Atacama

The biggest challenge presented by Chile was not the climate (pleasant), the security situation (felt safe), sanitation (mostly clean) or even the language barrier. It was the time zone. Having flown across the international date line, we had managed to traverse the largest ocean on the planet, and still arrive before we set off. We were now two hours behind the folks back home, instead of thirteen hours in front, and felt like we had been living in the same day (21st March) for a week. Having taken some time to work it out, I realised that we had actually been in the same day for thirty nine hours. Fitting then that it was the Spring equinox, though we were heading into Autumn. While we may have had reason to curse man’s attempt to make sense of time on our wobbly planet, there was a new city to explore.

From Guest House Mery we could walk up Cathedral straight into the heart of the city, which centered around Plaza de Armas. Most of the architecture was Spanish colonial, and there is a 22 meter high statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down on the city from San Cristóbal Hill, named by the Spanish conquistadors for St Christopher. With this backdrop, we were keen to visit the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, which displayed the artifacts of earlier civilizations. Inside we learned of the patterns of power’s rise and fall, and marveled at their achievements in pottery and weaving. Outside the museum we learned that the phrase for chips was ‘papas fritas’.

Next day we put on our walking shoes to see the Statue of the Immaculate Conception, and take in the view from Our Lady’s perspective. As we moved up the hill we became increasingly aware of the cities scale – a home to six million souls. The statue itself is beautiful, and the angelic choir music being pumped through the tannoy added to the ambience, while the souvenir shops and stands took the edge off a bit. We walked on further to the Botanical Gardens, which were disappointing, though the walk yielded some unexpected views. We also discovered that Nikki had a broken toe. She had stubbed it, twice, while on Kevin’s boat in New Zealand, and Nikki hadn’t really thought much about it, as walking around in flip flops was okay. However, in walking shoes it was hurting. Thinking forward we were concerned that this may affect our planned trip along the Inca Trail – due to start four weeks hence. Keeping this in mind we readied ourselves for the next destination.

Valparaiso is a coastal city two hours drive west of the capital. Miguel was the super-friendly host of Hostal Costa Manantial, which epitomised the phrase bo-ho shabby chic. None of the angles of the high ceilinged rooms, the hallway or the stairwell were straight, as if the whole building had been subjected to multiple seismic movements over many decades, which err… it had. Miguel encouraged us to explore the cerros (hills), which defined the neighbourhoods in glorious colour. The graffiti artists had been given free reign. The resulting graphics are a treat, and occasionally a challenge to the senses. The way the homes cling to the hills makes perfect sense from a cultural perspective, less so from an structural one. A highlight was visiting the library of revolutionary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and reading a translation of one of his poems, while overlooking the city. He chose to contest oppression with good humour and a love for life. He died in 1973, as Chile entered into seventeen years under the Pinochet regime. The country that emerged from those dark times remembers the poet with love.

Also loved by Chileans is their national football team. We had decided to go watch the Argentina derby match in one of the local bars. We missed the start of the game, and were still on the street when the first goal was scored, but it was clear from the cheers and tooting car horns that Chile had taken an early lead. Unfortunately, they could not hold on, and were eventually beaten by the more skillful Argentinian side. However, we made a couple of friends in the bar, and beer came in 1.2 litre bottles, which seemed like a good idea.

Other highlights included the cemetery and the art museum, which featured an exposition of photography by Sergio Larrain. The pictures were from the fifties and sixties, and revealed much about the people and the city – what had changed and what had not.

We had decided to head up to San Pedro de Atacama, stopping off at La Serena on the way. The buses are good in Chile, but the websites can be a bit confusing (and mostly in Spanish), so your best bet is to go down to the station and book the tickets in person. Knowing Spanish numbers helps, and the people are friendly, which is always a big factor in bridging the language barrier. The distances are huge, so each leg of the journey was over twelve hours, and done on sleeper buses. Thankfully, we did sleep. La Serena yielded some of our favourite sunsets viewed from The Pharos (a disused lighthouse) on the sea front, a £2 pair of shades that have yet to disintegrate, a hotel (Hostal Balmaceda) with the best wifi in Chile, and some excellent sea food from Parota (a restaurant near The Pharos).

We awoke cruising through the dramatic and beguiling landscapes of the Atacama. Our accommodation was the best value that we could find in San Pedro, which is expensive for Chile. We decided to stay three nights, and booked a three day tour package with Tourismo Mitampi (US$100 each was good value). Veronica would be our guide, and Pablo drove the minibus with our fellow tourists. They guided us through a sunset in Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), an early morning (3.30am pick up!) to the bubbling and steaming geysers lake views on the high plateau, watching flamingos feeding in salty lagoons, bathing in even saltier lagoons (28% salinity), stopping off to take pictures of the roaming vicuna and alpaca, to name but a few things.

Veronica pointed out the observatory that is built into one of the ranges around the high plateau. I asked her if she thought it was a coincidence that the acronym for the site A.L.M.A. (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) spelled out the Spanish word for soul (alma). She told me it was a coincidence, in spite of the fact that the array focuses on apparently dark areas of the cosmos only to reveal space full to the brim with ancient galaxies.

I wrote a poem…

The desert is not desolate
A dune is more than just sand
Cold, Sun, heat and wind stream through this land
Volcanoes wait
Flamingos harvest shrimp from shimmering lagoons
Amidst a plane of salt rock baking
Guides inform as drivers read the bumps and holes
In pathways strewn across myriad scapes
Alpaca in Atacama roam
Vicuna too graze on golden grass
Stop the bus! Frame the shot!
Show the folks back home
This arid world holds life
Steady in purpose, graceful in flight
Female mountains slow dance
To entice the cratered peaks
But for now in the valley – peace

Daybreak waits as geysers bubble and steam
Sightseers bleary eyed wrapped up zipped up
Against this thin gas conduit
Caught between waters scalding and frozen
Welcome warm light
Skywatchers bid farewell to night
A technicians temple spelled out as soul
In ridges round the high plateau
Instruments set to scan dark space
Humble in our Earthly place
Seeking origin with precision
Adding depth to human vision

Buoyant bathers climb from saline pools
And wash away the residue
Then ride up to another view
To toast the shadows and the hues
In splendour they invite the moon
‘To darkness bring illumination!
Our companion in creation.’

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