Atacama; Dunes, Lagoons and Desert Moons
27.06.2006 10 °C
Monday 26 - Friday 30 June
Bright and early on Monday morning, the overnight bus from Santiago dropped us by a seemingly deserted restaurant on the outskirts of Caldera. We waited a while with no pick-up in sight, before venturing inside to seek help. Just as we did, the restaurant's phone rang to say that the bus was on its way...
Caldera is a charming but sleepy fishing village,
but after the bustle of Santiago it was nice to stroll in the sunshine and take in sights such as the pretty church and the harbour at our leisure.
After lunch at Caldera's best known empanada restaurant (an empanada is a bit like a cornish pasty, traditionally filled with meat, egg and olives), we made our way to the evening's rest stop - a beachside holiday camp at nearby Bahia Ingles.
Tuesday 27 June
Today's final destination would be Antofagasta, but in order to get there we first had to cross the most arid stretch of the Atacama Desert - parts of which have not registered rainfall in fifty years.
Here, the landscape is markedly different from anything we've yet encountered with the dusty-brown earth and mountain backdrop standing vivid against a deep blue cloudless sky.
Nitrate mining provided a large part of Chile's income during the nineteenth century, and abandoned reminders of the industry - such as this cemetery for miners -
can be found across the desert. The cemetery is slightly unsettling; a contrast of decorated headstones and simple wooden crosses, punctuated by the occasional partially open grave revealing a booted foot or a glimpse of white bone... we didn't hang around too long.
Known as the "Mano del Desierto" (Hand of the Desert) this 11 metre high sculpture by Mario Irarrazabal was installed in the desert in 1992.
And so to the large city port of Antofagasta, and our lodgings, but not before a quick visit to "La Porta" cliffs at sunset. Why does this remind me of Australia's Great Ocean Road?
Wednesday 28 June
Setting off from Antofagasta, it wasn't long before we came upon another reminder of Chile's nitrate-mining past at Baquedano; an abandoned yet perfectly preserved train yard (no rainfall means no humidity and therefore no rust). This place brought out the kid in all of us, as we climbed all over these magnificent old trains!
Drawing ever closer to San Pedro de Atacama, we left the PanAmerican Highway, turning instead onto a road made of compacted salt. In fact we were heading toward the bed of a dry lake, now the Atacama Salt Flat; the largest in Chile. Beds of brown rock-like salt gave way to a vast expanse of flat white salt stretching as far as the eye can see:
We took time to inspect the geometric salt formations close-up.
Our last stop for today before San Pedro de Atacama was the Los Flamencos Natural Reserve, where you can see - what else? - flamingos in their natural environment. For us it was a good chance to further our wildlife spotting, and a good excuse to take many more sunset shots. Sorry.
Thursday 29 June
The low-rise desert town of San Pedro, whilst pleasant enough to look at, is undeniably tourism-oriented. Here tour operators, internet cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and all grades of accommodation sit cheek-by-jowl, and make San Pedro seem little more than a good base for participating in the many activities locally available.
The town square, San Pedro de Atacama
There is more to San Pedro though, as we would discover a little later. For now, we took in an evening excursion to the nearby salt caves,
and another amazing desert sunset at the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).
Friday 30 June
Among the various activities on offer at San Pedro we spied a brief four-day tour of Bolivia which took our fancy, and so - in between watching World Cup games - we booked ourselves onto the tour which was to leave the following day. Stefan and Karin were continuing with the Chile tour for a couple more days, and so we swapped email addresses and bid them a fond but sad farewell.
After our quick break in Bolivia we would resume the remainder of our Chile tour when we returned to San Pedro the following week. Everything seemed to be going so well; nice hot weather, new countries to explore, adventure, excitement... what could possibly go wrong?
That evening, we had no inkling as to just how soon that question was going to be answered.