La Silla, San Pedro, Iquique, Arica and Tacna: Santiago … La Silla … Rotation … Control room … Still trailing … Strange Christmas … On the beach … Vicuña … Atacama cycling … Dessication … El Tatio … Iquique … El Morro … Tacna … Poconchile cemetary … Lago Chungará … La Silla alternative view … Plaza de Armas
My first trip to South America was a long, epic voyage, which I'd planned for years and that will probably always be my greatest travel experience. So in a way I was wary about going back a second time. It could never match up to the times I'd had before.
I was going back for work. We had some time on the telescopes of La Silla just before Christmas, so I left behind a chilly London, sat on a plane for 15 hours, and then emerged into a hot, sunny Santiago.
It was fantastic to be back. I'd liked Santiago from the moment I first arrived here, on a night train from Temuco in December 2005. This time we stayed in the ESO guesthouse, and the day we arrived was the day of the 2009 presidential election. The election meant that everything was closed, so we had a look round the quiet streets of Las Condes.
The next day, things were back to normal. We went into the city centre and had a look around. One thing I hadn't done when I was here before was go up Cerro Santa Lucía, a small hill near the city centre. So we went up, and enjoyed the awesome views of mountains in the hazy distance.
We got a bus to La Serena, spent a night there and then headed up to the observatory at La Silla. This was the first major observatory built in the southern hemisphere, but ESO's main observatory these days is at Paranal, a few hundred miles further north. The atmosphere at La Silla is one of faded glory. Most of the telescope domes are now unused.
But there are still world class telescopes in operation, and we had five nights on the largest of them, the 3.6m New Technology Telescope. Because of the transport schedule, we had to arrive at the observatory three nights before our run started, so we had plenty of time to appreciate the incredible scenery up here on the southern fringes of the Atacama desert. The food was awesome, we made extensive use of the ice cream machine, we watched condors hover over the desert, and I discovered the best coffee machine in the world.
Our run started early, in the end. A whole night was scheduled for technical work which ended up being finished early, so we were let at the NTT controls a night ahead of plan. This was a bonus, and we set to work, observing luminous stars in our galaxy and two others a few tens of thousands of light years away.
I had time during the night to set up some star trail shots. The sky was clear, though the humidity stayed just a little bit too high for conditions to be absolutely perfect.
In times past, the telescope control rooms were in the telescope domes, and observers would drive out each night and spent the hours of darkness ensconced in the dome. But in recent years they've moved all the major telescope controls into one room. It's conveniently close to the kitchen so getting a midnight meal is easy, but it feels strange to be so far from the actual telescope.
In our temporary office in the control room building, there was a spectacularly good coffee machine which dispensed awesome espressos at the touch of a button. The first night we were there I pressed that button 15 times, and by dawn I felt slightly unusual. In subsequent nights I kept my button presses to single figures.
The only thing I seriously didn't like about the control room was its bizarre cuckoo clock, which chimed loudly and cheesily every hour. Somehow the intervals between the chimes seemed much shorter than an hour, and I felt like each ridiculous chime was marking the passage of an hour of my life that I wouldn't get back. Later, we met a Swiss astronomer using the Swiss national telescope. One evening we went out to see their set up, and saw their spectacularly nice kitchen and lounge area. He claimed that the cuckoo clock was the legacy of a terrible misunderstanding when the control room was being refurbished. Someone had said it should be "like what the Swiss have got", or something like that, but somehow this was understood as a request for Swiss touches, and hence a cuckoo clock was purchased.
The nights passed. We lost half of one due to technical problems, but we were a night up thanks to the earlier "technical" night, so we weren't unhappy. The observations ran smoothly and I had plenty of time during our long hours tracking each object to go out and look at the sky.
There were vizcachas, Andean foxes, and donkeys around the observatory. In the night, I kept hearing noises of animal movements in the dark, and I was never sure what was actually there. I'd go to remote parts of the observatory, set the camera going and then head back to the comfort of the control room, the kitchen, or the pool table, where each morning we would continue an epic series of games. One of them was slightly disrupted by a magnitude 5.5 earthquake, which I still maintain led to my narrow 39-38 defeat in the series.
It was time to leave La Silla. Our observing run had been very successful, and now it was time to relax for a few days. It was Christmas, and we spent a couple of days in a small cottage by the beach in La Serena.
I wasn't sure if I liked La Serena that much. The town was OK but very quiet, and the beach was a long walk away from the centre. And although I enjoyed relaxing for a couple of days, I felt very impatient to get travelling to more interesting parts.
Christmas day was hot and sunny. We had gone to a supermarket the day before but not found very much that we could make a traditional British Christmas dinner out of, in our cottage which had no oven. So we had pancakes for breakfast and a strange potato-egg-vegetable fry up for lunch. Then we walked on the beach, which seemed very weird. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to Christmas Day not being dark and cold.
I'd probably not have minded leaving La Serena on Boxing Day, but buses weren't running so we had another relaxing day. At nightfall I went out onto the beach and watched the sea for a while. The lights of Coquimbo shone down the coast, but I didn't feel a great urge to go there. I wanted to head up to the far north, to places I didn't go to on my last trip. Not feeling the La Serena vibe, I packed up ready to leave early the next morning.
I was heading for San Pedro de Atacama. I had a few hours to kill before the bus left, and I didn't feel too keen to spend them in La Serena. I wanted to go to Vicuña, a village nearby, but the buses there didn't seem to follow any timetable. I decided that if one came in the next 15 minutes, I'd go. 10 minutes later, one came into the station, so I got on and headed out.
An hour later I was in Vicuña, where it was a hot, hot day. I sat in the main square for a little while, watching things happen. A small child drove by in a powerful-looking kart - it must have been a great Christmas for him.
It was heading towards midday, and the sun was beating down fiercely. I foolishly decided I fancied a walk up into the hills, bought myself an ice cream and some water, and headed out of town on a path leading to a viewpoint. It was hard work, but luckily not far.
I wandered back into town and got a bus going back to La Serena, and from there I got the night bus to San Pedro. I slept well, happy with the thought that I would wake up in the middle of the Atacama. Before I fell asleep, though, I got one last glimpse of the domes of La Silla on a distant hilltop as the bus rumbled north.
I'd been to San Pedro before. All backpackers in Chile come here at some point on their journeys, and I was no different. I stopped off on my way north to see some desert sights.
I'd cycled in the desert last time, and I decided to do the same again now. I don't really like riding bikes that aren't mine, but the flat-pedalled, slightly too small machine that I hired would suffice for a few tens of miles anyway. I headed out into the desert.
I cycled to the Valle de la Luna. Most people come here at sunset; I arrived in the powerful heat of midday. The advantage was that I had the place entirely to myself; the disadvantage was sunburn so bad that it was visible for weeks. But that would only affect me later. On the day, I enjoyed it.
I headed back to San Pedro. The scenery was really mind-blowing, with giant volcanoes on the horizon, over the wild rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. Lascar had erupted only a few years earlier, and Putana was smoking. I hoped that one day I'd be able to come here and see an eruption.
In the evening I cycled out to the Valle de la Muerte, much closer to San Pedro than the Valle de la Luna. It had been a pretty tiring day, and in normal circumstances I might have slept late the next morning. But I had to be up at 3.30am, because I would be returning to El Tatio.
I'd liked El Tatio the last time I was here, four years earlier. This time I didn't like it so much. The weather was pretty bad, with thick clouds drifting over the place when we arrived. On my first trip it had been savagely cold; it wasn't so bad this time, but the clouds really made it look much less impressive.
So I walked around the geysers, thinking I should probably have gone somewhere else instead of returning here. The 4,300m altitude and a lack of caffeine worsened my mood. But suddenly, just as we were leaving, the clouds dispersed. Within a couple of minutes, the Altiplano had emerged from the gloom, and the sun shone on the wisps of steam from the declining geysers, which only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise.
We drove back to San Pedro via Machuca. Last time I'd been here, we'd had a puncture on the way, and a long wait to change the tyre. I'd been suffering with the altitude and had not felt good. This time the van survived and I avoided altitude sickness.
I got a bus to Iquique. It was a great journey through the desert to Antofagasta, and then up the coast. A stunning moonrise over the Andes felt like a sign that this was a good direction to be heading in.
It was New Year's Eve, and I had a few things to sort out. I needed to buy a flight from Arica to Santiago, if I was going to make it up there and still get back in time for my flight home; I needed a new bag because mine was falling apart; and I needed an FC Iquique football top. I had a great Spanish day and accomplished all my tasks with a minimum of misunderstanding.
I went for a walk on the beach. I kept on getting into random conversations - someone from Santiago visiting the north for the first time, and enjoying the weather, a local who told me there would be fireworks later on, and a very, very drunk guy who was more or less totally incomprehensible. The vibe was good. I sat down in the sand to watch the sun set on 2009, and then went back to the hostel for a new year party.
2010 was a good few hours old before I got up to see what it was like. I hung out in the hostel for a while, brewing Turkish coffees. Eventually I got hungry, and headed out to see what was going on in town. Almost nothing was going on - the streets were deserted and the shops were shut, but eventually I found a shop that was open, and bought some food. Then I went to the beach, which was where everyone was. I wandered through the crowds and found a small patch of sand to sit down on.
I was sad to leave Iquique, but I didn't have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country.
Arica wasn't as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped mountains, so far away they were only just barely visible on the horizon.
I watched the sunset and then watched the city lights come on. I was so close to Peru here that I decided I couldn't leave without a quick look across the border.
Just a few miles north of Arica was the border with Peru. Colectivos plied the route, leaving from near where I was staying. I'd planned to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca, but was thwarted by arriving on a weekend and could only spend one day there, so I had time to spare and decided to spend an afternoon in Peru.
I got to Tacna in the early afternoon. I passed through the long distance bus station, saw buses going to Cuzco, Arequipa, Lima and other places, and felt outrageously tempted to abandon my flight home and disappear into Peru for a while instead. Touts shouted destinations at me, assuming I was on my way to somewhere. But I decided to be sensible, and carried on into town.
Tacna was astonishingly different from Arica. The difference of 20 miles made an appalling difference to the lives and chances of people on one side of the border compared to the other. Arica was a bit grubby and noticeably poorer than places further south, but Tacna was far, far worse off. Every time I sat down I was surrounded by shoe-shine children, desperately trying to make a little bit of money. If they'd only been born a little bit further south they might have had a childhood. It seemed horrifically arbitrary and depressing.
It was grey and overcast when I arrived, but later the sun came out, and Tacna's cathedral looked quite nice in the evening light. As it got dark I thought I'd better head back to Chile. I walked back to the bus station and got in a taxi. The border crossing was most of the journey, and I didn't make things easy for myself by misplacing my entry card, which I'd only got few hours earlier. I rummaged in every corner of my backpack, embarrassed to be causing delays. The border guard muttered something about me being a stoner, which I thought was a little bit harsh. He said I could pay 9 soles if I couldn't find it, but luckily I did, and got out of Peru without further incident. We passed through customs, and a Peruvian girl pointed out that one of the pockets of my backpack was open. We started chatting and she was a bit put out that I'd spent only one day in Peru. I told her about my previous trip where I'd travelled the whole length of the country, and that placated her. She was from Tacna but had lived in Cuzco and we chatted about places there.
And then my taxi was ready to head off. I got back in and crossed finally into Chile. As we approached Arica I saw a sign that said "Santiago 2085". I was quite glad I'd booked a flight and would not have to cover that in a 36 hour bus journey.
I went on a day trip to Parque Nacional Lauca. The journey would take me from sea level to 4,500m in just a few hours, which was certainly going to be a major mistake, more or less guaranteed to give me altitude sickness. But I wanted to see the Altiplano wilderness and this was my only way of getting to the park. So at 7am I got on the bus and we headed inland.
We stopped at some places en route. The first was Poconchile, a small town not far from Arica. The cemetery there reminded me a lot of the Arctic cemeteries I'd seen in Greenland a few months earlier. In both places, the graves surrounded by savage lands made the place feel like it was on the very limits of where human beings could survive.
We took the road towards Bolivia. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towered over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores.
We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It's been tethered ever since to prevent anything similar happening again.
Then we went on down to Putre. The bus driver said that now we were at just 3,500m again, we could "run, jump, dance and play". And it was true - I felt much better for the slight descent. We stopped here for some food and I chatted to some of my fellow passengers. Most were Chileans on holiday here from other parts. I spoke to one couple from Santiago, who were interested that I'd come to Chile to work. They'd heard it said many times that Chile had the best skies in the world but they said they'd always wondered if it was actually true. I assured them it was, and said they should check out the skies around La Silla or Paranal some time.
I headed to the airport at 5.30am. Only when I got there did I realise that my flight was not non-stop but would actually involve stops in Iquique and Copiapó. I knew that between Copiapó and Santiago we'd fly over La Silla, and I wanted to look out for it. We flew over central Iquique, and then it was mostly cloudy from Iquique to Copiapó as the morning fog rolled in off the Pacific.
I started dozing just after we left Copiapó, and soon fell fast asleep. Suddenly I woke, infuriated with myself because I was sure we must have passed La Silla. I looked out of the window and right below me, as clear as anything, was the observatory.
Back in Santiago it was a beautiful summery day. I had only an afternoon and a morning before heading back to Europe. News from home was that it was the coldest winter for years, and London was in chaos as a few inches of snow caused mass panic. Meanwhile I sat in the Plaza de Armas, enjoying the summer. An eccentric old man sat down next to me and started chatting. It was good to practice my Spanish, and at first the conversation was quite sensible, but later it became more surreal and confusing. When I could no longer understand what he was saying, I got up and left.
My trip ended badly. I got ill on my last night, and felt horrific the next morning. I felt so bad that I thought I might not make it to the airport, but I decided to give it a go. I threw on my pack and staggered out into the heat of the day. I managed to walk in the wrong direction for a few minutes, turned around wearily and shuffled along to the Alameda. As I reached it I felt horrific again, and ended up having to throw up in a bin. Two passing tramps asked me if I was OK, then asked me for some money. I wasn't feeling charitable and I think I told them to piss off and leave me alone, or something like that. I sat down, took some deep breaths, and then found the airport bus.
At the airport I could hardly stand up, and I slumped against the check-in desk, pale and shaking. I thought I probably looked like I was a heavy drugs user on a major withdrawal, and wondered if I'd have problems at security, but I got through. And whatever was wrong with me passed within a few hours. By the time we landed in Europe I was feeling pretty OK again. I thought I was hearing things when the pilot said it was -8°C in Paris, but sadly I was totally compos mentis and it really was 40°C colder than it had been when I got on the plane. The short hop back to London took us over a countryside under deep snow. It was a brutal transition.