(4) Chile: El Norte Grande
Baquedano! What a romantic name for a town that time forgot. Perched in the middle of the Atacama Desert only a short distance from Antofagasta it exists in a peaceful slumber; the desert winds whistling among its ancient buildings. A few hardy folk continue to eke out a living in this godforsaken place.
Most people would pass through this almost inconspicuous town and hardly give it a second thought or bother to lift their foot off of the accelerator if it were not for the carabineros. However, we had a different mission. We knew there was hidden treasure lurking behind the aging facade of the well weathered buildings. We knew this town held possibly the largest, if not the oldest Round House in all of South America. All we had to do was find it.
It was so well camaflouged amongst the ruins that we poked and prodded even though we stood right on top of it. And then there it was. A graveyard of ancient steam locomotives and a Round House that could service upwards of two dozen locomotives, simultaneously. I had never beheld such a wonder anywhere and least expected to find this treasure in this place of all places. Urgently in need of funding and restoration it still provided a visual impact of what once must have been. I fear it will crumble before it is resurrected, on this the day before Good Friday, where death, destruction and resurrection are very much on everyone´s mind.
This town and this facility were built by Bolivia at a time when this part of Chile belonged to Bolivia. Bolivia lost this area to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1873 and thus lost their Pacific coast access in one single move. Chile possessed all mineral rites, mines, cities, towns, people and ports as a result of this conquest. Further north, in Arica, Chile won this area from Peru in the same war.
Onward to San Pedro de Atacama, the tourist capital of this Norte Grande region. Prices were slightly higher here in reflection of its sole means of survival...the tourist dollar. The place abounded in local, gringo and European travellers on this long weekend.
At Laguna Chaxa we observed an Andean phenomena...that of feeding flamingoes in this intermediate altiplano region that resides at 8,000 feet. Contentedly going about the daily routine, we approached these brightly colored, giant birds and observed them in their environment. Feeding on the over abundant protoazoa and tiny fish that inhabit the saline lakes, their life seemed like an easy one although one can only imagine how they choose to inhabit this forlorn and desolate region over the more tropical climes where they are most often found. The Parina Grande was one of two such birds that inhabit this region.
Valle de Luna was another adjacent area in this region of salars and salt mines. The late afternoon sun played with the shadows making it a photographers delight. Every turn held a new and wonderous image in this 'other worldly' place. Tour buses and tourists abounded in the late afternoon, whereas during the middle day the place was almost deserted.
Back in town, San Pedro de Atamaca has been preserved rather than improved. Rough dirt streets butt into adobe, single story structures that belie the human comforts lurking within. Vehicular traffic is minimal; foot traffic being the accepted norm.
We spent three nights enjoying the company of many motorcycle travellers who happened to be here this long Easter weekend. Visitors from England shared our campsite. They were more or less travelling around the world or at least a part of it. Argentinian and Brazilian bikers roared through town seemingly competing in an Iron Butt Rally this long weekend. The Paso de Jama connecting San Pedro de Atacama with Jujuy and Salta Argentina is now paved reducing this once treacherous, day long journey to a few, high speed hours. When Peter and I passed this way in 1999 we fought high altiplano dirt roads fraught with sand traps and other hidden hazards. We arrived at dark at Jujuy. Salta was unattainable in a day.
The small but well stocked museum in San Pedro holds many pleasant surprises. Choice pottery pieces and an abundance of Atacama preserved mummies will please even the most discerning tourist and archaeologist alike.
It was in San Pedro de Atacama that we met the French family who were staying at the same hostel as us. They were a family of five (5), mama, papa, Anna, Lucie and Peter aged thirteen, eleven and nine. They were travelling the Americas for a year, from north to south. Home schooling their children they travelled with a truck load of baggage, books, corrrespondence lessons and clothing.
Eleven year old Lucie was the most outgoing of the trio. She sauntered into our camp and entertained us with her wisdom beyond her years. She rattled off countries, places and events with the precision of Brittanica. She dazzled us with her calculations of costs and prices in the various countries. I asked her how many suitcases she had. Two she replied without hesitation...one for my clothes and one for my toys. I was staggered. Wise beyond her years she was not too proud to state the importance of toys in her daily life, lest she grow up too soon. Thank you Lucie for adding a new dimension to my day. I added a CANADA pin to her treasures. Hopefully, she will cherish it and perhaps even the memory of me and the few hours we spent together in San Pedro de Atacama.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at April 16, 2006 10:30 PM GMT