The way to the capital

Hitchhiking, visiting the observatory with the biggest mirror in the world and some alcohol in the Valle del Elqui

Sun shines on our heads, there are almost no cars and we start to worry if it’s possible to make 400km till tomorrow. After 40min a pickup stops and we load our bikes to the back. The driver is nice and makes a detour to show us the Chuquicamata – the biggest copper mine in the world with the crater 3-5km wide and 1km deep. The giant trucks are used there – a bus looks so little compared to them.

At the exit from Calama (after having done 100km already) we continue hitchiking. In only 7min we have a car with 2 dudes from south who now live here. The whole way they are making fun of each other and tell us much about the country, education, economy or healthcare system, invite us for tee and eggs in small pan (paila) and then leave us after Antofagasta.

We continue pedaling to get out of the industrial part and after another 10min we are lucky again – this time it’s an empty truck for transporting cars and we load the bicycles really comfortably. The driver goes to Santiago – would be a perfect ride but we want to see the observatory.

After another 30km we build the tent next to a crossroad, the sky is full of stars and we are looking forward for tomorrow.

First 7km of slight uphill in the morning we pedal but then a truck stops – again going to Santiago (we hope we’ll have same luck also tomorrow :D). He takes us 70km and passing every hill we are happy to have a ride (Atacama is definitely not flat).

Last 5km to the observatory are really steep and we have problem pedaling with the lowest gear. During the break a guy on road bicycle stops by – a technician doing some workout. He proposes a meeting for a coffee inside the areal – imagining how we’ll be able to stay for the night in the observatory and maybe even swim in the pool (or at least Jan – I lost the bottom part of my swim suit yesterday during one of the hitchhikes) we continue the last part. As we get closer the signs prohibit to use any kind of lights which point to the sky.

We are here, but the guard doesn’t let us in before the official tour = no coffee with the technician and we have to wait for 2 more hours till the guides come.

First part of the tour is watching a movie, then we move to the top of Paranal where the 4 big silver buildings with the biggest mirrors in the world (8.2m) are located. They were build in Germany and it took months to get them here. The pictures made with these telescopes have resolution 15-times better than those from Hubble telescope. An artificial star made by a laser adds to this accuracy.

Jan has many questions and even our young guide doesn’t know all the answers he admits at the end that she knows something.

At the end we shortly visit the apartment building with a big umbrella which covers the roof during the night to not let any light out. The astronomers come here for projects for only a few days or weeks but the technicians live and work here permanently.

It’s the end, we are out and without any invitation to stay overnight… we wait a little at the gate but it looks that we’ll not do it :(. At least we get many fruits, box juices and strawberry milk from the guard and some other employees.

We do another 30km and build our tent next to the road. It’s so quiet here that we hear beeping in our heads. The sky is clear like nowhere but it’s so cold that we don’t want to stay outside.

We know that a downhill to the coast is waiting for us now and we don’ try to hitchhike. The road is paved, good, steep and straight (at least for 15km without curves) … we hold the bikes tough, our eyes are full of tears, breathing is more difficult and we are concentrating totally on the road in front of us … and we did it! Our new speed record – 88.5km/h with fully loaded bikes :).

It’s paradox but as we are approaching the coast the temperature drops – it’s cloudy and we are wearing jackets. Rocks, gray water and a fishing village with poor houses.

Now we want to hitchhike but there is no traffic. After one hour we are lucky and a family in pickup stops and takes us to the nearest town. After refueling in front of a mini market with bread and pate we continue pedaling uphill towards the highway. We are almost desperate but than a truck with road workers stop, they give us beer and take us to Panamericana :).

We are lucky again and in 30minutes we sit in a truck in which we make 700km the same day. The driver is perfect. He’s been doing this same route for last 20 year, he knows every detail on the road and is happy that he can talk with somebody. At 1am we get to La Serena and build the tent on a nice grass at the petrol station.

Morning is slow and while we are having breakfast and coffee an older friendly guy starts to talk with us – where we are from and where we are going… His destination is Valle del Elqui – exatly the same as ours! His small truck is quite full but we are able to load the bikes inside.

We also meet here a pickup with bicycles and a trailer in the back… yes, it’s them – crazy guys from Netherlands who did the Ruta de Lagunas with two small children.

Our driver Roberto is perfect – he is curious about Slovakia and tells us many information about Chile. And after half an hour he offers us ride to Santiago the next day… we are unbelievably lucky!

Valle del Elqui (Valley of Elqui) is known by vineyards, the production of pisco and astronomical observatories. Also we hear again the theory why there are so many observatories here – not because of stars but because of UFO … who knows – we haven’t seen any yet :D.

Vicuna is small touristy town. We easily find camping and with bicycles we go to explore the surrounding. It’s unbelievable how it’s possible to plant so much in these dry conditions. We are surrounded by brown dry hills but the valley is full of green carpets which rise to the slopes (until the irrigation reaches).

The majority of the grapes is used to make pisco – national alcohol – and only small part is for vine. We visit a small village Diaguitas with many indian paintings on the wall where is a small beer brewery Guayaquil – we buy some for evening also. On the way back we visit a guy who we met there and who build an alternative house here from straw and mud.

We are so tired in the evening that we don’t go to any of the observatories to see some stars (the Paranal visit was only about technology) – we just make a big dinner and go early to sleep.

The next day we visit Capel – the biggest and most famous pisco factory in Chile. The tour was interesting with tasting at the end and it was amazing to see how many things can be build from wood from old barrels.

We buy some bottles for Robert, Lenka in Santiago and also for us now and continue to the sun restaurants. We have coffee made from water which was boiled on sun and buy bread made in a sun oven.

At 7pm we help loading Robert’s camion and then we try to be good company and talk with him all the time – but only until he offers me to lay down on the bed in the back and I leave Jan talking alone. Sometimes is good to be a woman because Robert lets me stay there, he sleeps in his seat in the front and Jan stays in the another one – not very comfortable.

The next day he invites us to stay for Christmas with him but we have to refuse – at that date we’ll be somewhere at Carretera austral. We say goodbyes before Santiago and are looking forward for some Slovak culture which is waiting for us here :).


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