The Atacama desert and beyond – Ciao Chile

On arriving back from Easter Island we decided that it was time to get moving north to and on to Bolivia. From the plane we boarded a night bus that took us to the town of Caldera on the outskirts of the Atacama desert. There’s not a huge amount to shout about in Caldera except a church designed by Monsieur Eiffel but it was the furthest north we could get in one go. We had been recommended to visit a local beach called Bahía Inglesa which possibly in peak season had more going for it but off season with the majority of establishments closed, even the cactus looked lonely.

A day was enough and the next night having had sufficient time to stretch our legs we headed off on another night bus in the direction of San Pedro. However, our plans were thwarted in the 10th hour of the journey when the driver explained that he could not go any further down the road due to snow. Sure enough looking out of the window the desert was white, I didn’t even know snow fell in the desert but it does and it stops buses in their tracks! This threw a bit of a spanner in the works and called for re-calibration. We decided to return to the coast much to Jamie’s delight as the surf was up… Our new destination became Iquique, a coastal city that sat west of the Atacama desert that promised to be warmer and even… sunny…!

The journey from Calama, the town where the re-directed bus dropped us, to Iquique took around 5 hours and we went through some of the mining towns of Northern Chile. Following the closure of most of the nitrate mines in the 1960’s and the subsequent abandonment of the towns many of these are now ghost towns with only a handful of people living in abject poverty in what were once prosperous places. The areas where the mines are still in service brought more activity with locals coming onto the bus to sell empanadas and other goodies. We drove through Copiapó where in 2010 33 miners were stuck underground for 69 days. Miraculously they all survived.

The change in plan turned out to be fortuitous as Iquique was a great city. As we came in through the desert and over the mountains the first thing you see are mountain sized sand dunes forming a backdrop to the city. The largest of these is called Cerro Dragon (Dragon hill) and is about 4km long and up to 500m high. Apparently it is the largest urban sand dune in the world.

The town had seen mining money in the past and there is a heavy colonial influence. Walking through the main street you could imagine being part of a Western. The surf turned out to be be ‘rad’ so Jamie was happy, although the promise of sun did not materialise so I spent my time hanging out with the stray dogs hoping they would warm my freezing feet!

That evening, as we were walking into town the lights went out and I mean every light in every shop, house and restaurant, every street light and traffic light. Expecting them to come on shortly we continued on our way and sat down for a drink in the pitch black plaza. Two hours later, still no light, the city began shutting up shop, the police were brought in to direct the struggling traffic and we began to realise that dinner was becoming less of a likelihood. The waiters were as bemused as us and said they had never experienced a power cut like it. It transpired that all of the towns right up to Arica in the very north were suffering the same fate and the reason… RAIN IN THE DESERT. The place that apparently in some parts has never actually seen rain before was raining so badly that it caused a two hour blackout for nearly 200 miles! Oops.

Time to leave we headed up to Arica, a place lacking the charm of Iquique but a modern fairly relaxed city with a number of beaches, another church by Mr Eiffel and a famous surf break called El Gringo that Jamie had been salivating about for some time. Again on the outskirts of the Atacama we drove through the barren and rainless (or not) desert to get there and arrived just as the sun was setting. The main high street is tiled and lined with shops, eateries and musicians all competing for the attention of the throngs of people passing through. The bus station is about a 25 minute walk from the middle of town so we caught a collectivo (a taxi with other people) to the centre to find ourselves some accommodation. Arica is an important port for Chile and is only 11 miles south of the boarder with Peru and actually used to belong to Peru. We climbed the Morro de Arica, (again they say hill, I say mountain) overlooking the city that during the battle of the Pacific in 1880 was captured by the Chileans from Peru. It is a patriotic city with the Chilean flag flying everywhere you turn, I guess to remind the Peruvians not to try anything funny.

So the time has come to leave Chile, it has been brilliant, with so much variation across the country, incredibly friendly people and a whole heap to learn. It’s onward and upward as we flex our limbs ready for the next epic bus journey that will take us to Bolivia. I’ll keep you posted…




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