I left Limache to head north on “Ruta 5”, also known as “The Pan American Highway”. This road is a two-lane highway from Santiago to La Serena, and is actually prohibited to cycle on. It’s quite ironic, because this is the most safe road I’ve cycled on the whole trip! There is a very generous shoulder on the side of the road, and except from near the cities there wasn’t a lot of traffic. Besides, it’s a totally different way of approaching laws here, especially in the traffic. Here, people are selling things on the side of the highway, and as long as you put on your hazard warning lights it’s apparently accepted to stop wherever you want. If you think something is wrong, you are supposed to honk you horn as much as you think is necessary, and the velocity is totally up to you to decide!
I took a rest day in La Serena, and then decided to move on to be able to attend a tour at the “Paranal Observatory”. ESO (European Southern Observatory) is highly active in the Atacama desert, and has several observatories in the area. This desert is the driest place on earth, and because of that the atmosphere is very clean (no water molecules that interfere). Hence, this is the perfect place to gaze in to the skies, and ESO has the most advanced technology and largest telescopes to do so.
To make it to the tour, I hitch-hiked for about 300 km to Caldera. It’s so easy to hitch-hike here; the third car that passed (actually a truck) picked me up. Many I’ve met use this way of transportation when travelling, and they say that in all of South America it’s always easy to get a lift. Many people also use it for travelling to their work and such. I like this, an environmentally friendly way to travel (not as good as cycling of course :)). It’s actually quite strange that it’s more common to hitch-hike here than for example in Sweden that is considered to be a safer country (and as I’ve understood many don’t hitch-hike or pick up hitch-hikers because of the security risk).
From Caldera to the National Park “Pan De Azúcar” the road follows the coast, and this was a very nice stretch to cycle.
In the National Park there was a very special road surface, that felt and looked like asphalt, but was actually naturally made.
After Paposo, a small village by the coast about 50 km north of Taltal, the big climb started. The observatory is situated on “Cerro Paranal” at an altitude of 2600 m. I beat my personal record and climbed about 2300 m in one day! From Paposo (sea level) the uphill went on for 40 km without a single downhill. This took almost all day, and after a long day I camped in the middle of the desert. In the night an incredible sky emerged, and in only one night I saw 16 meteoroids falling into the atmosphere (incorrectly called shooting stars).
The day after I climbed the last hill to the observatory, which was extremely steep; the way back I broke my speed record, and the new one is now 82.66 km/h! 🙂
The observatory was impressive, with four identical optical telescopes with mirrors of 8.2 m in diameter, that could be combined in an array to obtain even sharper images. They also used a technique to erase the impact of the atmosphere, where they shot a laser into the sky and then took a picture of it to calculate the disturbance. Very interesting, and the visit actually made me more motivated to start study again when returning from the journey!
Right now I am in Antofagasta, and staying with a host from Warmshowers. Warmshowers is like couchsurfing, but only for cyclists, and Jaime (my host) is a downhill-rider. He took me for a ride through the city with his friends, and I’ve had a real nice time here resting and eating well.
Next I’m heading towards Bolivia, and I’ve decided to do the hard Laguna Route from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni. It’s rain season now in Bolivia, and this makes the gravel roads very soft and sometimes impossible to ride on. Well, that’s for next chapter 🙂