My travelling companion Claudio and I have decided to go in search of the Gigante de Tarapacá or the Atacama Giant, which can be found in the desert, close to Huara. We had become friends earlier on in my journey, when we had met at Arica and he had offered to drive me in his jeep to Iquique, where he has many friends and relatives. He wants to show me many places of interest in Norte Grande and today we are searching for a giant and by all accounts he will be easy to find, due to his great size. We drive along a well tarmaced road, edged on either side by the brown and barren earth of the Cordillera. The Cordillera are the low coastal mountains, running parallel to the coast and the Andes. They block the ocean winds, thus allowing the southern winds to keep the atmosphere dry and the earth barren and dusty. As we drive, we continue our discussion on the plight of the miners that we had started earlier on. The life of the miners was very harsh; the low wages were paid in tokens that could be exchanged in the company store for goods. As there was no competition, the miners could not seek a cheaper product elsewhere and were forced to pay the prices asked for by the company store. There was no choice; also it was far easier to find alcohol than water, which in itself could be problematical. Eventually these conditions led to the formation of trade unions and in 1912 The Chilean Socialist Workers Party was formed. Doubtless I will be discovering more of the suffering as time goes by, I’m sad to say. We leave the Pan American Highway at Huara turn and from now on the roads will become more difficult, Claudio tells me.
At Huara we find a church, standing squarely and looking pretty, painted a pale shade of apricot, set off by white window frames and a white ornate cross on the roof. Inside we find it to be cool and light, decorated in blue and cream with vases of artificial flowers to cheer one’s soul after the barren journey. We kneel for a moment at the very ornate altar and as we lift our eyes to the large crucifix in a pillared alcove of white and gold, we see the two angels in attendance. It is a lovely place to pray. We drive across the Hurasina Valley, which is bare, brown and arid and we concentrate on the road. It is necessary to concentrate, because the monotony can easily lull us into an automatic mood. Suddenly a crater or jutting rock is upon us and the soft sand allows the road to fall away. It is not a place to come off the road because assistance is a long way off. The scattered stones give us a bumpy and dusty journey, jolting our bodies and pushing the jeep’s suspension to the limits, prompting me to offer a silent prayer to St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers. I am glad of my hat and sunglasses and copious bottles of drinking water. I have visited the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, so I’m keen to compare the two giants!
This giant is the biggest geolyph in the world, measuring 86 metres high and 35.5 metres wide, cut in a trench 10cm deep, allowing the lighter substrata to show through and colour the giant. We can see him, majestically resting high on the slope of Cerro Unitas from quite a distance away. He presides over an enormous area of sand, under a blazing sun. As we get closer, I can see that this giant is very different from the one at Cerne Abbas, who appears to be very manly and quite hostile. This giant has a square body and long thin arms and legs. He resembles a robot and is much bigger than I had imagined him to be. He has a strange square head with 12 lines coming from it. One explanation could be that the lines could be used as an astronomical calendar or an enormous sundial, for all to see for many miles around. I don’t think that anyone really knows the truth, but I would love to find out! I feel that I am standing in a very ancient place, I am aware that there are very many examples of pictorial geolyphs (pictures of animals and humans in the earth) in this desert. Also rock carvings called petroglyphs and pictographs, which are very impressive pictures of people, animals and symbols. They are very clear because they have been preserved by the dryness of the desert. It can’t just be art, is it a way of communicating? Are they telling a story or maybe leaving a message? I hope to find answers as I continue my journey. Each time that I come across these ancient signs, I feel fascinated, looking at them with the realisation that they are the remains of a lost civilization. Somehow I am in touch with the ancient people, as I stand in awe.
This part of our journey is dedicated to exploring the desert and we are travelling through mile upon mile of sand and heat with an occasional remote village on the way. I feel entranced by this desert, it is enormous and because it lies between the Andes and the Domeyco Cordillero (the costal mountain range) no rain falls, little wonder that it is so parched and cracked in places. Now Claudio tells me about the flowering desert, which sounds quite an amazing phenomenon. Every 10 years or so there is a rare downpour of rain related to an El Niño weather pattern. Seeds that have lain dormant since the previous downpour, spring into life in a beautiful display. Claudio has seen this wonder of nature and can confirm that it is a sight to behold. Unfortunately I will not be able to see it this time, maybe next time I will be lucky. Most places in the Atacama Desert have never had rain! It is the driest hot desert in the world. There are many cacti and it is difficult to imagine how they grow so large in such an arid place, until you see dew drops from the early morning fog that sweeps off the ocean, clinging to the sharp spines. Nature knows the way.
As we drive along, there is sometimes very little difference between the road and the surrounding land. At one moment we are driving steeply upwards and with little warning there is a sudden downward gradient, which is a bit scary because it comes upon us so suddenly. I am so glad that we have come well prepared for every eventuality because serene and peaceful as it is, it is also a long way from help! As we travel along the flat areas, we continue to talk about the wonders of the desert. We look down at ourselves and the jeep coated in sand and can easily understand the dryness of this place. This leads us on to discuss the ancient Atacama mummies that have been preserved by this dryness. The native Atacamenos started to mummify their dead for an afterlife about three thousand years before the Egyptians.
We have stayed in many different places during our time in the desert and have been met by kindness and hospitality. There are very few people living in this area and many of them seem to be pure-blooded indigenous people. Most of the people that we meet are warm and friendly and willing to share their roof and their food, despite the fact that there is a fair amount of poverty here. They seem to have more freedom in their simple lifestyle and they certainly are very welcoming and seem to be happy – I do hope so. It was when we stayed in one of the stone refuges on the footpath between Colchane and Cariquima that I really appreciated the bright clean light of the desert. As I lay down to sleep, pondering on that day’s excitements I watched a myriad of stars shining in the firmament. There is little light pollution in the desert as it is far from habitation of any great size, one reason that the European Southern Observatory is located here. The thoughts that I had as I drifted off to sleep on that particular night were how small I am compared to the vastness of the desert, not to mention the universe, as I tried to count the stars! At this time I also realised just how cold the desert can be at night and I appreciated the forethought that prompted us to pile the jeep with warm clothes and blankets. I am enjoying this virtual trip into the desert. It is such a different experience and such fun, even though quite gruelling at times with the jolting of the jeep and the excessive heat and cold. The irritation from the sand that gets everywhere and the constant thirst and heat during the day are easily forgotten as I cool down in the evening. The sheer size of the desert can be quite overwhelming and the need to concentrate makes muscles stiff with tension.
We have seen a lot of plant and animal life in this desert despite the latin word for desert, desertum meaning abandoned place. It is merely short of water and nature has overcome this problem in so many innovative ways. The Tillandia Catifolia for one, it is a rootless ball-like plant that rolls across the desert, capturing moisture from the Camanchaca (fog) as it goes. Also the camelids consisting of the Llama and its relatives can manage without water for long periods. There are many marvels of nature in the Atacama, proving that it is not abandoned but striving to live with a shortage of water. Humans have adapted too creating giant fog-catching contraptions that look like giant tennis nets. Vapour from the fog is trapped in the device and the water collected is so pure it can be used for drinking and agriculture.
Now we face the decision of where to stay to freshen up and tidy ourselves after our sandy sojourn. I suggest Pozo Almonte as it is at the turn off for Iquique and I think we might find a small guest house there. But Claudio has a brilliant idea and I happily agree to go to Pica thermal baths. I can hardly wait to feel the water on my skin, and to feeling refreshed once again, after being in the desert for so long and seeing this oasis that Claudio is enthusing over. I hope it will live up to my expectations – I’m sure it will. I will be a much cleaner person when I arrive at Iquique to meet a lot more new people, as I am introduced to Claudio’s family and friends!