Asks David, peering in confusion at the little packet of dulce de leche.
Did you say sausages?
And the whole table erupts in laughter at what will become a running joke for the rest of our trip.
I said dulce de leche!
shouts Jamie, cupping his hand to his ear.
It’s apricot jam!
insists David, on closer inspection of what is clearly not apricot jam but boiled milk caramel. He spreads some on his bread and takes a bite.
It’s apricot jam.
He says certainly.
I’m telling you, it’s milk caramel.
I say laughing.
Says David distracted by breakfast and puzzled. The table roars in laughter again, David included.
I said caramel!
I say, wiping tears from eyes and realise the conversation is too ridiculous to continue with so I lay down my arms and we finish our enormous breakfast, brush the crumbs off and head out from Calama to a tiny town called Lasana. We follow the river Loa through the dusty, empty landscape, marvelling at the gorgeous, clear water and the profusion of lush grasses and sweeping reeds bulging out from the river. It is a tiny river, really not much more than a deep stream but such amazing amounts of life sprout from its edges we can’t help but stare as we reach the turn off. The tiny road is so recently tarmacked that the great, yellow roller and dumper truck are still parked by the turn off. There is nobody else in sight and we feel a little like celebrities rolling on to a red carpet laid specially for us.
Jewel-like, neat fields and allotments start to appear beside the river then little houses with the odd truck parked outside. We pass a museum, a campsite and several restaurants.
The centre should be just along here.
I say confidently and then suddenly we are on the far side of the town having passed straight through without realising it.
We say collectively, unsure what we are going to do now that we have reached our destination and accidentally not noticed it. We had imagined a walk around, a snoop in a shop or two to look at the local handicrafts, lunch somewhere. But there is nothing like it, just these few buildings, the strange, closed up museum and the air of expectation gone astray.
Then we spot the ruins, a great dusty pile of intricately tumbled buildings climbing up high on an outcrop of rock overlooking the river. The sign announces ‘Pukará de Lasana’, and we find we are looking up at a 12th century pre-Colombian fortress in to which a slightly surprised looking lady in the office welcomes us . The office, adjoining museum and toilets are brand spanking new, just like the road. When we parked the pickup truck in the empty carpark opposite, the workmen on the road looked at us like they had never seen a tourist before so I am struggling to imagine who these lovely new buildings have been built for. It is as though Lasana had a frenzied moment of getting ready for an official visit but the VIP never arrived and now the town is slowly exhaling in disappointment.
Nevertheless we are made extremely welcome, sold four tickets and shown the way up the gravelly, lumpy paths to the top of the ruins. We have the entire place to ourselves. Suzie and David head up along the top of the ridge whilst Jamie and I squirm down the tiny, slippery paths further down to follow a route we aren’t totally sure is an official one. We scrabble about in the grey dust and pick up pieces of ceramic and hold them up to the light. I stare hard at the striations in the surface made by a piece of grit in the clay, dragged round by someone’s thumb as they smoothed the surface down eight hundred years ago. In amongst the tiny, broken down rooms of the buildings are storage spaces draped in the same shadows that would have kept this community’s food cool centuries ago. I wonder if whoever that thumb belonged to also reached around in the dark of one these spaces in front of me for that evening’s dinner.
Here and there are broken pieces of rock which once would have been metate; long, smooth pieces of stone, hollowed by the repetitive grinding of dried corn with a rolling pin shaped from the same stone.
I made one of those in primary school!
I say, amazed to be looking down at this little nugget of school history classes and thinking of my carefully sculpted, wonky mini-metate made from that claggy, dusty grey clay wheeled out for history classes across all UK primary schools.
Turning from the broken metate I catch a glimpse of the view over Lasana through a gap in the walls. Despite the wreck that the marching clock has made of this place, everything has a timeless feeling to it . The tiny, dazzlingly green fields, the narrow, hand built irrigation canals, the slumping grasses, heavy with water from the river all look just as they might have done had I stood here eight centuries ago. A widening in the river lets a slice of sunlight in to the water where reeds disappear in to the depths and the water is so clear it seems almost to be made of jelly. I gaze in to it, contented in a way I rarely find myself.
Beyond the profuse strip of greenery are the red, barren mountains of the desert and long, beige dusty roads to nowhere but in this moment I feel as though I am in some ancient Babylonian paradise. It is only reluctantly that I turn to follow Jamie as he scrambles to the top. David and Suzie are already there, strolling the path with serene expressions on their faces. We all stand there for a moment admiring the world before finally heading back through the narrow, finkled streets in the direction we have come and piling in to the car.As we drive, I watch the tiny river Loa running past the road as we head back down the valley, imagining the chilly, pellucid waters closing over my head as I jump in.
I want to swiiiiiiiiim!
I wanna sw…oh geoglyphs!
I shout, distracted from my watery fantasy by some ancient pictograms in a large boulder. History is everywhere and Jamie dutifully stops the car so everyone can clamber out and have a look. Suitably impressed and a little worn out by the ancientness of everything, it’s not long before everyone is back, slamming doors behind them and we are leaving this curious, empty, beautiful valley behind us.
We take a different road back to Calama via a lagoon that is signposted along an exposed, chalky looking road that sweeps through the wide, empty desert and brings us to a small turn off and rudimentary carpark. Beyond this desiccated parking spot is a great field of reeds, swaying in the wind and a graffitied, burnt out looking building from whose windows and old curtain billows. All around us in the other directions is just sand and grey grit, nothing growing and nothing to look at. Surreally though, beside us in this bleak, blanched stretch of desert, is a perfect circle of gorgeous green water. We run down to it and peer in to the water which is fringed with plants through which a lone duck paddles quacking softly to itself. I throw a rock in to the water and am surprised to watch it swivel far, far down in to the water. The water is deep, ever so deep and clear but with with only depths and nothing growing up from the bottomless bottom, it’s impossible to know this without watching this piece of stone peddling down through it.
I wanna swiiiiim!
I whine with renewed enthusiasm and kick my flip flops off and wade in to a sandy, shallow lip clinging to the edge before the water tumbles down in to the deep. I do want to swim but I am also a wimp. A bedtime story told to me long ago by my dad about a fishing excursion in a deep, dark pond and the resulting enormous pike has instilled a lifelong horror of waters shared with unknown grabby and toothy creatures.But wouldn’t a swim in these emerald hued waters just be glorious? Would it really hurt to try it out and just accept that living things share the space with me?
Don’t get in that water! Jamie! Oh Jamie no, you turkey!
Suzie’s pleas interrupt my reveries and a great splash ensues as Jamie who, despite initial concerns about resurfacing in underground caverns populated by prehistoric monsters, hasn’t been able to resist.
Jamie!! It’s too deep! Come out of the water!
Suzie shouts again and it seems we all suffer with similar heeby jeebies about not being able to see the bottom. But Jamie looks very happy sploshing about and nothing immediately surfaces to chew on his feet. He grins up at us from the water and goes a sort of pale raspberry colour with the chill. We have seen him strip off and dive in to glacial lakes to swim to the other side and emerge violently rouged and shuddering so nobody is particularly concerned but I do find myself sneaking glances down in to the water to periodically check for any lurking Charybdises.
I leave him to either be eaten or to heave himself out of the water and dry off in the chilly wind and walk up to explore the empty building. It feels as though, like Lasana, this place is also waiting for an arrival that never happened. The road signs pointing us here, the neatly levelled, if rustic carpark and this building which was clearly intended to be a restaurant all show some kind of investment in the place but there is nobody here and nor has there been for some time. This deep, glugging hole in the earth and the whistling reed beds beyond are all ours.
Once I finish my inspection of the graffiti inside the buildings (Maria loves Santiago and Ignacio loves Paola) I make my way back out to overlook the lagoon and see the others meandering back to the car. David is on the far side having made a circuit of the water and I stroll down and wave across at him. He carries on, oblivious to my greeting, and I decide to throw another rock in to the water instead. The large, crumbly piece I find makes a nice blooping noise as it disappears under the surface and I watch as it turns a pale green then a darker green before sinking out of sight followed by a long stream of bubbles as it continues its way down and down to who knows where.I shudder as I wipe the crumbs of stone off my hands and creep back to the truck where everyone is waiting for me.
We drive away with a last look back at the lagoon and soon find ourselves in need of ice lollies after our exertions. Fortunately the little town of San Francisco De Chiu Chiu delightfully named and right on the road home. The dusty streets are totally deserted but a lovably crap, hand painted sign portraying a busty blonde points us in to a small, empty restaurant. Inside two slightly bemused women gladly sell us some homemade coconut, chocolate and strawberry lollies and two great cups of frosty cold mango slush.
We slurp down the sweet tubes of ice in the car, rubbing the yellow grit from our tired eyes and enjoying the sugar rush. We circle through San Francisco, confusingly pushed by the roads, to the outer limit of the town where we pass the most wonderfully ancient adobe church. The road hairpins around on itself, the church caught in the bend and we find ourselves all cooing softly over the warped timbers, crumbling whitewash and exposed mud beneath it. Such is its decrepit grandeur that I imagine it to be a one of a kind, nothing like it left in the region but the following day after a two hour drive from Calama through a great expanse of mineral glittered rock formations, I find that this kind of thing is commonplace. Here, where it never rains more than a millimetre a year or so, you can build your churches from mud, leave the paint to crumble off and return several hundred years ago to find your saintly sandcastle a little bowed but all the prettier for it.
San Pedro De Atacama’s hard, ochre coloured adobe church bristles with little stones and sun blonded grasses and has stood on this site, unmolested by melting rains, for nearly three hundred years. Inside, ranks of cactus wood planking vault across the ceiling, fastened fetchingly together with strings of animal hide, the gate outside also held fast with these gnarly strips of skin. Dust clouds roll down the narrow streets and into our eyes and mouths while we weave through tourists coughing the desert from our lungs. This old, adobe desert town in the South East of the Atacama grew up around a small oasis marked by a proliferation of trees just out of the centre and now attracts a huge quantity of tourists drawn by the clear blue skies, the ageless cobbled streets and the promise of adventure in the desert. With the backpackers have slunk a thousand tour companies who festoon their shops with laminated A3 photos of local destinations and cut price days out. A trip to the Tatio Geysers! A night walk up a volcano! A walk on the salt flats! A drive to a rock? You could spend weeks here on increasingly desperate pitches by grinning touts but we don’t, we have other, less sociable plans. We have three nights here, tucked away in an overpriced but pleasantly basic cabin in to which stream hoards of ants the moment we arrive. The days are hot and dry, presided over by blazing skies and the dry, hot air. The nights are sharp and cold and we are glad of the piles of blankets heaped on our beds.
As much as I try to like San Pedro, it’s strange, dusty loveliness and pioneer town atmosphere don’t move me much. Perhaps if the place weren’t littered with chi-chi coffee shops, tourist trap restaurants and trinketries, I would feel differently. After all, it is like no other place I have been to with its twig mohicanned mud walls, churning dust eddies and John Wayne atmosphere. The problem is that pervading Disneyland air to the place which leaves me cold. We spend much of the time out of the town though, leaving the cabin to boil quietly in the sunshine and the ants to consume the contents of the bin. Jamie drives us out in the pickup, which has acquired an adventurous layer of dust both inside and out, and we head for wide open lunar valleys on the hunt for flamingos.
We find them, in all their campy glory, in small, elegant flocks that move as one. Heads bent low, nibbling tiny creatures out of the saline waters, they keep a wary eye on us as we stalk them clumsily. Suzie, David and Jamie head a different way to upset a host of birds in the distance and take photos of the resulting flurry of pink and white feathers that heave themselves airborne and coast away in a large arc. I creep the opposite way towards a smaller group who freeze and stare at me indignantly. Slowly, slowly, slowly I sneak, feet squelching on small islands of altitude toughened grass until the birds shift and twitch on the edge of flight and I stop and sit down. Shoes off, I pop my feet in the navy blue waters, expecting a warm, volcanic spa but instead am treated to an icy shock and great, circling clouds of red mud.
The flamingos tolerate me for five minutes or so and I watch them admiringly and catch drifting, pink feathers to keep as souvenirs. Tiny, neat little wading birds with black, beady eyes and sharp beaks scurry through the marshy grasses and a chilly breeze dries the water on my freezing feet in to tide lines of salt. The great, empty red mountains around us, the fierce blue of the sky, the blaring sun and glinting of the yellowed grasses swallows me up until suddenly the flamingos shift in one big, panicked beating of wings, lifting themselves away from the curious intruder. I must have looked at them funny.
I squint in to the distance to see the others marching busily back to the truck and follow them, feeling the altitude in my limbs and lungs until we all flop back to the truck. Suzie comes bearing feathers too and Jamie, four hundred thousand photographs of the flamingos in ever decreasing sizes.
Did you scare the flamingos on purpose to get a photo?
I ask Jamie who has been known to alarm seals and rare birds for the optimum shot.
Well…we just walked and didn’t stop.
Says Jamie busily, avoiding my eye. But an idea so lovely has struck me that I forget to admonish him. I am going to ride in the back of the pickup like I did in Bolivia. I want to feel the desert wind on my face so I leap in to the back of truck and shuffle about in the dust until I am comfortable.
And lovely it is. The roads are winding and smooth and the icy breeze billows over my head deliciously. The world is in brilliant, sharp focus and suddenly somehow magnified, more present than when peered at through a little window inside the truck. Suzie and David knock on the back window and take photos of me grinning toothily and eventually, Suzie joins me too, unable to resist the call of the truck bed. I take photos of a primrose coloured full moon hanging over the ochre mountains and shout a conversation at Suzie. It is only when our teeth start chattering that we admit defeat and bundle back inside with Mr Whippy hairstyles and rosy, sunburnt cheeks. Tomorrow, Suzie’s arms will be an alarmingly luminous red and my shoulders will sting under the rough fabric of my dress but the twanging, wonderfully jarring blue of the sky against the red of the rocks has stitched itself in to my mind and tomorrow seems far, far away. Barely even worth considering.
Isn’t it wonderful?
Someone shouts over the billowing sound of the wind coming in through the open window. Everyone is exhilerated by the landscape around them as I am.
crows Jamie and that’s enough to set everyone off again.
Easy dulce de leche (not sausages)
This, everyone should know though you may not know that resulting product is the same as dulce de leche. Originally it was made by boiling down milk for HOURS AND HOURS which is very time consuming and boring, I should know because I have done it. This is much quicker. I stole the recipe from a woman obsessed by caramel who had made eighteen batches of dulce de leche in a tireless campaign to find the best methods. This came second as the first was made in a pressure cooker which not many people have. Use this in the alfajor recipe from my post in Argentina.
- Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. Make sure that you put enough water in the pan to completely cover the can you’re about to cook.
- Remove the label from the can of sweetened, condensed milk and carefully submerge it into the boiling water using a pair of tongs or a slotted spoon. Make sure you place the can on its side, so it can roll around. If you place the can bottom or top-side down, the boiling water can cause it to bounce up and down, which is really annoying…
- Cook the can for 3 hours, making sure the can is covered with water at all times. Add more boiling water if necessary.
- Using a pair of tongs, a fork or a slotted spoon, take the can out of the pan and place it onto a heatproof surface to cool. Make sure it has cooled to room temperature before you open the can, otherwise the dulce de leche will squirt out like a fountain… Once cooled, stir until smooth.
- Cooled dulce de leche can be stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks
- Spread it on bread, drizzle over cookies, cake or ice cream or eat by the spoonful.