In this journal
a truck bigger than a building
two thieves attempting to steal my passport
9000 year old mummies
(warning: extremely long journal, if pictures do not load, please refresh)
on my way to Chile
The empty 737 slowly landed at Calama airport. This is the starting point of the desert, and I could see why. There was nothing but dust, sand, and dirt. Only enormous wind power generators protruded out of the featureless terrain, along with the single-runway airport. This airport which belongs to the mining town of Calama is also the gateway to the most scenic and most dramatic town of Northern Chile: San Pedro de Atacama, two hours of bus ride away. This Tuesday afternoon was especially lazy, as I was the only passenger of the 20 or so on board to be a tourist. After the dust settled, I hopped out of the terminal and immediately felt my skin sizzling: they call it a desert not just for shits and giggles. A bus with the sign “San Pedro de Atacama” sat idle at the side, and I approached with a ticket.
“When will the bus leave?” I inquired in Spanish.
“I have no idea, soon.” The driver responded with a typical South American time measurement. Man I miss that so much!
interactive map of my Northern Chile trip
We waited, and waited, and waited. The inside of the bus was like a hot sauna, without all the health benefits of one. My plane had already turned around and flown out, yet I was still the only person there. Finally, I got impatient, since it was so hot that I could not even nap inside after taking over 50 hours of flights to reach here.
“Fine, let’s go.” The driver finally budged, and we pulled out of the airport, with me as the only passenger.
I just chartered a bus for 150km for 5 dollars. The trip is already at a great start.
my enormous taxi
(If you want to learn more about this trip, please go to the introduction section of the Korea part. Don’t worry, this part is not going anywhere.)
San Pedro de Atacama
The bus pulled into the tiny bus terminal at the hottest hour of the day, and I was officially at the heart of Atacama desert. I have always wanted to come here, because I read it somewhere in a book that Atacama is the driest place on Earth. In fact, San Pedro itself is the driest town in the world! The fact could be evidenced by the reality that my lips were already cracking up even before I got to the hostel.
fire under a starry night
So for dinner, I needed to hydrate myself, so I went for the most Chilean thing possible: mote con huesillo. If you have read my previous Santiago journal, you would know that it is a great drink to consume when you are thirsty and hot, but also secretly wishing to die from diabetes. I could not care that much, as my lips had already begun bleeding from the dry weather, and licking them did not help whatsoever.
old lady selling my favorite
Hmmmm, rico! What a brilliant trip! Just 2 days ago I was still drinking rice wine in the capital of Korea, now I am sipping water with a dried peach inside at the driest desert in the world. Not to mention, I had not seen a good sunset in a long while, and this town in the middle of an enormous desert with 0% chance of precipitation definitely scores one of the best sunsets around!
sunset in San Pedro
For the next day, after a loooong nap, I took a short tour to Valle de La Luna, where the desert’s insane topography came into play. One of the first interesting places I went to on the tour was Valle de la Muerte, where a nice platform perched high above the rolling rock formations: that could easily be an instagram hot spot, if this place ever gets popular with those “influencers”.
Valle de la Muerte
Areas like these, despite their location in the driest place on Earth, still get rain. Every year, for one day, extremely intense rain pours down from the sky, and within hours, completely alters the surface by washing away insane amount of minerals. Then, the water deposits to the salar (salt flat), the largest in Chile, (still quite a bit smaller than Uyuni though!), in the south of the town. This is why the salt flat is there, because all the minerals get condensed and expose the crystallized surface.
Another interesting place is the salt valley, a large system of mostly exposed gaps, made by rushing water carving an entire bed of salt minerals. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see that every wall is made of salt, and I can personally guarantee they are, for reasons I would love to not discuss.
in a cave
For some areas, we had to crawl into underground tunnels barely 2 baguettes tall, and use flashlights to explore around. Good thing that everything is made of dirty salt, so washing it was very easy. As an expert at hitting my head at numerous objects, I can say it surely was a different kind of feeling when your head bumps into a cave wall though!
Next stop was Tres Marias/Three Marias, because these three rocks look like Virgin Mary praying while down, praying standing up, and the praying while kneeling. Interestingly, a few years ago, there was a different explanation for the rocks, because a tourist climbed onto the left one and caused it to collapse, giving the people no choice but to change the way Maria “prays” to suit the new shape. This is modern mass tourism in a nutshell, with a moderately hilarious twist.
Last stop before Valle de la Luna was an enormous rock wall called the “amphitheater” and it is easy to see why. They say at specific spots around the area you can hear the reflection of your voice perfectly. A quick walk then took us to the beautiful Valle de la Luna, where the only sand dune in the entire desert was found. Yes, a desert can be a desert without sand, like Death Valley.
Valle de la Luna sunset
This place is part of the Salt Mountain range, and the white you see above is all salt, along with the insanely beautiful clinal and anticlinal topography. The halite strata that everyone walked on constantly produced disturbing sounds against the wind; the sharp rocks made climbing especially dangerous; yet, I completely enjoyed myself on my way to pass every single person. Many groups watched sunsets here, and I had to pass them and get to the very, very front, so I can view the sunset without any human in it. Ewww, humans!
the views on the road, beats a commuter train full of people staring into cellphones
Next up was the brilliant trip up to the highlands. San Pedro already sits at about 2950 meters above sea level, so it only meant I would cross into territories over 4000 meters high. However, I have had ample opportunities dealing with high altitudes, from Everest to Kilimanjaro, so I was not even slightly perturbed by the fact that the two girls next to me on the van were breathing as if their lungs had collapsed.
Salar de Atacama
First stop was a brilliant salt flat that the region is named after. An enormous field of white seemed completely featureless, but once you get close to the surface, you would find out the hellish outcrops made of minerals, as if hell fire was frozen solid into rocks. In this extremely inhospitable environment, in the few water holes around the salar, such as Laguna Chaxa, which is dense enough to float a human, lives a special kind of crustacean called brine shrimp. It is a kind of animal that can tolerate the extreme salinity and lack of oxygen, and they feed mostly on diatoms. Flamingos love this kind of shrimp, and they filter them out using the special beaks. Since brine shrimp has a high concentration of beta-carotene, this gives the flamingos their bright red color, as they cannot produce the color themselves.
What a fascinating food chain! Even in environment this harsh, the force of nature has found a way to put life into every corner. This goes without saying that it applies to other parts of the desert too. While we were stopping for a break, I noticed a tiny ground owl perched on top of a rock. Yes, even with no trees in the vicinity, owls have made their ways to the desert. They live under ground and hunt for lizards and rodents. Because of their subterranean dwelling, they are much smaller than other types of owls I have seen.
whooooo would like a picture?
And of course, it would not be my blog journal if there is not an epic photo to show off. I have always taken pride in myself about the amount of work I put into my posts, as sometimes one can take months, and there is nothing more rewarding than displaying some of the better experiences I can document. While we were having breakfast, I noticed the giant volcano Licancabur, and a bunch of llamas down in the valley. What better opportunity are there than eating breakfast with a bunch of my furry friends next to one of the most dominating volcanoes in the world?
man, don’t you just love traveling?
Tiny trivia: remember Xtreme Bolivian Southwest? Yeah, the region I passed by during my voyage to Antarctica almost a year ago, and that journal includes a photo with Licancabur in the background. Yes, I took two trips and went through almost the same region on both sides of the mountains.
Vicuñas roaming in the highlands
Of course, mother nature never ceases to impress me with the sheer biodiversity of this barren land. Herds of wild vicuñas can be seen on the high slopes just to the side of roads. Once an extremely endangered species due to its fur being one of the softest in the world, these fluffy doofus made a resurgence from barely a thousand to over one hundred thousand in the past 20 years, thanks to the innovative protection program implemented by the government. You see, unlike llamas or alpacas, vicuñas cannot be domesticated, so for poachers to get their fur, they had to kill them in the wild, thus, the government started to catch every single vicuña and shave them on the spot, rendering them worthless. Because of the smart agents 20 years ago, we finally get to see this species alive and well, having just put one hoof into the door of extinction.
Of course, this is not altiplano if I do not show off a fox. Just like in the Xtreme Bolivian Southwest part, this one was really banking on the passers by to feed it. However, I denied it the pleasure. Leave the nature to nature, as the best a visitor like me can do is to make sure it appears as if I never existed.
waiting for love, waiting for love~
Above is Piedra Rojas lake, and then we passed Lake Miñiques, and also Lake Miscanti, a series of highland lakes as blue as the azure ocean hundreds of miles away, like a string of pearls worn by the edge of the mountain ranges. We also passed by the tiny village of Socaire, a traditional ayllus that has no cellphone signal, and the people still practice the ancient methods of irrigation on terraces millenia old.
Finally, we entered Reserva Las Flamencos, an extraordinarily beautiful national park named after the thousands of flamingos roaming around the lakes. Here also exist hundreds of strange stone formations called Monjes de la Pacana, like ancient alien monuments, pointing to the blue zenith as if nothing could sway them…
discovering the world, one step at a time
Eventually, we reached the lunch spot, a beautiful lake called Salar de Tara, surrounded by volcanoes towering over 6000 meters tall. Hordes of flamingos waded around the shallows, filtering out the algae and brine shrimps.
Salar de Tara
Frequently, I am reminded by the fact that most people I know live a rather “normal” life. And most of the time, I was really jealous. I wanted to have a stable job, a prominent career, money enough to keep me above my 2-dollar-a-meal traveling budget, and some people that I care for. But in times like this, I really, really like what I got instead. Just a nice view, a good drink, proximity to mother nature, and myself. That is my inner struggle, a dichotomy of theories of happiness, a never-ending war in my mind…
On the way back, I passed the tiny village of Toconao, with a charming center square. The old bell tower still stood in front of the monastery, which is made of mud by the ancient building method used by Atacameño people thousands of years ago. Most importantly, the door is made of cactus wood, a kind of precious material that rivals the value of gems, due to the fact that cactus needs centuries to grow into sizes suitable for wood.
Only after coming back did I realize San Pedro de Atacama was not only a town surrounded by extraordinary places, and I barely explored it myself. I walked around the center plaza and located the famous church, made completely of cactus wood. To be honest, Lonely Planet’s description of the town is pretty accurate: “it’s little more than a handful of picturesque adobe clustered around a postcard-perfect church.”
San Pedro de Atacama church
And right in front of the church, on the plaza, a giant parade was going on for whatever reason. Groups of local people dressed up in thick furry costumes, and danced to eardrum-annihilating music. Just by watching them made me feel hot and my palms sweaty.
just look at those sauna suits!
Since this is my first time using the “deep dive” travel concept, an idea that I have created myself to let me explore a region better and more thoroughly, I could not miss the tour to Valle del Arcoiris. The first stop was Hierbas Buenos petroglyph ruins. Thousands of carvings on the wall dated from the very first caravaners millenia ago to the Incas, with themes ranging from animals to social lives, covered the rocky cliffs around this field. It was absolutely impressive to see these works of art, and you could feel that the ancients were here, trying to document their lives before the advent of Instagram Stories.
Young looking at 10000-year-old llamas
a wall of mysterious carvings
Thanks to the arid climate, these carvings have not faded at all. Large amounts of these petroglyphs depict animals in various shapes. Wolves, llamas, foxes, birds, viscachas, and many more. A carving of a spider monkey also confirmed that these Atacameño people had numerous contacts with the outside world, specifically the Amazonian tribes. There are also pregnant wolves, shamans using mental energy to communicate with animals, etc.
wolf? fox? very large bunny?
a real lizard!
Next stop was the colorful Valle del Arcoiris, a valley complete with all kinds of colors due to the different kinds of minerals contained in the sedimentary rocks. It is very clear that the region had some geological uplifting so that the bands of colors got tilted to different angles. Just like Quebrada de Humahuaca region I visited a year ago, which, coincidentally, is also very close from this place, the beautiful area had almost no tourists, and the lack of appreciation made me quite sad.
the Italian flag on rocks!
Finally, it was the last morning, and I woke up at 4 a.m. for the El Tatio Geysers. I have seen majestic geysers before in Iceland, but this is a different kind of geyser. The slow boiling waters here produce a lot of steam at night, since the temperature at night drops like my exam grade after a vacation. Right after sunrise, the ground rapidly heats up, making the steam disappear. That is why I had to get up way before the sun does, and catch the sunrise in the world’s largest highland geyser field.
El Tatio Geyser
Hundreds of geysers dominated the landscape, and the fact that they sat above 4000 meters of altitude also meant it was cold, like, incredibly cold. I estimated the temperature right before sunrise could be as low as -10°C. However, for this kind of view, it was all worth it.
a viscacha having breakfast
On the way back, we passed by the tiny village of Machuca, an old sulfer mining oficina long abandoned. Here, a few locals cooked up some marvelous anticuchos, skewers made of llama meat. It tasted awesome, especially after being awake for so long.
I dare you to take it!
The village also has a perfectly-picturesque church. A whitewashed little house sat right in front of a barren valley, coupled with a beautifully painted arch in the front, and a large, pale blue cross. I do not think there are many words left that can give it justice, so I have to use my camera. Pay attention to the small crosses on top of the roof. It is very customary to wrap the cross in the Andean gradient of colors: from dark blue to bright orange.
arch with Chilean flag
While wandering around the village the size of a parking lot, I came across a newborn kitten. Kittens never judge me for being fat and ugly, and that is why I fucking love kittens so much~! Looks like it just came to this world about 2 weeks ago, and I just could not resist it. SOOOOOOOO CUUUUUTE!!! I almost took it home. This trip has to be named as CAT, has to be!!!
best day in my life, ever!
Finally, we passed by a tiny salt lake, where a bunch of James flamingos were hunting for breakfast. James flamingos are the rarest kind of the flamingos, and if you want to know more about the 3 kinds of flamingos that live in this area, I recommend you to go check out my Xtreme Bolivian Southwest journal, which has a detailed section about how they are different and how you can tell them apart. (I apologize for the 15 gazillionth time that I have linked that journal, because these two regions have almost identical flora, fauna and topography.)
Upon returning to San Pedro, I finally had to bid this charming village farewell. My lips had completely imploded due to the dry weather, forcing me to retreat before I die of dehydration. However, that also meant I had completely explored every single nook and cranny of this area, bar some very difficult or expensive places. There is no doubt that Atacama is amongst the top regions in the world for one to explore, albeit it is getting rather touristy. A quick bus hailed me back to Calama, the charmless mining city. I could not even find a hostel there, so I opted for an Airbnb at the suburbs.
Calama & Chuquicamata
The city had nothing to offer but casinos and strip clubs for those miners to waste money on. Then why did I stay there, you ask? Well, this is the only place where you can access the biggest open pit mine in the world: Chuquicamata.
Have you ever wondered: why is Chile the most well-off country in South America? Unfortunately, it is not human perseverance, but because of the thriving mining industry. Copper has been the biggest export of Chile since the late 1900s, now amounting to 1/3 of total exports. Rich ore veins around the north are ploughed through with enormous machines, bringing in trillions of dollars of revenue, and is only going to give Chile more due to increasing demands of electronics. Here in Chuquicamata, this biggest open pit mine goes over 1250 meters deep and covers over 9 million square meters of area, employing over 20000 people. In these pictures shown, the large hill of rocks are all leftover rocks tossed out from the mine, and they basically formed a mountain ridge around the area.
To get there, I had to take a special free tour organized by the national copper company, Codelco. It first took me to the ghost town with the same name as the mine. Originally created by the US mining giant Anaconda mining company in the early 1910s because Chile was a weak country and US was trying hard to “soft invade” other Latin American countries at the time, this town had a functional hotel, school, gym, park, post office, bank, and many more. However, in 2007, growing environmental concerns, and more importantly, the discovery of more copper right underneath the town, coerced the government to relocate the 20000 workers to Calama, just 13 kilometers away, rendering this town a ghost town.
school, with a demolition warning sign
Interestingly, world’s most famous revolutionary Che Guevara passed by here 50 years ago on his famous roadtrip. The wandering medical student’s encounter with a communist in this monstrous mine, which was still owned by gringo white Americans at the time, was likely the turning point of his political worldview. In the world-renown Motorcycle Diaries, he wrote: “… the lives of the poor, unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserably in one of the thousand traps set by nature to defend its treasures, when all they want is to earn their daily bread.” Here, in this ghost town, world’s greatest revolutionary was born.
the mine itself
I am not a big geology nerd. I am more of a mechanical nerd, so I am here to see the biggest automobile in the world. These are Komatsu ultra class haul trucks, able to carry over 300 tons of ores in one go. In the mine, all traffic had to drive on the left, despite the fact that Chile drives on the right. That is because the trucks have their driver’s compartment to the left, and because they are so big, the driver’s blind spot to the right corner is 50 meters!
the trucks coming up, with a pick-up truck to scale
One trip down and back up takes over 2 hours, so over 200 of these trucks work 24 hours nonstop to maximize the load that they can bring up. Just the wheels of these trucks are 1 story tall, and each costs more than a million dollars. Here, everything is of mammoth dimensions. The machines that are responsible for putting the crushed ores onto the trucks are over 5 stories tall, and each truck has over 3500 horsepower with a V18 engine, that is over 29 Toyota Corollas put together.
haul trucks with a normal truck to scale
How cool is that! After returning to Calama, I proceeded to the bus terminal to get my bus. Calama is notorious for crimes because many miners lost their jobs due to technology, while rampant gambling or prostitution did not help that , and I could attest to that. While waiting for the bus, a man stood to my right started talking to me. He asked me, in Spanish, about random things like what I was doing there, and that just felt completely out of place. He was also very aggressive, kept yelling “psst!!” at me to get me turning. Then, I felt a slight tug underneath my left leg. It turned out that he was the person in charge of distracting me, while another guy, with a large duffel bag, was slowly moving my small bag into it. My small bag contained my camera, passports, 12 kinds of currencies that I usually use, and a bunch of other important documents, so if that was stolen, I might just as well die in a ditch. Thankfully, I always maintain physical contact with my belongings due to my upbringing in China, but the contact was really really not obvious so the thieves had no idea. I immediately turned around, looked at the guy frozen in mid-air with a wide open duffel bag, and laughed. He laughed back, and disappeared before I could react. Sadly, in such a crowded bus station, not one person stopped them from stealing my bag in the first place. I casually mentioned it to a lady security while buying a bag of chips later in the station (you know, to calm my nerves), and she took it so seriously that she immediately notified her colleagues and asked me the description of those petty thieves. Before I left, she thanked me, and assured me:”we will catch them. I will.”
This was the first time someone ever tried stealing my things, and to be honest, her words made me realize: Chile is still a land of almost all nice people. Never judge a grape tree by a sour grape, and Chile is still one of the top countries on my list. I gathered my thoughts as I slumped down deeper in my semi-bed seat on the bus to Iquique. It is the experience like this on the road that makes me realize the world is still mostly of great people, despite there are always that few bad apples trying to sour the bucket. Thankfully, protecting myself against common thieves had finally paid off after this long on the path. For the first time in my journals, I would suggest you not to spend any time in this place, and that is well-founded.
the sun dragging the shadow
The stars had already come out as my bus rapidly descended to the coastline, and finally, after 5 hours of descent, the lights of Iquique shone through the desert hills.
Welcome, to the boom and bust town of northern Chile, where naked handsome surfing boys and bespectacled businessmen cross paths: Iquique. The jewel of the north, where the best resorts are found, where lady fortune comes and goes, and the list goes on and on. There is no doubt: this is the most prosperous city in the entire region.
And for Iquique, I would like to tell you a story, a story about poop. If you have not caught on, I am a shitty story teller from the very beginning. During the early years of colonization, the westerners heard from local tribes that they used bird poop to fertilize their arid land, and took up on the notion. Europe was having a major population boom back then, and the land had to produce more food to support the growing numbers. Thus, guano, the poop accumulated on tiny islands around this region, then southern Peru, became one of the most important items in the world. Quickly, thousands of Chinese workers were shipped here, along with the last few Rapa Nui people abducted from Easter Island, to dig in the hundreds of meters’ deep of poop made by a kind of bird native to the region.
these birds can still be seen toying with seals in Iquique harbor
Quickly, the resources started running low: the birds can only poop that fast. Peruvian economy quickly took a nose dive, as guano was basically its entire economy back then. This is almost identical to the situation in Nauru, despite the fact that the Nauru government tried its damnest to diversify their investment. Peruvian guano came and go in half a century, and then came the big boys of this show.
Iquique’s fishing boat, backdrop of hundreds of containers
Then it was discovered that the inland deserts had nitrate (colloquially, saltpeter) minerals, basically fossilized poop, and they can be used to make better fertilizers, and more importantly, due to their excellent oxidizing capabilities, cheaper gun powder. The land to which was then Bolivian quickly became a hotbed for Chilean investments. Within a few years, thousands of these “nitrate towns”, which most people still call oficinas, sprang up across the desert like bamboo shoots after a thunderstorm. The white rocks they dug out from the ground was nicknamed “white gold” for their value.
Humberstone, one of the famous nitrate towns
Though the territory was technically Bolivian, the entire region was filled with Chilean money and caravans, so the Bolivian government planned to take control of this wild wild west. After secretly signing a pact of neutral defenses with Peru, Bolivia moved in with their heavy taxes. Chile, of course, would not go down without a fight, and declared war after mediation failed. In the war of 1879, Chile’s superior forces pushed the Peruvian-Bolivian alliance back for hundreds of miles in the desert, and here in Iquique, they fought a decisive battle on the waters. Chile had already seized control of Iquique, so the main forces began pushing towards north to Callao, while two Peruvian battleships secretly came around the north and began attacking the two defending Chilean ships. On 21st of May, Corbeta Esmeralda, an old wooden Chilean naval ship captained by Arturo Prat Chacón fought against the ironclad Peruvian Huáscar, and before the day ended, the old wooden ship sank, along with Prat and his crew.
a replica of Esmeralda stands in Iquique today
Even though it was a Chilean defeat, this battle ignited a wave of patriotism, or as some called, Pratiotism, that later proved important to the tide of war. Before long, Bolivia and Peruvian forces fell back and back, until Chileans were balls deep in Lima. Chile grabbed the region that Calama belongs to from Bolivia, making Bolivia one of the only 2 countries without ocean access on the continent (the other being Paraguay), and the Iquique-Arica region from Peru.
hanging on to the last thread!
Now with the land ownership sorted out, the nitrate business went into full swing. British investments and Chilean capital made Chile the largest nitrate production country in the world, supplying nearly all saltpeter needed for the world’s armories. These were the good days in Iquique, the nearest port town. Casinos, brothels, services all opened up overnight, and everyone seemed to have a bit of coin to spare.
Santa Laura nitrate ghost town
The tycoons who owned these mines became filthily rich, and started building outlandish mansions along the front streets of Iquique, especially around Baquedano area. These barons built opulent residences with dirt imported from other places to act as top soil for their gardens, while piping down water from far away cordilleras. Here you can still see the remains of those old houses, now a hollow shell of their former splendor.
houses along Baquedano
However, when the Germans realized that to start World War One, they needed some resource for gun powder, and mostly the mines here were controlled by the British. For them being Germans, they found out a way to artificially synthesize nitrate. Though it was costly, but it beated nothing at all. Quickly after World War One, economies of scale tipped the balance towards synthesizing, as it had become more and more costly to dig deeper into the grounds. Within a decade, the entire nitrate farming business in Iquique collapsed, and just like Peru, Chile’s economy fell like me after 3 drinks: straight to the bottom.
Afterwards, Iquique struggled to reinvent itself amidst the great depression, but eventually became the predominant fishing town in the area. However, it was not until the arrival of the duty free zone called Zona Franca did Iquique spring back to the forefront of Chilean economy. Now, Iquique has a thriving importing business and lots of Chinese shipments coming every day.
one of the gates to the duty free zone
I hope you enjoyed this bizarre story of poop, as did I when I was discovering the region. To imagine those ghost towns as the center of world trade was almost impossible even while standing there, not to mention through my story-telling on a web page. However, there is still a lot more to be said of this strange area. For example, while exploring the harbor, I came up against a few fishermen processing a strange kind of rock. It looked like rock, but when they crack it open, it revealed bloody red innards and reeked of iodine. They called it piure, and while preparing this journal, I did extensive research and could not find much on the travel blogging scene, so I delve into the scientific discoveries. It turned out that this is a rarely-found delicacy that is a hermaphroditic tunicate. It can have sex with itself (no I am not jealous) and reproduce co-sexually. More interestingly, it is found that in its bloodstream, concentration of vanadium (a rare transition metal) is over 100 million times higher than natural surroundings, for reasons unknown.
processing piure, revealing what locals call teta (udder)
There are also many beautiful localities around Iquique that very few international travelers explored. For example, the desert oasis village of Pica was renowned for its strange settings: a large garden in the middle of the desert, full of flowers surrounding the cold waterhole in the center. Here, I had a strange mango alcohol that my fellow local tourists enjoyed, and also tried some of the best alfajores I have ever had. Alfajore is a strange cracker sandwich with fruit flavored condensed milk, wrapped in shredded coconuts.
alfajore, a specialty of Pica, costing a staggering 15 cents
Then it was a dip in the lazy water hole of Pica. It was an especially nice thing to do if you do not mind the extremely harsh sun this region is famous for. The sign for UV warning has been put at 11+, aka, extremely harmful, for years now, given the dust that had been collected on top of it, and the sign itself had been bleached white.
water hole of Pica called Cocha Resbaladero
The quaint little town was also home to many nice people around. I got a chance to talk to a local old couple journeying here from Antofagasta, and they told me this was the first place where they went secretly dating during the Pinochet era. I always felt extremely appreciated for being able to speak Spanish, since this area has very few Asians around, and my skin tone would always pique locals’ interests. And being able to explain to them some of my heritage in their language also makes me feel proud.
an pair of old honeymooners
a kitty with heterochromia iridium (odd-eyes) ❤
In National Reserve of Pampa del Tamarugal, numerous geoglyphs dotted the hills, and are called Pintados. These are big shapes formed by removing the top soil and revealing the underlying colors. Thousands of them, from clearly discernible llamas to completely abstract geometric shapes, including some obscure ones such as women giving birth, all clustered around a slope, and to truly see it, one had to step very far away. They are dated to be around 500-1500AD, probably used as signposts of the aboriginal peoples.
At the tiny village of Matilla, a beautiful church called Iglesia San Antonio sat in the middle of a plaza. The inside was especially brilliant, but out of respect, I did not take any pictures.
San Antonio Church
Last stop on my little side trip off the beaten path, I located the legendary La tirana, a tiny village of barely over 1000 people. During the insane Virgin of Carmen Festival every July, it would be besieged by over 200,000 pilgrims. Thankfully, when I arrived, it was a quiet afternoon. The town is named after an Inca princess who had to “accompany” a conquistador. In Pica, she assembled a group of warriors and killed many Spaniards in her own version of a rebellion; moreover, she also killed any baptized locals she met, earning her the nickname of Tirana, Tyrant. However, in 1544, she fell desperately in love with a Portugese miner that she captured, and converted to Catholicism herself. Furious with this betrayal, the Incas gave them an arrow shower shortly after their baptism, here in La Tirana. A tragic love story, but the only thing I learned from it was that it is good to be pale.
the Tyrant princess on top of La Tirana’s church
Finally, the entire region of Iquique was well explored. I particularly enjoyed this part of my travel, where I got to go off the beaten path, and go to places that even some locals struggled to identify. So much history and interesting tales hidden amongst the dusty dunes! I boarded a bus towards the last stop in Chile this time, the northernmost outpost of the desert, Arica, after 4 days in Iquique.
sunset in Iquique
A lot of people overlook Arica, especially when compared to Tacna, the Peruvian town a stone’s throw away. However, I loved Arica for its slow pace and seemingly nonchalant vibe. With an enormous rock called El Morro looming above the center, the city felt more like a resort town than a frontier outpost. Coupled with excellent beaches with even better waves, as well as the oldest mummy found in the world, the city of Arica begs people to stop and take a look, and I gladly obliged.
the city plaza with El Morro blocking the setting sun
Due to a lack of tourist infrastructure, I stayed in a hostel quite some distance from town, and that gave me ample opportunities to interact with locals. Interestingly, it seemed that for local neighborhoods, all kinds of events had to take place on the small streets. I mean literally on them, completely blocking the traffic. Thankfully, they did not get much traffic anyway.
a kid’s birthday party on the road
One of Arica’s most pleasant parts is its pedestrian mall that links the center all the way to the waterfront. Numerous vendors and artists lined the mall, offering goods and entertainment. It was particularly a nice stroll after the harsh sun has set.
the pedestrian mall
Of course, as someone who loves heights, I had to climb to the top of El Morro. On the way, however, I had to go to the intriguing Museo de Sitio Colón 10, where 32 mummies were left in-situ after being discovered during the process of building a hotel. The owner, an architect, realized how important these Chinchorro mummies were to the archaeological world, and donated it to the national museum. I will detail about the Chinchorro mummies later in this journal. I got to walk on glass panels right above these mummies, zero-distance~!
hello there friend
Then it was a tough climb up to the top of the hill. For me, practically a spherical object, it was especially demanding. The view up top at 110 meters was outstanding, and I could even peek into the border of Peru! Up here, there is also a museum because here was the site of a crucial battle that took place between Peruvian forces and Chilean army in 1880. A year after the battle in Iquique, the Chilean forces took over this hill in just under an hour. A museum up there flamboyantly flaunts the military triumph until this day.
a bird’s eye view of the city
central square of Arica, ready for Christmas
Another attraction that many would just walk by without noticing is San Marcos’ Church, a big church designed by Alexandre Eiffel, yes, the one with the tower in Paris. The Peruvian government commissioned it in 1870s, had it shipped from Paris by bits, and reassembled it here. Interestingly, it was built exclusively with stamped iron pieces, and that is why it looks so different from all other churches here, as it needs a paint job to combat corrosion.
Iglesia San Marcos
To get out of the beaten path, I decided to go to Azapa Valley, a small, lush place to the east of Arica. Besides fields of beautiful olive groves, this little area also houses the original sites of Chinchorro mummies. They are the oldest artificially preserved human bodies ever discovered, clocking at over 7000 BC, predates the Egyptians for almost 2 millenia.
Chinchorro mummies in the museum in the village of San Miguel de Azapa
Not much else was known for the Chinchorro people. They apparently hunted and fished, and for such a simple civilization to develop such elaborate mummification processes is rather remarkable. More interestingly, they also preserved their infants and fetuses which perished either during gestation or childbirth. The way they mummified their family was by firstly removing any perishable parts including brain, organs and muscles, and then filling the voids with clay, before sewing the body back together. Most of them also wore a clay mask and human hair wig. Finally, the entire mummy was painted in black manganese. Yeah, they look scary, but not as much as the ones I saw in Salta, now that “Queen of the Mountain” appeared in so many of my nightmares!
After experience the spook, I chatted up with the old librarian, who recommended me to check out the hummingbird sanctuary nearby. Unbeknownst to me, Arica is home to the smallest species of bird in the country, a kind of hummingbird called Chilean Woodstar (Eulidia yarrellii). It is as endangered as giant pandas and is considered critically endangered by IUCN. Only Azapa Valley and the nearby Victor Valley have habitats for them. I was lucky enough to see one of the 1000 birds alive in the sanctuary, dotted with all kinds of flowers full of sweet nectar that they like. They are about the size of a chicken nugget, and are light enough to stand on top of a flower without crumbling it.
the critically endangered Chilean Woodstar
Of course, the large garden also has a lot of other animals that I thoroughly enjoyed. I took a closer look at the friendly llama the sanctuary had, and man was him a cutie! He likes all kinds of food I brought, like flowers from nearby, fresh grass from areas he could not reach, or just branches of olive.
my dear friend
birb is the word
The red bird with a mohawk was especially cool. I loved their appearance to be fiery red and the aggressive eyebrows. It completely complemented my mental image of an angry bird ready to charge at you, even though it is so tiny and cute even when it is angry!
However, all good times had to end, and in my life, it is especially the case. After returning to Arica, I had to prepare for a very drastic change of scenery. It was almost the holiday season, and the weather in southern hemisphere just didn’t seem right to me. Celebrating Christmas under 30°C of hot sun? Nah bro not my thing. I gotta get out of here, to somewhere more festive, somewhere more suitable to wear a santa hat, which, spoiler alert, will definitely be featured in the next journal on the cute German fräulein Jacqi!
a Santa in the neighborhood
Just, look at it! A Santa on the back of a truck that had broken down on the road due to excessive heat, while everyone was worrying if the Santa inside the costume had already died from a heat stroke, just doesn’t seem right in my mind. As a result, time to disappear, and say hi to Chile another time! Wait, what the heck is Minnie doing here?
There is no denying that Norte Grande in Chile is one hell of a nice place to visit. As of this trip, I have finally visited the far south Patagonia, the central capital region, and now the far north. I can finally say Chile is as diverse as a country can go. Just in this region, I explored a volcano with snowy peaks and geysers that freeze at night; I saw surfer boys walking along a miner who had emerged from a kilometer-deep hole; I stared at a mummy older than all civilizations then proceeded to stare at hummingbirds the size of a cheeto. Ghost towns silently sighing of their glory past, a bustling duty free zone that rivals any international port, carvings the size of buildings on hills millenia ago, such a strange melange of interesting things all condensed into this place. I learned so much, from history, archaeology, international relations, chemistry and geology, to astronomy, physics, economics, biology, and anthropology. They say the best place to learn is on the road, and I hope by journeying together with me to the hidden north, you learned as much as I did.
In this trip, I not only experienced the highest up of almost 5000 meters, but I also dipped way down into the mines kilometers below surface; I had the greatest up time while exploring the ghost towns, while I had a down time when someone tried to steal my bags; just like the history of this piece of seemingly lifeless land, I experienced a journey like a roller coaster ride, and I appreciate every bump and high, because without those downs, the ups would never taste so sweet.
I took a shared taxi to the airport, which was right next to the border of Peru. I boarded my flight to Santiago, and took the LATAM flight that afternoon towards Frankfurt. This is my most drastic trip ever, from the Asian metropolis Seoul, to the Chilean deserts, and now, I would spend my holiday season in Germany. What I did not know was that, waiting for me on the other side of the jet bridge, was a lot of Christmas markets, glühwein, nice cozy homes, beautiful castles, many people dear to me, and most importantly, a German family that would take me in as one of their own…