Groundhog Days

Getting on the bike every morning to the nagging feeling you’ve been in that place before is quite an eerie sensation. During my time riding South America I have grown used to the early morning tingle of anticipation, the safe knowledge that I will earn the day’s excitement and be amazed by at least something unexpected in the coming twelve hours. I have been fortunate to ride most of the routes I have coveted over the past year, succumbing to compromise on only a few occasions and reveling in the daily intensity of cycling off the grid. But after the massive highlight of riding the Puna de Atacama the need, be it imagined or real, to get south has just pulled me onto the very road I’ve spent the last four and a half years tying to avoid, the dreaded Pan American highway.


Although I was only on the Pan American highway for three days it dominated my pre-route thoughts

This past couple of weeks the thrill of expectancy has been carved from me by the blunted edge of utility and the hand of time wound back almost four years to when I was still seeking out my roads. Although I have just laid down 925 quick and easy kilometers from Copiapo to the Chilean capital of Santiago, at times I could very easily have been in Mexico. One of the things I have often wondered is how far the southern hemisphere replicates the north. Now I’m drawing away from the Tropic of Capricorn it is becoming ever clearer that I’m moving full circle. The deserts I’ve just been riding have been strikingly reminiscent of those of northern Mexico, roughly the same distance the other side of the Equator. A factor that has contributed another dimension to the groundhog day essence of this latest episode. That said, the familiarity has been a comfort and makes me even more excited for the return to temperate latitudes.


Not only did this route take me back onto pavement, it also reintroduced me to the sea, cold mists and dark clouds. Here descending down to sea-level at Los Hornos

The decision to ride Paso San Francisco over to Copiapo was made in the knowledge that I’d be enduring a few days on the Pan American highway after. With Paso Pircas Negras not open until January and hours of Google Earth study coming up with nothing of value I could see no alternative to hitting the highway. Laid low by another chest infection a week slipped past in Copiapo as I gave a course of antibiotics the chance to rid me once and for all of this latest lurgy. Enjoying the incredible comforts and warm staff of Hotel Montecatini was my Christmas present this year and gave me the space to decompress and reset for a change of pace. After so long riding deserted dirt I was nervous about the prospect of riding traffic heavy highways, unsure of whether I’d be able to cope with the monotony and sheer number of people. Thus I invested a fair bit of energy in an attitude overhaul, resetting my brain to factory settings, stocking up with podcasts and readjusting my expectations. My plan was to try looking beyond what I usually seek from routes and focus on opening myself up to prevent getting isolated. And it worked, I’ve surprised myself by the joy it has been possible to crowbar out of this latest leg on the road and been astounded that virtually nothing has annoyed me. I have learnt that if I’m not precious about something then I needn’t waste energy getting frustrated by how others mistreat or perceive it.


Between time on busy highways and quieter winding local roads there were some fun traffic free dirt climbs to enjoy. Here on the climb over to Illapel from Combarbala

Although consisting of an interesting mix of mountain, coast, busy highway and quiet dirt, this past couple of weeks have really only been about busting out some distance and flying south for summer. Despite the variation each days riding has seemed somehow inevitable, steamrollering through the absurdities of Christmas and new year with an oblivious march on ‘progress’. The switches from pavement to dirt and back again have demonstrated with incredible clarity the pointlessness to me of paved riding. The moment I hit the dirt I feel my mind switching on and start noticing the plants and environment. My conclusion is that highway riders must be kidding themselves if they think they are experiencing the land they’re travelling through, riding such roads is akin to blinkering a horse. Although I wouldn’t say it is a pointless pursuit, I will stick my neck out and ponder the question ‘why bother when a bus will get you there more comfortably and quicker?’

Copiapo to Santiago Route elevation profile

Here is the story of my ten-day 925 km southerly surge from Copiapo to Santiago…


By far the fanciest and most expensive place I have stayed on this trip, Hotel Montecatini gave me the sanctuary I craved in Copiapo. The comfort was hard to leave and the price hard to forget


After an initial climb out of Copiapo…


… I’m soon cruising down the Pan American highway. The wide shoulder and excellent road surface make for a surreal riding experience


As huge lorries rush by with a welcome burst of breeze to my left, endless expanses of desert drop away to the right. I am surprised and delighted to find the highway bordered by a selection of beautiful wild blooms


For the first 70km out of Copiapo there is nothing but desert, after that Posadas (truck stops) start appearing. For a man with an insatiable Coke habit these prove incredibly welcome


The Pan Am is totally fenced in to prevent animals getting on the road. Nevertheless it is not hard to find a hole through which to scamper off into camp. I find some discarded sleepers to shield me from the wind and settle in for an evening of hilarity as the drivers of passing trains  try to work out what the hell I’m doing


After months in the arid high desert it’s a surprise to wake up with a wet tent and cold mist. But the moisture soon drops away as I push through Vallenar


Vallenar marks the start of road works that accompany me all the way to La Serena. Sometimes they force me onto shoulderless single lane hell but more often it means I’m treated to my own carriageway devoid of traffic


A hot afternoon on the asphalt takes me past a few dusty settlements (here Cachiyuyo)…


… before I finally call it a day at Posada La Frontera


A quick 5km climb the next morning delivers me up to the start of a meandering descent…


… down into a frustrating headwind


The headwind comes and goes as I climb past peculiar low pockets of cloud…


… up to Cuesta de Buenos Aires and the descent down to…


… the sea at Los Hornos. In my mind the coast was going to bring sunny beach weather. The reality is grey and cold


Leaving Los Hornos behind I climb up to the start of…


… some classic coastal undulations…


… that continue onto the descent into La Serena.


Neither Christmas nor La Serena hold any appeal but I still take Christmas day off to relax and regroup. On Boxing day I leave the Pan Am and forge inland to Ovalle


It is an interesting day out of Ovalle as the road sheds traffic and wiggles its way past huge reservoirs…


… through sweet clouds of odor from drying grapes…


… up into the hills…


… and over to Cambarbala


After a restful night in Cambarbala I head out of town…


… to the turning I have been waiting for…


… where the pavement ends…


… and I re-engage with my surroundings


This most welcome of dirt roads carries me up from about 880 metres elevation…


… out of the hot valley to an equally toasty 1,700 m


After a few days of traffic it comes as a relief to have the road to myself. Only one truck and these two middle-aged motorcyclists from Santiago pass by


Reaching the pass around lunch time I’m left with an afternoon of descending


The road drops down to eventually join the paved road into Illapel. where I stay the night


From Illapel I briefly revel in the appearance of some lush greenery…


… before the pavement runs out after El Socavon…


… and I climb back up into the hot and dusty


At the top of the climb I come face to face with Tunel las Astas and mistakenly try to brave it without a light. About halfway into the kilometer of darkness I get bogged down in sand and start to regret that decision


Emerging from the tunnel into expansive views of Caimanes…


… I have little time to relax…


… as a couple more tunnels soon appear


Just before Caimanes the pavement returns…


… and I speed the remainder of the way into town


Having located the only affordable guest house in the town (there is another expensive option on the main road) I settle in for the night. To my great surprise my landlady confesses that she hasn’t seen any cyclists come through town for a couple of years. This surprises me as I figured this to be the most obvious route south to Santiago


I leave Caimanes on a glorious morning full of anticipation for the two unpaved climbs ahead


After only a few kilometers I’m reunited with the ripio…


… and powering into the Chilean countryside the right way


Having descended from the days first climb I encounter this attractive couple on the way out of Tilama


With the sun higher in the sky and the air still, the second climb of the day is a sweaty affair…


… that cuts up an arid mountain side…


… to yet another long tunnel, the Tunel Las Palmas


Having survived the 1.5km tunnel I’m rewarded with an afternoon descending…


… down to a night in Cabildo


By the time I reach Cabildo I’ve ridden all the unpaved sections of the route. The only remaining challenge is the 1,155m climb out of town…


… which I get mostly out of the way before salvaging what little shade I can find for lunch


Dropping down the other side to San Felipe it is astounding how the landscape changes from arid burnt yellows to lush fertile greens


Keen to make the most of 2014 I power on to Los Andes to ‘celebrate’ the changing of the year. I go crazy, staying up half an hour later than usual to read my book. By 10:30 I’ve got my ear pugs in and trying to sleep. Many of the parties that try to keep me awake are still in full swing by the time I rise and ready myself the next morning. Save for a few staggering drunks the town is totally deserted as I cycle out


Originally I had planned to ride from Los Andes up into the mountains before swinging back into Santiago. But I opt instead for the dull and direct Libertadores highway


Despite numerous signs telling me I’m not supposed to be riding the autopista the highway patrol guys are more than happy to give me a ride through the tunnel marking the high point of the day


The roads are still largely deserted as I ride into Santiago…


… it seems everyone has escaped the city for New Years. As I pass more and more of these no cycling signs I reflect on the logic of them. About six police cars pass by as I illegally ride the autopista. Their lack of interest convinces me that the signs actually mean ‘not worth cycling’ as opposed to ‘no cycling’. A fitting end to a leg of far to many podcasts and paved kilometers

Route Tips

10 days, 924 km (574 miles), 10,925 m (35,843 ft.) of climbing

This route is so straightforward it could be enjoyed by a baby on a trike so I shan’t waste my time with detailed route notes. However, the 340km section of Pan American highway from Copiapo to La Serena is not exactly flush with facilities and water is scarce, so I noted the location of potentially useful posadas (truck stops with restaurants):

  •  0km (360m) – Copiapo, with all facilities
  • 13km (874m) – High point
  • 31km (550m) – Rest area with toilets
  • 74.5km (462m) – Posada Pajaritos
  • 90km (480m) – Rest area with toilets (left side of highway)
  • 96km (460m) – Posada Algarrobal (with accommodation)
  • 135km (664m) – Posada La Chinita
  • Various posadas on the way into Vallenar
  • 148km (403m) – Vallenar, with all facilities
  • 175km (1,040m) – Posada
  • 177.7km (1,145m) – High point
  • 190km (920m) – Posada
  • 200km (765m) – Domeyko, small town (not sure what it can offer)
  • 203km (727m) – Low point
  • 210km (855m) – Chachiyuyo, small town (I doubt it has much to offer)
  • 212.5km (950m) – Posada Escorial
  • 219km (1,176m) – Posada La Frontera (with accommodation)
  • 224.5km (1,260m) – High point
  • 238km (770m) – Incahuasi, small town with accommodation
  • Various posadas on the way to Trapiche
  • 261km (280m) – Trapiche, small town (not much on offer)
  • 264.5km (305m) – Posada Patty
  • 282km (450m) – Posada
  • 288km (590m) – High point, Cuesta de Buenos Aires
  • 303km (21m) – Los Hornos (on the sea)
  • 340km (9m) – La Serena, large town with all facilities

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