The Journal  

6 February 2006

Antofagasta and La Serena

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


The Long, Straight Road to Santiago : Antofagasta and La Serena, Chile

January 23-26

The distance from Arica to the Chilean capital along the Pan-American Highway is nearly 1,300 miles, the majority of which passes through the country's Atacama Desert . We headed south from Arica into an arid wilderness, the beach town civilization quickly disappearing into empty dunes surrounded by barren ridges.

A mineral wealthy region that Chile took by force from Peru and Bolivia in the 19th century, the desert is a mining region. Most of the mining operations are now abandoned clusters of buildings along the highway with a sign that notes their former glory.

Fully loaded with a passenger, the Guzzi can go about 180 miles on a tank of gas. The distance between gas stations in the northern Atacama Desert was always 180 miles. When we stopped at a customs check point no one seemed to know how far the next gas station was. Along the way the Pan-American was interrupted by construction and we were diverted onto wash board rough sand and gravel strewn bypasses that slowed us down to a crawl and took us out into the desert for miles. We made it to Maria Elena, a mining town three miles off the Pan-American where we took a lunch break in the shade after getting our tank filled.

The next series of photos are the straight stretch of Pan-American Highway we rode down through Chile.

On our first day in the desert we stopped after 400 miles in Antofagasta , a port town where most of the desert's minerals get exported. Once again, though right by the ocean, the town's swimming beaches were miles away. Food and lodging was still resort-rate high and we found a cheap meal in the central market.

Leaving Antofagasta , I filled an empty five-liter water bottle with gas and Holly held it on her lap. But there were stations every 100 miles south of Antofagasta , and on our third gas stop I emptied the spare fuel jug into our tank. Although the landscape didn't change, small towns sprung up beside the road and traffic was heavier than the previous day when we would ride for an hour without seeing another vehicle. The road remained arrow-straight, a black line that disappeared into a shimmering water mirage on the horizon. In some sections we would top a small hill, our path for the next 30 miles laid out before our eyes. When we rolled into La Serena we had traveled 600 miles in 11 hours, our longest ride of the entire trip.

La Serena is another Chilean beach town, where we stayed in an excellent German-run hostel. Leaving for Santiago the next morning, we delayed our start to get the breakfast included in the price of our room. The tea, tomatoes, cheese, salami and fresh bread was worth the wait. After our previous days' rides, the 300 mile trip to Santiago looked like a Sunday afternoon joy ride.


Jeremiah carries our luggage to the bike before we left La Serena for Santiago that morning.


The hostel in La Serena was one of the most nicely decorated and clean places we had stayed in a long time, with a good, filling complementary breakfast.

South of La Serena the Pan-American Highway turned into a four lane road, where the speed limit was 120 kph (72 mph). The road passed along the coast, sandwiched between hills covered in a mustard-yellow sage grass and rocky cliffs where the blue waves crashed into turquoise foam, and past beach resort after beach resort as we made our way to the Chilean capital. In Santiago I looked at our itinerary. We had traveled from Arica in three days, a journey that we had scheduled to take twice as long.


Four-lane highway all the way from La Serena to Santiago , with the occasional toll fees.


Just a few miles outside of Santiago were farmlands with fluffy yellow grasses.


All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus