San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Monday, July 6, 2015
I have awoken to sunrise in the Atacama Desert. It is one of those disorientating but very special moments when, in the space of one journey, the terrain and weather has so drastically changed as to make one feel like one has just been beamed down here like a character from Star Trek. Except Star Trek characters don't wake up on double-decker buses with blankets over their heads and dribble running down their chin of course. To the east, the sun light just breaks above the Andes, while to the west it turns the sand a strange colour of red I don't recall seeing before.
The first place of note we stop off at is Antofagusta, the road dropping several hundred metres from the desert down to the Pacific. It is a rough looking place with nothing apart from perhaps its location on the shores of the Pacific to give it any plus marks. This far north in Chile it is all about heavy industry, especially the extremely profitable copper mines that have been so vital to Chile's break neck economic development in the past couple of decades. Consequently the towns and cities up here are more geared up for miners than anything with dive bars, overpriced restaurants, three-hour-hotels, and touch-the-walls-and-they-might-fall-down-shopping-malls the most common sight.
Further north and we pass several large industrial sites, smoke billowing into the atmosphere, as well as a number of industrial cemeteries, some stretching for miles, full of rusting truck parts and mega tyres.
It seems like an eternity before we reach Calama, the largest city in this area of the Atacama and home for many of the thousands of hard-working miners who work at the world's largest open cast mine at Chuquicamata. Che Guevara detested those mines and the sub-human way in which the men and their families who worked there worked and lived. Many Chileans have told me Calama is the most god forsaken city in Chile but with a change of bus needed here I must confess its town centre has a decent amount of character and it is also apparent that a lot of new money is going into the city in an attempt to improve its quality of life.
90 minutes to the south east and we reach San Pedro de Atacama, having driven through some quite incredible desert terrain, which resembles NASA images of the surface of Mars. This is one of the driest places on Earth but storm clouds fill the sky and obscure many of the volcanic peaks it is possible to see in this region.
The streets adjacent to San Pedro de Atacama bus station resemble a Mexican spaghetti western. On first impressions and with dust blowing down the streets this does not look very inviting. Katya is suffering from culture shock. She has never been anywhere like this before. Four days out of Europe for the first time in her life, everywhere to her looks dirty, dusty and cold. The dozens of barking wild dogs wandering the streets doesn't exactly help. In fact, so shocked by it all is Katya that she breaks down in tears.
A couple of hours later, blue skies have replaced dusty ones as we sit next to a roaring courtyard fire. Katya has come through the other side of her culture shock. We have found a basic room for the night nearby and enjoy empanadas and tea before turning in for the night. Curiously, the darker it gets in San Pedro, the more inviting it seems to become, as courtyard and restaurant fires give the town a new warmth and cosiness. It is quite amusing how somewhere can appear at first like an absolute shite hole but end up feeling like a cosy little escape from civilisation.