Cachi - Iquique (21/04/16 - 06/05/16)
Laguna Agua Calliente
After our third and presumably final visit to Cachi we retraced our steps back over Abra del Acay, through the desolate town of San Antonio de los Cobres and bounced our way over the dusty corrugations toward the Chilean border. Our last night in Argentina was spent shivering with cold in a windswept valley with minimal shelter at over 4000m – a world away from our first night in the lovely hostel in Buenos Aires! On ANZAC day we crossed into Chile and an incredible landscape of volcanos, mountains, vicunas and salt flats. Our campsite above the Laguna Agua Calliente had the best view yet but it was also the wildest night yet with crazy wind threatening to destroy our canopy, huge relief to find everything intact in the morning!
Laguna to San Pedro de Atacama
On through the mountains and past lagunas speckled with flamingos, snow capped volcanoes, intrepid tourists cycling in the worst wind we've experienced, along the dusty Salar de Atacama and on to the infamous town itself.
Los Ojos de Salar
Breakfast in the middle of the Salar de Atacama on the salt flats next to the Ojos de Salar (eyes in the salt) which are two similar sized nearly perfect round holes in the salt flat filled with water of a high mineral content making it popular with tourists for swimming. As we drank coffee and shivered in our layers the last thing on our mind was a swim!
San Pedro de Atacama
A tourist Mecca and gathering place for hundreds of back-packers traveling South America didn't sound like somewhere which would appeal to us but surprisingly it had its charm and we stayed 4 days! A huge draw-card being the French bakery just metres from our campsite and which from 8am if you were lucky and your timing was right dispensed divine croissants and baguettes! Anyone who has travelled in south america and survived on the bland white bread options will understand the appeal of this bakery!
El Tatio Geysers
A few hours north of San Pedro are the El Tatio geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the southern hemisphere and being about 4300m above sea level it is also among the highest. What they didn't mention in the statistics is that at its pre-dawn best it must also be among the coldest in the world. After a bone-rattling dip in the “thermal pool” we camped next to the visitors-centre and awoke to a weird white world of steam, ice, bubbling pools and hundreds of tour operators dispensing their loads of shivering visitors from San Pedro, all at six o'clock in the morning!
Chuquicamata (the biggest hole in the world)
Calama in the north of Chile is a mining town definitely not a tourist town, even finding accommodation was a challenge, its main and perhaps only drawcard is nearby Chuquicamata, the largest open pit copper mine in the world. At 2850m above sea level and nearly a kilometre deep it is an impressive operation with several huge roads winding down to the base, all busy with enormous machinery – probably the main reason for Martin having it on his “must do” list!
Originally developed by an american engineer it is now owned by a Chilean state enterprise and for many years was the main producer of copper in the world, although demand has decreased copper still accounts for about a third of Chile's foreign exports. Apart from copper the mine also produces a significant amount of molybdenum, a precious chemical element used mainly in metal alloys but also with many other diverse uses.
Near the mine is the ghost town of Chuquicamata, all previous residents were relocated to Calama due to the encroaching mountains of mine waste which are already covering part of the town. Our tour included a visit to the town and it was an eerie experience imagining the busy community it once held and strangely the central plaza and children's playground is maintained and painted, Pinocchio looked slightly ridiculous in the dusty emptiness.
Calama to Iquique
After the dusty arid semi-desert and highlands it was exhilarating to arrive on the Pacific coast with blueness to the horizon, the fresh smell of the ocean, crazy numbers of seabirds including pelicans fishing in huge groups and incredibly seals, dolphins and whales putting on a display just for us!
Iquique is promoted mainly for its duty-free area and we had planned to buy a few necessities there but sadly it was more of a cheap “china town” type market so we left pretty disappointed, the highlight of our stay was a visit to the fish market which was also visited by a group of huge sea lions begging for scraps.
fish market in Iquique