that runs along the entire coast. I ended up leaving Antofagasta at around 2pm but I estimated that I would still have plenty of time to make it there and set up camp at Pan de Azucar, a natural reserve just outside of Chañaral.
After lunch, I topped up my fuel tank, bought water and snacks for the road, and started making my way down the coast. Some 20km (12 miles) later, the asphalt just ended and a dirt road took over as far as the eye could see. Google Maps, you failed me miserably! What a waste of time. I had to backtrack to Antofagasta and take the detour towards the Ruta 5 that cuts through the Atacama Desert. Despite the unexpected detour, I was happy that circumstance forced me to go through the desert. The engine was running smoothly and the wind was blowing in my favor so I could head south a bit faster and with less ambient noise in the helmet. It was just the sweet purring of a 200cc engine. Not only that but I was pleasantly surprised to find a large sculpture in the middle of the desert know as the Mano del Desierto (Hand of the Desert).
It’s definitely an interesting location to place a sculpture.
A couple of hours later I was already past the halfway point but just then, the wind decided to turn on me (literally) and started blowing in the opposite direction. This took a hit on my top speed. I started to feel like the titular hare in The Tortoise and the Hare. Since I was making such good time, I decided to take a few more breaks than usual. It wasn’t because I was feeling lazy. I was actually nodding off so I parked the bike under the shade of a big road sign and took a 15 minute nap.
The rest did me good but the arid desert weather was getting to me. I was overheating even though I had all the air vents open on my jacket and pants. It was actually a combination of things that made me feel this way. Since I was out in the desert, my sweat was evaporating almost immediately so it wasn’t cooling me off. Also, since the wind had initially been blowing in my direction, there wasn’t as much air current to circulate through my clothes. This forced me to make more frequent stops to drink water and wet my head.
The fuel marker was dipping into dangerously low territory and I was worried that I still didn’t see any signs of civilization. I stopped at a restaurant/hostel and asked how much longer it was until the next gas station.
– The closest COPEC (Chilean gas station) is about 30km ahead.
I definitely had enough gas to make it there without having to tap into the reserve but I still asked the woman at the restaurant if she had any available beds. I was out of luck. The place was full.
I made a decision to try to beat the sunset and reach the closest gas station. I thought maybe I could stay there for the night. The shadows from the hills were becoming longer by the minute and my silent riding companion began stretching into horizon. I was no match for the setting sun and I was forced to get off the highway and try to find a safe spot to spend the night.
I had asked the lady at the if there was a campsite nearby.
– The people that camp out usually just drive behind a hill to get away from the highway. You never know who is crossing the highway at night…
Her ominous tone at the end made me take her comment seriously.
I laboriously rode the heavy bike up and around a hill that had the consistency of flour. The wheels kept sinking and spinning in place due to the lack of traction. It took me a good deal of time to reach the top, which was sufficiently far away from the Panamerican Highway. The effort from the whole ordeal prevented me from feeling the desert cold that was creeping in.
Perhaps the whole idea was stupid but I was so close to reaching a good spot that I couldn’t back away. After a few more pushes up the hill the mission had been completed. Once up there, I waited for the sun to go down so that I could safely set up my tent under the cover of twilight. Little by little I was running out of light and I didn’t want to use the flashlight unless it was absolutely necessary. The last thing I wanted was for people to be drawn by a shaky flashlight in the middle of the desert.
With the tent set up and the motorcycle under the tarp I finally laid down on my sleeping bag to go over the following day’s route. If I focused and traveled quickly I could reach La Serena before nightfall the next day. In the distance I could hear the trucks roaring down the Panamerican Highway without them realizing that I was silently observing from the hills.
It’s a unique sensation to be completely alone in the desert. The solitude induces you to hear things that aren’t actually there. A strap from the tent flicked with the wind and made it seem as though someone outside was running their fingers on the tent. The sand hitting the tarp on the motorcycle sounded like somebody was trying to take it apart. On more than one occasion, I got out of the tent with a knife in one hand and a flashlight in the other in search of suspicious individuals but I never even found a footprint that wasn’t my own.
What did manage to ease my fears was getting out of the tent at one point and seeing a beautiful night sky full of stars. I hadn’t seen anything like it since spending the night in the Bolivian highlands many years before. It was so clear that every constellation was perfectly identifiable as a shape and not just a few dots. It was as if the moon had exploded into a million pieces, each one as bright as the whole. It filled me with peace and serenity and I was finally able to get some rest.
I thought to myself, “I’m camping by myself in the middle of the Atacama Desert. I don’t have any references, any guides, and nobody knows where I am. This is exactly the type of experience I wanted to have.”