2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Taltal, the beaches of northern Chile and the vagaries of guidebooks

The guidebook for our trip to northern Chile turned out to be a bit hit-and-miss. I don’t blame the authors or the publishers, guidebooks are supposed to be just that: guides. They aren’t definitive, they don’t know your personal tastes and, despite their best efforts, by the time they’re published they’re already a year or more out of date.

That disclaimer aside, in the vast wastes of the Atacama Desert to completely ignore one of the few points of civilisation entirely is pretty shoddy. To overlook a really nice coastal town with a lovely central plaza, decent restaurants, bars and very welcoming people is…well…unforgivable.

The coast at Taltal, Chile

The coast at Taltal, Chile

Taltal isn’t going to win any prizes as the most exciting place you can wash up in but I’m glad we did. In truth, we only stopped there because the prospect of driving another 300km to the next pinprick of life on the map was just too much to bear.

A walk along the front and a stroll through tranquil streets as the sun set brought us to the lovely main plaza and a bar with a 1920s ice cream maker. I was going to take a photo of it, but by that time we were involved in a ‘cultural exchange’ involving an indecent amount of alcohol with a group of Chilean miners who wouldn’t let us leave or pay. The night passed quite quickly.

Industrial heritage at Taltal, Chile

Industrial heritage at Taltal, Chile

The fishing fleet at Taltal, Chile

The fishing fleet at Taltal, Chile

Fortified by our previous nights exertions, we set off in the morning to explore the beaches of Chile’s Pacific coast. First on the agenda was a recuperative lunch on a fabulous beach about 30km from Taltal. Except for two slightly hungover gringos and numerous seabirds it was deserted.

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

You can take the boy out of…etc.

Slightly hungover on a beach, Northern Chile

Slightly hungover on a beach, northern Chile

The night before we reached Taltal we stayed in the much heralded Bahia Inglesa, which comes recommended by just about every guidebook ever written. We were expecting tranquil golden beaches and a relaxed vibe; what we found was a small town with crowded beaches that was over-priced and over-developed. This small disappointment was soon put to flight by the wondrous coastline that stretches 1000km north from Bahia Inglesa.

As we headed back north towards our ultimate destination of Iquique, we explored as much of this fantastically beautiful, remote and wild coastline as possible. After all, we’d be back in landlocked Bolivia in a few days so we needed to get our fix while we could.

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

Shells on the beach, northern Chile

Shells on the beach, northern Chile

We reached the eminently forgettable city of Antofagasta for the second time on our journey with only one thing in mind: seeing La Portada. Thanks to obtuse road signs on our way south we’d missed the region’s most famous natural feature; on our way north we were determined to see it.

Perhaps our desire to see it was at fault, or perhaps its the fact that photos of La Portada are used on just about every piece of promotional material about the  region, but yet again reality defied expectation. La Portada is still an impressive sight, just not the impressive sight we were expecting.

La Portada, north of Antofagasta, Chile

La Portada, north of Antofagasta, Chile

Pacific Ocean cliffs north of Antofagasta, Chile

Pacific Ocean cliffs north of Antofagasta, Chile

North of Antofagasta the coast road runs all the way to Iquique, it is a beautiful route where the wild coastline is occasionally broken by sublime beaches with precisely no people on them. Most of this coastline isn’t a holiday destination, at weekends local communities use the beaches but during the week you have them to yourself.

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

Playa Grande, north of Antofagasta, Chile

Playa Grande, north of Antofagasta, Chile

Birds take flight, Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Birds take flight, Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

And finally…just to show there are no hard feelings, a photo of the sunset over Bahia Inglesa.

Sunset over Bahia inglesa, Chile

Sunset over Bahia Inglesa, Chile

Road death shrines of the Atacama

Driving through the Atacama Desert you cannot help but be struck by the number of roadside shrines to those who have lost their lives on the monstrous Ruta 5 highway. It is easy to see how accidents happen with terrible frequency: the Ruta 5 is a two lane highway carrying thousands of large trucks, buses and cars daily, the distances are huge, the landscape monotonous, the heat haze relentless, the speeds high and overtaking maneuvers frequently insane.

Yet what might be considered ordinary tributes to friends and family who have died have, in this part of Chile, been turned into touching and highly personalised remembrances to loved ones. Even more remarkably, it is quite common to see family members tending these shrines even though they are hundreds of kilometres from the nearest village or town.

Many of the shrines are very elaborate, while some such as this tribute to a truck driver are very literal but also very moving.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

In what could be considered an ironic twist, were they not constructed and tended with such obvious sincerity, the shrines often incorporate tires and other paraphernalia associated with driving and highways. The second of the photos below is of a shrine to a bus driver of semi cama buses.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Some shrines are simple and humble while others are very grandiose.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Then again there are some shrines that defy interpretation. Perhaps the person remembered by this shrine was a big fan of dinosaurs.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar

After a brutal eight hour drive through the endless Atacama Desert wasteland, turning west off the Ruta 5 highway towards the sparkling turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean and the pristine white sand beaches of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar was a moment of sheer joy. Even though we were 30km away from the coast I swear I could smell the ocean.

The day had started in Tocopilla, of which I will say only this…stay there on a Friday night if your only other option is death from dehydration in the Atacama Desert followed by your bones being picked clean by vultures. The highlight of a stay in Tocopilla is leaving…although it can also lay claim to be home to the worst Chinese food in the known universe, and probably several unknown universes. Not something the tourist board will want to put on their literature, but it doesn’t stop it being true.

Playa Blanca, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Playa Blanca, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Setting off early along the dramatic Ruta 1 coast road, wedged between the ocean and soaring coastal cliffs, our relief at leaving Tocopilla was palpable. One of the few sites of human interest on the coast road is a haunting cemetery overlooking the ocean. Wandering through it in the early morning sun with mist still clinging to the ocean and the sound of waves crashing onto the beach was an emotional experience.

Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

IMG_0621

Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Child's grave in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Child’s grave in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Sadly, our happy mental state quickly evaporated with the realisation that the coast road was closed south of Antofagasta (another town I’d recommend bypassing). This forced us back onto the Ruta 5 and back into the Atacama Desert.

Luckily, the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is so beautiful and so tranquil that both Tocopilla and the Atacama Desert quickly became faded memories.

The beach where we had lunch in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

The beach where we had lunch in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Part desert and part dramatic ocean cliffs tumbling towards beautiful beaches and azure waters, the park (the name translates as Sugar Loaf National Park) is small buts packs a punch. A trek to a cliff top with ocean views, lunch on the beach, a night in an ocean-side cabana, a cold beer watching the sun set and a walk along the beach in the early morning will be things that long remain in my memory.

Our Cabana at Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Our Cabana at Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Playa Piqueros in front of our cabana, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Playa Piqueros in front of our cabana, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

With a cold beer in hand we watched one of the more memorable sunsets of our time in Latin America.

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

After a walk down the beach in the early morning (a shell collector’s dream), we tackled one of the highlights of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar – a trek to reach the Mirador Pan de Azucar which affords sweeping views across the park and down the coast. The total walk is about 6km and the effort is rewarded by spectacular views. The route passes through beautiful desert scenery, full of different varieties of cactus and sightings of the rare camelid, the guanaco.

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Flowering cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Flowering cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Guanaco in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Guanaco in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

View down the coast, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

View down the coast, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Next up on our trip to Chile was a night in the lovely city of Copiapo and an adventure into the high Andes to the little visited Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces.

Finding meaning in the mountains: the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs

The barren wastes of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile are scattered with hidden surprises. We’d already had our eyes opened at Humberstone and Pica, but there is no greater wonder to be found in the Atacama than the hauntingly mysterious geoglyphs at Cerro Pintados – the largest single collection of geoglyphs anywhere in Latin America.

Driving through the post-apocolyptic landscape en route to Cerro Pintados it seems improbable that there is anything of interest at the end of the dirt road. Perhaps the desiccated corpses of other foolish travellers who made the mistake of wandering off the beaten track, but giant pre-Hispanic artworks wouldn’t top the list of possibilities.

The landscape of the Atacama Desert surrounding the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs, Chile

The landscape of the Atacama Desert surrounding the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs, Chile

The geoglyphs are both pre-Hispanic and pre-Inca, testimony to the fact that there were cultures thriving in these harsh desert conditions long before any form of written history could record their civilisation. Like the culture behind the more famous Nascar lines in southern Peru, very little is known about the peoples who made the geoglyphs, making it hard to interpret what they represent or when they were made.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

The geoglyphs are spread out over several hills, and as you walk down the track dozens more geoglyphs reveal themselves. Its like being in a vast open-air art gallery – albeit one where comfortable seats from which to muse over the artworks are replaced by a searingly hot sun without a single scrap of shade to protect you. The geoglyphs depict a wide range of different images: some, like llamas, birds, people and lizards, are easy to identify; others are fairly abstract ‘creatures’ or geometric designs of squares, circles and lines dotted into the hillside.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

The purpose of the geoglyphs is open to interpretation. Some have speculated that they are ‘signposts’ pointing weary herders of llama trains from across the Andes to human settlements or to the ocean; others believe they have religious or ritualistic meaning and may be instructive ‘stories’, literally writ large; others have argued that because you can only see them in their full glory from a distance or from above that they are messages for the gods or aliens. No one seems willing to acknowledge that they could be graffiti.

The dates of the geoglyphs are equally murky, with a timeframe running from 1450 BC to 500 AD. Whatever their origins and purpose, this is public art on a grand scale and it is believed that they form some of the only surviving evidence of agriculture-based civilisations that colonised this region several thousand years ago.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

While the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs are better know than most, the Atacama Desert is home to numerous other geoglyph sites. We passed two others a short distance off the Ruta 5 highway, but the best known of all geoglyphs is the ‘Atacama Giant’, literally a giant geoglyph representing a human form.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

As we often found in Chile there was nobody at the entrance to the Cerro Pintados from the Reserva Nacional to speak to about the geoglyphs or to give our entrance fee to. There wasn’t even a box where we might have left the entrance fee and, deciding against leaving it under a rock near the entrance gate, we entered the site for free (still feel a bit bad about that).

These last two photos come from different geoglyph sites. I’m pretty sure the doner kebab was invented somewhere between Turkey and Greece, but there is a very suspicious looking geoglyph in the final photo that looks like an early doner kebab prototype.

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fruit and fiesta in the desert, the lemon-infused oasis of Pica

The blaze of green cutting across the landscape is a sight for sore eyes but still comes as a shock after several days driving through the uniform browns of the Atacama Desert. At first it seems unreal, another heat haze-induced vision amidst the wind-blasted, sun-bleached landscapes of northern Chile.

After all, water is needed for life and this is the driest place on the planet, some areas of which have never received rain and where, scientific research suggests, some river beds have been dry for more than one hundred and twenty thousand years. This poses the question, “When does a river bed stop being a river bed and become desert like everything else around it?”

A green paradise in the desert, Pica, Chile

A green paradise in the desert, Pica, Chile

Thankfully this was no optical illusion, this was Pica, an oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert that is renowned for its fruit, particularly the Limon de Pica, a small, tart lemon that is famous throughout Chile. Pica’s lush greenery and thriving agriculture is all thanks to underground water sources surfacing in the middle of the desert. The town also sports a hot spring where it is possible to take the waters.

Pica has developed a thriving (for northern Chile and mainly for Chileans) tourist industry based around the hot springs and the consumption of fruit juices. Not that the town seeks to exploit this in a tacky way, no not at all…

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

I’m clearly susceptible to not very subtle subliminal advertising, minutes after seeing this fruit display I was found at a fruit juice stall ordering a large mango and lemon drink. Delicious.

Thanks to its water supply Pica has been inhabited for millennia, and it was a vital point on the Inca road system south from Peru. Its also where conquistador Diego de Almagro came on his way to conquer Chile for the Spanish, and still retains some lovely colonial era buildings.

We hadn’t planned it but our arrival in the town coincided with the start of a big fiesta centred around the San Andres (St. Andrew) church and the lovely main plaza. After days in the Atacama Desert the sudden riot of colour and music was fabulous and the atmosphere was all fun. At times the whole town seemed to have joined in the celebrations and the streets were full of people dancing.

Although uniquely Chilean, the shared history and culture between northern Chile and Bolivia was clear from some of the costumes worn during fiesta…

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

As with most fiestas in Bolivia the local saints are paraded around the streets accompanied by performers and bands, and much of the action ends at the church.

St. Andrew, fiesta in Pica, Chile

St. Andrew, fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers pray in the church during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers pray in the church during fiesta in Pica, Chile

As night descended things stepped up a gear and the whole of Pica seemed to pour out onto the streets and, accompanied by bands, danced and drank their way around the town. While outside the church other performers danced for hours, some with exciting illuminated masks. It was a a fun night.

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Ghost towns of the Atacama: Santa Laura and Humberstone

Its almost impossible to imagine today, but hidden under the scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Atacama Desert were deposits of nitrates so valuable for agricultural fertiliser and munitions that whole towns with factories, processing plants, hospitals, hotels, theatres and schools were be built in one of the planet’s most inhospitable environments.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards the Atacama Desert was industrialised with Chilean manpower and European finance. Where there had been nothing but harsh desert, population centres sprung up and a huge network of railways linked the far flung nitrate oficinas with port cities on the coast from where Chilean nitrates were shipped around the world.

Desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert near to Humberstone nitrate complex, Chile

Desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert at the Humberstone nitrate complex, Chile

Working conditions were harsh and dangerous for the labourers. Try to imagine the most hellish working conditions imaginable and you may come close to visualising the conditions for many labouring in places like the Santa Laura and Humberstone nitrate processing factories, located in the middle of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Of course, factory managers and nitrate magnets made fortunes from the industry, building grand mansions in the coastal cities and dining on imported delicacies. For a brief time the region became world famous and the nearby coastal city of Iquique grew rich from nitrates, it was famed for having the highest consumption of champagne per head of any city in the world. Such was the value of nitrates in the second half of the nineteenth-century that the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was fought to control them.

Leaching plant at Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Leaching plant at Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Machinery made in Glasgow, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Machinery made in Glasgow, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Giant compressor, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Giant compressor, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Today Santa Laura and Humberstone are two haunting and atmospheric relics of the nitrate boom of the nineteenth-century. Ghost towns that are preserved in the arid climate of the Atacama Desert as if frozen in time. Both are now World Heritage sites. Walking around these man-made monstrosities in the desert is a fascinating and humbling experience, particularly at Humberstone where the artefacts of daily life are still on display in homes or scattered around the site.

Street of workers' cottages at Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Street of workers’ cottages at Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Bedroom in cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Bedroom in cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Kitchen in workers' cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Kitchen in workers’ cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo on the wall of a cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo on the wall of a cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tin of lard from New York, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tin of lard from New York, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fairly upmarket bathroom, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fairly upmarket bathroom, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tennis court, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tennis court, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Santa Laura was founded in 1858 while Humberstone was founded in 1872. Humberstone is a massive site that at its peak housed 3700 inhabitants. It changed hands several times during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), but finally ended in the control of the London Nitrate Company between 1888 – 1921. British capital and engineers were central to the development of the industry and the evidence of their involvement is seen everywhere in northern Chile – including the name Humberstone, for the British chemical engineer who adapted the Shanks extraction process in 1870.

Main nitrate processing area, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Main nitrate processing area, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Proceso de Yodo, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Proceso de Yodo, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Big pipes used as part of a process with iodine, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Big pipes used as part of a process with iodine, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Furnace, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Furnace, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned spring, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned spring, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

The end of the First World War, the development of synthetic nitrates and the Great Depression doomed the nitrate industry in Chile, tens-of-thousands of labourers were made redundant and Chile suffered a terrible economic crisis. Humberstone and Santa Laura continued to operate with vastly reduced profits until 1959 when they finally closed for good before becoming industrial heritage sites.

Abandoned train, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned train, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Crane, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Crane, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert still hides huge deposits of valuable minerals and metals and dotted throughout this landscape are mines, big and small, where humans continue to work in one of the most difficult environments imaginable. Today ‘natural’ nitrates are still extracted in small amounts, but gold, silver, iron and, especially, copper are the mainstay of the Atacama’s mining industry these days.

Where all the dust in the world comes from

What to say about northern Chile? Start with the obvious I suppose. It is big. Very, very big. A vast, seemingly endless dust filled land without life. This is the home of the Atacama Desert which stretches for more than 1000km south from the Peruvian border, stretching the imagination and warping perception as you drive through it…and after eight days of driving through it I won’t be too upset if I never see sand again.

The Ruta 5 passing through the Atacama Desert, Chile

The Ruta 5 passing through the Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama is whipped by high winds and searing temperatures, stirring up dust devils thirty or forty feet high and creating a heat haze that tricks the mind and disorients the senses. It ranks equal first with the Sahara Desert as the least green place I’ve ever been. You can drive for hours without seeing a living thing – not a plant, not an animal, and, apart from the huge trucks thundering up and down the Ruta 5 highway, very few signs of human existence.

The Ruta 5 passing through the Atacama Desert, Chile

The Ruta 5 passing through the Atacama Desert, Chile

Winding its way through this parched and desolate terrain (parts of which never receive rain) the Ruta 5, which has to be one of the world’s more improbable roads, is a two lane ribbon of human endeavour connecting pinpoints of civilization amidst the Atacama’s sun-bleached, post-apocalyptic landscape.

To the west the Atacama drops sharply to the edge of the turquoise waters and white sand beaches of the Pacific Ocean; to the east it rises dramatically to the barren high altitude of the Andes which shelter herds of vicuna and guanaco, azure mineral-laden lakes and blindingly white salt flats. What it lacks in life it more than compensates for in geography.

The Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean meet south of Chanaral, Chile

The Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean meet south of Chanaral, Chile

Andean foothills drop to the Atacama Desert, near Parque Nacional de Tres Cruces, Chile

Andean foothills drop towards the Atacama Desert, near Parque Nacional de Tres Cruces, Chile

Although the distances are huge and the landscape uniformly barren, dotted throughout the region are dozens of mines (Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, plus numerous other minerals and metals), the occasional oasis village where underground water comes to the surface to add a blaze of green to the brown landscape and the occasional, slightly freaky sighting of a train.

A train passing through the Atacama Desert near to Tocopilla, Chile

A train passing through the Atacama Desert near to Tocopilla, Chile

The most bizarre sight in the whole Atacama Desert must be its one piece of public art just south of Antofagasta. The Mano del Desierto (hand of the desert) by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal sits atop a small hill a few hundred metres off the Ruta 5; at 11 metres high you can see it several kilometres away as you drive south, a surreal sight shimmering in the heat haze defying you to doubt its existence.

The Mano del Desierto by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal in the Atacama Desert, Chile

The Mano del Desierto by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal in the Atacama Desert, Chile

It is easy to misjudge distances in the north of Chile, and everywhere takes longer to reach than you originally plan for or expect. Add poorly maintained or virtually non-existent roads and time seems to warp even further.

Then there is the issue of road signage. The Ruta 5 is splattered along its length with road signs. Signs telling you there is a rest place approaching, signs warning of corners, signs advising when it is safe to overtake and when it isn’t. Missing from this signpost landscape are signs telling you how far it is to the next human settlement, the next gas station or the place you’re actually heading for. You can travel hundreds of kilometres before seeing one of these signs.

Visit the CONAF (National Parks) office in the lovely town of Copiapo and, while encouraging you to visit, they will warn you about the dangers of heading east across the desert into the remote Parque Nacional de Tres Cruces: there is no potable water, no centres of population, no mobile signal and very little passing traffic should you run into problems.

Road sign to nowhere, Parque Nacional de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road sign to nowhere, Parque Nacional de Tres Cruces, Chile

Take water, lots of water, food and extra diesel just in case the worst happens you’ll be advised. What they won’t tell you is that once inside the national park there is no signage or any distance markers. You just have to head down dusty dirt roads and hope you’re going in the right direction. We travelled for 100km on a road which we hoped was taking us out of the park back towards Copiapo, there wasn’t a single helpful road sign for the whole 100km.

Thankfully I’m not writing this from the small CONAF refugio that sits in the middle of the park; we made it back and headed for the coast for some beach time away from the Ruta 5 and away from all the dust.