Exploring the Atacama Outback

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Chile  ,
Tuesday, November 30, 2004

How can our world be so incredibly beautiful, whilst simultaneously creating such intense sadness and pain? This is the question that we have been grappling with over the past week or so as we began our two parallel journeys: one of adventure, discovery and joy; and the other, our continuing journey through grief and sorrow over Mike's death.

We left Arica and our comfortable desert campsite, and headed south on the Panamerican Highway through the Atacama Desert, climbing quickly up to the Pampa del Tamarugal at about 4,000 ft altitude. This is one of the driest deserts of the world, and in some areas no precipitation has ever been recorded. It is a stark and hostile environment, yet has a unique and stunning beauty of its own. For hundreds of kilometres we saw not a single plant, tree or any sign of wildlife, just endless sand, gravel, hills and valleys stretching to the horizon. At Cuya, we sat at the side of the road eating our two apples and a single tomato - our other option was to surrender them to the Phytosanitary Checkpoint police who were very vigilant in searching every vehicle for fruit and vegetables which might bring pests and diseases from the north. Further down the highway we were happy to fill up with gas in Pozo Almonte as 'gasolineras' seem to be very few and far between.

Apart from a couple of small towns, even human habitation barely seems to have made a mark, and then only as an afterthought to the mining industries which have played such an important part in Chile's economy. The extraction of nitrates for fertilizers, which was hugely important until the mid-1900s but was then superceded by synthetic manufacturing, is now only a faint memory marked by occasional adobe ghost towns along the way. Copper, on the other hand, continues to be as important as it was in the 1880's War of the Pacific, when Chile victoriously annexed these coastal lands from neighbouring Peru and Bolivia.

We eventually turned east, climbing steadily from the coast up into the Cordillera Occidental until we were over 9,000 ft. With the gas needle down into the red and no gas station for the past three hundred kilometres, we were very glad to suddenly reach the summit and then take a precipitous plunge down into the major copper mining centre of Chuquitacamata. After the long stretches of desolate and lonely desert it seemed surrealistic to suddenly come into a bustling commercial centre with all modern conveniences, including the very welcome sight of gas pumps.

This is the site of the biggest open pit mine in the world, producing somewhere over half a million tons of copper per year and accounting for almost 20% of Chile's export earnings. The full moon rising over the huge mountains of multi-coloured tailings looked very romantic, but the reality is that due to environmental contamination over many decades, the resident population is having to be gradually relocated to the nearby city of Calama. We passed on the official tour, which apparently mostly involves gazing into the immense four kilometre diameter pit that is now almost a kilometre deep, and admiring the dump trucks with 300 ton loading capacity and three metre high tyres!

After an overnight stop in Calama, we pressed on for the small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, that offers very welcome green and leafy shade after the intense browns, purples and relentless sun of the desert. It is a somnolent, dusty village that seems to be a hang-over from the hippie days of the 1960s, with bars, restaurants and adventure tour agencies in equal proportions. Apparently it is a "must visit" on the itineraries of both well-heeled tourists and scruffier backpackers, and the narrow streets and shady plaza are full of gringos savouring the relaxed atmosphere of yesteryear.

Later in the afternoon we decided to take a trip to the nearby Valle de la Luna, that we had seen a tantalizing glimpse of as we had dropped down through the Cordillera de Domeyko on the way into town. The spectacularly sculpted and multi-coloured geological formations really did seem to be reminiscent of the images beamed back from the surface of the moon, and would provide the perfect setting for an intergalactic movie. Salt caves provided cool shade and an opportunity to explore all manner of fascinating underground passages and weird formations with the aid of our flashlights. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, we made our way up along the sand dune ridge for the best possible vantage point for the stunning desert sunset. The sand, gravel and rocks all seemed to glow and come alive as they absorbed the final rays of the fiery sun sinking towards the horizon, with an exquisite and constantly changing display of mauves, pinks, corals and beiges.

Despite it's beauty, the desert yielded no answers, but instead offered peace and quiet for meditation and reflection.
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