Debbie & Alby in Chile

Atacama Desert, CHILE

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DECEMBER 11, 2000 -- It's 3am and we're at the Uyuni Train Station, in a carriage bound for Chile. The cold air makes us numb to everything except to our pounding heartbeats and labored breathing. The train is packed like sardines with the constant battle for luggage space between mainly local and Chilean women trafficking bulk consumer goods to sell over the border. Trains in Bolivia, or for that matter Latin America, are now a dying form of transport, so we thought we would brave the trip before passenger services disappear altogether.


A long 24 hour journey, which was not helped by the ridiculous delay at Chilean customs at Ollague, mainly because our locomotive 'disappeared' while we were being processed by immigration officers. But the tiresome trip was eased somewhat by the amazing scenery on the way down to northern Chile's modern town of Calama (dropping around 1000m in altitude).


DECEMBER 12, 2000 -- It's 3am (again) and we're wandering the empty streets of Calama with a couple of travellers we'd met on the train from France, searching for a place to stay. It's chilly, but it's also a relief just to be out of, what we would hope to be, our last 2nd class long distance train in Latin America. We won't get much sleep tonight; the plan is to catch the money changers (Casas de Cambio) early to pay for our night's accommodation, grab breakfast, head back to the hotel to grab our gear, say farewell to our French friends and quickly hurry to catch the noon bus to San Pedro de Atacama (1 and a half hours SE from here) where its perhaps a little cheaper. We envisage that higher accommodation costs throughout Chile and Argentina will have us making use of our tent to save expenses. Goods and services are expensive in northern Chile. Economy here revolves mainly around the mining industry; sulphur, nitrates, borax and various metals including gold and silver. Water has to be piped in and food supplies imported. Roads and transport vehicles are much improved compared to those in Bolivia.


San Pedro de Atacama is a small oasis town set among the dry desolate landscape of the eroded salt mountains; so much so, in fact, that NASA once conducted tests around here for their experimental lunar terrain vehicles.


DECEMBER 18, 2000 -- After 6 nights of camping in San Pedro, we return to Calama to catch an afternoon bus to Chile's capital - Santiago (23 hours). The overnight trip lowers us gently down to around 600 m.a.s.l. giving us a window glimpse of the Atacama desert before nightfall.


Santiago, the heart of Chile, 5 million strong today, making it the economic, educational and political centre of the country. More European than Indian (almost 100% mestizo), the people of Chile are made up of descendents of different European races other than Spanish that immigrated to Chile between 1800 and 1900, looking for new lands to farm. This was during the period in Chile's history where revolution for independence from Spain was under way and the following 4 year 'War of the Pacific' against Bolivia and Peru to gain control of the nitrate fields in the north.


And so begins the prosperity of Chile's aristocracy. World War 1 was extremely, financially-friendly for the elite where the prices for copper and nitrated, created an artificial boom. The birth of Chile's 'old money'.


Between 1973 and 1990, Chile was under military rule headed by the dictator General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The dictator is now currently in the process of being extradited from London to Chile on charges of torturing and killing Chilean citizens during his time in power - a long process involving a tug-of-war match between the U.K. and Chile testing out the loopholes of International Law.


We stay at a pleasant 'Residencial' owned by a small family next to the Bus and Metro stations - a perfect location for us in a big city. After a day of city orientation by Metro - we catch an afternoon bus to the touristy Vina del Mar - a small seaside holiday resort town. A nice pleasant afternoon walk along its palm tree-lined pedestrian avenue.


DECEMBER 22, 2000 -- An 8am bus leaving Santiago bound for the Chilean Lake District, the region of northern Patagonia. Our destination is Puerto Montt. At this point and beyond south, the land becomes raggedy and mountainous, patched with beautiful lakes tempered by cooler climate and frequent rainfall.


We arrive at midnight; but oddly enough, accommodation was very easy to find; unexpected, being so close to holiday season. The next morning we grab our gear and hop on a noon bus going west about 12 kms into a fairly secluded area of farmland where there are campgrounds situated by a nice quiet bay. Unfortunately, the cold rains arrive during the 3 days we spent here. We used the huge gazebo-like shelter with a concrete fire pit and free firewood provided by our friendly hosts; we were very comfortable. Happy Christmas!!


DECEMBER 26, 2000 -- From the roadside, we hitch-hike to a local bus terminal and then board a bus back to Puerto Montt. With no possibility of acquiring tickets for the 4-day long ferry south to Puerto Natales, we opt for the long way around by road.



Photos and Text Copyright © 1999-2001 Gardner-Berg. All rights reserved.

Sources of Further Reading-

Arrieta, Rodolfo T. "From Atacama to Makalu: A Journey to Extreme Environments on Earth and Beyond" 1997.

Constable, Pamela. "A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet" 1993.

O'Shaughnessy, Hugh. "Pinochet: The Politics of Torture (Fast Track)"

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