Monday, April 27, 2015

Some Observations of the Desert

In the 1880's through say 1930 Chile became very rich from the revenues derived from the nitrate mining industry. With the development of synthetic nitrate the industry collapsed. The mines were simply abandoned and some are now tourist attractions. In this area there is Humberstone, which is in very good condition, and Chucabuca which was on my route. Chucabuca was the largest of the mines and at the time used state of the art processes but it too was caught in the decline and abandoned around 1940. In 1973-74 it housed 1800 political prisoners from the Pinochet regime. Today the site is in ruins. It's a hot dusty place completely lacking in charm and would have been intolerable for the prisoners but for me it was an hour well spent.
Just south of Antofagasta there is a large sculpture of a hand in the desert and it appears in just about every adventure riders story of the Pan American highway. After three trips to Chile it now appears in mine.
As I ride north, to the left of me is the Pacific Ocean and to the right is the vast Atacama desert. And it is vast, taking in northern Chile, southern Peru and extends way out into Bolivia as the altiplano. Though largely barren, there is a certain charm from its mountains, vast valleys and patchwork of colours. There are parts that are said to having never seen rain and others none in years. It's hot in the day and cold at night. Despite all of this there are people trying to scratch a living from it and it is busy with traffic. The traffic is a function of the need to traverse the desert if you want to drive from Chile to Peru. Every now and then there will be a cluster of home-made buildings representing, what seemed to me, to be a last ditch stand for somewhere to live. To call the buildings houses is to take a very liberal interpretation of the word because they are tiny and are constructed from every imaginable material. Some are made from "reed" mats and appear to have no roof. The inhabitants of those by the sea presumably fish for a living but those further inland appear to have no means of surviving except for what they can sell to passing motorists. They cannot or at least do not grow anything and as a result there is no livestock either save for the ubiquitous dog. There is litter everywhere and a complete lack of civic pride. Finally there is the usual smattering of broken down and derelict vehicles. Some of the settlements have names or at least there is a road-sign declaring such but for most there is nothing.
The major Chilean towns on the coast such as Antofagusta, Arequipa, Tocopilla and Arica are commercial ports once the gateway for the export of Spanish booty then nitrate but now are somewhat seedy. Despite this most have high-rise apartments overlooking the sea but are surrounded by the squalor of the poor. Just north of the city of Tocopilla, a horrid place I spent the night in, is the Tocopilla Golf Club. It sits between the road and the beach and there is not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere. The only thing green are painted stones. At least some try and make sense of their situation.
In crossing from Chile to Peru nothing much changes. The town of Tocna was not so bad but Arequipa would have to be the worst place I have ever stayed in. It was truly a dump but with the most magnificent central square - go figure. I got a Chinese meal here for 6 soles or around $2.50.
From my comments so far you might conclude that I found the desert to be rather uninspiring and dismal but not so.  I enjoyed my time in the desert because it was so different from anything I have so far experienced. And it's not over yet because after Cusco we are heading to Nazca and the lines in the desert. By Lima the desert will be pretty much a memory.
Abandoned adobe village. It was flooded at some point.

Adobe construction.

A traffic jam in the middle of the desert.

Abandoned phosphate mine at Chucabuca.

Political prisoners were housed here in 1973-74.

Phosphate is gone but other mining exists.

My hand in the desert shot. Took 3 trips to Chile to get it.

The road north.

Tocopilla Golf Club

Not sure what this is about but in the after-life he has his booze, TV, smokes and his favorite hard hat.

Beach front high rise apartments.


Climbing from the coast road to the inland route and Arica in northern Chile.

Humberstone. Abandoned nitrate mine.

Not much to see  --

which ever way you look.

salt encrusted tundra. 

An example close up.

There are lots of these on the side of the road but this one was the biggest I ever saw.

Just the desert.

A 180 degree shot.

Huge valleys

180 degree shot of above

The driver beware message is pretty graphic in Chile

Ya gotta have a shot like this - yes?

Some sort of settlement in a valley

Typical cluster of dwelling next to the road.

Real estate agent: "You have an uninterrupted view".

"Each section is surveyed and clearly marked"

"First you need to build a straw house"

"Getting from the highway to your street is still a work in progress."

"But we have erected street signs and entrance identifiers"

"A few sections have already been sold."

"Second thing is to build a fence to keep out those pesky neighbours."

"As your wealth increases you can convert to brick over straw."

"Or you could move into a gated community."

"Unfortunately you are some way from the supermarket."

"But the driving experience could be a highlight."

This strikes me as a good use of the desert.

Quite why the air base needs such a long fence beats me.
 It's not like the neighbours over the road are a problem

Add water and the darn place turns green.


Litter, litter everywhere. These are piles of broken glass fizz bottles.












1 comment:

Joy Zaloum said...

Hi Guys,
Still following your trip with a very green complexion.
Good to see there are no major problems so far. Don, your bike has inbuilt motel affinity (IMA) a feature not mentioned in the brochures.
Looking forward to the next episodes as you are now leaving the places I have visited previously, albeit not on a moto.
Cheers to all,
Pete Z..