After the high and cold northern Chile, I complete this adventure along the pacific ocean in western Chile. I need my solar batteries fully charged, before I return home to the perfect imitation of a giant freezer I live in, and the coastal mountain range holds quite some cacti and Bromeliads.
27/1 13. Most of the day is just a transport stretch down to Arica at the coast, then down to Iquique. Here, adventure begins again. I have driven this stretch before, and there are only a few things, worth stopping for. I sneak out of Putre, and remember to take a photo of their impressive doorways. Considering most of the town is dried clay, these doorways look like they have been scavenges from the ancient Greece.
Right outside town, I meet one of the cacti covered walls, but I am pretty sure, I won't find any new ones - but they are enticing. The sun is right for a portrait of Putre, in the middle of almost barren mountains. Then, the next 40 Km is just more or less barren hills.
I spend the time, counting trucks. As I anticipated, 90% IS Volvo trucks. They must have a factory in Brazil - no way the Swedes can make that many trucks them selves. The last are American White, Freightliner, Mac and an occasional Mercedes.
Then I reach the 2800 meter mark, 70 Km outside from Arica, and the awesome candelabra cacti; Browningia candelaris are scattered over the mountain sides. I just have to stop a few times, trying to make the perfect photo of them. The only last for 10-15 Km, then I'm below 2500 metres.
Two plants from a unknown family make me stop, then I'm at the button of the Arica gorge, and Giant Horsetail; Equisetum giganteum are growing along the road. To day, they are regarded giants with their four metres, but million of years ago, their ancestors reached 65 metres.
The giant walls still fascinates me. I guess some are 600 metres high, and completely barren. Then, I passes Llutra Geoglifos again, and this time, I spot the gravel-art. I turn into Arica, just to feed the car, and then back on Ruta 5, south towards Iquique. A few hard-sand formations in an ancient creek looks interesting, but they are covered in trash.
It is Atacama from its most boring side. The only interruptions are roadwork and the giant gorges around Cuya. They are still too large for my camera, and I still have to try. A short stop in Cuya for a chicken sandwich, which I remembered was good, then further south.
200 Km from Arica, the first plants, besides from the few in the button of the giant gorges, occurs. It is a single species of bushes, and I let it be at that. The massive walls continues from time to time, and in Aura, among other places, there are gravel-art.
Right outside Huara, a tornado, around 20 meters across, draws its line through the dry landscape. While I watch it, I notices up to 30 other, smaller whirlwinds, scattered over the valley. Then it is back to the endless Atacama, even when I turn down Ruta 16.
Iquique is hiding down at the sea, behind a mountain range and a massive sand dune. I stop to gas in the outskirts of town, to get my barring. A customer tells me, I just have to continue straight forwards, then I meet the street I'm looking for. I do, but all streets are one way, and I have to do a couple of pirouettes.
Backpackers Hostle don't have their only single room vacant, and I have the choice between an eight person dorm or a double alone. Well, I can afford the triple price - or rather: What does it matter now? A fast shower, and down the beach promenade.
It is Sunday, and the beach is packed. It look so strange, compared to what I have seen so fare. I take the inner path all the way through, till I reach a tiny fishing harbour. Here, pelicans, seagulls and giant sea loins enjoys life. I get a few good photos of them, and the beach seen from outside, and returns to the city.
Here are skyscrapers scattered over a long stretch, but just one street in, the standards drops drastically. I find an early open restaurant and get a sorry excuse for a bacon sandwich, a pineapple juice, chased down with a cafe latte and what I assumed was a cheese cake. It wasn't! Can't really say what is was, but I won't have it again!
Back to work in the rather large hostal. It is kind of strange to be able to understand, what people are saying - German and English. I place myself in the common room, but it is amassing how many questions I have to answer! From the usual; where are you from, what time is it, to the address of the hostal and so on. Why? I do now ware a badge saying: Ask me!
28/1 13. Although is is a bit early, I walk into the nearby centre of Iquique. I take the costal path, showing the fancy hotels and the famous surf. When I reach the main street O' Higgins, the slightly more maintained buildings last several allies inland - but not that much. The other main street is dominated by two story tall and rather large, wooden houses. Some are offices or banks, but most are rather anonymous.
It is still way too early for some serious activity, but I enjoy the calm so fare. One of the central buildings at the square is the old theatre from 1890. It is still complete, with cast-iron chairs in the back and more upholstery in the front.
I walk the shopping streets, looking for an old, hand drawn "W" on a shop-sign for a CD cover, but that is not a common letter in Spanish! When I finally find one, it is either a new WWW or in "Sandwich". The sun is absolutely vertical for hours around noon. Lamp poles have no shadow at all, but all walls are in shadow.
I am looking for a few items, just for the sport, but it is hard to find anything serious. Well, except food. When I thought I ordered a light chicken sandwich, I get a huge serving of salad, chicken and rice.
Then the Casino Espaniol have opened, and I have a look inside. It is some rich man, who build for himself, and it is just too much. Every surface is painted in Maurice patterns, crusader motives and alike. Kitsch, but done with so eager, it actually works in its own, strange way. I have a Fanta, while I absorbed the extensive work, gone into this.
At four, I have to admit; I am not a city-boy, and I walk back to the hostal for a shower and a cup of tea. On the way, I pass the place where the fishmongers toss their leftovers. Popular place among sea lions, pelicans, cormorants and vultures. The beach seem almost empty today - the few tourists does not fill that much.
To try an find some dinner, I walk the other way. The first restaurants I find is still closed, but it is only seven! I find a market with the usual crap, a fair-park and some joints, selling food. I order a sandwich with it all - and get a hotdog with guacamole, salsa and mayo. Not made for men with mustangs!
Some giant malls, one for builders, where you drive your own car in-between the shelves. Do I have to say: It is BIG! Some black clouds are gathering on the top of the inland mountains, but I doubt they give rain - then again, it is getting dark, and I have nothing to wandering around for anyway.
29/1 13. I'm driving a bit too much on auto-pilot this morning: I find Ruta 5 right away, but I was supposed to go by Ruta 1; the sea-route. All the way down the mountain and the giant sand dune again - 30 Km de-tour. I have hoped the road along the beach would offer just a bit of vegetation, but no.
Some places, nice sandy beaches, other places, it is almost pure seashells. However, the lava is always present, and makeup the main structure. The road is squeezed in-between the beach and the 500-1000 meter high mountains, leading up the the plateau.
After 70 Km, I turn inland on a sealed road, leading to Salina Grande. This large saltpan ought to be dry for once! I meet huge road trains, some with 13 axels, transporting salt out to Patillos harbour from the two salt mines. It look like snow along the road, but it is fine salt crystals, blown of the trucks.
The salt pan is a disappointment: It is generally red due to clay. Head-large figures have been formed by the salt crystals, but red clay have been blown over them through millenniums. I return to the coast, still missing a great, dry and white salt pan.
The coastal road passes several tiny settlements. Some are summer camping areas for city people, others are trying to make a living by seaweed and shellfish. Does not seem to be that rich! There are plenty of pelicans and seagulls, but despite I look for seals and sea lions, I don't see a single colony.
One of the usual truck and bus controls seems to catch cars as well. I figure I better ask to be sure, and they do want to have a chat with me. It turns out they have another one around Crucero, and I'm not registered for entering the northern Chile. I probably just driven by it, and that I have a problem now.
Luckily, it is a real friendly officer, and he know a few tricks. I get my pass-slip, and head on. After 200 Km, I see the first plants. It is some columnar cacti, way up on the edge of the mountain. I have no chance walking up a 1000 meter, 45% gravel hill, and I have to do with photos from below.
I reach Tocopilla at four. It is a harbour city from the nitrate-days. Where others have fainted away, it is still clinging on, although it have lost some of its glory. A gas station is important, then a bed. The second hotel have a real nice room with private bath for 16,000 pesos - a barging. It is a bit early, but the chances for finding a bed on the coming stretch is slim- at best.
I take a stroll through town. Most houses are old wooden buildings, and kind of charming. The harbour have died, but the buildings are still - partly - there. The sidewalks are filled with well-fed dogs, and they are all friendly. Here are more or less only one shopping street, the rest is shrubby sheets, build up the slopes inland.
At eight, I try the pizzeria on the other side of the road. It is now open, and they tell me they will stay open until four in the morning! Considering they are not on the main street or highway, I wonder which customers they have thought the night? Their pizzas are 8-9000, and I guess I'll do fine with a sandwich - for once.
At nine, I take another stroll through town. It is a completely other city now; Almost all shops are open, there are loads of people on the sidewalks and cars in the streets. Most shops are dealing with cloths, shoos, drugstores, slot machines, restaurants and bars. Then some hardware stores and a few, small food stores. At ten, shops are still opening, and the pizzeria have a line outside! I had thought of a cup of tea, but I rather sleep!
30/1 13. I knew I was not being treated with breakfast: The hostel do not have a restaurant. I was not prepared for a bag with biscuits, juice and yoghurt on the doorknob! Silently out of the still sleeping town, and down Ruta 1 again. I spot a single, green plant along the road, but the three single representatives might be a relic from a settlement, originally originating from South Africa?
There are large cacti on some of the ridges, but I can't get to them. Finally, I spot some in a ravine, around one kilometre from the road. I start walking, and it turns out there are two and a half kilometres to them. It is a tough walk on loose gravel and rocks. The last bit is on a 45 degree slope, and real hard.
I can see thousands cacti in the ravine, and it have not occurred to me, they all could be dead! But they are, and from the amount of decay, they could have been dead for 25 years! It have taken quite some time to establish such a large colony, and each plant is 100 or maybe 300 years old. This is an old example of climate changes, which have been occurring since the beginning of time.
I sure hope some colonies are alive, but here are only one road, leading up there, and the first entrance is closed by a mining company. They don't want me taking photos of their cacti! I hope the other end will be less controlled.
I find the remains of one other plant, but the area is completely dead now. Not a single fly to bother me. I walk the long way back to the car, near the beach. I do several stops near the sea or drive down small roads to settlements on the coast. Most are real poor, made up of second hand materials. None have a single plant.
In one place, a rather large house have been build years ago. It has been vacant years ago actually. Then I reach a real nice beach, and the few people using it, have money in a completely new way. Not the scruffy old, recycled shadow net but brand new, colourful pavilions and plastic toy. These are the people from Chile's second largest city; Antofagasta. It is less than 100 Km down the coast.
Perfect sand, a good surf, clean beach - and only a few families. I do a walk to search for wash-ups, and see what birds live on and out of the beach. Then I drive a bit further down the Ruta 1 to find the mountain road in this end. Here is no control, and I drive into the hills. Here are several mines along the road, but none seems to be active.
The road splits up, and I'm fare from sure the Sierra Miranda actually is the place I want to go. I generally go for the best road, when it splits up, but at one point, I meet a wall of gravel. Way down in the valley, a huge mining operation can bee seen, but is appears deserted. I find another road, but as it goes into the mountains, it splits up, time and time again.
I have still not seen a single, dry plant, and I begin to fear, I might get lost, or have a car brake-down. I have not seen any one for 30-40 kilometres, and I figure I better turn around, while the game is good. A bit back the big road to reach the port of Mejillones, near Antofagasta. It is about the same size as Tocopilla, and I do prefer that to a huge city.
The first sit hotels/hostals are either full or closed. Here are some real, fancy and new ones, but I rather save the pesos. I finally find one near centre, and for only 8,000 pesos! Shared bath, but what? I walk the city, end end up at the beach. A few people are enjoying the perfect sand beach, but most are empty.
There are a few trawlers in the bay, but most is pulled on land - way in. Guess they won't be using them in the near future. A guy, who is dressed well over averaged approaches me. I think of some sort of scam, but lets see. It turns out he is a geologic engineer, and he speaks a bit English.
After talking about other stuff, he tells me he just have acquired the rights to an area in the mountains, where he have found gold. Now he just need to extract it. Sounds like a great scam, but as he shows the document and photos from the site, I actually think; it is true. He just needed someone to talk with. He have a contact in South Africa, and he do not invite me at any point.
While we talk, I feel like the thick brick wall we are sitting on, is dancing around for a minute or so. First I think of earth shake, but he does not react, nor does any one else. Then I think I might have a cramp - or I have drunken too little water. It passes, and I guess it was nothing.
Back at the hostal to work with photos and diary - and have a nap. I have been rather sleepy lately, and I hope it is not related with the ten lama-tick bites I got 15/1. They still itch, but there are no discolouration. It might just be I'm way less stressed now - I hope!
At eight, I check the town again. Where Tocopilla was an old town, this only have a few old houses. The shops on the other hand is the same set-up: Bars, slot-machines, restaurants - lees cloth and shoos thought. Plenty of people, shops opening and some action on the square with loud music. It evolves into a loud bingo-game.
I find a restaurant frequented by the contract workers and fishermen. A couple of empanadas and hot tea, while I watch the nine O'clock news. The top story is a earth shake, 6,8 on the Richter. Epic centre in Vallemar, around 450 Km away. And is was exactly the time I felt the wall dance underneath me. On Google, I find: "The U.S. Geological Survey originally reported the quake at 6.7, but later revised it upward (to 6,8). It struck at 4:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.; 2015 GMT) and was centred 27 miles (44 kilometres) north of Vallenar, Chile". Guess my first intuition was right. I'll work to after eleven, then I have to go to the charger.
31/1 13. I can't get the hot water working - I really hate those gas-heaters! Either they don't work at all, or the turn on and off like they want - mostly off. The door to the big house is locked, and I can't get out to the street from the back-house I'm staying at. I hope this is not an omen for the day!
Finally, they open the door to kick-out the cat, and I get him to turn on the heater. Flick a not, twist a button, hold in another and light it with a mach. Hold it in for some time, twist it, and shower. Why didn't I think of that? The day is mainly transport, but I have a few things I would like to see.
The first is Monumento Nacional La Portada. Mainly because it is on the road anyway. Just as I turn of the main road towards it, two young kids flags me down. They have just arrived with a flight from Santiago, and try to get to Juan Lopez. Neither of them have any idea of where either the arch or the city is, but we eventually get their stuff packed in the car.
The natural arch is just a few kilometres down the road, but considering the amount of time it took to get their things in the car, I offers to drive them the 18 Km out to the little beach city. It is on the Mejilones peninsular, and the drive is beautiful - despite the total lack of plants. I drop them off, and head back.
It is ten o'clock, and I figure I deserve a bit of breakfast. Park the car with an awesome view to a coast-line, deep down, and enjoy the silence. The only birds I can see are vultures, which by the way, caused a lot of excitement among the kids - city kids!
The Monumento Nacional La Portada is - well, an arch, standing out in the water. I make the expected photos and head on. I have passes the chance to by-pass the second largest city in Chile; Antofagasta, and I try to make the best out of it. I simply stick to the costal road, and it works fine.
There are strangely enough not the beach promenade one would expect, just some containers. I get out on the other side real smooth, and instead of continuing down Ruta 1, I try Ruta 5, which is in-land. I could do with some live, green plants!
50 Km down, I must confess: Here are as little plants as on the moon. A smaller road; B-70 seems to run on the edge of the mountains, and I've give it a try. After 55 Km, I still haven't seen a single, dead stray of grass, and I head back to the big road.
Back here, I see another thing, I only see, because I'm passing it anyway: Mano del Desierto; a big hand in concrete, 11 metres high. It is truly big, and it somehow fits right into the desert here. A few other people have stopped here, one with his large camper, right up the statue - as we others wanted his tin-box along with the hand? The other people are real nice, giving each a chance to get their photos with only their family - and me without anyone. Actually, when I get alone with the camper guy, I park my car in front of the hand, just for fun. It later turns out, I can sell these photos 100s of times on my Shutterstock account.
After haven driven 200 Km, I see the first plant. A strange semi-succulent greyish cushion. A bit further on, a bright red flower of another succulent lightens up the side of the road in small groups, scatted over a long stretch. Then I'm at the Taltal road, and things changes to the better.
Tall rocks, more and more succulents and when I spot four different in the same place, I have to have a closer look: Here might be cacti as well. There are! A real greyish, fat one, which I think is Copiapoa cinerea. At first, it is just a few, small plants, but when I get deeper into the canyons, I find thousands. They start to have multi-heads, and get up to 60 centimetres tall, 25 in diameter. Their flowers are either yellow or dark pink, it seems.
Another cactus starts to appear her too. It is a larger,
column cactus, and it could be the one I have seen so many dead of.
Here, it is barley alive and significantly smaller. I guess it could
be Eulychnia iquiquensis. I find a whole valley, covered
with the smaller Copiapoa, and the larger Eulychnia on the sides. I keep finding even better motives, but I know I'll
hate my self in the evening, trying to sort them out.
I have no idea what I agreed on, but I get two large pieces of battered fish with tomatoes and rice. Not that much taste, but it fills nicely. The next, rather posh hotel I find, have another customer first - and he get the last room! They guide me to another, down the street, but when I get there, I remember it.
I also remember the smiling woman, and give it another try. She calls another hotel, confirming that they have a vacant single room, and give me directions and a name. Works fine to there is a blocked road. A building-construction is getting goods. The next road is one-way, and when I get the right way, I can't turn back. Well, there are not that much traffic, and I'm going to drive to that hotel! Only two taxi drivers signals at me. I smile and wave back.
I get my room, and head straight down town. It different from the last two by having more supermarkandos, less bars and no slot-machine shops. Lots of flowering bushes in the central streets, and huge, real cosy square and smiling people. The beach is nice but deserted, the harbour minute.
I do a few loops, but the sun is descending fast behind the mountain along the coast. It is getting late anyway, and I head back to work. Considering I only found cacti on the last few kilometres, I sure got a lot of photos! It is passed midnight once again....
1/2 13. Despite the price, I apparently don't get breakfast. I'll eat some oatmeal on the way to Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar. I try a de-tour around the coastal town; Cifunche, but that don't reveal any interesting plants. Actually, it does not really reveal any plants. The most interesting site is an old goldmine: A real deep crack in the ground, across a ridge.
As I reach the road to the park, several succulents shows up. Right inside the park, a large area with some grassy plant dominates, but then it is the succulents. After quite some driving, I spot the first cacti. I have read the park should have over 20 succulents and cacti, and my expatiations are high. However, for a long time, the familiar Eulychnia iquiquensis and Copiapoa cinerea are the only ones.
I try a minor road, leading up through a dry river, but it is blocked 10 Km in - just before all the cacti? A ravine look real good, and way up, I find a new, little round and very spiny cactus; Eriosyce rodentiophila. I find some real green rocks in the dry riverbed, and I guess they contain 90% cobber.
I reach another area, real rich in the first two kind of cacti. A trail allegedly leads to a viewing point, way out at the coast, and I give it a try. It should be the famous El Mirador, which receives quite some fog, and therefore real interesting. Plenty of the same cacti, and the closer to the coast, the more lichen the big ones are covered in.
Then I notice a strange thing. The Copiapoas grow straight through to the sun, exposing them the least. The stem is practically in the dark. That is a known fact, they protect them selves that way. I've been thinking, that their most vulnerable part; the fresh, green growing point, should need most protection. And it do get that: It seems like the cacti have a symbiotic relation with a fungus. It give a bit of sucker water, and the fungus covers the growing point: I later find the same on Copiapoas cinerascens. I have never heard of such a symbiotic relation before.
The viewing point is not that fantastic, but the trail is interesting. Besides from the numerous cacti, several succulents like Euphorbia lactiflua, is grow along it. The fog seems to have a great impact here. Several small birds, a fox, some large lizards and Bromeliads, just to name some. I do a alternately trail back, but I don't find anything new.
I reach the coast, and it looks like a perfect sandy beach, with a good surf. Strangely enough, only very few people seems to be using it. Just as I thought I left the park, a new cacti starts to emerge. It is the cluster-growing Copiapoas cinerascens, which first grow on almost black rocks.
Then it pick-up in numbers, as I reach an open pan with gravel. Then, at a waste, sandy slope, the numbers explodes. They are all over the place, never regarding the media they grow in. Strangely enough, they seem to be isolated to a rather isolated area.
I passes a few other, perfect and completely empty beaches, and then I spot Chanaral in the distance. It is squeezed up against the mountains and a enormous large sandy beach. Accordantly to my map, it should be quite bigger than the former cities, but I can't spot the different.
Even fewer bars, nearly no slot machines and just a few supermarcandos. Only a few new buildings, but many, old and self-demolition ones. I try the central Hotel Chanaral, and it seems like a young couple have just taken over. Renovation all over, but I get a nice, big and light room for 8,000 pesos.
A tour through the central town to try a get a few good shots of the buildings. A tiny "restaurant", not more than 1,5 meter vide and eight deep, seems to have it all: Pizza, fresh juice, hotdogs, empanadas, hamborgesas, sandwiches, chicken, French fries, tea, coffee, tacos and a lot more.
I test her, and no problem; I get the best "Italian hamborgesa" I have had for a long time, along with some good tea. The "Italian" means it is filled with fresh guacamole, and that is way better than mayonnaise! Two beefs and all it usually have, the good places. But, I have to pay 1,800 pesos! I hope I can find it again.
Back to work for some hours. When I return to the "shopping area", the shops have opened and here are quite some people. Again, some sort of concert, bingo or whatever it is, has been lined up. I might be flowering a road-show? The fire brigade have well preserved steam fire pump, made in London 1885.
I find the restaurant, but now, it is the owner her self, and it is fare from same quality - which I don't tell her. Some huge halls are stuffed with all kind of cheep Chinese junk. Toys, shoos, welding gear, tools, pots & pans, hats, pluming objects, lamps, china, camping gear, kitsch in any shape and colour, there are no limits. And I actually end up with the car-compass I've been looking for.
I buy a large container of water on the way home. I have not bought water since I got the other large containers, but the last four cities' water is undrinkable! I end up drinking too little, and I must admit; I do have to drink quite a lot these days. The sun is harsh, I even got my nose burned today!
2/2 13. I have to drive straight to the rather big mining city; Copiapo in the morning. The "must see" mineralogical museum is only open from ten to one on Saturdays, closed tomorrow, and it does sound interesting. It is 160 Km, and although the road look interesting, I just have to go back.
Well, then I spot a strange cactus on a bolder in the sand dunes. It does look like Eulychnia iquiquensis, but the major stems are serpentine-like and rather fat and smooth. Some huge road works, flag-zoning 10 Km at a time, make me decide not to go back, and I do some tracking in the coastal area.
Besides from the large cacti, the succulents ability to harvest dew is exactly what I'm here for, and I get some real good data for a low, coastal area. It is getting late, and I start driving fast, just before Caldera. After this coastal city, the area looses most of its plants, although some succulents keep fighting.
I reach Copiopo at ten, ask for directions once, and reach the Museuo Mineralogico quarter passed. I have to wait almost one minute before the man with the key turns up. He apologies for slightly disorder in the display; the earth shake was a bit hard on the montres.
Neat, little collection with two major themes: The different metals in rocks and another with the different crystalic structures. A few fossils and other oddities, and a bit of mining history. I give it the time it takes, but after half an hour, I've seen it all.
The hostel I have found in advance, is just round the corner, and I might as well book a room. It is full, so are the next five. Then I'm in luck; a real nice one have a single, and I even get them to wash some of my cloths. It have turned afternoon, and I decides to stay in town.
First a tour round the shopping centre of this rather large city. I find a few items I've been looking for, one is a tiny gadget, which let the car play music from a USB key. A cup of tea and then back to do some real needed cleaning of the car. The thousands of kilometres on gravel roads, combined with open windows have made its mark! And mud holes with open windows too.
My history with the rental car company in mind: I either shouldn't give a dammed - or I should be very careful, and return it in prime condition. I choose the last. Further more, I have to drive in it for over a week still, and on sealed roads - I think.
Back to work for some hours, then it is time for dinner. I chooses a pizza from the large chain; Telepizza. It is not only real expensive, it is tasteless! Despite I ordered pepperoni, it taste less than the dough normally do. Two bags of salt does not help the least.
Back to work some more, and just for fun, I make a page about the National Botanical Garden of Chile. The planning of tomorrow is a bit tricky. My map show a green area, along the coast, but I can't find any information regarding this. I better check it out. 40 Km back towards Caldera and then out through "the green" to the coast, and back to Ruta 5 and Vallenar. The city which was the epic centre for the earth shake, three days ago. The photos from this part is in their own slide-show.
From here, it is going to be slightly more civilized, although I still try to stick to the nature. Coastal cities, mining outposts and more cacti will follow in Part 6.