Getting Used to Clean Air

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Monday, 7/3/2006

The plane ride to Calama is a boys' club; the flight attendants strolling up and down the aisles are the only women you'll see. Calama's a mining town and, therefore, if you've got business there, chances are you're a man. It's the base-camp for the world's largest open-pit copper mine, a massive terraced crater called Chuquicamata, first worked under the Guggenheim brothers' Anaconda Copper Co.

The bus from there to San Pedro was a different deal entirely. The company running shuttles to San Pedro, 120 km east of the airport, didn't have enough passengers to make a trip economically feasible. This was lucky for me, because I took a taxi into town, ate lunch and bought a bus ticket for less money than the shuttle would have cost. No skill, pure dumb luck-especially since the cabbie gouged me out of $2 bucks. The bus, though, took two hours, just like the flight, even though it never stopped.

Now, not to dwell on my health, because I've done that recently in these entries, I went to San Pedro to get healthy, to get pure, clean, dry air. And on the bus, the window wide open and my right arm pinning back the whipping sun curtain, I breathed in that air, looking out on the white rock of the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. At least initially, I felt better, or at least that there was hope for my sinuses.

The Atacama Desert is just like what you've seen of it in movies, like, say The Motorcycle Diaries, where the young Che walks across a dry, bright desert, flat and extensive with the sun blaring down so hard you squint through sunglasses. It's unforgiving land in the broadest sense of the term.

My bus got in shortly after 2 p.m, and it was the same one I took out 6 days later-on the surface, a newer model, but with the back bumper missing and the fan belt spinning wildly and totally exposed. My plane had left at 7 a.m., forcing me to leave for the airport at 5 (I woke up 5 minutes before the Supper Shuttle came, luckily, because the alarm didn't go off). If I felt healthier, the tradeoff was how tired I was.

I wandered the town, ate lunch and arranged a tour. I set myself up in a cheap hotel on the west end of town, alongside one of the many irrigation canals that bring water to the town. I knew San Pedro like the back of my hand within half an hour, had taken all the pictures I could bear and signed myself up for the tour that began at 4 a.m. the next morning.

San Pedro, in a sense, is like an indigenous (and even drier) Moab, Utah, set among similar polychromatic geological features. It may be even touristier, though. The mud-brick and adobe huts that line the streets of the 15 square-block town are filled with tour companies, mountain bike rentals and kitschy restaurants, with annoying waiters who try and corral everyone with white skin into their respective establishments, peppering them with the same random 6 words of English.

And that's the funny thing, it seems, about the town. Like many tourist towns in the southwest US, it's largely inhabited by indigenous people (Kunza/Atacameņo), who seem to work elsewhere-like in the salt mines. None of the restaurants employ them, and the tour agencies only hire them as drivers ... but you can buy arts and crafts made by some of them in the Artisan's fair on the northeast end of town.

It may sound crazy to sign up for a sunrise tour, but it was an excuse to go to sleep at 7 p.m. A little congested and a lot tired, I watched the sunset, took some meds and went to sleep. My rest was fitful-the only heater in the room was a plug-in radiator, and the only electrical socket in the room was hanging loosely from the wall. Two or three times in the night, I awoke cold, and had to plug the heater back in, as it had fallen out. I never thought to take out my sleeping bag.

Tuesday, the 4th of July.

The fourth began at 4, cold as hell. The Atacama Desert is so dry and so high (above 11,000 feet, for the most part), that it holds absolutely no heat. It even puts Phoenix to shame: 85 Fahrenheit in the afternoon, 15 in the early morning.

The tour bus came to pick me up on time (I knew then why I'd paid extra to go with an established company), and hustled me the two hours through the night to the Tatio "Grandpa's Crying" Geysers, on a tiny, frozen flat of land near the Bolivian border. The dim moon barely lit up the rocky land around, and the only breaks in utter darkness were tiny villages set in that high country, with a lone streetlamp lighting each.

The highest geyser range in the world, though certainly not the largest (Yosemite steals that prize), El Tatio's spouts of heated, mineral-heavy water are surrounded by a gorgeous chain of red rock peaks and low hills, covered in yellow and green scrub brush. That's the reason you come, to stand on top of where the rivers under the Earth steam up onto the Altiplano amid a series of beautifully austere mountains.

Though only two hours from San Pedro, hauling ass up dirt roads and sprawling flats of sand and rock, you're no longer in the desert. It's the Altiplano, "High Plains," a geographical feature that sits mostly in Bolivia, though its little offshoot across the Andes into Chile is crammed with scenery. It actually gets rain, though not often, but enough to allow for some small scrub vegetation for the Llamas and their smaller cousins, the Vicuņas, to feast upon. And they come in herds, some tagged with colorful yarns, woven into their fur, to brand them as someone's property.

Our guide, interestingly enough, was a San Pedro native and indigenous. Well-spoken in Spanish, I was on a tour of gringos, and he insisted on speaking in English. Luckily, and this is going to sound cruel and callous toward him, I'd read my tour book before setting off, and therefore was able to understand what I saw, so that I could now so wantonly share these little tidbits of scientific information with you.

Five tour shuttles converged on the area, which was big enough and home to enough geysers to keep us all spread out and entertained. San Pedro is starting to receive the floods of out-of-school Chileans and foreigners, and the tours to everywhere are filling up. Luckily, these were only the first signs of high season; the big wave of tourists was still a week away.

Pictures taken, toes numb, we drank Coca tea and boarded the bus (a high-roofed Mercedes van). The next stop, five minutes back toward San Pedro, was a pool, built by mining companies in the late '60s with funding from CORFA, a Chilean government entity that helped fund development in Chile for a few decades, especially under the Frei and Allende governments in the 60s and 70s.

The pool once formed part of a plan to carry water up to the copper and sulfur mines in the mountains above. A stand of rusted, weather-worn machinery near the geysers was also part of the project. Built to purify the geyser water, it was scrapped because the liquid was too heavy in minerals and not cost-effective to purity.

I'd never swum at 13,000 feet before, but didn't plan to either. I'd been waiting for the sun to rise all morning, and it had, but it was taking far too long for its rays to heat up the rocky earth. I'd brought a swimsuit but forgotten a towel, and feared exiting the water would be like death. Hell, it was cold enough through the four layers I was wearing.

The only other stop on the way back, outside of photo-ops with the Vicuņa and a stop at a small river to pickup an indigenous hitchhiker, his backpack loaded with trout, his dress a grimy mix of John Lennon (the glasses and the headband) and James Dean (the jacket), was at a small village name Machuca. I would later see him offering taxis to Calama near an artisan's market.

In that nowhere town, everyone descended upon Machuca's two year-round residents for Coca tea and sopaipillas. A small church stood atop a hill. From the top, from the front gate of the church (locked) I looked out on the town, the tourists and the scenery.

At the bottom, I ran into some Americans who had been studying abroad, albeit in Valparaiso, and they invited me to their hostel for a 4th of July barbecue.

[note: The last time I spent Independence Day in a foreign country, I saw my Ecuadorian professors drinking Jack Daniel's (Black) straight from the bottle, I danced and sang in a circle to Tom Petty and had an M-80 firecracker lit off at my feet (a cruel joke two weeks after I'd been kidnapped, but funny to this day: I hit the ground and covered my head). And all of that on a rooftop in Quito. So I know what gringos are capable of, to say the least, and that's probably similar to what my friends in Santiago were up to.]

After stopping again for another photo-op with the vicuņas and llamas, the bus headed back to town. I fooled around for a few hours-watching the World Cup semifinal in a room full of sad Germans and boisterous Italians. I went to the hostel, hoping for a barbecue, but the owners refused to allow anyone who wasn't paying for a room onto the premises, and no one could negotiate me in.

So, I waited until 8 p.m. for some friends who'd left Santiago that afternoon. They came, ate dinner and I had a beer. Their hostel was much cheaper than my hotel, and we were guaranteed a room to ourselves-so I moved my stuff in so that I could quietly vacate my hotel the next morning. I had already arranged a tour to the Altiplano Lakes for the next day, though my friends-all Midwesterners: Mark and Lauren Feldman (Chicago), Katie Taylor (Chicago) and Sarah Sanderson (Holland, Michigan)-planned to relax and take a tour to Moon Valley, the area's biggest tourist pull. More on that later.

Back at the hotel, the pathetic little radiator, which I'd left running all day in the hope that the room might warm up-the plug pinned to the socket by a bedstand-had accomplished nothing. I coughed before going to sleep and my chest hurt. Nothing, it seemed, could make me healthy. After the morning tour, it had turned into a lackluster July 4th, but what could I have expected in the middle of a desert at the south end of the world?
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