After our Uyuni salt flats tour, we took a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile,
San Pedro de Atacama
Sunday 8th September
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town in the dessert. It is hot and dusty. Our hostel had a really lovely patio area with hammocks. The town is set amongst the dirt roads, with discreet wooden signs for all the shops and banks. In the main square, there is a church, which from the outside looks a little neglected, but inside has the usual ornate display of the virgin Mary and Jesus. This church is different to the others we have seen as its roof is exposed, showing that it has been made using cactus. Dried cactus wood without the pins makes for an alternate long grain pattern on the wood.
Monday 9th September
Calama sits 100km towards the coast from San Pedro de Atacama and is a reasonable sized town with a proper shopping high street. This is the closest we have been to what we would consider a normal shopping town in the last month. Even Chris didn't seem to mind browsing the shops for some chinos. He was even more impressed when his chinos turned out to be a quarter of the advertised price, costing approximately £4.
After lunch, we went on a free tour of the copper mine Chiquimata, which is about 30 minutes from Calama. The tour takes you around the ghost town of Chiquimata, deserted by the last miner family in February 2008. This ghost town feels very strange as everything is still in a reasonable condition, and you completely expect the streets to be full of people.
The mine itself is an absolutely huge terraced pit in the ground. The majority of this tour is viewed from the comfort and safety of the bus; however you still have to wear a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat. Part way down the terraces, there are a couple of viewpoints where you can have a better look at what's going on. You can see these gigantic trucks, capable of carrying up to 400 tons swamping the standard sized cars they pass and making our 50 seater coach look like a toy.
After the mine tour, we still had a good 6 hours to kill before our bus at midnight to Iquique, and so went to the cinema and got some dinner, which took us nicely to the departure time of the bus.
Tuesday 10th September
The bus arrived into Iquique at 5am; however we were allowed to stay asleep on the buys until half 7, which was brilliant as nothing was open at 5, it was freezing cold, and dark until 7.
We dropped off our bags at the hostel, had a shower and headed out. The centre of Iquique has a western feel to it with most of the properties having a decked veranda with railing made out of wood and a matching balcony across whole front section of their wooden house. It is a costal town with good sea for surfers and sandy beaches which I'm sure get pretty busy during the summer months.
We had hoped to hire a car, but they turned our to be a lot more expensive than we had expected, with one company not understanding why we needed to know the excess in case of an accident. They then went on to suggest we hired the car with a driver for 50,000 pesos, however we still had to pay fuel, making it another 40 odd on top. In the end, we found a taxi driver who was more than happy to do it go 50,000 all in.
That afternoon, we visited the replica of the Esmeralda boat, which is moored at the port. This boat is set up as it was the day it sank in May 1830. We were given a guided tour, explaining what life was like on the boat. the boat seemed bright and airy; however I'm sure once you stuck 200 men on it for a few months it was anything but. We enjoyed this exhibition as it's not your usual run of the mill museum, and clearly showed the lives of the crew members on board, depending on their rank.
Wednesday 11th September
The next day, our taxi arrived and he loved being a tour guide, pointing out various sights along the way. Whenever we stopped, he enjoyed telling the locals he was tour guiding. We had decided to do the same tour offered by most the agencies but in reverse so as to miss the crowds. It made a nice change for it to be just the two of us on the excursion.
Our first stop was Pica, a small town with some thermal baths which they had carved into the rocks. These were not the warmest of waters, but still considerably warmer than your average pool. There were 2 caves at one end which created natural stream rooms. Through the floor in a couple of places, you could feel the water coming up from the ground.
Afterwards, we had one if their infamous natural fruit juices before heading to Matilla.
Matilla is a small village with a strange museum which is basically someone's front room full of old fashioned furniture. there is also a church containing a display of Jesus and his disciples having their last meal, during which, Jesus looks incredibly stoned.
La Tirana is another small village with a main square and a church but with a difference. The outside of this church is made entirely of corrugated metal. The bottom half resembles a painted pig sty, whereas the top had all the usual features of a church with its clock and bell towers. Having been won over by the metal exterior of the church, we were expecting the usual within. How wrong were we! The interior of the church was all a deep midnight blue with hundreds of gold stars stuck on the ceiling. The edges of the room were painted gold and there were artistic paintings on most of the walls. I don't think I have ever seen such a colourful church.
The highlight of this tour is the ghost town of Humberstone, abandoned in 1960 when they finished mining the nitrate. This town had previously been almost left to ruin and although it has been a tourist attraction for some time, it was not particularly well maintained. Since 2005, it has been a UNESCO world heritage site and with the funding from that, they have been able to restore a lot of the town to how it once was.
Humberstone is fascinating and take hours to walk around. As you come into the town, there is a row of terrace houses which has each been turned into a miniature museum showing things like the toys the with which the children would play, the tools they used to use and one was set up as an example of a typical home.
Another thing which made Humberstone more pleasurable to visit was the fact that there were no museum guides watching your every move. Unfortunately this was clearly too much freedom for some people as the place was sadly covered in people's names carved into the wood.
You can wander around the former industrial warehouses which house some absolutely massive machinery. Back in the main town, there are a few more houses representing the workers' lives depending on how high up they were within the mining hierarchy. In the middle of all the houses was the main square, off of which were the various town amenities, including a large and recently restored theatre, school with about 10 large classrooms, complete with desks, shops, market, hotel and swimming pool, not forgetting the free hospital, which had been state of the art in its day. I had hoped there would still be a ward set up within the hospital but sadly it was just empty rooms.
There was also a rather strange museum exhibiting examples of doors and windows from Humberstone, even though you had seen plenty of examples throughout the town. This room was very long and contained hundreds of doors and windows.
Just before you leave the town, there is one final building which has been lovingly restored and inside is set up to be a home and also show before and after pictures of the work that has been done on various properties but mainly this one, which had only been completed a year ago.
Final stop for the day with our taxi chauffeur was another former mining town Santa Laura, which is across the road from Humberstone.
This town was a lot smaller with only approximately 500 inhabitants. The main feature of this town is its impressive industrial machine which sits in the middle with a tall chimney behind it. This picture is iconic to the local area.
Thursday 12th September
We hired bikes today and went for a cycle along the coast, stopping for lunch on the beach. As mentioned previously, Iquique is good for surfing and has nice sand beaches. We spent the afternoon reading on the beach and I went for a paddle in the sea. There were a few crazy people who were actually swimming in the sea, despite it not being a particularly warm day and the sea being freezing to the point where it made you numb.
At 11 pm, we caught the night bus to Calama, ready to catch the 12 hour bus to Salta, Argentina the following morning.....or so we thought...
To be continued.... (When I get round to writing the next blog!)