CHAPTER 4: COPIAPO...JUST SAY NO!

Trip Start Nov 22, 2008
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Trip End Jun 03, 2009


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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Friday Jan 30th

START: 7434km
FROM: San Martin de los Andes (ARG)
TO: Barrancas (ARG)
FINISH: 8023 km

1200 kilometres to Mendoza and not much inbetween, so it's up at a good hour and on the road again. Before setting off I run down to the Western Union office and organise a $8 US transfer to the lady at the tyre shop in Punta Arenas. No diary gets sent to us until they have the postage money in their hands which is fair enough but a bit of a pain. Transfer is sent with a phone call confirming that it will be delivered to Valparaiso for our arrival there in about 5 days.

Riding alongside the river flats out of town, we pass guys up to their waists in the river and fly fishing for trout. Then the roads start to cut its way through some nice looking canyons and its a repeated cycle of winding our way up to the top, riding across some laser levelled plateau, then wheeling our way back down again. It makes for some very enjoyable riding, not unlike a PlayStation Grand Turismo canyon stage.

Lunch at Zapala and a quick check of the bikes shows that 2000km of rough roads has taken its toll, with all but one of the securing bolts holding our big petrol tanks having shaken themselves free from their entrapment. One big bump and the consequences might not be so good, so at the next town we are forced to pit stop and find some replacements at a ferreteria which disappointingly, like the pub with no beer, did not have one ferret for sale.

Tanks are secured back to our bikes after exhausting 1.5 hours of our time and my entire vocabulary of 4 letter words. It's times like this I wish we packed a Swiss Army Dwarf so he could do the fiddly bits for us.

Back on the late afternoon road and the canyon roads continue with plateaus holding exhibits of some rock formations sculpted by giant hands. After Chos Malal the scenery goes from good to spectacular...it's all similar stuff but the afternoon light is being very kind to it. The tarred road slithers through the landforms, with hues of orange, gold, pinks and purples in the distances and shadows from the dropping sun adding texture to a dry landscape.

Give me a camera, a blonde girl in a skirt and any convertible car in the world and today I will sell the years stock of them before Spring comes to the UK. This is pure advertising agency nirvana out here...conditions fully conducive to the premature onset of a million male mid life crises.

Another faux pas as my bike topples over in the wind during one of our photo stops and 10 Litres of gas liberates itself from the tank and into the soil. Picking the bike up we both inherit a souvenir of the incident in the vapour embedding itself into our clothes.

Keen to make kilometres and perhaps half cut from the petrol fumes, I miss the designated town for tonight and instead push on to the Bajo Caracolesque settlement of Barrancas. In the middle of nowhere we find a hotel with, yes, another bloody BMW 1150GS parked in the foyer. It's got English plates on it and the hotel owner informs us that the owners have had an accident 7 weeks ago...assume he is getting fixed up somewhere and leaving the bikes under the owners' watchful eye.

Restaurant choice is made easy with an option list of 1, and we settle in for a home cooked meal and large bottle of beer. There is some amusement as the couple running the restaurant - more like a living room in their house - are watching the BAFTA winning UK TV series "Shameless", which focuses on the life of Manchester underclass complete with local references and profanities. There was a lot of blank spaces on the Spanish subtitles when it came to translating "Am I Fook". I guess there are some cultural differences that are just too far to bridge.


Saturday Jan 31st

START: 8023km
FROM: Barrancas (ARG)
TO: Mendoza (ARG)
FINISH: 8632 km

A boiling hot room with a terrible bed and only mosquitoes to keep us company... ah, the joy of life on the road. The hotel owner has done a runner understandably, but in reception we meet Ruth, a Manchester lass who is 50% of the team riding the BMW parked in the foyer. God bless the Northern English as within 20 seconds of meeting us she is throwing a cup of milky sugared tea into our hands, resourcefully cooked up in the spartan surrounds in Blues Brothers style - a coat hanger inserted into adventurously wired socket.

Ruth tells us the story of what her and partner Bryan are doing in a dusty one store town 300km from anywhere. They had an accident in deep sand 7 weeks ago and made it to the closest place they could find (Barrancas). Bryan had broken both bones down his leg so had to wait until they healed before continuing down to Ushuaia. The boy is a little bit attached to his bike and unable to ride it, so they decided to setup camp in this god forsaken place for 7 weeks while he mended. And just one night was enough for us!

The local store is equipped similarly to Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Some curious tinned goods and 120 Watt light bulbs in abundance, but not much else. They must be gagging for a decent Gin and Tonic - just the mention of a Gordon's had them both salivating and getting jumpy. They have eeked out an existence in this place with one restaurant and 2 brands of gin - they are now on a local one called "Top Drink" after having exhausted the supply of some strange Dutch liquor seemingly left over from a misguided expedition to nowhere in the mid 50's. Oh the irony of our times. Just like A.A.Gill's assertion that most countries with word "Democratic" in their title are usually not very, the same can be said for brands with the word "Top" in their logo.

She is a mad reader but has no books. There is no library. Quite how they survive in this town I have no idea! Even when our friend Toni was marooned in a one horse town in Namibia, the Gideons were good enough to have left a Bible during his 3 week wait for bike spares to arrive. He didn't convert but it did help pass the time. Unless the Jehovas come knocking we sense a tinderbox about to go up, so Pierpaolo and I donate one of our books from our collection of 2 to their sanity.

The morning ride out on tarmac is fantastic, but the road degenerates quickly into regurgitated gravel with dust blowing up in our faces and the occasional lethal BMW felling spots of deep camouflaged sand. The prospect of 7 weeks in Barrancas keeps our progress to a reserved trundle - but it also gives us a chance to greater savor the landscape we are riding through. We are still in canyon country, and we follow the path of the Rio Grande which has artistically cut and weathered its path of destruction through it all.

The final 350km into Mendoza and we are out of the canyons and onto the dull flat Pampas. You know how exciting riding this terrain can be - it's like being forced to watch the complete series of Coronation Street when you really want to see The Bourne Ultimatum.

After having been on small roads and small towns for the last 3 weeks, it is a strange experience heading into Mendoza. 4 lane traffic with headlights criss crossing the road and overpasses, we blend into the sea of humanity entering and exiting this regional capital. It's quite a change from the one lane roads and police checkpoints of Patagonia and the Lakes.

Mendoza is bigger than we expected, but fortunately we have taken advice from some helpful locals at a gas station 100km from town and holed up in a decent hotel close to the centre. A long day on the bikes, so its out for a meal and then hit the hay. Tomorrow is a much needed rest day.

Sunday Feb 1st and Monday Feb 2nd,

REST DAYS: MENDOZA

Sunday spent sleeping in, walking around the massive park that is half the city, and trying to snare some tickets for the Boca Juniors vs River Plate match in town tonight. No luck on the tickets.

Mendoza is the heart of Argentina's wine industry, so for Monday we book ourselves on a tour of the local wineries. With such hedonism, our sense of guilt overrides us and we book our partners (the bikes) in for the automotive equivalent of a pampering at a luxury local spa. Sadly the only bike shop in town was more of a stinking Moroccan hammam than one of those new age places with whale music and hot stone massages we were hoping for. One of those places where the walls are aspirationally adorned with pictures of motorbikes the guy has never even seen, let alone service. Oh well, an oil change is an oil change, we leave him the keys and organise to return later tonight for collection.

Tours and tastings of wineries and olive farm completed, we come back, collect the bikes are ride back to the hotel. Thinking Rio Carnaval in 3 weeks would be a good idea, we get online and book ourselves some return flights from Cusco Peru to Rio. Oh yes, something else to look forward to!

Tuesday Feb 3rd

START: 8632km
FROM: Mendoza (ARG)
TO: Valaparaiso (CHI)
FINISH: 9067 km

Today is a landmark day. After weeks of flirting and skirting our way around the Andes, we tackle them head on and cross over them via Punta del Inca into Chile. 3185 metres will be our high point, so a breakfast of Carrefour pastries (god bless that French chain) and altitude pills before setting off is in order.

There was an option to delay our visit into Chile and instead continue our way up Ruta 40 further, crossing into Chile at Punta del Agua Nera at 4779 metres above sea level. Human and mechanical respiratory problems at these altitudes deemed our crossing today a wiser choice and besides, we would have missed out on seeing Valparaiso. Our knowledge on this city is scant to say the least...I know Sting sung a song about it, so surely that's no bad thing? Given that Slough and Benidorm have not yet got self titled songs, we take it as a distinguishing endorsement and set our course for this city.

Leaving Ruta 40 for the last time we cross onto Ruta 7, with the revelation that the fog and foothills of Mendoza have been concealing some seriously impressive mountains from our view. It's amazing scenery on our climb up, with Rio Mendoza carrying the seasons' snowmelt from the mountains down to the fertile valleys below. Mixed with all the soil and sediment picked up on its journey, it has the appearance of a very angry bowl of leftover cocoa pops.

We pass Aconcagua on our right - at 6962 metres the highest mountain in all of South America. It's the middle of summer and the skies are clear blue, but up at that height you can see huge slabs of snow encrusted into this enormous eruption of granite.

Attempting to restart the bikes after a quick photo stop we have our first mechanical disaster...Pierpaolo's bike simply does not want to turn over. Running through the checklist we see that all the electrical components of his bike are still working, the fuses are all fine but there is no spark coming from the leads. First assumption is a faulty connection in the ignition switch, but after dismantling and checking that with our amateur engineering skills picked up from episodes of MacGyver, still no diagnosis. And there we were thinking how lucky we were not to be on problematic Norton's... our bikes, just 8 months departed from their Japanese cribs are exhibiting all the same symptoms!

Eventually we trace the fault to an electrical short coming from the main battery cable, so with some fidgeting and repositioning of the leads the bike eventually fires and off we go again. Taking the bike apart at putting it back together at altitude leaves us both a bit woozy... it's not as easy as doing it here than in my sea level garage! We curse the clumsy fisted mechanic in Mendoza who seemingly rerouted the wires during its supposed pampering yesterday.

Up to the border and what ensues is a comical scene of us walking back and forth between the Argentine and Chilean side 5 times, sometimes on bikes, sometimes without, as each of the country's 3 checkpoints out (Passport, vehicle, customs) and 3 checkpoints in manage to forget to stamp something or lose various bits of paper in their booths. No grudges held though - all the staff are pleasant and eventually we scamper through into Chile at last.

Portillo ski resort on the Chilean side is the first building we come across...hard to miss really. This giant yellow concrete facade conceals from the road what is a beautiful Alpine lake. One of the great architectural crimes of our time. Quite how that one got through town planning we are not sure. However as far as ski resorts go it must be pretty decent, as pictures of bottle blonde US and Canadian Olympic skiers with 20/20 teeth fill the corridors - this is their training base in the North American summer. Lunch is taken inside looking out to the lake,. where all sins of architecture are forgiven as they serve our ham and cheese toastie with genuine Mailles French mustard. We are such sellouts sometimes it is embarrassing.

Pat the resident St. Bernards goodbye and its down down down with cornering class 101. 20 kilometres of tight end over end hairpin turns drops us down 1500 metres in quick time. Then into the wine country of the valley, where endless acres of grapes stand up like pimpled umbrellas, diagonal lines of them stretching all the way to the ocean. If it wasn't for all the exported bottles of Conchy del Toro in your local Sainsbury, Chile has the means to challenge for "Drunkards of the Planet" title.

Vina Del Mar is our first sight of the Pacific Ocean - a decent looking city before the smaller, more charming Valparaiso. We actually arrive in Valpo before we know it - it is seamlessly connected to Vina Del Mar. From the port we wonder quite what inspired Sting to put this on the Mercury Falling album - was he simply after 5.27 minutes of album filler? But when we snake our way up the cobblestone streets and into the barrios it all becomes clearer.

Valparaiso was a hugely important town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the last sizable port on the West Coast of South America, it was of great significance for all ships, cargo and passenger, navigating their way around Tierra del Fuego to the Atlantic. The architecture of the town reflects the merchant wealth of the period. Beautiful turn of the century mansions painted in bright colours line the streets, with each of them commanding jaw dropping views of the Pacific. Some of it reminds me of Brighton, take away the jaw dropping Pacific and replace with turd infested English Channel.

The streets are steep to the point of shear, so who else but the Swiss to come and bring their now 100 year old ski lift technology to the city. 15 escalators are scattered around the town, all original and working thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage Order and a pragmatic local interpretation of Health and Safety regulations. Seeing the sunset up on these streets, the houses going from pastels to grey in the fading light is something to behold.

We have got super lucky with our accommodation tonight, partly because it is a Hospedaje and not a Hostal. The difference is subtle...hospedajes are run by families, and the good ones take you in and treat you as part of it. Our bikes are taken in off the streets, locked up in the private alleyway and we are shown to our palatial quarters for the next 2 days. 3 cats snooze away in the lounge room on comfy old couches... this place really feels like a home.

The only dampener on the day is when we receive an email from the tyre shop in Punta Arenas. My diary will not be awaiting collection here in town, as the money transfer did not include the shop assistants 2 (!) surnames and thus she could not claim the money for postage. One of those annoying Latin things whereby women keep their original surnames and add that of their husband to it, and the transfer was only done in her maiden name. Never has so much energy been expended for such a small trivial book!

Wednesday Feb 4th and Thursday Feb 5rh

REST DAYS: VALPARAISO

It is so easy to fall in love with this place. A breakfast with proper bread and real milk in the coffee were rarities in Patagonia - it's funny how you can enjoy the simplest things having been deprived of them for a short while.

A footnote on the history of Valparaiso. Yesterday we talked about the opulence of this city 100 years ago, however in a very short period of time the fortunes of this place would change dramatically.

In 1906 the city was nearly leveled by a massive earthquake, such are the happenings of living on top of one of the largest and most active tectonic plates. Rebuilding on such a scale was slow, but the real end to Valparaiso's glory days was man made, and probably one of the greatest engineering achievements of mankind.

In 1914 the Panama Canal opened, offering cargo and passenger ships a safer and faster route from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Valparaiso's strategic and economic importance plummeted and investment in the city ground to a halt. Following a model copied by many cities around the world, the vacuum left by fast footed commerce was filled with one of the great scourges of humanity... the University Arts student. As is now, Valparaiso became a magnet for bohemians, where artists, philosophers and writers now occupy the houses of the once wealthy merchants.

Fortunately "bohemian" in the Valparaiso context, does not translate to the modern Vogue / Tatler definition of the word. There are no $9 Vegan Soy Lattecinos available in this place, thankyou very much.

Quite how crusty artists and promiscuous free thinkers stump up 9 bucks for a fricking coffee makes me question the grasp on reality that the editors of these wretched "lifestyle" magazines have. I tend to associate the word bohemian as living against popular conventions and seeking an alternative way of life, not fronting up to the corporate checkout demanding the latest fad at absurdly inflated prices.

Rant over, it's time to bumble our way around town, taking pictures of some of the amazing murals on our way to Pablo Neruda's house. Pablo Neruda would have to be Chile's favourite son. Poet, writer, ambassador...I'm sure he could have played centre half in the National squad if only he'd asked. What he has left to this city is La Sebastiana, a house of pure whimsy that he designed, and named in honour of the builder who realised his dream. There are no better views of town than from the rooms of this house, with each one having its own unique and fascinating perspective and features.

Out for dinner that night and then back to our hospedaje for a night of drinking beer (early), wine (later) and Pisco (really?) and a multilingual singalong with our hosts on the resident guitar. Previously a dog man, Pierpaolo is converting to cats, with one of the residents in particular is working its feline charm on him the whole time.

Our frenetic pace of inactivity is taken down a level the next day... breakfast and beach is about as much as we can muster. It's a bit gusty, so we pass our time on the sand watching fellow sun worshipers get harpooned by errant beach umbrellas. Cheap entertainment.

One of the weird little thoughts that presents itself today is that of the changing norms and standards of being an international tyrant. I bring this in context to Chile's political past, having endured the rule of Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1989. Despite being accountable for the death of over 3000 people in his campaign of the disappeared, there is not a uniform condemnation of him by Chileans, as it is acknowledged that the guy actually interspersed acts of barbary with some general do gooding of the nation.

Going back in history and reviewing other Top 10 Tyrants, you can't bypass Hitler. Genocide of the Jews would score very large minus points on his rsvp.com personal profile, but on the upside Germany did get some decent national infrastructure and an automotive industry.

Mao Tse Tung, also charting high in the same poll, can indirectly be held accountable for the deaths of over 20 million Chinese due to his blind adhesion to policies he believed were for the national good - but to his credit he created the unified foundations for a nation that will be the next world superpower.

The complex point my brain is trying to get around is that with old style tyrants you got unlimited amounts of evil, but with a smattering of national good intention, however fearfully misplaced. My lament now is that with our modern dictators, any element of misguided nation building has been entirely replaced by Swiss bank embezzling self interest. Mugabe, Marcos, Soeharto all cases in point.

Did someone say time to get back on the bikes?

Friday Feb 6th

START: 9067km
FROM: Valaparaiso (CHI)
TO: La Serena (CHI)
FINISH: 9490 km

Unless you count "boring as bat shit" as positive endorsement, the next 2000 kilometres up the Chilean coast and into the Atacama desert has not been given very good reviews by the bikers we have met traveling down. So our mindset is just to chomp through the kilometres each day and track our way North to Peru as quickly as possible.

Driving back out of Valpo on the coast road through Vina del Mar and it's all looking quite agreeable and well presented. Once we leave the big city it gets even better...full sunshine lighting up the Pacific coast, with lines of white waves crashing against clean golden sand beaches. If you lived in Santiago you would be bolting up here on your bike every sunny weekend you could.

Making our way up to La Serena we have to get on the Panamerican Highway for the first time - that smooth 4 laned artery transporting humans and their produce from one end of the Americas to the other. Not the stuff that adventure travel is made of, but a necessary evil for this stretch out of Chile.

Light relief is provided at the second set of tollgates however, as we indulge in an extreme case of schadenfreude. Some incredibly complex operation is in progress but stillborn at its first hurdle - an enormous building has been plonked on the back of a double wide semi trailer, with the area of the flat bed struggling to contain the contents. Walls protrude and spill from the truck edges like waistline from a middle aged mans' swimsuit. Problem is that all of the tollgates on this section are cemented in at single width positions, with no way to skirt around the edges. The highway patrol guys are chatting with the truck driver, I imagine contributing to suggestions on what to do with the logistic managers' reproductive organs than possible solutions for the problem at hand.

A sunny day with 400kms clocked up and an afternoon on the beach at La Serena - not bad going.

Saturday Feb 7th

START: 9490km
FROM: La Serena (CHI)
TO: Copiapo (CHI)
FINISH: 9836 km

Yesterday the Pacific Ocean was all playful and alluring Betty Page as we traced her curves northwards. Today Mother Nature has seemingly punished her for such flirtatious behaviour by dressing her in a frumpy grey cardigan, concealing the beauty of her form. Along the coast and it's all gruel like fog this morning, but eventually we steer out from this and inland into our first bits of desert on this trip.

As a change in landscape, the prospect of 2000 kilometres of this is not entirely disagreeable. The feeling of being in a desert with only dunes visible on the horizon, a steady constant temperature and the cooling effect of the wind created from your own motion is quite serene and really allows the mind to kick down a gear or two from the daily grind. Glittering treasures shimmer on the road ahead - passing them by reveals dried up salt puddles baked into diamond like chunks of quartz.

Copiapo is our stop for the day at 3 PM, as this is where my beloved diary from the first 10 days of the trip is being forwarded to. The name amuses me somewhat, as it sounds similar to the Beach Boys song titled "Kokomo":

Aruba, Jamaica
Oooh I wanna take you to
Bermuda, Bahama
Come on pretty mama
Key Lago, Montego,
Oooh I wanna take you down to Copiapo...

Estimated duration of honeymoon = 12 minutes. This vacant desert pit stop could not be further from the island paradise mentioned in the song. The plan is simple - pull into the Chilexpress shop in this small town, pick up the package then off we go again.

We make it to the shop, all locked up like Fort Knox with a sign out front informing us that on Saturdays they close at 1PM...Damn! Missed it by 2 hours! The really bad news is that they are also closed on Sundays, meaning we will have to flesh out 2 whole days in a town that would challenge even the most eager and underemployed Lonely Planet author. The retrieval of this book has been a never ending saga - I am just lucky that Pierpaolo is such an easy going guy and we can find the same tragic humour evident in episodes such as this!

Sunday Feb 8th

HELD HOSTAGE IN COPIAPO

If you don't have anything nice to say about something, then don't say it all. But that would leave this section on Copiapo completely blank so in the interest of spinning out this tale for a bit longer, here goes.

A late wakeup has us scrambling for breakfast in the local shopping mall. The restaurant has an Italian name so perhaps there will be some salvation found within....sadly not. From a choice of one we both order the standard breakfast menu of Lemon Meringue Pie with a cappuccino...oh dear, where to start? A pastry crust of denture fracturing crystallised sugar, lemon flavour synthesised using extracts of washing up liquid, with lashings of stunt cream (that used in cases where it is too dangerous to use the real thing) aerosoled on top. This is gold medal awful.

You can give a 1957 Gibson Les Paul guitar to James Blunt, but at the end of the day you are still going to get shit music. Likewise it pays not to be lured in by the heavenly mirage of a Gaggia coffee machine sitting on top of the counter. It kills me to be a coffee snob outside of Europe and Australia, but when a cappuccino is served as a beaker of stone cold espresso, a thermos of boiling hot water and a spiralled portion of stunt cream then something has clearly been lost in translation. Not worth getting hot and bothered about it, maybe lunch will be better.

Copiapo is a strange place - a land where the local merchants have conspired to make life as inconvenient as possible by synchronising their hours of business to be of no use to anyone. Fancy a bread roll in the morning to start your day? Sorry, can't help you there sir, the bakery is not open yet - go ask at the locksmiths or the heladeria and see if they know opening hours. At lunch, not one restaurant is open, but all of the towns' 8 pharmacies are. Come evening time don't expect to be able to buy an ice cream, but on the upside it's a great time top go shoe shopping as all 4 shops have cracked open their doors for business. Arrrgggghhhhh.

Through some glitch in the Copiapo Matrix we manage to find a restaurant that is open for lunch and venture inside. It's a Peruvian themed restaurant...yes, yet another addition to the throng of great Peruvian restaurants around the world I hear you say. I have memories of Peru from 8 years ago backpacking with some friends, where strangely enough I recount that the food was actually edible. Not so in this case...Strike 2 from 2 for Copiapo cuisine. We give up altogether and go back to the hotel, waiting for the day to end and tomorrow to begin.

Monday Feb 9th

START: 9836km
FROM: Copiapo (CHI)
TO: Tocopilla (CHI)
FINISH: 10593 km

At 9:01 we complete our mission in Copiapo, picking up my diary from the Chilexpress office and gas it out of town as quickly as our bikes and the local constabulary allow. We are instantly transported from the drab streets and into the Atacama desert, which at this hour looks pretty ordinary as well. Dull greys and dirty pinks colour a discarded landscape, but later in the morning the sun comes out and lights it up in more impressive hues.

Steering away from the coast we climb up to the altiplano through sand dunes that have seemingly been scorched and charcoaled by the relentless heat. Scouring around for any signs of life all we see are rock gardens of the giants, skirting these long stretches of road that wobble and shimmer in the distance with the heat.

Life is scarce here, with constant reminders on the roadside of the brittle hold that us humans have on it. Crosses and shrines cluster in patches, momentos of overtaking maneuvers that almost succeeded. Or perhaps monuments to European cyclists who died from exhaustion, dehydration or the sheer boredom of crunching those pedals for so long making scant progress on a road to nowhere. How sweet it is to be able to twist the throttle and look forward to the next track on my Ipod instead.

From Antofagasta we get back onto the coast, with the next 300km being perhaps one of the most underrated bits of highway riding in the world. Beach settlements are few and far between. Those that do pop up are sparsely populated corrugated iron shanty towns - plenty of space and freedom for road tripping Chileans to set up and free camp where they please.

Like Jimi Hendrix's LSD infused vision of the apocalypse in "If 6 Was 9", mountains up high on our right crumble into the sea on our left. Nothing but a magic carpet of highway to take us into Tocopilla for the night.

Tuesday Feb 10th

START: 10593km
FROM: Tocopilla (CHI)
TO: Arica (CHI)
FINISH: 11158 km

Another day of blasting up the Chilean coast. Cordillera de la Costa on our right, it's more fantastic driving up this bit of oceanic licorice - temperature just fine and a cooling breeze as well.

Approaching Iquiqe my bike starts to play games. Not wanting to hold 5th gear at low revs I have to keep it pegged high to sustain progress. Strange... not sure if it's a fuelling or transmission issue, will need to check this out at tonight's stop.

Iquiqe itself looks amazing - a city built in the shadow of sand dunes towering 900 metres high. Driving along the boulevard I catch sight of an enormous new skatepark, smooth concrete transitions littered with hand rails and stairs everywhere. All just 50 metres from a beach with barreling surf. If I was 15 and Chilean this is where I would be.

We climb out of town on the crest of the dunes and into the altiplano again. By which point my 5th gear disappears and 1st is now making some very nasty groaning sounds. So nursing the bike to the next town in 2nd, 3rd and 4th is our number one priority. Fortunately the ride takes us through El Gigante de Atacama, the Chilean equivalent of the Grand Canyon. Being forced to slow down to 85km/h is no bad thing here as it gives us a chance to soak in the scenery a little longer. I just hope that what has given out in my engine is fixable. The prospect of throwing the bike in a truck to Lima 1500km away has extremely limited appeal.

Arriving in Arica, the last coastal town in Chile, we finally track down a hostal near the beach, which is full tonight but they steer us around the corner to an old couple that take in smelly bikers and the odd vegetarian from time to time. The welcome is fantastic as the dogs and cats come to say hello and Mrs fetches us some home made fruit bread and a cool drink.

Sitting down in the open roofed house (it last rained here 12 years ago), Pops tells us of a great mechanic he knows in town who can have a look at the bike tomorrow. Using their computer we also find a Suzuki dealership just 50km over the border in Tacna. My ear is untrained, but I could almost hear my engine screaming for rare and expensive spare parts, so we decide tomorrow we will nurse the bike into Tacna Peru and get it seen to there.

It is rather disappointing having bought new bikes for this trip to have one of them fail like this with just 11,000 km on the clock. However there is not much point in getting hung up on it. As Paolo and I joke, it would be excruciatingly dull if it all went smoothly to plan. Actually it would be impossible given that we don't actually have a plan. But with many travels, the moments where it goes wrong are usually the memorable ones. I just hope that we can fix what we have and get back on the road.

Wednesday Feb 11th

START: 11158km
FROM: Arica (CHI)
TO: Tacna (PER)
FINISH: 11217 km

A fantastic breakfast with our hosts, including Bobito, Nero and Luna the dogs. No sign of the cats, as it turned out that one one of them would be marking his territory on Pierpaolo's bag while we were distracted with hot coffee and fresh bread. The conversion of Pierpaolo from Dog Man to Cat Lover that was underway in Valparaiso has now been curtailed indefinitely.

With the bike crawling and whining along and my confidence in the machine all but gone, every one of todays' 60 kilometres feels like a bonus. 2 hours of the usual faffing around at the border and it's into Peru, taking a moment for a photo with an old Uruguayan biker. He is all Captain Caveman on his battered little Honda 250, but today I listen to his crisp farewell gear changes with envy.

The short hop into Tacna and it appears our Suzuki dealer has relocated himself. Another 30 minutes of driving and snooping and we find him on the main road, minus Suzuki signs or any motorbikes in his dealership. Turns out our man Stefano stopped selling Suzukis a few years ago - he now specialises in Chevrolet cars but obliges us anyway and lets us wheel in the sick patient for inspection by one of his mechanics.

When his mechanic asks if it is a manual or automatic, Stefano concedes that perhaps his friend up the road may be a better healer of the 2 wheeled ill. Jumping in his pick up he guides us to his mate, a Honda guy with over 30 years of experience. He won't know anything until he opens it up and has a look, but it is suspected part of the gearbox is broken and will need replacing. The workshop looks professional and the mechanic straight away puts the bike in the express service bay, recommending we check back with him in a few hours. I feel better already!

Stefano then throws my bags into the back of his pick up and drives us to a recommended hotel and drops us off. This is the last we saw of him, as the telephone number he gave us was unreachable, so a massive thanks to Stefano from Tacna Chevrolet. Time for subliminal message number 2 - forget that Porsche or Aston Martin you have been hankering for, save money by importing a Chevrolet Matiz from Tacna Peru.

Two beers with lunch is in order given the gravity of the situation. Tacna is a pleasant enough town, realising the Spanish colonial template of a Plaza de Armas from which all things emanate. However Tacna's Plaza is distinguished by a large arch designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel, he of tower fame. Given the scale of his other work, this must have been his 4th grade school project come to life, or from his "take the money and run" period, a la Steve Martin in anything more recent than Parenthood.

Back to the bikeshop in the afternoon, where I am shown the internals of a bearing fished out from the outer engine case. One of my undersexed bearings within the gearbox has ejaculated and sown its seed throughout the gearbox, partially explaining the groaning and moaning sounds. So diagnosis done, the mechanic still has to open her up completely, find and replace the bearing, then sew it all back together again. Looking at the sea of bolts, springs, cogs and levers scattered around the bay this could take a while so we leave him to it overnight in the hope that tomorrow I will have a working bike again.

Replies back from Suzuki Australia were less encouraging. My 24 month worldwide warranty seems to have the same worth as a used kebab wrapper...maybe, just maybe they could send a replacement for this failed part, but they feel they are under no obligation to really do anything. Hmmmmm, I just hope my man on the ground here can work some magic using local bits.

Thursday Feb 12th

REST AND REPAIR DAY: TACNA

God bless the good people at Tatepro Honda. After working for most of the night, the mechanic has taken apart the gearbox, replaced the faulty bearing and put it all back together in one piece ready for collection.

A quick test spin around the block and scan of the workshop benches shows that everything has been put back together correctly with no unrequited assistance from the parts fairy. The bike seems to be behaving itself OK... how fortunate am I?

Although I have to refit the custom tank and reassemble some of the fuel lines, this fella has done a sterling job in record time. IN Europe or Australia a full engine rebuild like this would cost over $1000 in labour alone. For $170 USD including parts my bike is back on the road and the journey continues as before. RESULT!

>>>>>>>>

The next weeks will have it all! Traveling North to Lake Titicaca, we continue on to the Inca capital of Cusco. A one week R&R in Rio for Carnaval, and then on up through Peru and into Ecuador. Stay tuned!
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