My time to depart from the Viña finally arrived, and after one last visit to my peanut vender for a fat sack of road nuts and a tear-jerking despedida, I lugged my bags to Ave Libertad and hopped on a micro bound for the outskirts of the city. I unloaded on Ruta 5, Chile´s longest highway running from Puerto Montt all the way to the Peruvian frontier, and looked for a strategic standing location on the North-bound side of the road.
There was a prime spot a few meters before this trucker cafe with a easy pulloff; I assumed the standing position, and erected my thumb, staring intensely at every passing driver. In no more than ten minutes, a big rig carrying construction supplies to a northern mine pulled over and waved me towards his truck. Seconds after climbing into the truck, it became clear the man´s motive for picking me up....the baby guitar accompanying me. The problem is that I don´t actually play the guitar and only travel with it for a lack of being able to sell it in Valparaiso.....although it served as some excellent trucker bait, it killed me to have to crush the man´s spirits with my lack of shredding ability. He was the son of a Huaso (Chilean Cowboy) and a big fan of western films, he told me he had been hoping for some North American cowboy tunes. After a few minutes of serenading the man with my few known riffs, trying to override the of roar of the engine, he told me to put the guitar on his little bed in the back of the cab; we spent about the next 16 night hours making small talk. His cat´s name was Juan Pablo and he was pissed about the Bolivians and Peruvians immigrating to Chile and stealing Chilean jobs. We made a couple stops at these divey trucker stop trailer cafes to keep us through the night with coffee, empanadas, and churrasco sandwiches. At one point in the trip he started swerving and shaking his legs a lot; we weren´t really talking at this point so my mind just wandered to frightful places; I was sure he was one of those methed out truckers coming down from his high, about to freak out and crash or something.....But, in the end he was just tired, we made it to a city called La Serena, a little past there was a giant parking lot type deal where the trucks could park in safety and a security guard would wake them up at a specified time. Our stop was from 2am to 4am; he crawled into his bed in the back of the cab and I jumped down to the lot with hammock in hand in search of a couple trees. I found a perfect pair of palm trees at a gas station across the street and posted up for a couple sweet, sweet hours of sleep. I woke up to my cellphone alarm and arrived at the truck about ten minutes before the 4am departure time, just like a good little hitch hiker should. With a little sleep behind him, the dude was on his driving game and the rest of the trip passed swimmingly. Ruta 5 varied between following along the coast and passing through the desert; after La Serena there weren´t any more big cities, only the occasional mining pueblo. In the last couple hours of the trip, we passed a stretch with a few donkeys crossing the road which inspired the man to launch into conversation about burros, and burros puros, until we reached Calama. From Calama I took a bus to this super touristy beach town called Bahia Inglesia. It was a nice beach town but pretty uneventful.
After just one afternoon, I was no longer keen on hanging around the beach; it was more of family and honeymoon crowds than other travellers and vacation towns are fairly lame without some accompanying compañeros. I took the bus a few miles out of town to get back to my beloved Ruta 5 and upon arrival was disappointed to see five other hitchhikers already waiting for a ride. I walked a little up the road to be the first that the drivers see but there wasn´t a good pull off and I feared I might be practicing poor hitch hiking etiquette by preying on the cars upstream, so I quickly abandoned the post in exchange for a couple hours in the gas station cafe. I ate a little empanada and drank some bubbly water before returning to the competetive hitch hiking scene below the desert sun. It had dwindled down to one other couple awaiting but I had the edge because they were two, and I was one. Eventually a man by the name of Renato, driving a LipiGas truck stopped and beckoned me to his cab. I think he picked me up just to have some company for lunch because we stopped about five miles down the road for chicken and rice. This ride was a few hours shorter than the previous and the conversation flowed more smoothly so it was a pretty enjoyable ride. He had been in the Chilean Armada and lived in many countries, including the US, and thus had some killer travel stories. The desert became more extreme the further North we went (entering the Norte Grande), there was one stretch of the road that lasted four hours through the desert without seeing a single building, person, or animal. His destination was a tiny mining town called Baquedano, where he said they had filmed part of the latest James Bond film; there was nothing but a short main street, a train station, and a truck stop/Control Station. We arrived at midnight and on his advice I went to the Control Station to ask one of the Carabineros if I could leave my bags for the night while I was sleeping in the hammock. They said that there weren´t any quality trees in town and offered me the sofa in their kitchen/lounge area to pass the night. I slept alright and was woken up at seven the next morning to an officer Gomez boiling water for his coffee. I brushed my teeth in their locker room, grabbed my bags, and returned to Ruta 5.
Air Conditioning Man
I was fairly stoked because I was only a mere five hours from my coastal destination of Iquique and was getting an early start on the day; not too fond of the graveyard trucker shifts. A comfortable little pickup stopped on my behalf. The guy was an Air Conditioning technician and was heading deeper into the desert for some business reasons. He could only take me about an hour towards Iquique before the road forked and he had to drive further inland. During this hour, however, he swayed me to detour from the Iquique arrival and visit San Pedro de Atacama. Even still, he took me only as far as Calama, a city about two hours from San Pedro. Calama is home to Chiquicamata, one of the world´s largest copper mines, and the town is relatively big due to its presence. I went to an ATM in the town center to fund my coming stay in San Pedro and walked to a roundabout on the cusp of the city where drivers had the option to continue in the San Pedro direction. I waited near this roundabout for nearly an hour in the harsh sunshine, smothering sunscreen upon my fragile honky skin. Eventually a man driving a cement truck stopped for me and I was on my way.
The cement truck driver was pretty pleasant. All I really remember is that he was super fond of Transformers and had a pretty wife. He also gave me some good tips on how to pass my time in the Desert and educated me on some history and what not of the region.
San Pedro is one of the most touristy towns I have ever visited, but not really in a bad way. It´s definitely distinct from any other Chilean towns. For one, it´s in the middle of the desert which is excellent, but also the town is cooly designed with that adobe mud brick style construction. Practically every business in is either a tour agent, restaurant, or hostel. I found a hostel a ten minute walk out of the downtown called Iquisa. It was booked for the night but the owner, Roberto, was really cool and we struck a deal where I could sleep in my hammock in the courtyardish area, use the facilities (Kitchen, shower, internet, etc), and pay a small fraction of the price. San Pedro earns its fame due to the surrounding awe-inspiring landscapes that vary from other-worldly terrain to the worlds highest geysers to observatories to salt lakes, flats, and flamingos. I stayed only two full days myself and partook in some canyon bicycling, sandboarding and moon valley sunset action. There was heaps more to see around the town but the tours were fairly pricey and I had already satisfied my sight-seeing needs, ready to keep things moving. Roberto gave me a ride to the edge of town in his badass van and I again stood in my pose and gave the thumbs up.
´Twas one of my shortest waits to date when a nice little SUV braked to a halt and offered me a lift as far as Calama. The SUV was quite luxurious in comparison to the Freight trucks I had become accustomed to, mostly due to the quality air conditioning. The only slight discomfort came from sitting in the back seat next to the mother breast feeding her four month old; I was a little surprised they would pick up a hitchiker with exposed boobies and babies in the car, but I guess they were maybe just bored of each other´s company and trusting of the gringo traveller. So while I tried to make conversation with the mother, the baby unrelentlessly suckled at her teet, the older daughter sat in the front seat watching Beyonce music videos on the dash´s DVD player, and the driving father would just yell the occasional sentence back to us to stay in the conversation. They were really friendly the whole trip and dropped me off at a gas station near Calama where all Iquique-bound vehicles would pass.
The Lone Argentenian
I walked further down the highway past where another road merges in order to up my chances of passing vehicles and waited. I just stood for over an hour in the baking sun, trying to lure a passing car with my bobbing thumb. There was no luck and I decided to pass the rest of the hot day somewhere in town and return at night when the sun is weaker and more truckers would be passing thru. On the way back to town, I stopped to take a picture of this random graffiti wall and I heard someone from the road yell, ¨Oye, gringö.¨ I turned around and it was this one strange Argentenian guy I had met the night before.
The night before, at around midnight, I had been walking through San Pedro with a couple people from my moon valley tour and this fellow had asked us if we knew where the hospital was, we said no and he drove past. About an hour later when I was walking back to my hostel, I saw the same guy parked in a dirt lot and he yelled out that the hospital was closed. Being the valiant man I am, I inquired as to why he needed a hospital and he said he just felt terrible. I offered him an Ibuprofein, a bottle of water, and some advice on where to park his car for the night since it was where he planned to sleep. I had never seen a grown man so grateful, he hugged me and grabbed me hand and kissed it, and thanked me a lot. The touchyness creeped me out a slight so I quickly exited the scene moseyed on back to the hostel.
Anyways, it was this same strange Argentenian guy now offering to give me a ride to Iquique and I felt a bit hesitant but it was pretty perfect timing so I just went with it. I´m still not too sure what to make of the guy, he was definitely unique to most of the people I have met, and the conversation was more interesting and personal than with most of the other drivers. He told me about his past, present, and aspirations. He came from a farm and worked his ass off in the country until he was twenty years old and illiterate. In this year he met some lady who inspired him to get a high school degree and turned him into a street vendor at the same time. He graduated and advanced his street vending game into owning a couple stores, vehicles, and his own house; he was really proud to be self-made man. Having succeeded in Argentina, his goal was to move to Australia and build a new life for himself. I gave some encouraging words from my own experience in Australia and he became all grateful again and started thanking me profusely. He was sort of a lame driver though, he went about thirty clicks below the speed limit and had us lost a couple of times. I easily swayed him into giving me a brief stint behind the wheel because he seemed a little behind on his sleep having driven all the way from Buenos Aires solo. It was pretty awesome driving through the desert but short lived because there was a license check not too long after we switched and we had to pretend to be broken down for a minute to change seats again. We finally arrived in Iquique at midnight about two hours after we should have; I don´t know why but it was a fairly exciting moment for the both of us to arrive. He parked in a gas station to sleep in the back of his car-van vehicle for the night and I found a taxi to drop me in the city center in search of a hostel bed to lay my head.