Well, perhaps this is not one of the best motorcycle rides in Chile, but it is certainly an adventure, and one that you should not take on your own. I did, and I was lucky not to have had an accident.
But I digress.
I left Santiago early on a Sunday morning to avoid the traffic that can develop during a normal workday, heading north on Ruta 5 toward Los Vilos.
Los Vilos is a sleepy small fishing village and the first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful Chilean coastline as you travel north on Route 5. The town is a short hop off the main highway, and as it is about two to three hours north of Santiago, it in excellent destination for a lunch. I suggest you ride straight through the town toward the harbor, and then choose one of the small restaurants that line the road just west of the beach area. I have had a few meals here and honestly can’t say that any one of the little kiosk eateries is better that the other. If you slow down as you ride past, each owner will send someone out to show you their menu, discuss what fish is fresh that day, and encourage you to enter their establishment. They can be a bit aggressive, but it is fun to engage them in conversation and find out what they recommend. The fish is always fresh, they will have some interesting specials, and the pisco sours will set you up for a nice relaxing meal. But don’t have two.
After lunch it is a very short hop to leave Ruta 5 and head inland on a lovely, less-traveled paved road toward Illapel and continuing northeast, through the Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas to Combarbalá. The nature reserve is home to the world’s last colony of long-tailed chinchillas in the wild, once hunted voraciously for their coats. There are also pumas roaming the protected region. I didn’t see any chinchillas on my ride – maybe the pumas got them.
Once into the Chinchilla Reserve, you can follow the paved road that loops west before turning back north and east, or you can practice your dirt track riding skills and head due north on a 75 kilometer track with a mixed surface of gravel, hardpacked dirt and sand, with a little of that awful feche feche thrown in, the talcum-like fine powder-like sand that, if in any depth, can cause all sorts of trouble as your front wheel slews around or digs down into it, throwing you over the front handlebars. Its worth practicing riding in this stuff slowly before you tackle it at speed.
I took the paved road this trip as I knew a tougher adventure faced me the next day.
Continuing north from Combarbalá my destination was the lovely Hacienda Las Juntas on the Los Molles River just east of Monte Patria.
Under new management since my last visit over three years ago, the hotel is a peaceful oasis nestled among vineyards and orchards looking over a very scenic river valley surrounded by steep brown hills. There is a lovely patio with comfortable couches and chairs looking out over the valley, and dinner, which was excellent, also is enjoyed capturing the scenery. There is a large swimming pool, and the hotel has its own horses and stable and can arrange trekking into the hills should you wish to stay a couple of days.
But I was on a ride, and after a wonderful breakfast headed out with some apprehension to face the road from Samo Alto across some pretty high hills to Vicuña in the Elqui River Valley.
Looking at the map at the top of this post the road doesn’t look that intimidating. By now I am used to comparing Chilean road maps with the actual real life route, and know to expect anything. The checked line on my map indicated the surface was “ripio”, everything from gravel to dirt to sand, but that last few kilometers the map legend turned to a light green colour which meant it was “estabilizado con sal” or “stabilized salt”. This surface would be a first for me, and I had no idea what to expect.
From Samo Alto the road headed east and north, and I was pleasantly surprised that the pavement, rough as it was, continued for some distance. Maybe the government had improved the surface since my map was printed? And then the pavement stopped, and the road became a much narrower dirt road, but still fairly stable, winding in a number of sharp turns along the cliffs above the pretty River Hurtado. It was a bit challenging, but at least there were no serious elevations to climb or descend. At least not yet.
I stopped for an hour or so to rest at Hacienda Los Andes (marked as Rio Hurtado on the map above), another pretty back country hotel focused on horse trekking and hiking. Run by a German family, the property also includes its own celestial observatory (if you look closely at the photo you can see the white dome above and to the left of the hotel buildings). Each night they take guests to look at the night sky. This region of Chile, and further north, is famous for the clarity of its skies. With no light pollution or humidity, star gazing is like nothing I have experienced before. The skies become three dimensional, and well worth the effort.
Purchasing some extra water at the hotel, I casually inquired what I could expect on the road toward Vicuña. In a casual tone, the proprietor told me that the road deteriorated quite badly as soon as I left the hotel, and then got much worse. But, she said, there were lovely views when I reach the summit before heading down into the Elqui Valley. I would climb about 1,000 meters from the hotel site in a very short distance.
And did I say that the sun was beating down mercilessly with no shade and temperatures in the high 30’s degrees Celsius?
Now I have been riding motorcycles since I was a teenager (I am now 61) and have experienced all sorts of terrain and riding conditions. But the hours that I faced going north were the hardest and most challenging riding I have done in my life. The road became, at best, a narrow rutted track full of large rocks and boulders, covered in loose sand and gravel, twisting and turning through innumerable switchbacks that at times were so steep my bike stalled in first gear. I have always had difficulty making steep uphill turns to the right – and on this road there were nothing but. You can’t really see if anything is coming down at you, so with your heart in your mouth you swing wide to navigate into the right turn. A number of times, feathering the clutch in first gear, the bike would stall because the turn was too steep or the sand too loose and I would find myself rolling backwards toward oblivion.
I took my time, a long time, over three hours to ride the 50 kilometers from Hacienda Los Andes up and over the cordillera and then back down to the highway at Vicuña.
But I made it, and after patting myself on the back and hugging my trusty TransAlp, I vowed never to take such a challenging ride alone again. I only saw one other vehicle the entire time I was on this road, and if something had happened, who knows how long before I could get any help, if I could get any help.
And did I say there was no cell signal available?
The rest of the rise was pretty uneventful after this afternoon. Lunch in Vicuña, the birthplace of Chile’s first Nobel-prize winning writer Gabriel Mistral, was lovely, and the ride up the Valley to Pisco Elqui was beautiful, twisting and turning along a river valley full of grapevines and orchards. A night at the restful (name) hotel just before the town of Pisco Elqui, and then two days back to Santiago with a stopover in Zappallar.
Lessons learned? Be careful what you wish for, and never ride on such a road alone.