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The Pan-Am to San Pedro, or the Exercise in Chilean Camping

San Pedro features highly on all must-see lists for Chile. An area situated in the heart of the Atacama desert, its proximity to both Bolivia and Peru made it an easy place to stop. Both excited to see what it had to offer (brief research showed it to be full of amazing sights) we planned our route from Valparaiso to San Pedro.


Valparaiso from the ocean

It had become apparent to us that camping wild in Chile was illegal so our route planning had to take into account affordable, off-season campsites at our rest points. We used the site Camping Chile which is very basic and irritatingly doesn’t have information for all sites but still allowed us to navigate to some campsites along the Pacific coastline. Our first stop was in a charming little town called Guanaqueros where we camped comfortably by the ocean and were treated to a canopy of stars. We set off the next morning, refreshed after our lukewarm shower, to our next camping in Pan d’Azucar. The route was quite long but easy along the highway and the promise of camping in the national park was quite a pull.


Starry night in Guanaqueros

The highway was a bit bizarre in this part of the route with almost no villages visible but a few random bridge crossings available over the highway which served no-one! At a comfortable moment after lunch, three hours to our destination, we were using both lanes as there was no one else on the road so we could ride alongside each other, when a dog suddenly launched himself onto the motorway. He streaked across the slow lane (past Simon) and although Alex braked massively, the dog came into brutal contact with the front wheel, the terrible impact failing to knock the bike over. The choice had been simple, swerve into Simon, swerve into the central reservation or keep going straight. Only one of those allowed a chance of survival for us both, not the dog though, sadly. Stopping to check the tyre and the bike, well assured, we set back off to the national park. Wild dogs abound in this part of the world and that was definitely not the last time one tried to commit suicide under Alex’s wheels.


The green route along the Pacific


The inevitable re-fueling

We reached Chanaral at sunset and with dismay, realised the route to the campsite ran through the national park and was little more than a dirt track. The final 50km push was tough going at 1st or 2nd gear in the pitch black of the park. We could smell the ocean and considered camping by the sea. Finally, we were 200m from our destination when in the darkness, red tape and warning signs came up that the road ahead was closed. Alex was almost ready to cry at this point but Simon wisely pointed out the two weak lights on our left (the ocean side). We limped across to the lights and found charming little campsite areas on the sea. We decided to set up there instead and in the weak light, the previous pitch black area revealed itself to be an actual serviced campsite.

Pretty soon, we were joined by two young Chileans who’d been fishing in the sea with great success, they invited us to join them for dinner to try their catch. We set up a barbecue and they made the most amazing grilled fish. We offered our spicy bean stew and couscous but it paled in comparison to the mounds of fresh succulent ocean fish. After a good night’s sleep and cold shower, we set off for the next stop, Antofagasta which had no campsites advertised. Assuming the Ruta 5 would continue to offer up amazing places to stay anyway, we rode on. The coastline is superbly beautiful along the Chilean Pacific with the highway slicing through small rocky mountains and glimpses of vast sandy beaches with wild waves punctuating every slight curve. One final curve out close to the water and we were suddenly climbing up through the mountains. Within ten minutes of leaving the coast, we were fully enveloped in a thick cold mist in the mountains.


Misty mountains of Ruta 5

We continued climbing through this strange, solid mass for a good thirty minutes until as suddenly as it had appeared, it dissipated, revealing a breathtaking view of an endless red desert on the other side of the mountains. We reached Antofagasta shortly after and struggled to find a place to camp! Sun had set and we were getting anxious as the whole area seemed to be very industrial. Eventually, on the point of giving up and trying to find a cosy space on the central reservation, we spotted a sign for parking offroad. We followed the small track over some railway lines and found ourselves in a large dusty garden with painted signs and children playing in the distance. Trying not to remember the plot of Children of the Corn/Wolf Creek we set about trying to find the owner to see if we could camp in his garden. Eventually we found a be-hatted man silhouetted by a bonfire. He agreed to 7000pesos per night and we set up camp in a rundown hut.


A dusty place to stay

The next day we set off for San Pedro. The route was easy with only a few hundred kilometres (nothing compared to the 500km we’d been doing!) Stopping for lunch in the desert, we made it to San Pedro BEFORE sunset. Alex gloried in this fact that for once, they could see where they were camping before sleeping!


Lunch in the desert


San Pedro at dusk


Road choices on the way into San Pedro!

We had a full day of exploring the Volcano Lascar and salt lakes of Los Flamencos. The altitude caught us by surprise as the road didn’t feel like it was ascending. Suddenly it was 2degC and the oxygen was thin and we were both feeling out of breath! The lakes were beautiful- one was turquoise and vast and the other navy blue and richly encrusted with salt. Further on, there was a yellow salt flat which was completely dehydrated. The way back to San Pedro had us riding through fields of yellow which turned out to be unfriendly spiky plants, not one for a bouquet to loved ones.


Salt flats


navy blue lakes surrounded by Llamas!


The local vegetation in the desert

After a day in San Pedro, we made our way to Calama where we’d been put in touch with a biker club through the biking network in Chile. We pulled up to a house in Calama and were greeted warmly by the Monejes Rebelides! They took us to visit Lake Chiu Chiu (curious lake which has no apparent bottom and has no rivers feeding it – it simply is there) and Lasana (small valley village surrounded by old fortifications and guerilla outposts) and one of the oldest churches in South America, an adobe building with a cactus and leather structure (no metal). The club were really welcoming and gave us great advice for the next days’ riding.


Sunset in San Pedro, the road to Calama


The view to Calama


At the pousada!


Interior of the oldest church in South America (near Lake Chiu Chiu)


Oldest church in South America (one of)


At Lake Chiu Chiu – bottomless and apparently fed by no rivers.




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