In spite of what theories one might have, Calama is certainly no calamity for Chile, au contraire. The about 100,000 people living here and in nearby Chuquicamata contributes with about 4 percent of Chile's GNP. And how have they accomplished this? By digging the most enormous hole in the ground, the world's largest open-pit copper mine. It's 4,5km long, 3km wide and 800 meters deep, with a continuous fleet of giant trucks going up and down the spiral road to the bottom, making the whole bigger all the time, except maybe when Chile's national soccer team is playing. 10 percent of all copper production in the world today comes out of here, and to produce all this copper, they spend as much electrical power here in one hour (300 megawatts) as the whole of Santiago needs to go for two weeks, without even producing ANY copper! The reward the people of Calama gets for generating so much income for Chile is a reduced life-span, due to lots of poisonous air and water, and of course, a nice, clean city to live in, to cover up this environmental scandal.
The reason I had to rush Antofagasta a bit to get here, was that I wanted to tour the mining area, and since that can only be done on weekdays and there is not much else to do here than touring the mine, I really did not want to arrive in the weekend. The first impression I got was very good, the streets were clean, there's a park with lights on in the evenings, and there's a tiny amusement park along the river, and the river itself looks like it's made of chocolate. Quite the cozy little town, without any of the fastfood chains that seem to be everywhere else in Chile. They do, on the other hand, have lots of ancient culture to show off to visitors. For the first time since 1986 back home, here I could witness that the hip hop and breakdance culture wasn't dead afterall, it's just hibernating in Calama. Here you can still see it being performed in the streets with great enthusiasm and spirit. As soon as the sun set, young boys with jeans barely hanging from their hips transformed from their daytime shapes, spraying "Skateboard is not a crime!" (which I guess I correct, at least syntactically) on the city's designated graffiti wall, while spinning on their heads and doing the moonwalk, saying "Yo!" every now and then. It's incredible how old culture can survive in the most far-away corners of the world, like here, near the Andes.
I stayed in a 3 bed room at Hotel Gemini for US$10 per night, close to the city center. All the other guests here were Chileans, some students that had just started their school year. Fortunately the students here behave different from students other places. In Santiago, Valparaiso and Antofagasta I witnessed the first year boys having their heads shaved, the first year boys and girls being herded into groups and then bombed with oil and flour, before they all were sent out to beg for money to pay for the beer for the older students' parties and for the prize for Miss First Year Student, which would be the girl that shakes her butt in the most attractive manner, I gathered. In Calama they all were polite and quiet students. Or maybe they just work in the mines in their spare time, making them too tired to make any noise.
Calama is 16 kilometers away from the actual mining town, Chuquicamata. While there are 13,000 people living there, they are now being moved to Calama, for obvious health reasons. The amounts of molybdenum, arsenic and mercury to be drunk and inhaled here are just not good for people, so they move them the astronomical distance of 16km south to live. They will still work here, of course.
Ignoring the pollution, the mine is quite impressive. The tour leader throws out numbers and facts all the time; The tires on the trucks cost US$25,000 each, the tire's diameter is 380cm, the trucks run pretty much non-stop for 6 months at a time before they need to have their tires removed, blablabla. I soon got quite tired of the tire facts. More interesting were the enormous excavators that ended their days here, bought to build this hole after they had been used to finish the Panama Canal. Also interesting were some thick clouds that had formed in the sky, over this place where "it never rains". I was convinced I felt at least ten drops of rain in my face, and I saw the locals look up with uncertainty in their eyes. But there came nothing more than those few, almost present raindrops.
After seeing the mines I was done in Chuquicamata and hitch-hiked back to Calama. By now I had developed an addiction to Flipy's. They are small blue and white and black and white dolphins in a hard, jelly-like and very sweet substance, that I had never tasted before I came to Chile. Recently I had been eating two bags of them per day, and I was frightened by discovering that they were not available in Calama, and now I was heading for an even smaller place. I felt the abstinence, I craved Flipy's. Or maybe it was just altitude sickness? Calama, afterall, is 2250 meters above sea level, from which I had just come, so I hoped that was all, and that I would be fine without my Flipy's for a few days.
Another thing that excited me a bit about going further into the desert was an advertisement I had seen for one of the small hotels in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama: "Come taste a warm family!", it said.
On the bus I sat next to Carlos, a professional window cleaner. He lives and usually works in a city five hours away, but once a month he packs his special window cleaner equipment and gets on this bus to clean the windows in the little archaeology museum in San Pedro, Museo Gustavo Le Paige. His special equipment is a water spray bottle to get the water onto the window and a rubber thing to wipe it off again. He told me he made US$500 per month, was 24 years old, had 3 kids and was a very happy man.
Even though San Pedro de Atacama is a teeny, tiny town in the middle of the desert, I did not manage to find the place with the ad, maybe they first ran out of families to taste, and then out of business. We shall never know, I hope. But I did find an excellent substitute, Residencial Rayco, which had cheap beds and a book exchange. I traded in my book on obsolete US advertisements theory, which wasn't that interesting anyway, and got Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia" in return. Now, there's a good travel writer. If you're still reading this, stop that at once and go read a book by Bruce instead.
Ok, so you're back, let's continue our voyage through the desert.
When it gets dark in San Pedro, it gets really, really dark. It's the kind of darkness that makes it very likely you'll be eaten by a grue. The 972 people living here does not think street lights are necessary, since everybody should be inside watching TV at night anyway. The streets are all dark, and there are only small stripes of light coming out of doorways and windows here and there, so as a stranger you need to walk very carefully around, especially since they have quite a few donkeys and horses walking around throughout the day, depositing processed grass in the streets. I have to agree that street lights aren't really necessary, you just know that every second house is a kind of restaurant or a desert tour operator, and almost all of them offer some kind of lodging. So as long as you need either a bed, food or want to book a daytrip, you won't be searching for long, even if it's pitch black outside. Just count the doors.
I had one Desert Dream Day here. I got up at five, it was dark, but thanks to the Moon and the clear sky it was possible to see where I was going. Walking past the closed customs office along the road to the desert and Bolivia, I came to some old mining works a few kilometres away from San Pedro. Sitting down on an old pile of copper cinders, I witnessed how the Sun gave an amazing backlight to the 6000 meters high Andes mountains here, before they all, except for the snow-capped volcano Lincancabur, disappeared into a morning haze. For an hour I just sat there, reading Hiram Bingham's book "Lost City of the Incas", about Machu Picchu and enjoying the sun-filled silence.
After a quick breakfast I continued my expedition outside the town, now walking up to the Salt Mountain Ridge, Cordillera de la Sal. It's not a mountain like in the rocky kind, it's just that the desert here is extremely dry, which makes the salt in the ground rise up to the surface in huge chunks, forming several hundred meters high mountain-like formations. Needless to say, it's a very harsh and lifeless environment, but nevertheless extremely beautiful. The last few days it had been raining hard at night, for the first time since nobody could remember when, and that had made the salty surroundings especially beautiful; Because of the water, the salt had crept up over the sand layer that usually covers it, giving much of the place a bright, white look, almost as if it had been snowing. I was thrilled to see it, as this apparently does not happen very often.
Not able to get enough of these landscapes, I kept walking and climbing until I was on the very top of the ridge, with a view to enormous dunes, a volcano on the horizon and these rather alien salt formations everywhere. It wasn't hard to understand why NASA picked just this place on the planet for trying out their designs for vehicles to be used on Mars, this place is out of this world. In pure joy I spent an hour or so drawing my smiley, #:D), in a giant letters on one of the dunes, and walked to the other side of a valley to admire my work. I could still see it clearly from 2 kilometres away, which made my face turn into a smiley as well.
I walked back to San Pedro and had a nice, cold shower, before I forgot to eat something, and then ran off to catch a sunset tour to the Moon Valley, Valle de la Luna. The guide took us up into the salt mountains again, and took us through a natural "salt mine". That would NOT have worked in an American national park, it would take less than an hour before someone would have gotten stuck and clogged up the narrow passage, sued the authorities and gotten a court order to shut down the place. A bit of a claustrophobic experience, but I guess it can make you trasure the space you normally have around your body a bit more. The salt crystals on the walls and in the ceiling of these caves look really nice.
The actual Valle de la Luna is really something special. I know there are many Moon Valleys all over the world, but this one is definitely one of the better ones. There is no vegetation whatsoever anywhere, the shapes and angles in the scenery is totally unlike what at least I am used to see, and the colour combinations you see are also very foreign, grey, brown and sometimes with this temporary white, snow-like layer some places. Very surreal, very alluring, very deadly.
I had spent the whole day outside, (yes, the shower was actually outside as well, since it only had walls, no roof) and it had been an exhausting and perfect one. Back in San Pedro de Atacama the surrealism from the sunset continued, as the most intense thunderstorm and heavy rain set in. This just does not happen in the Atacama desert, so please don't tell the people at Guinness who keep track of the driest places on the planet! It created an excellent atmosphere, though, with this pitch black town being lit up by heavy lightning every few seconds, to be followed by a stomach-turning thunder shortly after.
Speaking of stomach-turning; that was what the rest of my stay in San Pedro was all about. Returning to the hostel I did not really have any hunger, but I bought a few apples and a bread and ate some of it before calling it a day. Going to bed was pretty scary. I heard a lot of really horrifying, eerie noises. Bubbling and gurgling sounds are normally not too bad, it is quite possible to fall asleep even in their presence, but when they get loud enough and come from your own intestines, it can make you feel pretty bad. I just lay there, anxiously waiting to learn in what direction the situation would develop. Suddenly I knew.
It was now late at night (which, in San Pedro, means anytime after midnight) and everybody in the hostel and the village had gone to bed a long time ago. Halfway on my way to the bathroom there was a loud *!SPLASH!* sound that woke up at least the canine part of the inhabitants of the house. In all fairness, the bathroom WAS 40 meters away, and it WAS pitch dark around me. Well before breakfast time I had served a most generous helping of apple stew on the stone floor of the open patio behind the hostel, and it was so repulsive that not even the dogs would touch it. I'm not quite sure how it looked, because it was dark, and at night there is no electricity in San Pedro, so I could not turn on the lights either.
When the electricity goes out, somehow the water also disappears from the taps, I guess there's an electrical pump supplying the water here. So, I stumbled back to my bed, slightly panicked, but actually feeling a bit better now that the chemical lab had moved from my stomach to the patio. I got my flashlight and ventured out to find water somewhere. Some kind soul had left a few cans of water near the bathroom, and I did my best to clean up the place, before going back to bed and actually getting some sleep.
Needless to say, I got up very, very early, met a knowing look from the grandmother matriarch of the family that ran the hostel, and left on the first bus to Calama.
In the desert the public transport is not necessarily very well planned, so I ended up with an 11 hour stop-over in Calama, waiting for the bus to Iquique. It was a sunny Sunday, with lots of smiling locals walking the streets and parks of Calama, listening to the cheery street organs and the rather gloomy fire-and-brimstone preachers that seemed to be everywhere. I read my book and ate a ton of icecream, trying to soothe my inner organs as well as I could. I felt a LOT better than I had last night.
The eight hour, US$10 night bus to Iquique was the best sleep I had had in two nights. "Termino de verano", end of summer, was the headline on the local paper that Monday morning, which may be the explanation why I got a splendid room with private bath and cable TV with 50 channels on for US$8 at Hotel Oregon, very close to the city center plaza. At first I was impressed by the cubic volume value for money I got, the ceiling was at least 6 meters up above me, but then I discovered that the high ceiling meant that the signals through the coaxial cable just barely made it all the way down to the TV. This was a place that I COULD be sick, if it was called for, but I felt ok, and went out walking right after a quick shower in actual, real life, hot, clear water.
Considering the narrow strip of land that lies between the Pacific and the high vertical wall one kilometer inland, marking the start of the highland, it is amazing how the sand piles up in two hundred meter high dunes just outside Iquique. From Playa Brava there's a nice view towards the dunes, but apart from that there aren't too many attractions here. What they DO have, though, are parking spaces for future mothers, in other words; Pregnant parking. In other parts of the world, the parking spaces that gives easiest access to supermarkets, offices and so on, will be reserved for disabled people. Here, though, "Madres del Futuro" are given this benefit. I guess it must be for only the actual pregnant ones and not any women that isn't too old to sometime become pregant. Maybe it's because that in Chile, instead of eating a lot when you're pregnant, here they shop a lot? I don't know, but I thought it was a pretty funny detail anyway.
There has never been any major fires or earthquakes here since the town was founded, and it used to be the nitrate/guano capital of the area a long time ago, so there are many old, nice-looking buildings all over the town, showing the influence large English and American corporations have had here throughout the last couple of centuries.
Even though I now was well within the tropics, the water in the Pacific was freezing cold, or at least below 20 degrees Celsius. That meant no swimming for me, so instead I decided to go splurge on KFC, a bit cautiously after my recent apple experience in San Pedro. Although I felt fine at first, after three pieces of chicken I found myself beginning to ruminate, so I had definitely had enough. I went back to the hotel, turned on the TV and decided not to leave Iquique before I was all well again, or at least not until I had gotten rid of that continuously refreshed taste of chicken. Even when it's KFC, you get tired of it after a while.
A major part of my time in Iquique was spent recuperating and watching a weak CNN, but I made a daytrip out of Iquique, some 45 kilometers away, where I found Humberstone. It's a ghost town. Now, if you've been to e.g. California, where there also are ghost towns, you might think that a ghost town is a small group of houses bearing an old name, and every one of the buildings house a souvenir shop where you can buy Route 66 mementos, fake antiques and watch "wild" donkeys walking in the streets. Not so here. Humberstone IS a ghost town in the sense that it's a town and there's nobody around. At least not anybody else than very few tourists that try all they can not to disturb each other. It was very quiet and slightly spooky, and the only thing I saw that I did not like was the ever-present Chilean graffiti. Chileans share the quality that the Taliban expressed by blowing up the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan at about the time I visited Chile. They just cannot stop themselves from spraying or writing "Juan y Juanita", "Maradona es un cerdo" and other messages they feel are important to bring on to the rest of humanity, in places where they are pretty sure quite a lot of strangers will see them. Especially places that tourists go to to see untouched scenery or culture, whether it's in the desert or in Antarctica.
With a little bit of imagination it is easy to "see" thousands of people living here, like they did 40-50 years ago. There's a nicely kept schoolhouse, a lot of rusty mining buildings and machinery, there's the theatre, still equipped with folding chairs and red canopies, but the only show left is the blowing sand and doors slammed open and closed by the wind. It's a good place for practicing burglary, many of the houses are fairly easy to get into with a little bit of effort, but there's nothing left to steal.
Moving closer to the border of insanity, namely Peru, there was only one more place to stop in Chile. This place is Arica, and it's a beach town and nothing else. To Bolivians it is their most important port, since there is a railway line going from here to La Paz, but to Chileans it is just the only place in their country they can go any time of the year and still experience summer. The water is still cold, though. In 1999 they had 230.000 tourists coming here, and of these 160,000 were Chileans. They have a long way to go to become the new Thailand, but it is obvious that everything here is built up around the beach and tourism. A couple of hundred years ago they had a lot of British tourists here, waiting in ships just off the coast for the Spanish galleons with silver and gold from Bolivia. Pirates or heroes, depending on whether you go to British or Spanish museums to learn more about them.
Apart from the beach there are two things to see here; Jesus and the church. Jesus is, like many atheists may have said in other contexts, on top of a bluff, overlooking the city of Arica. When you're up there, you may also want to check out the museum inside an old fort here, telling the story of the War of the Pacific, where the Chilean heroes defeated Bolivia and Peru in a decisive battle right here. It's nothing much to look at, but since you've made your way all the way up here on those steep paths, you might as well check it out for less than a dollar.
The church you should see is Iglesia San Marcos, from 1875. It was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the dude with that tower thing in Paris), sent to Ilo in Peru and set up there. When a giant tidal wave destroyed all the churches in Arica, which was then part of Peru, the people of Ilo took pity on their countrymen in Arica and as some kind of bizarre version of "first aid", they disassembled this church and sent it to Arica. It's a DIY Church kit in iron, and it looks a bit special, so you won't see something like this too many other places.
My major complaint about Arica must be the numerous sea birds, making any walk outside a perilous adventure. If you think you saw carpet bombing on TV during the Gulf War, think again. Here you have first a layer of incontinent seagulls flying around everywhere. Above them there are the pelicans. Above the pelicans there are larger seagulls, and all the way up where you almost can't see them, there are the large eagles and even larger condors. And they all shit. I don't know how many sorties they fly per day, but it definitely must be more than during Operation Desert Storm, and it's enough to make a brave man shake in his knees, or at least wish he had a hat or an umbrella or something. Apart from that, Arica is quite cozy.
My mother always says that I should not travel alone, because it is so unsafe. I have always disagreed with that, most of the time I feel safer when I have only myself to think about than when I travel with someone, because I always feel some kind of responsibility towards whoever I travel with. But I have to agree that sometimes traveling alone has its disadvantages. On my last day in Chile, I discovered that there was a huge hole in the back of my shorts, and I had no idea how long it had been there. Holes in my shoes, socks, head and a few other places I'd kept track of, but I had seen very little of my own backside on this trip. I just hope I did not offend too many Chileans before I now sat down and fixed the problem.
The hole was closed, and so was my stay in Chile. I got in a taxi to
take me to Peru. There was no way back.
About the author