Calama in the Atacama Desert is one of the driest cities in the world with average annual precipitation of just 5 mm. We are now on 2,260 metres.
Calama is not a touristic place and the most interesting place to visit is Chuquicamata; it is the largest open pit copper mine in the world. The pit is 4.3 km long, 3 km wide and over 1 km deep (pic. 1). We book a tour which is perfectly organised by the operating mine company COLDECO. First, we visit the original minig settlement which is very close to the mine itself. Because of health concerns the company had to shut down the village and all the families were located to the city of Calama where new houses were built for the employees and their families. Today, the village is a ghost town and can only be entered with a booked tour.
The pit itself is impressive; special trucks (pic. 2) are cruising along the dirtroads of the pit. One of these giant trucks costs 10 MUSD and one single tyre 40.000 USD. 5000 litres of diesel for one tank filling - there are eight fillings necessary per day. The pit is operated 24 hours a day all year round. In 2018 this open mine will be closed and changed to underground mining.
We switch to our slightly smaller truck - an Amorak VW and drive to San Pedro de Atacama which is only 100 km southeast of Calama. San Pedro de Atacama is a nice town with loads of backpackers either arriving from - or heading to - the Uyuni Desert. There is a pedestrian zone with lots of souvenir shops, tour operators and travel agencies and restaurants (pic. 3). We like the hang loose spirit of the town.
There are several lagunas in driving distance. Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques are extremly beautiful and impressive. The colours of the Atacama Desert are difficult to describe but we are taken in by the scenery. There are hardly any tourists - one couple with a camper from France and one or two curious foxes.
Laguna Chaxa is best visited at sunset. As the sun sets, all the flamingos are returning to their nests which are very close to the visitor center (pic. 4). Again, we love the width and the colours of this unique place.
You don't have to travel to the Dead Sea to experience floating in salt water. With a salinity of more than 30% you float on the surface of Laguna Cejar. The entry is rather expensive - 21 USD for an adult and 3 USD for a kid, but the shower cabins are brand new, very clean and well worth the money.
El Tatio is the highest-elevation (4,320 metres) geyser field in the world and the largest in the southern hemisphere. The best time to visit the over 80 active geysers is early in the mornings to see them all steaming in the cold air. We aren't early birds and the drive to this geyser field is long and of such beauty that we take our time and take pictures (pic. 5) - the route is the goal. We return to San Pedro and for the perfect sunset we visit Valle de la Luna which is very close to the town. The given name of the valley isn't coincidental; wind and water have carved various stone and sand formations, similar to the surface of the moon.
Speaking of the moon: San Pedro de Atacama is famous for sky observation. Unfortunately, the best equipped observatories aren't open to the public. But there are smaller, more private tours available - our tour guide that evening is an astromener from the United States. The telescopes are big enough to see Saturn and its rings, various well known stars and the surface of the moon. The picture you see on the left is taken with our iphone through one of these telescopes. The tour is very informative and we feel the passion of the astronomer for the skies in the Atacama Desert. The remark that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on earth will be on our kid's mind for the rest of our journey, probably of their lives.
Initially, we wanted to drive from San Pedro to Laguna Blanca y Verde in Bolivia which are only a few kilometres off the boarder. Bad news for us - we are not allowed to take the car across the boarder. Worst case: the officers confiscate the car. We aren't looking for trouble. We try to book a tour which starts at USD 700 - crazy. This is not within our budget - this has to be postponed for the moment.
After five days we drive back to Calama and fly to Santiago de Chile, the capital of Chile. Once again a breathtaking flight: beautiful view on San Pedro, the Salar de Atacama and the Andes.
The first three nights we spend on the Pacific Ocean in Valparaiso, a seaport (pic. 7) about 100 km northwest of Santiago de Chile.
On our antique globe back home (designed in 1905) are the most important ship connections of that time drawn. Valparaiso played an important role in the second half of the 19th century, when the city was a major stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan. This made the city flourish and gain wealth. The opening of the Panama Canal hit the economy hard.
In the past few years Valparaiso has become popular for tourists. The city is built upon dozens of steep hillsides overlooking the Pacific Ocean and is declared a world heritage site based upon its improvised urban design and architecture. Our BnB is situated on one of the forty-two hills which circle the bay of Valparaiso - Playa Ancha. From our room we have a fantastic view on the colonial houses nearby, the city and the Pacific Ocean. Street Art and thousands of graffitis are found everywhere in the streets of Valparaiso. Our camera loves them!
South of Santiago de Chile is one of the famous wine regions of Chile, the Colchagua Valley. The landscape reminds us of the Ticino, the southern part of Switzerland. We visit the winery Viu Manent (pic. 8) and make a tour on a hackney cab which takes us along different vine stocks. While we are enjoying the winetasting, the girls have fun with the five puppies on the property. Viu Manent Carménère is our favourite wine of the day. Cheers!
Santa Cruz is the main village of the area with some very well perseved colonial houses. As in many other South American towns and cities the Plaza de Armas is very well kept and has many nice and historic buildings nearby.
The last three days we spend on mainland Chile is in Santiago de Chile. We enjoy the view from Cerro San Cristobal (pic. 9), do some window shopping and visit the Museo Interactivo Mirador which was great fun with loads of scientific experiments for the young and a bit less young ones.
To sum up, we only regret not having spent more time on the northern coast of Chile. Do you miss Patagonia? This will be a journey of its own some time in the future.