The Secrets of the Desert
We’ve made it out of Bolivia and my engine is running again. It’s six weeks later than I had planned but we made it. The original plan had me and my dad travel for a bit more than a week after finishing the rebuild. Because of all the extra drama we now only have three days before his flight leaves from Calama. Luckily the infrastructure in Chile is infinitely better in Chile than in Bolivia so we should be able to see some nice stuff.
Traveling with my Dad
Yesterday night we arrived late when it was already dark. We knew we had driven down a steep canyon but we had no clue what it looked like. Well, it was a pretty green oasis down in a sandy landscape. Right across the river from our campsite was the Pukara de Lasana, the ruins of a pre-Colombian fortress. The caretaker who also ran the museum was very excited to finally have some visitors, so we got the most extensive tour of the tiniest museum. Luckily we managed to get out after not too much time. The fortress itself was located on top of a rocky hill at the bottom of the canyon with some pretty nice views. There were some petroglyphs and little cross-shaped windows that align with certain stars to announce the beginning of harvest season. Quite nice to be able to climb around these ruins with really nobody else around.
Because we only had a few days left we had to drive all the way to San Pedro the Atacama today. On the way we stopped in Calama for a supermarket. What a culture shock that was! Bolivia has maybe five supermarkets in the whole country. My last six weeks in Uyuni I did not see more than street markets and little kiosks. Chile has full size Wall Marts… So much choice! But also so expensive. The prices here are at or even above European levels. That’s pretty insane. The culture shock doesn’t stop with just the supermarkets. It really feels like you’re somewhere in Texas or something (the flag even looks the same). The roads are paved, people drive the newest and biggest cars, most houses have huge fences around them and the people are heavily overweight. What a huge difference those few hours of driving from Bolivia made.
The drive to San Pedro is a long one through deserts and some nice mountains to pass. Just before you get to the town you drive past the Valle de la Luna. Amazing views especially later in the day when we drove by! The campsite is a huge change from the last couple of months too. There are even non-suicide showers! I can have both a lot of water and warm water at the same time and I don’t have to risk electrocuting myself! Oh the luxury! Getting back to WiFi also shows me how many people around the world were following my dramas. My phone won’t stop vibrating with hundreds of messages of excitement that I’ve finally managed to leave Bolivia! Thanks everyone!
Visiting San Pedro town is another culture shock. It’s very touristy and busy, but also clean and well organised. The church is nice and made of adobe like most buildings in town. We go for a muffin and a hot chocolate at a nice little French bakery. That’s a full day’s food budget for any other country in just one little snack. Luckily the real things to see in the area are in the desert right outside of town, and with your own transport that is pretty cheap to visit. The landscape is wide and empty, the Andes and some volcanoes in the distance and sand, rocks and loads of sand nearby. We cross salt flats, watch heaps of flamingos in some lakes and take an evening swim in a random water hole in the middle of the desert, called Ojos del Salar. Since it’s already our last evening together we head back to town for a goodbye dinner. San Pedro is a surprisingly good spot for fancy goodbye food. We enjoy some really good food and wine at a fancy restaurant while retelling all the crazy stuff that happened trying to fix my van. So many flavors after all the rice and fried chicken in Bolivia.
My dad is flying out of Calama tonight. That means I’ll have to drive back over those mountains to where we came from. But that’s for the afternoon. In the morning we visit the Valle de la Luna. This Valley of the Moon is a part of the Cordillera de la Sal and is a wonderland of sand and rock formations carved out by wind and occasionally water. You can drive the whole valley by car and hike up to viewpoints and explore caves. The views, colors and textures change with every corner we turn. We would like to spend some time here but we have a flight to catch so off we go. The drive back up the mountains is steep and even though we spend quite some time at both mechanics trying to get my radiator fans to run better again they still don’t work properly yet. That combined with a too full coolant reservoir makes the engine boil over once again (hadn’t actually happened since my coolant fountain in Guatemala anymore). Luckily there is no problem, I reconnect my manual radiator fan switch and off we go. I drop my dad off at the airport (this actually is an airport, not just a tiny building next to a runway) and we say goodbye. It’s too late to go anywhere so I just go to the closest campsite.
Nothing… Nothing at all…
That campsite was in Calama itself. Actually pretty close to the city center. The campsite a dust bowl and the facilities are “rustic” at best but it’s cheap and they have WiFi. Calama itself is not a nice town. It’s the main town for the mining industry in the region, it’s big but clearly there is a lot of empty buildings downtown because the mining industry isn’t doing too well. The city has basically nothing interesting and is also not the safest town in Chile. But I’m tired, the supermarket is nearby, I have no plan and as I said: it’s cheap. I end up spending four full days here telling myself every day I’ll leave tomorrow. I have plenty of time to catch up on sleep and enjoy the low altitude of “only” 2300 m, no more dried out lips and nose, no more catching your breath after walking for a minute. Being six weeks behind my original plan means I need to think about what to do. The van seems fine but I’m not really looking forward to spending time at high altitude and driving steep mountain roads again. So I decide to skip Northern Argentina (the plan was to cross from San Pedro to Salta, drive down to Mendoza and hop over the Andes again in Santiago). I’ll now just head down to the coast and follow it all the way to Santiago. This won’t save many 6 weeks, but I guess I arrive in Ushuaia a little later. I also have to work my new bureaucratic drama. Every country so far in Latin America you just buy a SIM card at a local kiosk and pop it in your phone. I bought one in San Pedro but it does not work. Now in Calama, I visited the Movistar shop (the provider), who send me to a different Movistar office, who send me back to the Movistar shop. Turns out Chile just passed a new law that forces people to register their foreign bought phones, otherwise they won’t work. I guess they didn’t think about tourists for that one. Nobody here knows how to register my phone. I think I’ll try again in the next city. After four days at the campsite not seeing anyone, when I have finally convinced myself to leave tomorrow, a friendly Belgian motorbike couple shows up. They drove from Belgian all the way through Africa and are now doing South America. There are too many good stories to tell on both sides so I don’t managed to leave the next day until noon.
A Night at the Strangest Campsite
My goal for today is to drive to the coastal city of Antofagasta. It’s a long boring ride and me leaving late doesn’t help. At the halfway point I want to visit a little ghost town I had read about on my map. However when I get there the gate is closed. The sign says the guy is out for lunch (it’s 4 in the afternoon now). So instead I drive to a nearby gas station to take a short break. I pull up next to a blue VW T4 with Swiss plates. I compliment the couple on their nice van and they kind of like mine too. It turns out we’ve been travelling the same route for the same time but we’ve magically never bumped into each other before. After some fun chats I realize it’s too late for me to continue to Antofagasta and it’s too late for them to head to their next stop which is Calama. I suggest to bush camp at the gate of the ghost town and off we are.
The gate is still closed and the guy out for lunch (6 PM). A couple of minutes later the colorful French RV that I’ve met in Zorritos and Cusco, Peru, also show up. Looks like it will be busy tonight. Another 15 minutes later the caretaker of the ghost town shows up. He tells us it’s OK to camp here but it’s better/safer if we camp inside the gates/fences of the ghost town on the little square. Sounds fine to us. Well, this was quite fascinating, the town was huge and there were signs everywhere clearly counting on large numbers of tourists. The town had a real ghostly feeling but the caretaker had put up some giant speakers loudly playing some happy local folk pop. An interesting combination.
As we started to explore the town we read more about the history. Chacabuco was founded as a nitrate mining town in 1924. It grew to 5000 inhabitants until the nitrate market died and the town closed down again 14 years later. It slowly became a ghost town until it was designated a national monument in the early seventies and renovation started. A couple of years later the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile started and in 1973 it was turned in to a concentration camp. One of the prisoners being the government minister who assigned the town a national monument. During that time it held up to 1800 political prisoners. The camp was closed again in 1974 and the town once again began to fall apart due to the weather and vandals. In 1991 one of the old political prisoners became the caretaker of the town living there all alone and restoring parts of the town and preventing further decay. After his death a new caretaker took his place who now lives here all by himself. This is the guy who let us in.
While exploring the town we found heaps of interesting spots. A eerily renovated theater and town square; hundreds of roofless worker homes, some of them still with belongings in them. Larger homes with huge bathrooms and fancy wallpapers for the bosses and a ginormous industrial complex. Large parts of the buildings are just falling apart. Huge pieces of concrete and steel are just moving in the wind. We climbed into basements and ovens and on top of water towers and chimneys. Fascinated by what we would find around the next corner. And of course this place being in the middle of nowhere in a desert had the most amazing stars at night. Grate photo options with the old broken down cars. This was an amazing experience, but also quite disturbing to be camping in an old prison camp.
And with this I am back on the road and ready to cover the last two countries. Once again a big thanks to my dad for coming over with the parts and joining me on this part of my journey.