I am writing this from famous San Pedro de Atacama, where I have been since Sunday (August 25) and from where I have been planning since the very beginning to enter Bolivia, via Salar de Uyuni. Sunday morning was real exciting – I arrived from Iquique (via Calama) only to be greeted by a snow storm. It wasn’t quite a storm, but it was snowing, and is the first time in 35 years that it has done so here. It even made the news.
In typical fashion I had not booked a hostel, and the tiny bus terminal was filled with people with equally wide eyes and an equal lack of preparation, so I ended up just kinda following these two dudes to a hostel, where there was pretty cheap bed-space. The mild panic therefore did not last long. San Pedro is in the driest area in the world, so the hostel owner here was utterly flabbergasted by the turn in weather, kept saying “esta loca, esta loca” (it is crazy, it is crazy). San Pedro is not built for water, nevermind snow, so the dirt roads were a muddy slush for about two days.
Snow is a real novelty for me, as I’ve pointed out before, but we have not been blessed with this phenomenon without consequence. Even though the flakes only fell for half a day, and everything is dry now, almost all of the many attractions and sites around San Pedro are closed till further notice and the pass to Bolivia, the reason that I’m here, is closed too. Some people say things will be closed till tomorrow, others till Thursday, and others yet say Monday. I contemplated waiting but San Pedro prices, and the fact that I have been in Chile for five months now, has prompted me to fast track it to Bolivia tomorrow morning, from where I’ll tour the salt plains.
So, while we wait, here is what I’ve been up to since I left Santiago 12 days ago.
I only decided where I was going after Santiago 13 days ago, though – north was the only certainty. One of the new writers at I Love Chile nodded in approval when I threw Copiapó into the mix, and promptly got on the phone to one of his friends who lives in this small town in the Atacama region. Just like that I was set up with a guide and a place to stay, so I bought my ticket and then, the next day, enjoyed one last asado on the rooftop of our apartment building. I had every intention of having a mild party, but that was not to be … These are Chileans and Argentinians we are talking about, after all.
I woke up in Copiapó slightly hungover, immediately struck by the lack of humidity, the brown rolling hills, the striking dryness of the place. I phoned Eduardo, mi amigo de un amigo (my friend of a friend) and then waited for him at the tiled plaza, which offered shade and reflections of trees and a bustling desert life around me, along the dusty streets and among the low adobe buildings, characteristic architecture in this part of the world.
The town is enveloped by the Atacama Desert’s signature mountains, barren but beautiful as they break the continuity of the infinite blue skies.
What I didn’t know about Copiapó until I arrived at the regional museum that day is that this is where the big, famous Chilean mining accident of the San José Mine happened in 2010 – when 33 miners, Los 33, were trapped for more than two months before a painstaking but successful rescue. You should remember this story – the world was entranced, especially since this accident followed Chile’s devastating earthquake and tsunami by six months.
I like Copiapó on principal. It is small and understated. A quintessential Chilean mining town, copper being everything this part of the country seems to have going for – or against – itself. And Eduardo and his family couldn’t have been kinder. His son Eduardo II and wife Andrea took me into their home, invited some friends over that evening, and offered me what I needed – lots of Spanish practice (they spoke no English) and a lift to Bahia Inglesa the next day, helping me search out a place to stay, and then taking me to Caldera.
In Bahia Inglesa we checked out the small beach, had some lunch, and then went searching for accommodation. I wanted to camp there but at CL$15,000 (about ZAR300) I opted for a hostel at half-price in Caldera, which is just 5km from Bahia Inglesa, also on the coast. When oh when will I camp again?
In Caldera I made a welder friend who was on a break between jobs in the mines, but mostly I was getting accustomed to the rhythm of the road again, and my own company, and the quiet intensity of nothing to do. There is really so much of nothing here, and after the racket of Santiago it was exactly the shock to the system I longed for.
I went for a couple of long walks along the beach in Caldera, past the multitude seafood merchants, the train museum, through the harbour, my mind and my gaze transfixed by the otherness of the place. I stayed one night longer than I needed to, I think, and early on Tuesday morning (20 August) I was on my way to Iquique. This rare day-time journey afforded me a decent look at the vast expanse that is the Atacama Desert.
I say the Atacama is brown, but that’s not true. It’s more ashen beige with occasional patches of pale yellow, bleeding into white and, on the other end of the spectrum, into dark grey – this also often being the colour of the sparse low-growing vegetation and the boulders poking out of the sandy earth. The road north skirted the Pacific Ocean to my left, and on the right the mountains become bigger and bigger, eventually towering over the bus and domineering the space.
The ocean that morning was almost the same colour as the misty grey atmosphere, making the line between sea and sky invisible.