Nov 17 – 25th 2017

Ruta del Desierto and One of driest places on Earth: San Pedro de Atacama

Nov 17th – was a down day in Iquique. Occasionally we need a day when we do nothing and rest up from previous drives. Weather has been glorious.

Nov. 18th – we caught a local bus and headed into the historic center of Iquique.

“The city was developed during the heyday of the saltpeter mining in the Atacama Desert in the 19th century. Originally a Peruvian city with a large Chilean population it was ceded to Chile as result of War of the Pacific (1879–1883). Today it is one of only two free ports of Chile.”

We started in the Arturo Prat Plaza to check out the Torre de Reloj (clock tower) and strolled up the pedestrian-only Baquedano Street with its colonial-era houses with balconies that are slowly being renovated and turning into restaurants, galleries, museums and shops. While there one of the two restored trolleys made its way slowly up the street. Reminded me of San Francisco’s cable cars.

Torre Reloj
Georgian architecture

Afterwards we took a taxi to “the Zona Franca of Iquique (free zone of Iquique) which has traditionally been called Zofri. There are around 2.4 square kilometres (0.93 sq mi) of warehouses, banking branches, and restaurants.” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iquique)

Iquique turned out to be such a surprise with its history, urban size, physical setting against humongous (technical term) sand dunes and nestling next to the Pacific Ocean, great weather for us Pacificans, lovely breezes and lack of insects.

Shot from a moving taxi.
Iquique’s waterfront.

On Nov. 19th, hating to leave Iquique but knowing we need to keep going south, we left Iquique behind and followed the Coast Highway 1 staying within a few miles of the Pacific all the way to our next destination – Tocopilla.

Along the way, I started noticing areas marked with white chalk on the barren sand dunes/sandstone. We couldn’t figure out what these irregular shapes were until we spotted several groups of people teeing off. They were golf courses on dirt; ‘greens’ outlined in white chalk.

This entire day the drive reminded me of the US Coast Highway 1 through California’s Big Sur with its towering cliffs (except for sparser vegetation.)

Tocopilla is a mining support town/port and is Not beautiful. But it was a good spot to overnight in; because we needed to head east the next morning up into the highlands on the next leg of our journey.

Tocopilla sunset

Nov. 20th saw us heading up and over the coastal hills, across the dry and sandy center basin around Maria Elena on Highway 24 to Calama up in the highlands.

The SF Giants marketing team left its mark in Calama.

After checking into Camping Casas de Valle in Calama, we walked into the downtown area looking for the Tourist Office to sign up for the free Codelco (government-owned) mining tour to the largest open pit copper mine in the world at Chuquicamata. Turned out to be a bust. Once we found the right address, the Tourist Office had been abandoned. And we couldn’t find where it had been relocated to – if at all.

Nov 21st – We spent the day driving to San Pedro de Atacama which is at approx. 8000′ but which is an oasis in the middle of the desert. Our first campground choice wasn’t open so we spent time driving around looking for the alternative choice.

Although San Pedro’s outlying streets are paved, they have kept the downtown area unpaved with narrow one-way streets (I guess to maintain its laid-back vibe). Plus the town is over-run with tourists who are walking down the middle of the dusty streets. Difficult to navigate; eventually we parked in the one parking area two blocks off the main square, even though we had been advised other Overlanders’ vehicles had been broken into there. Because there were so many people around, we hoped for the best. (As it turns out it was ok for us.)

Our first task was lunch and then to find a tour company to make arrangements to take us out to the Tatio Geyser Fields the next morning. We ended up booking with Terra Extreme an afternoon tour to the Laguna Tebinquiche south of town for an evening drive as well the next morning 4:30am pickup for the geyser trip. We wanted a tour company because we knew the road to the geyser fields was not paved and didn’t want to drive the camper over 50 miles of notoriously bad dirt road.

Weds 22 – Tatio Geyser Field.

It was our mistake to take a large tour; we should know better. The tour companies herd you through, insist everyone stay together in one group and there is limited time to photograph. And when we arrived at the geyser field (which pale in comparison to Yellowstone btw), we were one tour bus out of 20-25. So people were everywhere. On the other hand, their vehicle took the beating over the washboard road.

Tatio geyser field
Why we avoid organized tours when we can.

When we arrived back in San Pedro, we had lunch, retrieved the camper and drove south on Highway 23-CH to see if we could get into A.L.M.A. (Atacama Large Millimeter Array – a large grouping of radio antennas watching the skies.). But discovered not open to public unless with your group.

We ended up boondocking in laid back non-touristy Toconao on their plaza. But the tour companies make this an evening tour stop (to show off the historic church tower badly in need of repair) so around 5-6pm, the plaza was filled with tourists from San Pedro but they eventually cleared out so the locals could enjoy their Zumba class. Finally everybody settled into their small town sleepiness routines and it was quiet overnight.

Thurs. 23 Thanksgiving – We awoke early and drove out to Laguna Chaxa which was larger than the previously visited saline lakes, fewer tourists and more flamingos. Plus many other bird species and lizards. A couple came up to us and asked us if we had driven all the way from CA after they spotted our license plate. Turns out they were living in Washington DC and the gentleman grew up in San Bruno – a suburb close to Pacifica. And we exchanged Thanksgiving greetings – a nice touch for our Holiday.

Chilean flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Lizard at Laguna Chaxa
Laguna Chaxa

After enjoying our walk along Laguna Chaxa, once again we headed south to the high Andean Lakes, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques (mostly paved road except side road which was 6km one way). Beautiful terrain across flats and up into the lakes area.

The desert blooms!
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn line (we’re slowing making our way south), surprising immense fields of lupine in bloom in this dry area, towering volcanoes and breathtaking views across the flats.

A capricorn at the Tropic of Capricorn

After returning to San Pedro, we checked into Glamping Alta de Quitor a few kms. northwest of San Pedro so we could get an early start on the Cordillera Sal as well as the Valle de la Luna.

Nov. 24th – we ended up spending all morning at the Cordillera and the Valle de la Luna with their wonderful and colorful rock formations, large sand dunes and canyons.

Ruta 23 running through the Cordillera de la Sal
Cordillera de la Sal
Valle de la Luna

After leaving the San Pedro area, we returned back to the upper plateau and boondocked at a Calama Shell station. Gas stations are generally noisier than other locales; on the other hand, they are open 24 hours offering a level of security.

Nov. 25th.

Leaving the high Andean plateaus once agin we headed down across the arid, and mostly barren, central Basin to drive to Antofagasta.

On the way we stopped at the historic mining ghost town of Oficina Salitrera Chacabuco to wander around. When we first arrived, we were the only one there and the dogs had to alert the custodian to let us in.

But more haunting was the fact that after the mining and processing operations closed in the 60’s, Dictator Pinochet after the military coup, used it in 1972-1974 as a detention camp for political prisoners who subsequently ‘disappeared’.

Another stop in Baquedano, didn’t yield us lunch (once again we were told “no food” even though there were other patrons eating. We don’t know if they’re trying to save it for the regular locals or since clearly we are not locals, they have something against foreigners eating at their establishments. This only started happening in southern Peru and now northern Chile. Not an issue anywhere else in 20 months of traveling.)

We crossed over the road, through the historic railroad station grounds to the railroad ‘museum’. Not really a museum as such, just abandoned train cars, locomotives and cabooses. Most interesting aspect was the repair house turntable that could bring in 13 locomotives at once.

Arriving in Antofagasta, we checked into the Holiday Inn Express – our third choice since they would allow us to park in their portico.

See the next blog entry for the continuing travelogue.

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