“Desafio del Desierto” tours make it possible to see part of the race in a few days
You can bet that as he rolled into Lima, Peru, as runner-up to Red Bull KTM teammate Cyril Despres, Marc Coma was already planning his assault on the 2013 Dakar Rally. After all, the longer the race, the more prep that’s required.
Watching races is similar…and different. It’s a lot easier to go to watch something at your local motocross track than it is to go to the ISDE, for example.
Can you imagine, then, trying to watch Dakar? For starters, the biggest hurdle for most race fans (at least in the USA) is getting three weeks off work to follow the most famous rally in the world from its pre-race beginnings to its conclusion. And then there’s the matter of arranging for the tremendous amount of travel and all that entails logistically–plus paying for it.
There is, however, a way to sample a slice of Dakar that is both more easily doable and, thus, financially easier to take, and that is the Dakar tour that Desafio del Desierto of Chile offers.
Desafio del Desierto is Spanish, of course, and basically means “challenge of the desert” in English. It’s a small company run by Alejandro Denham and Pablo Levalle, both longtime dirt bike enthusiasts and racers. In fact, Levalle has done both the ISDE and Dakar. They started Desafio del Desierto as a race promo company, putting on a three-day rally going by that name in Chile’s Atacama Desert 12 years ago.
In 2009 when organizers moved Dakar from its Euro-African route to South America due to terrorist threats forcing cancellation of the 2008 race, Denham and Levalle were among the millions of fans to applaud. For the first time, the largest and most famous rally in the world would be at their doorsteps.
Knowing that others would also love to watch Dakar in person, they added another component to Desafio del Desierto: Dakar tours. But rather than try to follow the entire race–an arduous task for all but the most committed Dakar fan–Denham and Levalle decided to focus on watching a bite-sized chunk of the race.
They knew the Atacama well, since that’s where they’ve been running their own race since its inception. And since the Atacama has always featured prominently in the South American Dakar–generally being near the halfway mark and widely considered to be where the “real” desert racing starts–it was only natural that they concentrate on featuring their beloved Atacama in their slice-of-Dakar tours, which they started offering three years ago to corporate clients.
Copiapo (pronounced co-pee-ah-POH) is a city in the heart of the Atacama some nine hours drive north of Chile’s capital city, Santiago. In the short time of the South American Dakar, it’s been a focal point as it’s easily accessible by road and airport, yet is considered the gateway to the vast Atacama all the way north into Peru, which is where the 2012 Dakar ventured for the first time.
This year, I was fortunate enough to experience a Desafio tour, experiencing it as a private client would because the company is now opening it up beyond its corporate client base. If my experience is a good indication, the average dirt bike enthusiast will definitely enjoy the Desafio tour while the hard-core Dakar fan will wish he had more days off (and more money) to watch more of the race.
The short tour saw me fly out of LAX on Thursday and land in Copiapo the next day. From the airport, it was a short drive to Desafio’s base camp, which was set away by a good 10 or so miles from the main bivouac area. Personally, I wouldn’t want to stay near the bivouac, as there’s too much commotion at all hours of the day; I’d rather stay in an area that’s not too populated, and there were only two other very small groups camped in the particular valley that Desafio chose.
To my surprise, they offered to chance for a little trail ride to the bivouac soon after arriving in camp. I hadn’t expected to have the chance to go riding so I had no gear with me, but they set me up with a helmet, goggles and gloves, and one of the staff let me ride his CRF450R.
The Atacama is similar to Southern California low desert. Think Glamis on steroids. The dunes are huge and stretch farther than the eye can see; there’s also very little vegetation in the low-lying harder packed sand and clay. Our ride to and from the bivouac (which is inaccessible to anyone without proper credentials, which must be arranged ahead of time) was a lot of fun, but bike rental isn’t included in the $2000 tour fee for the short tour. That’s not an issue for Desfio’s corporate clients who generally use the tour as a bonus or incentive for either employees or customers as most don’t ride but simply want to watch the Dakar in person; they’re perfectly content to jump into one of the little Ssangyong 4×4 diesel pickup trucks from Korea (a brand you don’t see in the U.S.) driven by one of the staff or into one of their group’s trucks. A number of clients had their own bikes–not surprising when you consider that Yamaha’s Chilean importer was one of the clients.
Forget what you think camping in the middle of the driest desert on Earth is like. Desafio provides top-tier amenities. You’re housed in two-person dome tents that provide more space than some European hotel rooms I’ve stayed in–honestly!–and a large dome tent serves as the dining area, serviced by a catering team that provided excellent dinners. Breakfast runs more to continental style, as is lunch. Lunch and dinner are served much later than most Americans are used to, meaning you’re usually getting to bed around midnight–and that’s if you don’t partake of the post-dinner entertainment in a separate inflatable tent.
Chile’s economy is dominated by copper mining (which is why there are so many dirt roads in the Atacama), and a Desafio takes advantage of this by renting shipping container-size structures featuring full restroom and shower facilities (multiple shower stalls, toilets and urinals in each), with a generator providing electricity for the lights and power outlets. (A larger industrial-type generator provides power for the main tent and is shut down at night, though that happens far later than it does at, say, Mike’s Sky Ranch. A big bladder-type tank holds enough water for two days of use, after which a truck came to refill it.)
Thus, while there’s no room service and isn’t a five-star hotel, it’s far from rough camping, with Levalle borrowing a term in referring to it as “glam-camp.”
We spent all day on Saturday watching the race. Desafio knows the routes and got us to some nice viewing areas away from big crowds. We spent most of the time at the first area, then hit two more briefly before returning to camp. If you wanted, however, you could’ve watched even more since our last spot was maybe a mile from camp, and we could hear race vehicles going past throughout the night, though it wasn’t obnoxiously loud.
On Sunday, the race’s rest day, we spent the day sight-seeing. First, we visited the San Jose mine where the 33 miners were trapped a couple years ago. It’s been declared unsafe for further operation so it’s shut down and closed off, but one of our group was a higher-up in the mining industry, got us in and filled us in.
After that, we hit the beach. Actually, we visited a few beaches. For me, the water was way too cold to take a swim, plus there were a lot of jelly fish at the first beach, so I remained dry while shooting photos. For lunch, we stopped at a great place in a small beachside town full of tourists and people connected to the race in some way, judging by the license plates and graphics of a number of parked vehicles.
Oh, and even though you can’t get into the bivouac without a pass, there’s an alternate plan if you’d like to look at some of the race vehicles and chat with competitors: the local gas station. We stopped by in the afternoon and found a number of racers and their vehicles filling up. I’m sure if you wanted to spend more time there, you’d see enough machinery to satisfy your need for photos and autographs.
On Monday, the race resumed, but no one seemed to want to get up early enough to watch the start since the majority of folks on the tour were returning home so they had a lot of packing to do. For the few of us who remained, we had a leisurely breakfast then went out to visit more desert, a vast valley where the race passed through the year before. If you really wanted to, I think you could’ve watched the start and still got back to the airport in time for the mid-day flight back to Santiago.
So, if you’ve ever wanted to watch Dakar in the flesh but couldn’t afford three weeks away to do so, Desafio del Desierto offers a very practical and more affordable alternative. You may get only a snippet of it, but you’ll still have a great time seeing a one-of-a-kind event, meeting friendly, like-minded people and storing up a lifetime of memories in one long weekend while sacrificing little in the way of creature comforts. How can you beat that?