By Izabella 

I am staying in a very comfortable hotel at the moment, it is close to a beach, has its own pool and also a conference room. By chance I have met two different groups of people attending conferences who have opened up further opportunities for my travels. The first people that I got into conversation with last week are scientists, who are going to Antarctica sometime in the future. We had some really interesting conversations, which resulted in an invitation to accompany them on their trip and a sharing of email addresses. This evening after a wonderful day sand boarding I am feeling really relaxed and spending some time in the bar with a young couple. They are lecturers at the University of Antofagasta and have been combining a few days at the conference centre, with some interesting forays into the desert. We decide to go together to San Pedro de Atacama, the gateway to the salt flats, because it is a good place to take various excursions into the desert.  These flats are formed by the evaporation of salt lakes, leaving a thick layer of salt crystals on the flat earth, which was formerly the lake bed. Alphonse and Maria have a friend, a Chilean archaeologist, who owns a hotel and it sounds just perfect as it is small and has a garden and pool. We book the rooms and prepare to travel the following day. We hire a jeep in all our names, so that we can share the driving and head off in a south easterly direction to San Pedro, a distance of just over 300 miles. As we arrive, I know that I am really going to enjoy my stay here, in this oasis village 7,990 feet above sea level, with the Domekyo mountains to the east and Andes to the west, surrounded by salt lakes, lunar valleys, volcanoes, geysers, lagoons and hot springs. There is so much to see and do, that I feel it could be quite a long stay.

San Pedro was an important settlement in pre-Incan Chile and there are ruins of forts and villages remaining. We travel on the dirt streets with clay coloured adobe houses to look for our hotel and are not disappointed when we find it. The thatched rooms are built from adobe, wood and stone, the garden, as we were promised is lovely. After our extensive, dusty journey, we long to sit in the garden with tall, refreshing drinks and this is just what we do after we have signed in. Alphonse and Maria waste no time in introducing me to their friend, Cristof and we sit on the terrace in the garden, with its native trees, gazing at Volcan Licancabur in the distance and enjoying our refreshments. There is a discussion of the various tours that we can take and things that we really must see and do. Because we are quite stiff from the drive, we decide to take a walk and wander along the narrow streets, with an array of accommodations to fulfil the needs of many different people and purses. I come upon the tree lined plaza, with its pepper trees and see a brilliant white adobe building which is the church of San Pedro, I am fascinated with the cactus-wood doors. Opposite is the town’s oldest house, built for Pedro de Valdivia in 1540. In the 1530s, Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire of Peru. His partner and rival Diego de Almagro tried unsuccessfully to take the land that is now Chile and many of his men and animals died crossing the high Andes. In 1541 Pedro de Valdivia, one of Pizarro’s officers, with his great organisational skills, succeeded to establish the capital of Santiago. He also established La Serena, Valparaiso, Concepcion, Villarica and Valdivia and sent men to explore the Strait-of-Magellan. In 1553 at the Battle of Tucapel, he died fighting the Mapuche, leaving behind him the foundation for modern day Chile.

We find the archaeological museum of great interest, with its millennia-old basketry, ceramics and wood carvings and many other items. The following day, over our morning cup of coffee Cristof tells us all about Pukaras. In the 11th century the Tiwanaku Empire collapsed returning northern Chile to the Aymara and Atacameno peoples. The peace of the area was sometimes replaced by fighting amongst the warlords, as they competed for resources. They needed to protect the trading routes of their ancestors, so they built a fortress on terraced land with steep slopes, thus giving them a vantage point and putting themselves in a position where they could defend themselves. The villagers would come here for the safety of the fortress. It was built with narrow passages, domestic areas and storehouses. In times of peace the people would return to their villages but remain under the authority of the local warlord.   

We decide that we are all game for a 2-mile mountain bike journey to the Pukara at Quitor, ruins of a Pre-Incan fortress built in the 12th century. We arrive on the steep hillside site where the outer wall, narrow passageways, living quarters, grain storehouses, herding pens and communal squares are sprawled. It is just as Cristof had told us over coffee. We leave our bikes and walk the trail to the top of the fortress and stand to get our breath back, viewing the San Pedro river, canyon, volcanoes and the valley of death. We are tempted to walk a further 3 miles to Catarpe, so decide to take a proper rest and settle down to discuss what we have seen so far and drink our water and eat the picnic that we have brought with us. The journey now is wild canyon country and at the end of it an Incan administration centre called a Tambo, which is even more ruined than the fortress. We had had a good day and returned happily to our hotel, where we are able to tell Cristof that what we have seen today, was made so much more interesting by the knowledge that he imparted to us before our visit.

After a good night’s sleep in our bright and comfortable rooms the plan is to take a half day excursion to the baths at Puritama. On arrival I am enchanted to see the hot springs tumbling down the terraces into numerous volcanic bathing pools. We find the changing rooms and make our way by wooden footbridges that link the pools, to the pool of our choice. After having seen the valley of death from above at the Pukara, we decide to spend a day there. It is quite a site to behold, it is truly barren, one of the driest places on the planet and no known life exists here, hence the name of valley of death. As I stand and look at the huge sand dunes and red rock pinnacles I am in awe and also slightly afraid, fearing some disaster that would leave the world that I know, like this. But of course, this was caused 23 million years ago when the Andes were formed and it is rich in mineral deposits. So it is barren above ground and rich below.

Today we are starting out much later, for our trip to the valley of the moon. As dusk approaches, we join the tour to climb the major dune, it is amazing and so beautiful. I am looking at the Licancabur volcano, the one that I can see from the hotel and also Lascar volcano as the sun washes them in shades of red, orange and indigo. It is so striking that it takes my breath away. As we return to San Pedro, Alphonse informs me that Lascar volcano is one of Chile’s most explosive peaks, but it is quiet today, I’m glad to say. As we enjoyed our short journey by mountain bikes the other day, we consider that 6 miles to Aldea will not be too difficult for us, if we take more water and fruit with us. It is one of Chile’s first settlements and was buried beneath sand as the desert encroached on it, for 1600 years. It is a sobering thought that these red clay ruins were built so long ago and to ponder on the feelings of the Atacameno as they made the decision to abandon their homes and therefore return the land to the desert. Cristof had explained to us a little about various places of interest so that we could make a decision to suit each one of us. Chile’s largest salt flat is 1160 square miles in area, so now is the time to make our choices. The salt water lagoon at Cejar is a brilliant blue, the salt and Lithium levels allow bathers to float weightlessly, which sounds a wonderful experience. I think I would prefer to go to the lagoon called Chaxa and I was pleased with my decision as I watched the beautiful flamingos as the sun set brilliantly behind the volcanoes. It is a sight that I will not forget. Maria went to another lagoon famous for its birdlife, where she enjoyed a day bird watching. Alphonse chose to make a trip around toconao and Socaire to see Pre-Incan ruins and petroglyphs and the lovely colonial churches. As each of us use the jeep in turn, the other two spend time getting to know one another and enjoying being in San Pedro, listening to our knowledgeable host.  

We spend the evening happily chatting and make sure that we have an early night because tomorrow our excursion departs at 4am.The excursion to the geysers at Tatio is one that I have been looking forward to since I was told what a marvellous, natural display it is. The steam of the geyser is caused by the contact of cold river water on hot magmatic rock, which is semi-molten stratum under the solid crust of earth. I watch mesmerised at the sight of so many geysers sending their vapour jets through fissures in the rocks and rising to over 30 feet against a background of rust coloured mountains. It is so exciting to hear the grumbling and the sound and sight of the hot vapour jets speeding skywards, it is an experience that I will not forget. The excursion takes us on to another oasis village called Caspana. The adobe houses were inhabited by the Atacameno people before the arrival of the Inca’s and the Spanish. I have a little day dream of what their lives would have been like as I sit in the tiny plaza on a shaded bench, looking out over a rocky gorge. The terraced cultivation that I see cannot be much changed from those early days. After visiting the museum and saying a short prayer in the church we board the vehicle and head for Chiu Chiu. This oasis village was founded by the Spanish and is very pretty, with the whitewashed adobe houses and church. It is a lovely church and well looked after, with its beautiful altar with Christ on the cross and various statues of the Virgin Mary and some saints. Alphonse is very interested in the museum containing rocks and fossils and he can hardly wait for our next stop at the Pre Incan ruins of the Pukara at Lasana. I am feeling so hot and tired so I sit and look down at the green valley below and enjoy the view while Alphonse and Maria go and explore. Back on the vehicle they enthuse over the ruins and how well preserved they are. They describe the fortifications, narrow passages, patios, and various buildings in great detail and sound hugely impressed. When we arrive back at our hotel in San Pedro, all we want after a refreshing dip in the pool is a good meal and a bottle of wine, over which we discuss our day. Tired and happy we go to our beds to sleep and dream.

Now Alphonse and Maria have to return to Iquique to collect their belongings and return to Antofagasta, I ask them to drop me off at Calama on the way. We travel to Calama in the jeep and on parting they suggest that I will be welcome to stay with them when I arrive at Antofagasta. We have been getting on so well that I immediately accept their invitation and we exchange ‘phone numbers. I need to stay at Calama because it is a good base for visiting Chuquicamata, the world’s biggest open pit mine. Here I am now for my brief stay in Calama and preparing for the guided tour of Chuquicamata tomorrow. The distance is only 10 miles, so not too long on the road. On arrival I am impressed by the size of the quarry and see the steps or terraces that put me in mind of a Roman Amphitheatre. Here 20,000 people work and the mine is operational for 24 hours a day. As I travel for an hour on the tour vehicle, it passes refineries and crushing and smelting plants. When we stop at the viewpoint, I look into the mine that gets deeper all the time as 400 tonne dump trucks bring almost pure copper to the top. I am fortunate to be sitting next to a very knowledgeable man on the coach. He is giving me so much information to supplement what the tour guide is telling us. Copper is one of the first metals known to man and because it can be worked either hot or cold, early man could easily beat it into tools, weapons and ornaments. Copper is the best low cost conductor of electricity and is used for wiring homes and in telephone and telegraph systems, also for electrical equipment and machinery. Copper used in electrical conductors must be electrolytically refined to a purity of more than 99.9%. The copper from Chuquicamata is almost pure, so I expect it is much sought after and valuable. Copper can be combined with other metals to make alloys of brass and bronze. It is valuable to industry because of its properties of conductivity and malleability, which makes it easy to shape. Also ductility, which means that the copper can be drawn into thin wires without breaking and it is resistant to corrosion, which means it will not rust. It does become coated with a green patina which protects it from corrosion after long exposure.

Well, now that I have found copper in abundance I am happy to leave Calama in search of silver and other minerals, so I will head for Antofagasta on the next ‘plane, and Alphonse and Maria will be there to meet me at the airport. I have enjoyed this part of my journey and I am looking forward to the next part. I wonder what I will find and who I will meet on the next leg of my journey.


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