Bahia Inglesa, Caldera
photo credit:  Javier Rubilar on Flickr 

By Isabella

I have been travelling in Norte Grande and seeing such stark beauty and noticing the way that all living things can and do adapt to their environment in such innovative ways. Recently I have been in Calama, so that I could visit the copper mine at Chuquicamata from where I took a short flight in a southerly direction to Antofagasta. My friends Alphonse and Maria will be there to meet me and they have a surprise for me, I can hardly wait to find out what it is.

On meeting, we are all very happy to be re-united and go directly to their home, where they explain the plans that they have made for me. One of their special friends is taking a trip in his boat from Antofagasta to Caldera and has offered to take me along. The plan is that I will stay there while he goes about his business and then we will return together to Antofagasta. We are due to leave the very next morning.

I wake early with thoughts of my good fortune and the prospect of time spent in the Pacific Ocean, along this part of the coast. My new friend Francisco has to do some business with the local fishermen and seems so much at home on the sea that I feel confident in his company. As we move through the sparkling waters, Francisco points out interesting places on our journey, he knows the area very well. We see Cerro Paranol Observatory, standing large and white against the brown, barren earth of the desert landscape. I am intrigued with what I see. This will be on my wish list of places to visit at a later date.

As we get close to Chanaral, Francisco points out a large area of coastal desert where a National Park was created in 1985. It is interesting to see the desert swooping down to the water. This park, called Pan De Azucar is so impressive, there are high cliffs of sandstone with sheltered coves and long white beaches, but I am perplexed by its name, could it mean sugar loaf? My breath is taken away by the sheer splendour of this dramatic area of natural beauty. I am aware of the marine fauna that surrounds us and rely on Francisco to ensure that I don’t miss any of the birds and mammals and wonders of nature. When we come upon a school of dolphins, I watch fascinated as they swim gracefully, stop suddenly and execute sharp turns and high leaps. Francisco points to an old or injured dolphin that is being assisted by the others, I am impressed. They are very intelligent and have an affinity to man and have been seen escorting a ship and apparently leaping for joy. Seamen have believed for many years that this is a sign of a smooth and happy voyage. I see many glossy sea lions, sleekly moving through the water like torpedoes. I remember watching them previously at the port of Iquique, further north, earlier on in my journey.

We decide to make a stop at Pan De Azucar and we approach the jetty where the brown and dusty earth with rocks strewn around, meets the water. By shading my eyes from the glare of the strong sunlight on the sparkling sea, I can see many different cacti of varying shapes and sizes, as we get closer, I can see that they are flowering with so many pretty colours. I can also see the bird life in abundance; there are cormorants, pelicans and gulls, all very busy in their quest for fish. Cormorants are related to pelicans and have a powerful hooked beak for fishing, while pelicans have the large elastic pouch for scooping up fish. The cormorants can fly close to the water, looking for fish or perch nearby, ready to dive deeply. They can stay underwater for a long time when they dive for fish; their feet are webbed for swimming, so they are well endowed with attributes for catching fish.

Now Francisco is navigating close to the jetty, so that we can make a stop at the pretty fishermen’s hamlet. His friends have a vehicle and take us inland to see the sights after a delicious fish meal, freshly caught and cooked as we talked. I am feeling so indebted to all these kindly people that I have met since I came to Chile. They are so proud of their country and want to share the beauty of it with me. Francisco and his friends are obviously going out of their way to plan a trip for me. They take me to see canyons and viewpoints with vistas of the desert, coast, and ocean. I am quite overwhelmed with everything that I see here and probably my favourite experience so far is to watch the condor that lives high in the Andes and soars on the thermals, the epitome of freedom. Incidentally, I am told that the condor appears on the coats-of arms of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

Isla Pan De Azucar is a refuge for penguins, which I find fascinating and we spend some time here after Francisco has expertly moored the boat. Not only are there many, very pretty penguins, but there are also many other different types of seabirds. I could stay here on this little island for hours, but we need to make our way onwards. As we continue our journey along the coast, my imagination is filled with sea-farers, explorers and pirates. “ In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, is a little verse we said as children to remind us that Christopher Columbus discovered the South American mainland in this year. I picture his rigged boat with the seamen sleeping on deck in all weathers, while the men of higher rank slept below in relative comfort. At this part of the journey they were probably as happy to be enjoying the fresh air as I am. But during the voyage there was sure to be some suffering especially in stormy weather. Columbus adopted the American Indian invention of the hammock below deck for the men, thus introducing this really useful and comfortable idea to Europe. I am feeling serene as my journey continues and take a moment to ponder how these seamen were feeling, all those years ago, possibly they were afraid of what might befall them.                                                                          

By 1520, Ferdinand Magellan was sailing these waters during his western circumnavigation of the earth. He discovered the narrow, rough waterway that separates the Tierra del Fuego islands from the mainland of South America, which is named for him as the Strait of Magellan. Throughout the year this area experiences high winds and heavy rainfall, so on leaving this strait and entering the ocean, it is no surprise that he called it Pacific or peaceful Ocean. But it is not always peaceful. It is the largest and deepest ocean in the world and is subject to typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and tidal waves. These tidal waves can be over 100 feet high and can roll completely over small islands. Hearing of this powerful force, I am not surprised that a good seafarer has a healthy respect of the sea. The ocean floor is not as flat as I had imagined it to be, it is made up of underwater mountains, ridges and trenches. The water is deepest in the trenches, which run along the coastline.

Now I am thinking of Sir Francis Drake on his voyage around the world in the Golden Hind. The voyage lasted between 1577 and 1580 and he navigated the Strait of Magellan and headed northwards up the coast of South America, passing through these waters that I am sailing on. His boat was quite different from this one at 75 feet (23m) long with 18 guns.

Francisco Pizarro, Spanish conqueror of the Inca Empire and Francisco Vasquez De Coronado, Spanish explorer were travelling this ocean in search of gold and silver. They were not alone, I’m sure, as so many valuable cargoes have been carried on this ocean, and it is hardly surprising that it changed hands so rapidly and that guns were essential for protection or for procuring these riches for themselves and often for their monarchs too. Some of these pirates were encouraged by the monarch who issued letters of marque, which were formal contracts and actually authorised acts of piracy. The monarch would hire a privately owned ship and crew to disrupt enemy sea trade at times of war, and would take a share of any cargo that was seized. These privateers would continue their piracy during peacetime and the monarch would often turn a blind eye. The names of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake spring to mind as privateers who were honoured and became heroes, possibly as a result of the growing coffers of the monarch as much as their seamanship and courage.

While I am thinking of the mariners that have spent time in the Pacific Ocean, I cannot leave James Cook out. He was a great explorer and cartographer who circumnavigated the world twice and commanded 3 voyages to the Pacific. Cook was very ambitious and once declared that “he not only wanted to go farther than anyone had done before but as far as possible for a man to go.” During his first three-year voyage to the Pacific in 1768 he became the first ship commander to serve his men with fruit and Sauerkraut. He was not aware of scurvy or of vitamin C, but he had been told that fruit and Sauerkraut were good foods to have aboard ship. Scurvy is a nutritional disorder which results from a lack of vitamin C in the diet and vitamin C is found in fresh fruit and cabbage among other things. Sauerkraut is white cabbage prepared with salt and after expelling the air, it is left to ferment therefore extending its life. Symptoms of scurvy include wounds healing poorly and the person bruises easily. The mouth and gums become sore, the gums bleed and teeth become loose. Joints may also become sore as bleeding occurs around them. It sounds very painful. Cook travelled the Pacific, discovering several island groups, circumnavigated New Zealand and charted parts of Australia and sailed around Antarctica; that is so impressive! On his final expedition, commanding HMS Discovery and the Resolution, he was stabbed to death on Hawaii while investigating the theft of a boat from the Discovery. 

William Bligh sailed on many voyages with Cook and also became an amazing cartographer, a skill he possibly learned from Cook. He served as sailing master on the Resolution and was with Cook when he died in 1779. Bligh went on to command HMS Bounty on a voyage to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants. His men mutinied when it was time to leave Tahiti, casting Bligh and eighteen men adrift in an open boat with only a small stock of food and no chart. He managed to overcome incredible hardships at sea and he was promoted to Admiral on his retirement in 1811.

I look at the flying fishes and porpoises, shining in the sunlight and remember that these deep waters are home to half the world’s whale population too. The government has designated all national waters as a whale sanctuary. Along with my feelings for the condor, is a desire to see these mighty mammals so this is something else to put on my wish list for later on in my journey

The word Caldera means a large volcanic crater, formed when the remains of a volcano subside down into a magma chamber, emptied after a violent eruption, which may subsequently fill with water. On entering the harbour and knowing that I am in an area of volcanoes and tsunamis I find it very easy to picture this process and I feel sure that this water is very deep. The town of Caldera nestles around the bay, not unlike Lulworth Cove on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset UK. Beyond the buildings, I see barren dessert and bare mountains; whereas the backdrop in Dorset is green. While I am scanning the vista of this picturesque harbour, Francisco concentrates on getting us safely into his mooring. He will shortly be off to the fish market and we arrange a date and time for our return journey and I am off to Bahia Inglesa for a few days of relaxation at this beach resort where I have booked a cabin. Finding that the name given to this bay was because of the swashbuckling English pirates was no surprise to me.

  The sand is bleached white, matching the white waves rolling across the turquoise ocean. I spend time relaxing and thinking of all the brave seamen that have passed this way and of all the action and noise that accompany the robbing and plundering of ships. From here, it is easy to make the occasional visit to Caldera and it is during one of these visits that I have my first sighting of a whale, not at sea, but in the old railway station! It is a fossilised skull of a bearded whale that lived ten million years ago. While walking along one of the beaches at Caldera, I discover a fact about the Chilean Civil War of 1891. At the Battle of Caldera Bay, a torpedo boat sunk the iron clad Blanco Encalada. It seems that this brief civil war was the result of President Jose Manuel Balmaceda’s attempts to distribute the nation’s riches more evenly. Sadly, his efforts ended in his suicide.

Today I am taking the bus to Copiapo, it is only a short distance along this long straight, monotonous road through the dessert, and the views are not gaining my attention so I focus on my fellow passengers. They are all very excited about where they are going and who they will be meeting; they chatter loudly from one end of the bus to the other, so I can piece together a little of their lives. Copiapo is linked to silver mining in the past and also there are copper mines 28 miles to the north, where there was a miraculous ending to a mining disaster. All 33 men were saved after 69 days spent 700 metres underground, thanks to God and San Lorenzo, patron saint of miners. I find a defunct railway that was built to carry the silver to the port at Caldera. There is an impressive old steam train here, still looked after very well in retirement. Silver was first found here in 1832 and there are some beautiful houses built around that time as a result of the good fortune of the people involved with this lucrative mining business. On exploring a nearby cave I find another type of treasure. Here I find some very special biblical paintings on the walls, painted by Padre Valasquez, a very spiritual and talented man,

On the appointed day of our return to Antofagasta to meet Alphonse and Maria once again, I am ready at the fish market, looking out for Francisco with his enormous, sunny smile. Travelling back and feeling happy and relaxed, I listen to Francisco waxing lyrical about the largest sole that he has ever caught and the best mussels, clams, scallops, oysters, conger eels and my favourite, sea bass. All this seafood is here as a wonderful marine harvest festival for these hunter-gatherers of this coast. Also I am hearing the tales of the one that got away and just how big it was! As he is being quite secretive, I have a feeling that he has a present for Alphonse and Maria, which could possibly involve a dinner party. He tells me that fishing is a good life, until suddenly the fisherman’s livelihood is taken away, when the boat is wrecked. This happened to many fishermen in the recent tsunami, as the boats are picked up and hurled onto the port, ending up looking like a pile of driftwood. This makes me so sad, but Francisco re-assures me that the government is pledging help to these fishermen. The return journey to Antofagasta is uneventful and we do lots of talking, as we have got to know each other better now.

I wonder what will happen next, because with Alphonse and Maria there is always the chance of something unexpected. They are a lively couple, with many friends and we are both looking forward to seeing them quite soon now.

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