By Carl Somers
There is a part of Chile that many pass through, but few really see. I am speaking here about the stretch of desert highway between Antofagasta and Calama, and if you take the bus to Calama you will miss everything.
We got off of the plane in Antofagasta on a holiday (Battle of Iquique Day), with no plans other than to somehow get to Calama, and ultimately San Pedro, by late afternoon. That is how Eduardo found us, a young gringo couple chilling out by the baggage claim, obviously without a cab and without reservations. Eduardo, of course, was eager to provide the cab.
It was a sunny day. It always is in Antofagasta. In fact, if you pay attention, you will notice that you cross the Tropic of Capricorn on the ride between the airport and town.
As we drove along, Eduardo asked us if we would like to take a “special” tour to Calama. It turns out that Eduardo was born in a local nitrate mine not too far away and has lived in the area all of his life. He loves it, would never think of moving and he knows nearly everything about the local history and geography. The drive is technically only 2.5 hours, but there is a lot to see, and Eduardo was willing to take as long as we wanted. As the price was right, 10,000 pesos (US$24) plus gas, we decided to take a chance.
We needed to pick up a few things for the trip in Antofagasta. Eduardo was happy to oblige, driving us from grocery store to cash machine to hardware store, commenting on the colorful urban scenery on all sides.
(About the hardware store, if you are going to San Pedro, you are going to need a flashlight, as the town generator peters out at about midnight every night, leaving you there in the pitch black.)
The first stop out of town was the ruins of an old silver foundry dating back to the days before the War of the Pacific, when Antofagasta was a part of Bolivian territory. Situated on the coast, the old adobe ruins are beautiful and fascinating, one of many exceptional photo opportunities.
From here, it’s into the desert, and what a desert it is. A mere few hundred kilometers south of the only true desert on earth, where the humidity actually reaches an astonishing zero percent, the Atacama desert is a fascinating study of reds, browns and breathtaking blues.
Thanks to Eduardo’s running commentary from the front of the cab, however, what on the surface looks like an impressive but useless and lifeless outland becomes an incredibly complex landscape, full of mines, landmarks, ghost towns, graveyards and history. Look out for the several-thousand-year-old pictoglyph, several hundred yards across and in the shape of a lizard. Most impressive of all is Estacion Baquedano. There are actually two Baquedano train stations, one of them abandoned, the other all but.
Around old Baquedano, see the collection of zinc English style bungalows, dating from the early 1900s, where a few poor families still live. The English ran a nitrate mine at Baquedano, selling the nitrate to the Germans to make bombs that were carried across the channel to drop onto London during WWII. Go figure.
This is truly one of the marvels of Chile. In the abandoned yard behind the tracks, several ancient steam engines sit petrifying in the desert sun, along with a couple of cabooses and a small clock tower. Feel free to poke around the barn and crawl on the engines. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around who really cares.
Back a little bit off of the road is a graveyard typical of northern Chile, very colorful and with all the plots fenced off with what look exactly like large baby cribs with the beds removed, a truly surreal place. On the other side of this is a plain full of nearly century-old rubbish – shards of china, English beer bottles twisted in the sun, shells and most bizarre, any number of old mining boots, now hardened and shrunk to about the size of a baby’s shoe. Hunt around for a few souvenirs before hitting the road again.
We arrived in Calama late in the afternoon, thoroughly happy with ourselves and our new friend. After a frantic last minute search for a straw hat and a quick late lunch of fried fish and salad we said our good-byes and made out for San Pedro, much richer for the experience. By the way, If you go under a full moon, make sure you do the bus ride from Calama to San Pedro in the dark, as this part of the desert is even more stunning under the moon than during the day.
If your Spanish is decent and you would like to make the trip, give Eduardo Iriarte a call at (56-55) 275-170, Tenglo 5690, Villa los Copihues, Antofagasta. He is an excellent and patient guide and is also available for trips north to Tocopilla and Iquique as well as to the south towards National Park Pan de Azucar.