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Lots more nothing.

After our breakfast/planning session this morning we decide on a tour of the pre-cordillera, which we reckon to be a good day’s drive across good and not-so-good roads, passing a number of small villages on the way.

First stop is a visit to a petrol station in Arica to make sure we leave with a full tank. Then we try to find the famous Panamerican highway, ruta no.5 in Chile, which runs the length of America, from Alaska to the south of Chile. Carry on past the hotel and we follow a coastal road, one lane each way, along a few playas deportivos. Then the road runs out on us – we’re making a habit of this! Ness starts laughing on the way back – turns out we need to head back into town and pick up the Panam there.

Second attempt works better. Soon we’re heading out of town, past the sign fin zona urbana. Very rapidly the roadside gets emptier and emptier until there is nothing except a brown valley with towering brown hills on either side. Not surprisingly, there is the odd truck, bus or car.

We pass a prison complex, in construction but operational. The “social rehabilitation facility” has echoes of the Pinochet era. Then we gradually start to climb the hill on our right. Below us on the valley floor is an odd assortment, in a grid pattern, of what look like shacks, but not a clue as to its former or present purpose. The road is wide and tarmac’d, with three lanes, two going up, one for slow traffic, with run-offs provided for out-of-control traffic coming down, reassuring! They look recently used. One has an army jeep with five or six lads in desert camouflage slacks poring over the bonnet. We swap driving Basher a bit further along, Ness happy to get acquainted with Basher properly at last. “It’s a f*cking monster Stef!”

Pretty soon Ness is settled in and I get to enjoy the views. We are in a special place here. Big country doesn’t even begin to describe it. We have climbed quite a way and are now on a plateau. The horizon is wide, in any direction. Just the brown, ochre and yellow colours of dust, rocks and sand.

On the first stretch we pass a few billboards, facing the other way, for drivers heading towards Arica. One says “aah, paté”. Further along there is nothing but the strip of the tarmac, the desert plateau, and our car.

Either before or after this plateau, maybe there were several, we climb then descend, towards the Caleta Vitor, another valley. This one has a few green bushes but so sparse and no sign of farms. Then climb again. Ness is driving, focused on keeping us on the road, I’m looking left and right, grateful to see these places. Right now it feels like the most natural thing to do, driving (being driven, sorry!) a monster-jeep down the Panam through some of the most inhospitable country anywhere. At least if we do break down here there will be someone along pretty soon. There is no apparent danger. How can any place be this empty? I think Keenan said “this is a whole lot of nothing!”

We get to the turn-off to Codpa. The road is still good, tarmac’d, but covered in caked-on dust for the first few miles. Now we’re leaving even the relative civilisation of the Panam behind, although even this road probably sees frequent traffic – it’s part of the Sernatur advised route, but it does feel like we’re on our own now.

Perspective is deceiving. What we thought was a carabinero station and a long way away, turns out to be yet another roadside shrine – Chilean flag and fresh flowers. Push on. We’ve got the “Alex mix” on. Road starts getting bendier with dips and climbs, we’re taking it easy – hard to tell what’s ahead.

It’s 40km to Codpa. At some point the proper road ends and we’re on a dirt track. This gets progressively worse until we get to a few signs saying “Peligro, road under construction”. We swap and switch to 4WD. Pass a few construction gangs, quite happy to let us pass their big machines. Figure this must be as far as they got and we’re now on dirt tracks for the rest of the way. The road starts to descend, gets narrower (still wide enough for 2, just), and it’s a slow cautious drive down to Codpa.

Codpa, a surreal vision after all the desolate dryness
Shopping in Codpa...

Codpa is like a surreal vision. We round a bend and there it is, straight out of a spaghetti western. A tiny hamlet, hemmed in all around by crumbling rocky/sandy hills. Most striking, and most absurd of all, is the roof with the white-painted “Hosteria Codpa”, surrounded by a dozen or so cabins, with two swimming pools and a lawn. It looks totally out of place here and next to the village with a small church, adobe constructions and shacks made of “F&J”.

We drive into the village, first stop for a drink and pitstop, so head straight for the hosteria, without guilt, and have a coke & agua, sat on the terrace by the pool. Not a soul here, apart from the young girl in the kitchen and her son. Something nice was cooking.

In the background we can hear the cacophony of a mock-fiesta laid on for the turistas. There were two coaches parked in front of the little church when we got there. By the time we get there they’ve gone and the church, which seemend to have a full mass on, is padlocked. Manage to get a glimpse inside through a hole – pretty, just another church.

A forlorn-looking stall in the main square is the only opportunity to buy a memento. Thankfully it’s stuff we actually like rather than arts & crafts. We come away with a small jar of “locoto” (cayenne pepper I think) and Ness buys marmelade of “tuna” – que? (Later explained to us that tuna is a cactus fruit, supposed to be totally green)

Then we try to pick up the road to the next villages. We find the roadsign [near the hosteria], study it carefully, double-check with the various maps we have now acquired, and turn right, direction Guañacagua.

The road is terrible, a single track following the little oasis-valley below us, and we take it easy. I keep mentally noting the last turning point, just in case… Engine working hard, but the temperature stays steady. Pass through Guañawhatsit. Pass two nuns (I think) who look like Japanese tourists (missed the coach?), up, down, eventually get to a few houses.

Ask a local guy how much further to Timar, the next village. He tells us the road runs out further ahead (i.e. another “road to nowhere”!) but we can turn there. The road to Timar, he tells us, can be picked up just behind the hosteria in Codpa! Five degrees and one clear road sign and somehow we still manage it! So we turn round, picking up the two “nuns” on the way back. One of them looks very “indigenous”, sharp nose, high cheekbones – where is her pan-flute? We drop them off at Guañaetc.

Back in Codpa, eventually, we plan another visit to the hosteria but its gates are now padlocked (us?), so we settle for biccies from a local stall, manned by local “opa”. He has to blow the dust off the packet of Triton biscuits I settle for. Then we leave Codpa, heading back the way we came – sensibly decided against pushing on to Timar, now that we have found the correct route. Both wondered at how we could have misinterpreted the sign (see picture!)

Back on the road in construction we find that the road builders have demolished the road in our absence! An earth-mover is shifting rocks and we have to wait, behind the carabinero on his motorbike. Pretty soon a jeep with two more carabineros pulls up behind us. This country is full of absurdities – love it already. After a while the earth-mover has created a space for us to pass. Manage to keep the car moving and soon we’re past them. I let the jeep of carabineros pass. Next stop arries soon – the jeep has stopped. Ahead there is a construction gang. The carabinero explains they’re about to set off some explosives and we have to wait. This will be a spectacle! Bugger – they’ve decided to let us through first. My Spanish is not up to explaining to our friendly policeman (big hat & shades!) that we’d rather wait and watch the kaboom if it’s all the same, so we drive on, wave to the people – police, builders. Bit further on, having climbed, we’re in a spot to get a good view of the explosion so we step (not by mutual agreement!) and wait, and wait… nothing happens. Good spot to enjoy the views across the plateaux anyway, we can feel the clear (but dusty) air of the high plateau.

Pisco by the pool.

No kaboom, so we carry on and are soon back on the tarmac’d part of the “A-035” (for that was what it was!) which seems to carry on for ever. I’ve never seen horizons this wide, anywhere. Andes can be seen far in the background. Back on the Panam and drive back towards Arica, across high plateau, into and out of the Caleta Vitor again – I had forgotten about this bit – must have been hairy for Ness to drive – on the way out the climb and descent into the Caleta were on the side dropping away into the valley and I was aware of it just driving back on the “safe” side hugging the hill-side. The horizon is full of dust, can’t be fog or clouds, it’s too yellow, filling the air ahead of us. Here and there dust-devils suddenly whirl up, then die down just as quickly.

After a long drive we reach the sign “Bienvenidos a Arica” (quick u-turn for picture) and head back into the “zona urbana”. We stop at the statue of B O’H and get a local guy, who seems to look after and dust off parked cars, to take a picture of us with B O’H – will never come out the way he was holding the camera but not wishing to upset him we thank him and head back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel the bar beckons – two PS’s (+ local olives – by now I’m sick of them but keep on munching), sun is out, and Ness suggests a dip in the pool. We take it in turns to change and soon are splashing about in the pool, the water is warm, the sun is still high enough to enjoy the last rays. A bit later we’re stretched out on sun-loungers by the pool – it feels like the Med, but not quite. Five minutes and I’m bored, so simply wait to dry off and start diary. Ness heads back to the room to change, I carry on writing, fueled by one more PS.

A quick drink in the bar and then we drive into Arica for nosh. The town centre is alive, we park Bash at an estacionamiento and wander for a bit, towards a restaurant suggested by the hotel concierge. It actually turns out to be a real find – great meal (Ness: chicken “provencal”, i.e. garlic!, me: huaso platter – superb slab of beef) + a few more drinks. Had to pay with the Amex just to get that on the statement! All of £16, ouch!