Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Pass of All Passes

By Mark

Leaving La Calera was difficult as it always is when you have made new friends, the comforts of a house all to ourselves is also hard to pull yourself away from. As our trip continues on we find ourselves daydreaming of day to day comforts, a warm dry bed to place one’s weary head is a luxury to us now with our ever dwindling bank account.

At least ahead of us was a warm, dry blue sky to see us heading north. This was to be our first part of heading up Ruta 5, otherwise known as the Pan American Highway. The longest highway in the world. Well, we changed our plans pretty quick after a long dull ride on a dual carriageway to the coastal town of La Serena. The challenge of finding a campground open or even existing was on the cards again and we rode though a few back roads that seemed to be heading over the wrong side of the railway tracks until we came to a campground. The next problem was that there was not a soul around, so we let ourselves in and around ten in the evening someone comes by with a flash light asking what we are doing. Luckily enough we were allowed to stay and slept easily.

Our journey was to head east again and back into Argentina and to pass over the highest mountain pass so far on this trip. The infamous Paso del Agua Negra at 5753 metres above sea level. First things first, we were to head through the Elqui Valley. It is the home of Pisco production in Chile. Well what a ride, it brought back so many memories of our travels back when we travelled through the Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan. The stark contrast of the immensely dry mountain range, blue skies that went on forever and the lush green of the never ending grapevines and Alamo trees were a great back drop to a biker’s dream of twisting and turning empty roads. The main differences to Pakistan however was that the roads were in great condition and no threat of terrorists!

Our destination was Pisco Elqui, the town was renamed from its original name to bring in the tourists as it is in the heart of the Pisco production. The small villages along the valley were quiet and sleepy, by far some of the most pleasing to the eye we have seen so far in Sth America. We liked it so much we decided to stay a few days and have a look around and of course sample some Pisco sour, well it went down a treat for me, enjoying it a little too much one evening after finding out that it was not too much to Sanne’s liking. I could not leave it for another night of course. The campground was a tranquil place to hangout, shady and green with a small river running through. It was a heavenly place to retreat to and have a drink after walking around in the hot midday sun.

After a restless night’s sleep we tore ourselves away from Pisco Elqui and headed for Argentina. I had a bad sleep worrying about how the bikes would fair reaching such heights as almost 5000m above sea level. Most carburettor bikes are known to struggle over 4000m and we still had only been to a height of about 3500m. From the start of the trip I always thought about bringing spare jets with me to help with the lower fuel intake to match the lower amount of oxygen in the air, but in the long run I decided against it as it is a time consuming job to get to the carby and if I had to change the jets on every pass I would have lost my mind with this tiresome job. So we went for it, the bikes have barely missed a beat with everything we have thrown at them on this trip and we had faith in our trusty steeds.

The extremely quiet road snaked its way through endless valleys until we finally reached the Chilean border crossing. This would be one of the fastest crossings yet. Only one other motorcyclist was in front of us and he was just about to leave as we pulled up. Once through customs, we left the asphalt behind with only a dirt road ahead of us. Straight away we started our ascent but it was to be a long one. We left the green valleys behind and rode into a luna-like landscape. Nothing grew up here and all that surrounded us were huge mountains rising up out of the earth, with so many colours splashed across the landscape it was hard to take it all in, so we stopped many times to admire this intriguing scenery. We pushed on and on, ever heading further into the mountains and making our way out of the valleys. The road was so quiet and I hoped we would have no bike problems as we have heard there are only about 200 vehicles per year that make this crossing, that could leave us stranded for some time.

We hit 3000m and my bike skipped a beat on a gear change, losing power and slow to get the power back on and straight away I had this rush of fear that there would be further problems ahead. Slowly but surely this was the only hiccup until we got close to 4000m, then this became a normal thing with each gear change, easily fixed by holding the throttle open through the gear changes. The bikes felt a little sluggish but on and on they went with gentle encouragement until we finally hit the pass. It was such a massive relief to make it. After of course the obligatory photos were taken we took off for the descent into Argentina which was much faster than the ascent. The colours and landscape were not as striking here but it was all and all a fantastic day’s ride. The best thing of all: we were now confident that the bikes could cope with the many high passes to come through Bolivia and Peru.

The next few days took us further into barren landscapes but without the high mountain ranges surrounding us but many unique rock formations and thankfully continuing quiet roads. The same could not be said for the municipal campground we came across in San Jose de Jachal which was on a Friday afternoon. At 2pm it was already like a disco tech and we had been warned it would continue on like this all through the night and probably until daylight the next day. Awesome! It wasn’t a hard decision to make to go and find somewhere else to stay the night, the hard part was to find the campgrounds in the dark. We did manage to find one and like the campground back in La Serena there was not a soul around so we set up in stealth mode anyway. Thinking we would take off early the following morning and not get caught was never going to happen, the caretaker turned up at 7am and was intrigued to know how we found the place in the dark. He told us it wasn’t a problem and never charged us for our stay.

We were headed for Salta and had no real route on how to get there and where we would stop along the way. This idea was not the best one to have. We found ourselves heading through some pretty ordinary towns in which we were intending on staying. Some of these places had the worst campgrounds we have seen and ones we felt that we would wake the following morning and seeing our beloved bikes gone. Not what we needed. This led us to have long days in the saddle and sleeping in the wild which is something we always love to do but not always prepared for. This sometimes also turns out to be problematic as we were now in deep cactus territory and those thawny little bastards of plants caught me out and I found myself with a puncture late one evening after having ridden down a track.

The following days passed without much excitement and Sanne and I have been finding ourselves looking forward to getting to Bolivia now. Yes, we have become spoilt on our trip and that if something is now not totally mind blowingly stunning we pass it off with little more than: “ah, seen better”! We catch ourselves and realise we should savour every moment of this trip, the good the bad and the ugly.

The Elqui Valley, Chile

The view from our camp

The village of Pisco Elqui

Pisco Sour

On our way up to the Aqua Negra Pass

The scenery was stunning

Made it!

At an altitude of 4753 above sea level, this is the highest we have ever been on this trip

The ride down was just as spectacular

Back in Argentina

More beautiful roads here

Getting back to my roots

Camping in Talampaya NP

 Where we ran into this "little" fella

 Bush camping somewhere after a long day´s ride

With a group of French Harley riders who we ran into at a petrol station in a tiny village

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