Sticking with our strategy spending time and then covering distance we bused from Pichilemu to Iquique via Santiago. Iquique is in the very north of Chile, has a reputation for great waves and therefore made a good choice as a stop point before crossing into Peru.
Driving north from Santiago you very quickly enter dessert and that is the way it stays. This is a dessert like no other we have seen, unlike North America and Australia where the desserts contain some hardy plants and shrubs, in Chile there is none of that - just sand and rock. It is easy to understand why northern Chile is in fact the driest land on the face of the earth.
That said there are people there. You pass small towns and villages quite regularly, and there are obviously enough people to justify billboard advertising. Such advertising has a twist here, rather than the simply erecting a board on the side of the road they arrange rocks on the face of large dunes or hills. The most impressive one we saw was a perfect "Coca Cola" at least 4 stories high in perfect script.
Iquique is a city bordered on one side by the Pacifc Ocean and on the other by dessert mountains. We descended into the city through a late afternoon fog that gave the place a very erie feel. It looked like something out of a Mad Max movie, no trees just buildings and dwellings sprawlled along the ocean.
We had picked out a hostel that sounded ok and as far as we could tell was close to some surf breaks. We hadn't booked ahead so I inquired about a room and was somewhat put off when the host said sure there are rooms but there is no water. That didn't sound too good so onto plan B. The problem was we didn't really have a plan B. At that point some guy on a skateboard appeared and in quite good English asked if we were looking for a place to stay because he knew of a new hostel not far that welcomed surfers. Normally we are hesitant about excepting accomodation offers off the street but under the circumstances our enthusiastic reply was "absolutely!"
He helped with carrying my boards and the hostel was indeed a good one. Once settled in we began to chat with a few of the other guests and realised that Iquique had been through quite a lot in the last 24 hours. Nothing less then a 7.9 on the rickter scale earth quake had rocked the region the night before, and everyone had a story of being thrown across a room, plates crashing off shelves and basically being scared shitless. We could not believe what we were hearing!
The death toll stood at 10, and while tragic it is somewhat amazing it wasn't more. Thankfully there was no tsunami, if there was I am confident the toll would have been in the 10s of 1000s. Remember the location - ocean one side and mountains on the other - well Iquique simply doesn't have higher ground and the one road out over the mountains was blocked by debris from the quake.
So blessed by good timing we set about exploring Iquique for 2 days. No surf to speak of, and while a little disappointing I wasn't heart broken having just surfed for 2 weeks straight. The town itself was surprisingly cosmopolitan and influenced strongly by the pressence of universities and a large commercial fishing fleet. We relaxed in street side cafes and walked for miles along the beach, in the end a very nice couple of days spent.