I could see and feel the change in the air straight away. The air smelled salty, border control was a whole complex of modern buildings, petrol stations had shops selling all the usual refreshments, cars actually stopped to let you cross at a zebra crossing and when I was wearing my favourite little denim shorts, I wasn’t looked upon like a person with bad moral values. We had arrived in Chile.
Crossing the border from Peru to Chile turned out to be longer than expected. Every time we crossed a border before, I was always curious why our bags are never checked. For all anyone knows, we could be smuggling God knows what into the country. Here we had to unstrap every single bag from the bike to put it through detectors, which proved a long and unhappy task. Chileans are very strict about the border control and the list of things you cannot carry/have to declare is very long. On top of the hassle with the bags, we had to collect four different stamps from migration control and customs people, mostly referring to the bike. Only the promise of Arica, our next destination, being mere 20 miles away from the border, made it all easier.
Finally with our passports stamped, we set out for the last bit of our journey for the day – straight and boring Route 5, winding through vastness of barren, dry landscape. Somewhere along there, palm trees slowly appeared with signs of civilisation and we found ourselves in Arica. I was waiting for this moment for months. When I was freezing my bottom off in Altiplano weeks ago, Carl was telling me about this magical place where we will chill out by the ocean and I imagined luxurious beaches scattered with sun loungers and me with my book and a cocktail in my hand. Well, scrap that. Arica certainly is nothing like it. Forget the luxury and fancy hotels, it is more of a laid back beachy vibe kind of place, dotted with many small single storey bungalows near the beach and some higher apartment blocks further out. (Bear in mind, I have not been all over the place, only near the central beaches, which is where most tourists base themselves).
We stayed in ‘Sunny Days’ hostel, which was described online as ‘your home away from home’ and it certainly was. It was almost like staying at the cozy house of your grandmother with it’s quirky communal areas full of little souvenirs and patterned curtains everywhere. There was a wholesome breakfast included in the price and for the first time it was not just bread and jam as in every other SA country we have visited so far, which made for a happy Sam.
Once we were settled in, the only thing on my mind was surfing. I was by the ocean for the first time in my life, I just had to use the opportunity. I had tried surfing only once in my life before – it was in Cromer, England with freezing cold water, thick wetsuits and pathetic waves, but I was hooked from the beginning. Luckily for us, our next door neighbour was Yoyo – pretty much a local surfing celebrity, running a surfing school, training surfing champions and from time to time traveling himself to try the waves all around the world. Don’t be mistaken though, Yoyo is more than just a teacher, he is surfing lifestyle personified, with his curly wild hair, happy-go-lucky attitude and never ending passion for anything surf-related. He swiftly became our best friend in Arica and took us out for half a days fun in the waves.
Surfing in the ocean was definitely an experience for a newbie like me – with it’s sharp rocky bottom, deep drops, sea turtles swimming in between us and waves much bigger than back at home. I never managed to actually stand up on my board at home, but here, under Yoyo’s careful guidance and after quite some effort, I was finally standing up and even riding all the way to the shore. Carl, of course, was just standing up straight away, having never surfed before! As for the rest of our little time in Arica, we really did what Carl promised, chilled out. Period. I am sorry for the lack of pictures, but we just rarely bothered to take our cameras anywhere.
Our next stop after Arica was another seaside place, 300km down the Chilean coast – Iquique. On the way there, we almost ran into trouble – the road was very windy and we had next to no fuel miles and miles before reaching our destination, with no petrol station in sight. Thankfully a large group of motorcycle riders was passing and stopped to check if we are ok. One of the guys had some fuel to spare, which he happily shared with us and did not want to take any money, just a hug (motorcycle community is absolutely awesome that way). After some chatting and photos together, we continued our way with them, as we all went the same way. Somewhere before Iquique most of the guys took off, only the one who shared his fuel stayed with us and we arranged to meet up later for a dinner. He was a Brazilian, also traveling on BMW although on R1200, a much larger and faster beast than ours. We enjoyed a pleasant dinner sharing stories and laughing away – he was one of the kindest people we met so far and even tried to convince us to visit him in Salvador, Brazil to stay with his family and go riding together. I guess we will see about that. Shame to say, he was leaving early next morning, leaving us to stay in Iquique a bit longer.
If any place could be closer to my beach fantasy, it had to be Iquique. Larger than Arica, Iquique boasts many high rises, has more infrastructure and the beach is more people friendly and beautiful (beaches in Arica had dull grey sand and were full with nasty rocks).
After a walk down the coast, I knew we had to try out surfing here as well, although we were not quite sure how that would work out with the best surf spot being near a reef. Reading up online also stated that Iquique is more for experienced surfers. Nonetheless, we easily rented boards and wetsuits straight at the beach from Umi Jaqi Surf School and were advised not to go near the reef if we are still beginners. We stuck around the main beach, but the weather wasn’t really on our side with small-ish waves near the coast. I found it incredibly hard to handle my board, constantly nose-diving and getting wiped out as the wave length was barely even half of what we had in Arica. Even so, we had almost three hours of fun (and a bruised head for me).
Apart from surfing, body boarding seems to be very popular with many people doing it all over the place. You can also see paddle boarders and for people wanting to try something more extreme, we saw many paragliders in the sky, gliding above the ocean. If you are not into watersports, the coast is beautiful just for a long stroll, when the tide is low, there are lots of weird and wonderful sea creatures about, starting from washed up starfish or even red, scary looking jellyfish to little crabs scurrying around.
The streets near the coast are bursting with fine examples of colonial architecture, giving Iquique a certain charm and for those, who enjoy shopping, the city centre is full of shops or for a duty free experience, a visit to ZOFRI mall can be recommended. ZOFRI or Zone Franca of Iquique is a duty free retail area in Iquique created in 1970s to boost the economic growth of the area.
We did visit the mall, but more just out of curiosity – we are already overpacked so no point in buying anything extra. The mall is mainly good if you are into luxury goods like designer bags, perfumes, watches and electronics. There are many shops offering the same stuff, but it is worth comparing few if you are intent on buying anything – for example, we found out that same model of GoPro had a $40 difference between two stores.
Now we are about to head back to Bolivia to ride the famous Laguna Route, so it is back to coldness and high altitudes. Even though I enjoyed Bolivia and I am looking forward to see the Lagunas, I am slightly sad to say goodbye to the ocean and all the surfing fun. We will be by the ocean soon enough, but we will be moving South with the weather getting colder and with hopes to see glaciers – I guess that means no more water sports.
What are your favourite surfing spots around the world? What would be a good place for beginners like me?
P.S. Fired up my Spotify to find out that Justin Bieber has like 15 songs in top 50. Huh?