Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Getting high in Bogota

First of all, apologies for the unnecessarily juvenile title. Just because Bogota is Colombia’s capital city and Colombia has been synonymous with the international cocaine trade for several decades, there is no justification for such a childish title.

That said, if you want to see Bogota in all its glory you really have to get high. The city has a location as dramatic as most I’ve seen – La Paz may just nudge it into second place. Bogota was a subdued backwater for a long time after it was founded in 1538. Not any more. It seemingly spreads out for ever across a long and broad valley, and is buttressed on its eastern side by high Andean peaks, including the 3152m Cerro Monserrate which can be reached by cable car.

The best place to start your arial overview of the city is from the 48th floor of a downtown office block which is home to the Mirador Torre Colpatria. The mirador offers incredible 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains, including some of the less salubrious and secure neighbourhoods to the south that are crawling their way inexorably up the mountainside.

View toward Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View toward Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View of the bullring from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View of the bullring from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

What is so striking about the city, is the contrast between the skyscrapers, and the upmarket residential districts that stretch to the north, compared to the poor barrios spreading up the hills to the south. At ground level one day, I found myself wandering by accident into one such barrio only for a police motorcycle to come whizzing up to me to warn me away. A shame, there seemed to be a nice colonial church nestling in the barrio but it didn’t seem advisable to risk it.

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

After that introduction to Bogota-from-above, it was time to walk over to the cable car station that would carry us to the top of Cerro Monserrate. Home to a church containing an important ‘fallen Christ’ statue that is subject to devout pilgrimages. On the top of the mountain we watched the sun set and the lights of Bogota spring into life.

It was an extraordinary sight. Roads suddenly became serpent-like, snaking their way through the city, office blocks were illuminated and changed colour and the city seemed to stretch to the horizon.

The cable car to Cerro Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

The cable car to Cerro Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate with Bogota in the background, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate with Bogota in the background, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bolivian landscapes

Living in Bolivia feels, at times, like living in several different countries all at once. I’ve touched on this before, but the diversity of landscapes, cultures and peoples constantly surprises, and it makes Bolivia one of the most interesting countries in the Americas.

It is possible to be in the Amazon rainforest one day at an altitude close to sea level, and in the high Andes at altitudes of over 6500m the next (although this isn’t advisable). In between there is just about every type of landscape, and a mind-boggling degree of biodiversity, imaginable. In fact, the only thing missing from Bolivia’s kaleidoscope of landscapes is a coastline. Bolivia used to have a large chunk of the Pacific coast, but it lost this to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). There is little evidence that Chile will be giving it back any time soon.

Moving from the Amazon to the Cordillera Real, this is a selection of some of my favourite Bolivian landscape shots…

Bolivian Amazon, Trinidad, Bolivia

Early morning in the Bolivian Amazon, Trinidad, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Bolivian Amazon

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Bolivian Amazon

Rolling wooded hills and deep valleys, Samaipata, Bolivia

Rolling wooded hills and deep valleys, Samaipata, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

View of La Paz from Chacaltaya, Bolivia

View of La Paz from Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Lake in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Lake in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Vulcans Pomarape and Parinacota, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Vulcans Pomarape and Parinacota, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over a lake, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over a lake, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real looms over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real looms over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to La Paz, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to La Paz, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The Siloli Desert, Bolivia

The Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Flamingos in the Bolivian South West, Bolivia

Flamingos in the Bolivian South West, Bolivia

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

A desiccated and surreal world: Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and Laguna Verde

The Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces is a stunning collection of high altitude lakes, bright white salt flats and multi-coloured mountains. It is a beautiful and enigmatic landscape of constantly changing colours, and unlike the better known area around San Pedro de Atacama or Bolivia’s Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the park sees very few visitors.

It is so remote and there are so few visitors that its difficult to get there without your own transport, and with the exception of a couple of CONAF refugios there is no tourist infrastructure in the park. The ‘road’ (I use the term loosely) that runs closest to the park is in theory an ‘international’ road to Argentina, but it is in terrible repair for much of its length, there is no public transport and, apart from the occasional mining vehicle, little in the way of passing traffic.

The sun rises over the mountains en route to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

The sun rises over the mountains en route to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

In the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces it is possible to be apart from the rest of humanity – and from almost every other living thing. One of the reasons I wanted to visit the park was to go to Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde isn’t in the park itself, but is a must see if you are going to come this far from civilisation.

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Driving around a bend on the dirt road the sudden sight of Laguna Verde is a special moment.

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Thanks to the geo-thermal activity in this region there are a couple of hot springs right on the shore of Laguna Verde. Despite the stench of sulphur they are lovely places to soak weary feet while soaking up the magnificent scenery.

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Even though we live in Bolivia at an altitude of 2700m, at over 4500m the park was having an unpleasant effect on us and I frequently found myself short of breath. I wasn’t alone…two young German travellers who were camped by the lake asked if they could get a lift back towards civilisation. They had arrived the day before with the intention of spending a week in the area and climbing the 6893m Volcan Ojos de Salado. Unfortunately they were suffering badly from the altitude and just wanted to descend.

Mineral lake close to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Mineral lake close to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

With our new companions we headed back towards the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and the dramatically located Laguna Santa Rosa, home to a population of flamingos – I’m not sure there is a more unexpected sight in this landscape than these bright pink birds. Before we left Laguna Verde we saw another extraordinary sight – a fully desiccated adult cow. I’m not sure where it came from since we didn’t see any other cows, but it provided warning of the dangers of this region.

Desiccated cow by the shore of Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Desiccated cow by the shore of Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Much better adapted to this landscape are the rare camelids, guanacos…

Guanaco roaming freely in the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Guanaco roaming freely in the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Flamingos at Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Flamingos at Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

We had lunch at an unmanned CONAF refugio on the shore of the lake before driving into a vast, flat plain that seemingly extends for ever and contains a salt flat.

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Our journey out of the park was a little fraught. The authorities haven’t put any directional signposts or distance markers anywhere in the park. This leaves you driving down dirt tracks hoping you are going in the right direction and that you have a enough diesel left to get you to civilisation. This isn’t because they don’t want unnecessary signposts in the park, there are signposts, just none with any useful information.

Luckily our map reading skills were proficient enough to get us out of the park and back to asphalt.

Road to nowhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to nowhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to somewhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to somewhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

One final peculiar sight awaited us as we exited the park – a desiccated horse. I don’t know where these things come from, or if they are in fact placed there by the park authorities as visual warnings to careless travellers, but they are quite ghoulish.

Desiccated horse, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Desiccated horse, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, 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.