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Into the Atacama

Thursday, December 8th 2005

I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile's wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn't quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn't even try to explain - he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do.

We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon - we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great height. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a giant hand reaching up from the desert, a little way away from the road, but it turned out to be La Mano del Desierto, a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal. We continued up the Inter-American Highway to Antofagasta, and it seemed crazy to me that, nominally at least, this was the same road I'd travelled on five years ago in Central America. A road connecting this place to the misty mountains of Guatemala seemed impossible.

By 10am we were in Antofagasta, and my first mission was to get coffee. Inexplicably for a South American bus, they'd only served tea for breakfast, and so I set off under the tropical sun to the nearest cafe. Unfortunately, they served me a cup of undrinkable filth, so I went to the next cafe where I got a better one. A third cup at the next cafe along was better still, and now I was ready to look around. I spent a few hours in the city before getting a bus deep into the desert to Calama, a spectacular journey in the late evening sun. I arrived in Calama at 10pm, and set off for the centre of town, which was about a mile from the bus station. I started off walking quickly, but soon realised that I was now 2,400m above sea level and walking quickly was suddenly quite tiring. Gasping for breath, I walked slowly into town.

Calama is a mining town and not particularly nice. Apparently since the Spanish colonisation, 400 years ago, it has rained once, and that was in 1972. I'd wanted to go and see the copper mine at Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had seen the foreign exploitation of Chile's natural resources in 1952, but I'd arrived on a Friday and there were no tours over the weekend. So I just spent a day relaxing in the unforgiving sunshine, watching life on the main drag and buying occasional viciously cold cokes and amazing cakes from a friendly cafe over the road from my hotel.

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