At breakfast we have cloggie company, a group of grey-haired Dutch people talking about bargains they have been able to pick up. No butter on the buffet so I ask the waiter for “burro” – thankfully he doesn’t bring me a donkey!
Getting concerned about the lack of news about our visit to Chuqui. While I’m enquiring at the reception (who suggest we could take a taxi), the driver for our tour turns up. He is expecting two others besides us but when they haven’t turned up at 8.05 we leave without them. On the way we pick up another guy at a hotel in the centre of Calama. Clive is a flight consultant with JLA and this is his reward, a ten day trip to Chile, for getting the highest sales figure. He reminds us of Phil. Our driver takes us to the tour entrance for Chuqui, and tells us he’ll pick us up again at around 12. So he is just a taxi service. Inside a cafetaria we have to fork out $1000 each for the tour (some confusion as Clive has paid $3000 without realising it is for all of us). There are about 50 people in total, including our two German friends from Arica. First we’re treated to a welcome briefing and short video about the mine, covering the company responsible for its exploitation, Codelco. The whole thing is a side-line for Codelco (the tour/visit, that is) and is managed by the company. After the video we board a bus, Ness and I end up sitting apart, because the bus is already pretty full (all the Spanish speakers left after the first run of the video, in Spanish).
The bus takes us into the mining complex itself, the guide points out various things of interest en route – hospital, etc. Then, after a brief stop at a checkpoint, we’re provided with hard hats, colour-coded red, a kit containing metal foot protectors, plastic safety glasses, and breathing filter thingy. We have to wear the hard hats at our first stop, a viewing platform overlooking the mine. It is a huge operation. The scale is emphasised by the realisation that the tiny little toy trucks we can see driving through the mine are in fact colossus machines capable of carrying hundreds of tons of rock and ore. One of the “small” versions is parked by the viewing platform. The bus next takes us to a large building where the monster trucks are serviced. We stand around for a bit, gape at the scale but even that soon wears off. Next stop, passing through other parts of the mine, conveyor belts running alongside and overhead, is a visit to the refinery. The breathing masks are now required. We’re split into two groups for the visit – LHS and RHS (of the bus). Ness swaps with the German woman, so that we both get to go on the same group [i.e. Ness and I together in the second group, German woman together with her man in the first group]. I nod off for a few minutes and wake to the first group coming back – someone collapsed so the rest of the visit is cancelled. It doesn’t matter, we were near the end of our tour anyway. A large copper-coloured statue of a miner, similar to the one in Calama centre, stands just outside the refinery. The whole place is one of industry, men (and women) digging mineral wealth out of the earth. It all ends up in an unfinished product which is distributed across the world for us in production of copper parts. Our mini-bus driver is waiting for us when we get back. The two others, a middle-aged French couple, did make it to the tour and are already waiting for us in the mini-bus. I end up doing translation to involve Clive in the conversation, Ness seems quite comfortable with the French [language, that is]. The conversation picks up, then drifts off – we’re all doing the same “trail” in one way or another. Clive angles for a lift (“do you know where I can get a taxi to the bus station?”) and we offer it, why not? He buys us a drink in the hotel while we get our bags and check out. He is friendly and does have something to say, but neither of us are keen to spend any more time with him than necessary I think.
The drive from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama takes us through flat country, climbing or falling gradually, with long straight roads. Alex mix provides background – it’s now getting tiresome but it’s the best (i.e. only) tape we have. Some pictures are taken en route – us with our Pentax MZ-50 with 35-50mm + 80-200mm zoom lens, Clive with his Kodak disposable. Again, the country around is absolutely stunning and hard to capture, either on film or in words. We’re definitely in desert country, but sheltered from it by a well-managed strip of tarmac and Basher Two’s airco. Andes in the background – don’t seem to get any closer.
We drive into San Pedro de Atacama. It is tiny – a few streets, a grid system despite being an ancient village. First we try to find Clive’s hotel. We still manage to get lost, even in a place as small as this (hundreds rather than thousands of inhabitants). We pass many hosterias and hotels, and with a few directions manage to find Clive’s hotel. Then it is our turn. No-one seems to have heard of the Altiplanico, but eventually we find a woman who has. We’re in Quitor, a bit outside town. Most, if not all, of SPdA consists of low adobe buildings, with narrow dusty streets (rock and earth, no tarmac!) Description of its shops and entertainment can wait until tomorrow. Our hotel is an eclectic collection of brown-red adobe cabins. You can tell it’s a recent construction. The welcome is friendly. It reminds us of Yacutinga. We’re in cabin 6A. Aah, we can dump and unpack our bags for a few days. Holds promise!
We have a little secluded and shady patio. After unpacking we head to the main building for a drink. Afterwards we drive into SPdA for dinner. The main places are on Caracoles, and we pick Milagro. Outside all buildings present a simple plain adobe front, with a sign advertising its business – restaurant, artesianal, turismo (a lot of adventure and trekking). Inside Milagro we find an open courtyard with a central space for an open fire. The place is alive with conversation and up-to-date music. We’re there a bit early. Dinner is excellent: pollo & arroz for Ness, filete Milagro (“el mejor de la mejor!” the waiter says) for me. The fire is lit as the light fades, and two little girsl, the owner’s daughter and her friend, scatter some fireside cushions about. SPdA is beginning to grow on us and we leave the restaurant happy and full. Ness has an upset stomach on the way back – nothing too serious but confirms her decision to take it easy on the food and drinks, I’m meanwhile increasing the chili intake – about par for the course for our holidays!