Eureka, we´ve reached Arica!

Trip Start Mar 11, 2005
Trip End Jul 15, 2005

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Friday, July 8, 2005

This travelogue could be very short, for those of you who have ever crossed a desert will know that there's not much going on in a desert, and the landscape doesn't change a great deal, and there's very little wildlife, and there's very little plant-life, and there's not much water about, and the sun shines all the time, and it's very sandy and dusty, and . . .

We were unsure about the route to take from Calama: the choice was between taking a direct route from Calama through the Atacama desert to Arica, or heading straight to the coast and meandering part of the way by the sea, paddling in the clear blue water, building sand castles, and dining on fresh seafood in quaint little fishing villages. We chose the desert. Before you rush to the conclusion that we must have had too much desert sun, there was a good reason: as we're coming to the end of our trip, and Philsy has to catch a flight from Lima on 22nd July, we can't risk not getting to Lake Titicaca and completing our journey. The coastal route would have taken at least a couple of extra days, if not more, and we still don't know how much time we need to get to the Lake.

The view from the bus stop of yet another desert ghost town

Bur sadly our romantic, Lawrence-of-Arabia-images of a desert landscape were rather dashed by what we saw. Instead of golden sands, think 'taupe', and a rather dirty, dusty, gritty landscape scarred by abandoned open-caste mines and their equally abandoned towns that once supported the local industry. (Mrs Thatcher would be proud!) We still haven't found a half decent map of Chile (and as Peru is only 12 miles away, we're starting to lose interest in getting one!), but such as we've seen show many small towns marked on the roads; but most no longer exist, so relying on finding accommodation has been somewhat unpredictable!

And it's barren. In places, nothing grows at all, and there is no wildlife: not a bird, insect or mammal. (The only animals we saw were 5 vultures hovering around the town of Pozo Almonte: they must have known that Philsy was passing through. And we saw the prints of a big cat . . .) Occasionally we glimpsed a huge geoglyph adorning the parched hillside, apparently created between 500BC and 1450AD, although we're not too sure if the Coca-Cola geoglyph is from the same period. Memorials also lined the sides of the roads: some very elaborate; others just plain and simple. Whereas in Argentina the shrines are to popular 'saints' like Difuncta Correa or Gauchito Gil, these have people's names and are apparently in memory of loved ones, perhaps killed on the road. Rather more disturbing was the occasional sight of actual graves dug in the desert sand:

But it wasn't all barren. Every so often we entered an area of scrawny trees, presumably feeding off some-kind of underground reservoir. Very occasionally we would come across an oasis of lush vegetation and even small-scale farming along the banks of a stream. The desert is far from flat: massive ridges criss-cross the desert with deep valleys, at the bottom of which sometimes flow narrow rivers supporting small communities. The water is not for drinking, however, as the mining of nitrates and other minerals in the area has affected its purity. And for us, the canyons presented another problem: many of them, particularly at the beginning and end of our crossing, ran from east to west. So it was that after leaving Calama we climbed again to about 3,200m, followed by a 27-mile downhill (Yippee!!). And towards the end of our crossing we awoke from our slumber, ate a hearty breakfast, and climbed 19 miles before elevenses. We're getting rather blasé about hills now, especially at lower altitudes, after panting our way across the Andes! Fortunately these ridges were wide and we cycled along the top for many miles before heading off down again. The perennial wind problem was back again though, seemingly because we were now close to the sea, and the winds whipped up those narrow canyons.

For much of the time the roads were in a very bad state, full of potholes, some huge, and regular cracks stretched from one side to the other, perhaps every 10 yards or so, which went on for mile after mile. This surprised us for Chile is a prosperous country in South America; but of course this is earthquake country. You might have heard about the earthquake of 13th June which killed several people: we stayed in the small town which was worst affected, Huara. We asked if there was an Internet café and were told there was before the earthquake, but that it had fallen down. Where we had breakfast, the lady told us that she had lost a room at the back of her property and much of her stock in the form of bottles was lost. She complained that the government had promised help, but had only given it to private individuals and in far too generous amounts as they in turn started to sell their surpluses, thus further hurting small businesses like her own. Small earthquakes seem pretty common in these parts, for apparently around the week of 13th June there were more than 200 tremors, and indeed during one night in Calama, we felt the earth move . . .

Earthquake damage!

And that was the Atacama - as Philsy remarked rather curiously, interesting but boring! But it was good to get the sun on our backs after the cold of the Andes, especially for the soft South African who is still thawing out. We took to getting up before sunrise (!) to take advantage of the morning southerly winds and although chilly at first, once the sun got up and did its thing, we were soon in T-shirt and shorts and enjoying the heat of the day. And it was good to arrive at our next stop mid-afternoon, have a shower and relax in the remaining sunshine.

But the desert's boring. Now the cat's eyes, they were far more interesting as we could cycle to the left or to the right or even be very daring and go right over the top . . .

... but if cats eyes aren´t your thing, Class 3 are back!
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