After a good breakfast on the train I arrive in Santiago de Chile, the large and vibrating capital of the country. The city has more than 5.000.000 inhabitans and is the political and cultural center of Chile, even though the parliament is in Valparaíso. For a cyclist the city is cruel, there are no cycle paths and I have to fight for space with taxis and 15.000 crazy bus drivers. I don´t want to stay for long and buy a bus ticket to La Serena for the following day. Finding a hotel isn´t as easy. But finally I check into a nice, quiet hostal with a cool patio. I go shopping and copy a detailed map of Llullaillaco (a volcano in Northern Chile) from the Instituto Geografico Militar.
In a crowded side street to the Plaza des Armas I meet a German cyclist who is just back from Northern Chile and is waiting for his flight home. A good opportunity to get some first hand information about the roads in the Atacama. We are sitting in a street café and are waiting for our drinks, when his bag is stolen below his chair. He had his passport, ticket, money and his camera in his bag. The thief disappears in the crowds.
This incident doesn´t increase my confidence in the security of Santiago´s streets. Even though there are armed police forces present. My camera and valuables stay in the hotel safe. In the evening I take the subway to the posh suburb Las Condes to visit friends that run the Chilean branch of a large German insurance company. They have a six room penthouse with beautiful views over the city and the Andes costing 1.200 US $ a month. What a striking contrast to life of the homeless downtown.
Bus companies in Chile are surprisingly well organised. Booking is online, the fares are cheap and the service is fast and convenient. But their schedule surprises me most, they never seem to be late. North of Santiago the landscape is soon getting arid. La Serena has an average annual rainfall of just 90 mm, outside of the watered oases the landscape is bare. In the evening breeze I pedal 65 km uphill to Vicuña. The surrounding mountains are 3.000 to 4.000 m high and totally bare of vegetation.