From the Andes to the Ocean

Riding a four-day, trans-Chile journey on a beat-up old BMW GS 1200 with a leaky brake line.

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Sung Han

A certain romance accompanies motorcycling through the countryside. You’re on a bike, not in a car. You’re embraced by the elements, not secluded from them. It’s a seductive sensory experience that any well-seasoned rider remembers well. For this adventure, beginning in Santiago, Chile, the first elements I encountered were not the placid, idyllic ones a rider hopes to find when hopping in the saddle. Santiago is notorious for cut throat traffic, difficult lane splitting and city smog. This is my start point on a four-day trans-Chile ride, where I will cross the undulating Central Valley, wind through vast Chilean vineyards, head over the Cordillera de la Costa mountains, stop in the vivid port city of Valparaiso, then head North again and circle back into Santiago. Novels, photos and films have made this region of Chile famous, and the best way to see it is on two wheels. But first, I need to make it out of this city.

There’s a house in the northeast outskirts of Santiago that’s surrounded by a seven foot stone wall and a large cast iron gate. Denmark’s flag hangs from the second floor window. The bike I’m to take back and forth across Chile was somewhere on the other side of the gate. I ring the bell on the fortress’s front door and a short Chilean in a tattered graphic tee, backwards trucker hat and oil stained hands cracks the iron mass slightly ajar. “Si?” he asks. With a slight inflection, I tell him I’m here to pick up a motorcycle. “Uno momento,” he retorts. A few seconds later a wiry Danish expat, comes out and invites me into the garage. This is Mick Høy. The bike is a BMW GS 1200 — a bike with a reputation for being bullet proof, but it’s evident this rental’s seen some hard South American miles. Høy asks what route I’m taking, and I give him a quick run down, then ask if there are any good roads along our route. He takes a drag of his cigarette, exhales, and with a thick Danish accent says, “Oh yea, many good roads.” He grabs a map, leads me outside, flicks his cigarette, lights up another, and points out some must-ride roads along my route.

Leaving Santiago with my two compatriot colleagues in a lead car, we head south across the city. Santiago’s rumored early morning rough embrace holds up: careless drivers blindly double-lane change, overcast skies threaten rain, and an alpine breeze hurles from the Andes to the east. To top it off, just as I make it past Santiago city limits, I notice the rear brake has a disconcerting amount of travel. As I take an exit ramp off the highway, a yellow warning light starts flashing. I pull over to take a look, only to see the right side of the rear tire looking like a piece of brake fluid spin art. I brought tools along, but not ones capable of fixing a brake line leak I can’t see. I weigh my options: turn back and waste the day, or ride on, taking it easier on any right hand sweepers. I flip the kickstand up and head on through the Central Valley.

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An hour and a half south of Santiago, the Central Valley opens up, framed by the Andes to the East and the Cordillera de la Costa mountains to the West. If I had arrived one month later, the roadside would be flush with thick hedgerows, hiding vast palettes of flora and farmland on either side. But, this is the late Chilean winter and the land is as muted as the overcast sky. It’s not until I make my first stop at Antiyal vineyards, to meet with master biodynamic winemaker Alvaro Espinoza, that the land offers any color. We make our way up the muddy road to Espinoza’s home, flanked by rows of almond trees radiating with blossoms, as if winter had forgotten about this small patch of dirt.

After talking with Espinoza, I head east, through rural Paine, to find lunch. Choices are few and far between. I stop for roadside fare at what looks to be a corrugated steel and 2×4 extension of someone’s home. A stout woman with a big smile and a small girl with a stern face greet us at the entrance. A makeshift wood burning stove, insulated with clay and horsehair, pumps heat into their home. We order three Completos Italianos, which translates to a loaded hot dog resembling the Italian flag — avocado for green, diced tomatoes for red, and an overly generous serving of mayonnaise for the white. It’d be a brave choice anywhere in the world, let alone on the roadside in rural Chile.

Riding on, Chile transforms as the pavement passes under-carriage; bright blue skies, a warming sun and lush green hills lure me towards the coastal city of Valparaíso. Once known as “The Jewel of the Pacific” to international sailors and merchants and home to South America’s oldest stock exchange, Valparaíso knows historical heights. The once crucial stop for cargo ships and sailors making their way around the continent, Valparaíso became nothing more than a redundancy once the Panama Canal was built. Wealthy families left and took most commerce with them, leaving the Jewel of the Pacific to fade.

Coming over the tops of towering oceanside hills, briefly meeting a jagged coastline on an equally wrinkled road, the warm bath of sun and light sea breeze offers a stark contrast to the gray harshness of Santiago. Snaking down through Valparaíso’s cobblestoned streets, the exuberant graffiti and murals blast the full spectrum of color and a culture Chile had yet to offer. Valparaíso was always set to be the midpoint of the journey, but right now, it’s proving to be the highlight. No longer relying on trains of cargo ships going to the end of the earth and rounding Cape Horn, Valparaíso has ignited its own cultural boom and embraced its street art and artists.

After two days recharging in the pastel and plaster walls of Valparaíso, we set off back to Santiago. Jacket half unzipped and pulled open, no bandana tucked into my helmet to block the wind; I bask in the rare early spring weather. Any route in this weather is a good one, so I take the longer option. Navigating tunnels and splitting the peaks of Chile’s western mountains, the sun slowly sets and spreads an orange hue across the sky. It’s our last surge of vibrant color and warmth before Santiago welcomes us back, under nightfall, into its gray, urban, concrete embrace.

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