Today, for the first time since Mexico, we had the choice between 2 roads going south. So, over breakfast, we discussed which route to take; one was Route 5 which went down the centre of the country on Chile’s high central plateaux, and the other was Route 1 that went parallel but along the coast. The coastal route was marginally shorter and far more of an interesting drive, so we decided to take the latter.
Leaving at around 9.30am, we drove out of the hotel and immediately turned right as the hotel was actually located on the coastal road. The tarmac was, again, very smooth, and wound its way around the bays and over the hills lining the coast. It wasn’t quite as epic as Peru’s coastline which had a similar road passing alongside it, but nonetheless it was a hugely enjoyable drive.
The fast and easy progress was brought to an abrupt halt one and a half hours later when we came to a customs barrier. Apparently Iquique is a tax free port so anything coming south into the country has to be cleared by customs. This should have been no problem; only a stamp on our paperwork was needed, but unfortunately the customs officials were on strike and wouldn’t let us pass!
We tried all manner of sweet talk to try and get through, but the best they could do for us was to say they would let us through at 2pm, some 3 hours away. While this would not damage our schedule, we had no guarantee that they would let us through as they said, so we were anxious to find some guarantees. Our first intuition was that we should just drive through as there was no one actually guarding the gate. However, we then considered how much trouble we could get in if we went through without the appropriate stamps, and this was confirmed by a police guard who wondered over when we were longingly staring at the road ahead!
So we opted to stay put, but to try to see if we could move things along somewhat by calling the British Consul. While this process was being conducted, we took some food in a roadside restaurant (which was making a killing because of the strike!) and we waited for some news. Before long we had heard back that the Consul had made some calls and that the customs guards would let us through immenently.
As promised, at around 1.30pm they ushered us through, and we were back on the road speeding towards Antafogasta, one of the major cities of northern Chile. The drive continued just as amazingly as before apart from one snag; we found out that the hotel in Antafogasta had cancelled our reservation, and that there was literally no space in any hotel within the city. Despite all our best efforts to then find more space, we could not do it.
We toyed with the idea of sleeping in the desert as we still had a place to charge the car, but this was scrapped as we didn’t have enough sleeping bags between us, and only 1 tent! So we decided to go into the only population centre on our route into Antafogasta, and this was the small port town of Mejillones with around 8,000 residents. It was early with hours of daylight left, we had plenty of charge still left in the SRZero, so we thought it worth our while to try our luck and see what we could arrange.
So, we drove into town and, contrary to our expectations, it seemed a pretty nice place! We stopped at the first hotel to ask if they had any rooms, but the answer was a proud no; they were full with guests at the time. So, we headed to a much bigger looking hotel, and they too were fully booked…in a town this small we were pretty surprised!
So, our last resort was just to ask a random person who pulled up on a scooter for directions to another hotel which may be less full. However, as luck would have it, the guy we asked happened to be the son of the town’s mayor! One quick phone call from him and we were sorted! He led us to a quiet little hotel with clean rooms and a secure place to charge the SRZero and park the van…the perfect combo!
By the time the car was put on charge, it was 6.30pm and still 2 hours of bright desert sunlight to go before nightfall. So we decided to take a stroll down to the seafront before finding a restaurant to eat in. The place wasn’t the most attractive of locations we had been to, but a huge amount of construction and regeneration work was underway, and the town certainly had a tranquil and welcoming charm. We ended up playing football on some half sand, half rock football pitch with some locals; it was an embarrassment! They completely annihilated us 6-2 in a truly dazzling show of aerial football! Despite the loss and numerous scratches to arms and legs, we had a great time, and it had made our appetite stronger!
After a delicious local meal, we headed back to the hotel for another early night. However, with no wifi at the hotel, we had to load up in the van and cruise around until we could find an open network to scrounge some internet off…you can now see the lengths we are prepared to go to! This only lasted a few minutes as we were all tired and the Internet was slow (!) so we headed back again and were in bed by 10pm. It had turned out to be a quite magical evening!