Two utopias and a a bear in the hole.
I lie in bed listening to Suzie, David and Jamie crashing about, having energetic showers and preparing sandwiches. They really like to get up early this lot. I reluctantly peel myself out from between the blankets and join in the cheerful, noisy start to the day. Despite rising at six we don’t leave until eight and the departure is punctuated by last minute dashes back I to the cabin to go to the toilet and pick up forgotten items. Finally though, I lock the enormous gate to the cabin firmly behind the pickup to prevent further escapes and we head out of town, up a tiny, winding back road in to the mountains following signs marked ‘Termas Baños de Puritmas’. Eventually we arrive in a dusty car park in the middle of nowhere. David opts to spend the time sunbathing in the car and waves us off languidly , having had enough dashing about for the last few weeks. The rest of us make our way uncertainly down a deserted a path that cuts down the side of a cliff face. Far below us, a little river is obscured by myriad pampas grasses and I briefly imagine parades of swingers trundling jangling their keys in delight down the path.
When we finally reach the entrance, the place is totally silent, exquisitely peaceful but for the low rushing of the water and the breeze rustling the grasses. A series of boardwalks zigzags round and across the little river, disappearing downhill with the flow of the water. A couple of small, immaculately white buildings stand in front of us. A plump woman in a sparkling, starched uniform in a style that denotes healthy pursuits appears and beckons us over to buy tickets inside one of the huts and then we scamper out excitedly to get changed.
When I reappear from the dimly lit changing room, the sun bleaches my vision and when my eyes finally readjust, I am standing on the boardwalk beside a narrow pool of the clearest most beautiful water I have ever seen. Jamie and Suzie are already in, tucked around the snaking bend of the little river, obscured by the pampas grass. I climb in to the warm, volcanically heated waters and squeak in delight. The water glides silkily past me, pushed up from underground at one end of the pool above us and tumbling downhill out of sight. I swim through it underwater with my eyes open, marvelling at the beautiful, sharp clarity and pop up on the other side to the wide eyed, equally happy faces of Jamie and Suzie. Jamie busies himself by clambering up a small waterfall, puffing out his cheeks and squeezing his eyes shut to avoid a blinding, choking faceful of warm water. He crouches above us inspecting the lay of the tumbling waters and then disappears in to a small cavern behind the waterfall, reappearing visible only as a small, screwed up face framed by the sluicing waters.
I float for a while inhaling the glittering air, the breezy scent of minerals and warm, dry wood in my nostrils, and stare up at the sky. I can hardly believe we have found this tiny, perfect oasis in the middle of the rolling, blank desert. The colours are saturated, high contrast versions of themselves and every outline is acid etched in minute detail. Nobody else is here, just us and the pampas grasses and this beautiful water. How lucky we are! I think, how wonderfully, truly…
Oh cock it!
Look at all those people coming!
And traipsing down the path are twenty or thirty people shuffling up clouds of dust in their haste to share the waters with us.
I grumble and soon, we squashed in with scores of tourists kicking up the beautiful, silky smooth algae that lines the pools and clouding the waters with a greasy layer of sun cream. This being Latin America, of course, nobody is bothered about personal space and soon we are fleeing the pools as enormous, giggling, shouting families pile in and try to sit on us. Eventually we decide the magic has truly washed downstream and heft ourselves reluctantly from the warm waters and head to the changing rooms. The boardwalks have heated up to the temperature of fresh lava and we skip fretfully over the superheated planks leaving sheets of skin to fizz and crackle in our wake.
Nursing our blazing feet, Suzie and I chat to a mother and daughter from Inverness in the changing rooms which has a rather surreal feeling to it. We even talk about the weather which is sort of wonderful and then, bidding our countrymen adieu, the two of us stroll back up the path breathing heavily in the thin air and watching Jamie marching ahead of us. Jamie doesn’t like to waste time doing anything and I begin to realise that I have spent the majority of the last eight and a half months staring at the back of his head. As usual, he reaches the destination well ahead of me to find David dozing in the car and when we finally catch up, they are belted up and ready to go.
I can just feel the twinge of sunburn as we pull out of the carpark and I notice Suzie has gone a rather deeper shade of rose than is good for a person but it hardly seems to matter now that we are squeaky clean and impossible healthy feeling from the warm waters below us. We thump over the potholes in the carpark and turn out on to the little road and head further uphill towards El Tatio.
El Tatio is a field of eighty or so geysers that all of the tour companies in San Pedro are just busting to take you to. We are ambivalent, having all seen geysers before and sure that nothing can surpass the little piece of geothermal perfection we have just been wallowing in, but we are halfway there already and what the hell. There’s not a soul on the road for miles and miles so it seems like an adventure and as the poor pickup truck gasps and struggles up the tight bends, it starts to feel like one too.
We drive up past great, lumpen cacti, huddled close to the ground. When we stop to take a look we find the spines of the cacti as so strong and long that you can play them, almost like a thumb piano. The wind, when it blows, whistles hollowly through the spines and the sunlight glows through the transparent tips lending a golden hue to the strange plants. A dust devil, whipped up from the beige sand by the fast wind, zips noisily up the path making Suzie jump as she tries to take photos. She appears back in the car excitedly asking us if we saw it and I point across to a distant plateau where five or six of these whirling dust columns interrupt the horizon.
The pickup whines up the hill and eventually we reach an enormous, rolling plain across which, wiry mustard coloured grass grows in a sort of oxygen starved, patchy proliferation. The unpalatable looking grasses are fodder for the wild vicuña here who we see in the distance chewing delicately and keeping a suspicious eye on the intrusive red truck that has appeared in their midst. Suzie jumps out the car with her camera and zooms in on the graceful, llama like creatures and Jamie, pretending to be David Attenborough, films them whilst standing in the truck bed while I slowly drive him down the road.
It takes a further slow trundle on sliding on the sand and gazing out at the vast, empty stretch of dirt road ahead of us before we spot a sign telling us the geysers are still 25 miles away and we universally decide we don’t like volcanic water features enough for another hours drive. We like mining towns much better! We caught a glimpse of one on the way here and decide to avoid the tourists and turn around and explore it. There isn’t much left when we reach it but it is clear that it was once a sulphur mine from the luminous yellow lumps of rocks that dot the sand under our feet. The pieces are so vibratingly yellow that we can’t resist them and find, when we regroup at the car later, that we have all ferreted lumps of it away in our pockets from various places on the site. I find mine high up at the top of the town overlooking the roofless blocks of houses, stood amongst the old furnaces. Nature has stripped back the old industrial works rather fetchingly and filled the small buildings with sand. Heaps of orange rust shards in the approximate shape of a furnace spill out of the old stone nooks and the floor is littered with pieces of weathered metal work and, perhaps less authentically, old beer cans.
The lemony chunk of sulphur catches my eye as I start to climb back down towards the others who are digging old enamel mugs from the sand and holding them up to show each other. I pick the chunk up eagerly and gaze at the beautiful, faintly pearlescent surface of it, breathing in the uglylovely scent of it. In two days time, overlooking the world’s largest open copper mine I will pull a piece of pure, turquoise green atacamite from a pile of broken shards, immediately thinking of how the two stones will jangle beautifully next to each other. The purity and lividness of the colours, one bright as an easter chick, the other a shivering peacock’s tail squeezed down by the weight of the earth’s crust in to these tiny jewelly lumps of rock.
You would expect the whole copper mine to radiate with these shimmering greens but it doesn’t, not in the least, it is all encompassingly grey. Chuquicamata has produced over thirty million tonnes of copper since its industrial beginnings a little over a century ago. The site itself is ancient but the enormous crater I stand on the edge of, clutching my lump of atacamite began life in 1915. Black and white photographs of the site then show a fairly ordinary desert landscape scattered with machinery. Today it is as though an entire mountain has been plucked from upside down out of the earth leaving a great, blank looking hole.The sides of this gigantic breach in the surface are delicately terraced all the way down as if someone has run a comb around the edges. It’s only when you realise that the tiny vehicles crawling along these ridges are in fact the world’s largest mining trucks with a 330 tonne capacity and guzzle 3100 litres of fuel a day that you can begin to appreciate how enormous this place is. And there’s no glittering here either, no chestnut coloured copper lumps in the rocks and no verdigris streaking the cliff faces with green. The place is uniformly pale, dusty, battleship grey. I stare at the hole, unable to get a hold on the size or scale or it, overwhelmed by the bleached greyness of it and eventually give up to climb back down the ringing metal staircase of the viewing platform we have been brought to and root about in the rubble with similarly scale vanquished visitors.
I notice one man bend to pick up something and wander over to inspect. There amongst a pile of rubble, hundreds of broken shards of bright turquoise atacamite lie covered in dust but still remarkably beautiful in this sea of ashen dust. Atacamite, as the name suggests, was a word first used in 1801 to describe deposits found in the Atacama Desert. It is a beautiful and relatively rare mineral composed of copper minerals which are what form the lovely greens which run from palest duck egg to deep, dark malachite green. I pick up a few glowing pieces and think how nice they will look beside the lump of sulphur I found the previous day and then take some up to David who is standing with Jamie still gazing over the gigantic industrial works below us. David also likes a good piece of rock and loves to point out the tiny grains of mica glittering in the surface of a stone he has picked up or pocket dusty chips of clear quartz. Each holiday he goes on with Suzie, you can guarantee that their suitcase will return weighed down to twice it’s weight with interesting chunks of geology. Their house and garden is littered with basalt, sandstone and schist from all over the world. We even have a running joke based on David’s love of geological strata so I know he’ll like the pieces of atacamite and indeed, he does. He coos over the deep, saturated colours and immediately pockets the pieces which later join an ever growing pile yielded by the Atacama in the last week.
Finally the group of visitors we are part of peel away from the viewing platform and head back to the coach we are being ferried about in. I tug Jamie away from his sixtieth boyish, open mouthed admiration of a passing mining truck and pop him back in the seat beside me. The tour is completely free, run by the mining company, Codelco no doubt as a way of maintaining healthy public relations in what otherwise is rather an unpleasant minefield of health, environmental and fiscal issues. But despite the slightly uncomfortable connotations of the tour, we are having a pretty fascinating time. Next stop is Chuquicamata miner’s town which was abandoned in 2007 when the government became (or were told they should be) concerned with the exposure of miners and their families to poisonous gasses and dust from the nearby smelting plants.
We are whisked around the empty streets on the bus and then briefly let loose in the main square to imagine we are the only people left on the planet and then gathered up and given copper based information in what was once the town bookshop which overlooks the plaza. There are no books here anymore, just empty shelves and enormous lumps of copper, ore and rock. A sad eyed, friendly company representative explains first in Spanish then English the layout of the mine, including therecent amalgamation of Chuquicamata with nearby and rather ominously named Radomiro Tomic. He goes on to tell us about the whole process from rock face to gleaming lump of finished copper and I am pleased to be able to follow the majority of the Spanish and fascinated to listen to the poetry of his mother tongue drain away when he translates in to English. In English, without the nuances of a native speaker that make the language come alive, it’s just corporate blurb and I find my attention wavering.
I am glazed over and staring in to the distance during a final spiel when the crowd begins to bustle out the door. We follow them and stroll back under the peppercorn trees that line the square, pulling the shiny little pink fruits off as we pass beneath one. They smell quite wonderful fresh and fruity, nothing like the dried, husky pimples we grind at home. I chew one ruminatively, enjoying the warm, spicy taste and wondering if I could smuggle some home as we are driven back to the main office in town. We hand in our hard hats and day-glo jackets, are gleamingly reminded of Codelco’s charity for sick children then pushed back out in to the dusty suburbs of Calama where San Pedro, the grazing vicuña and the nibbling flamingos feel like a hazy dream.
We drive wearily back up north the following day after a final, blissful day of doing very little in our corporate wonderland hotel in the Calama suburbs. Round two in the Atacama Desert is nearly at its close. We journey back on the same road and it’s not long before our attention is diverted to more abandoned mining works in the distance.
No more mining towns! I’ve had enough!
Shouts Suzie when she realises what we are considering but Jamie is rather undissuadable once he has a plan and soon we are veering off the main road on to the old dirt track that leads to Oficina Serena.
This town, unlike the others where buildings have remained standing, has been completely razed to the ground. Whether this is because the houses were built more cheaply and with less care or whether someone has come here and flattened it we don’t know but we wander amongst the wreckage gazing out over the rubble littered browness of it with fascination. It’s not long before we are all inadvertently treasure hunting. I find a tea coloured, age crisped stack of telegrams, a cat’s skull and a thick armagnac bottle mysteriously half full of dead beetles. I tip them out listening to the dry sound of they make as they pile from the bottle. Suzie comes over to look and we both stand there a moment enchanted with and, in equal measure, repelled by the strange, rustling mound of legs and shell cases. I am peering closer at the cat’s skull when Jamie calls us over to where he is standing looking down a hole.
The hole is some eight feet deep and down at the bottom, amongst the dust are a pile of enamelware pots and pans. Before we can stop him, Jamie has jumped straight down in a cloud of dust and begins ferreting about in the mess of metal and scraps. Soon his is throwing up bowls, cups, basins all in different colours, the enamel gracefully flaking away at the edges.
There’s a kettle!
He shouts excitedly and up comes a deep red kettle, sans lid but otherwise in perfectly serviceable condition.
There might be asbestos!
Warns David and I feel a wriggle of anxiety but Jamie seems oblivious to the rest of us.
A teddy bear!
The cry echoes from the hole and a forlorn one armed, legless bear appear with stuffing pouring out of his head.
There’s his leg!
And the leg follows. I fit it back on to the bear and make my introduction, promising to fix him up nice if customs will let him in to the UK. Eventually, Jamie struggles back out of the pan graveyard and we gather round to admire the spoils; a little, pale green child’s cup and saucer, the kettle, a casserole dish, several pots and pans, a mug, the kettle and of course, the bear. The hole must have protected them from rusting because they are all, though spotted with rust and the occasional small, in great condition. We haul them in to the car safe in the knowledge that here, nobody is going to miss them. There isn’t a soul here but for the distant, disinterested passing cars.
We drive around for a while inspecting the works, periodically dissipating from the car and wandering off in to roofless buildings to peer at murals crumbling from the walls of roofless school rooms and pull scraps of century old newspaper from the sand. In some places the ruined industrial works look almost like Inca pyramids and it is only with great difficulty that I manage to resist donning my Indiana Jones fedora and sneaking in to one of the dark doorways that dot the old mines. I am pulled from my last moment hat grabbing daydreams by Suzie calling us back to the car. Only temporarily diverted by the spoils littering the ground she has finally had enough of these archaeological forays and orders Jamie back on to the road and closer to a glass or two of wine.
We have reserved a cabin for the night in a slightly peculiar complex called Complejo Turistico Pampa Verde just off the highway. The small region we are in is called the Tamarugal Pampa National Reserve. A pampa is an area of rolling grassland and in this instance is a ‘green pampa’. It is, however, a little difficult to see exactly what is green about this pampa or what the owners of the cabin complex were thinking when they built it. A great, metal gate and peeling sign surrounded on all sides by dusty lots fenced in by litter festooned barbed wire and fronted by a featureless, dusty road don’t make an especially pleasing welcome. We turn off the road an roll to a stop in the dust to debate our next step. David takes one look at the unpromising frontage and votes to disappear and find somewhere else. We argue that it’s only one night and the fee we will incur means it’s not worth it though looking at the place, I can see why David isn’t convinced.
It’s only one night, it won’t be that bad inside!
No, I don’t like it, it’s horrible.
But we’ll have to pay twice over, once for here and once for a new place!
Don’t care, I’ll pay it, I don’t like it here.
After a long discussion which leads nowhere, we opt to go and at least take a look before fleeing the scene. The verdant sounding name suddenly becomes clear when we pass through the metal gate and find ourselves confusingly surrounded by green fields. The owner later explains to us that there are springs and wells in this region by which all these beautiful secret fields are kept irrigated. He leads us through his crop of murmurous maize plants, edging round the spilling alfalfa flowers to meet the two llamas, horse and sheep who live at the bottom of the garden. It’s a tiny cornucopia, invisible from the road, nestled in this otherwise unforgiving desert and he is clearly very pleased to be living here. He smiles and shows us through the neighbour’s farm to point out a large pen full of surprised looking alpaca and by the time we have been lead back to our small and very basic cabin and fed jugloads of fresh, sweet melon juice by the man’s wife, we are all much enamoured with the strange place.
So the evening passes sloshing in the strangely half filled swimming pool and playing with Pampita, a small and rather crazed dog who joins us for the chicken and chips we buy in nearby Pozo Almonte and sits gazing longingly at the chicken and giving us coy sidelong glances. Chicken and chips in Latin America are a thing of rare beauty, slowly spit roasted, blistering and gooey with hand cut, golden chips sitting in a puddle of savoury juices and universally costing nearly nothing, you truly could not wish for a more satisfying way to fill your belly. We slug down glasses of cold white wine, guzzling the chips and throwing scraps high in the air for Pampita to leap at. Later, when the sun has finally set leaving the dog to bark at the shadows that steal over the wheat field beyond our cabin, David turns in the for the night and Jamie and Suzie turn on the enormous, incongruous flat screen telly. Sean Connery’s Latin voice-alike rumbles through the cabin and I realise that, rather fittingly, they are watching Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. I sleepily watch the famous fedora snatched from under a rapidly closing stone door and realise my hand eye coordination would never have been good enough anyway and then head to bed.
The morning sees the reappearance of Pampita covered from head to toe in mud. She grins tonguishly at us and we make a show of admiring her filth sleeved legs until she is satisfied and bounds away to growl at spirits. We wave her goodbye as we leave but she ignores us and barks at the fence. I jump out of the car to open the huge, green metal gate for the car. The wind has whipped up and pulling the door open is a herculean task. I stagger against the weight of it as the car passes and the gate struggles to close itself despite me. Dust clouds cartwheel around the yard, scattering sand in my hair and in to my eyes and the gate bangs shut behind me. I look about blinking at the litter scraggy nothingness of the desert around me, the tiny, green utopia behind me already a memory to be questioned later. Jamie toots the horn and I climb back in to the passenger seat and we drive away reflecting on how this particular book could not have been judged by its cover.
Tomorrow morning we will take a LAN flight from Iquique to Rio De Janeiro where we will have to get our heads around an entirely different language. This is our last chance to enjoy the dry warmth of the desert without suffocating in the damp heat of Brazil so we use it wisely and head to the local bar that Jamie and I first visited on arriving in Iquique with the bike. We order a plate of chorillana for three, a stuffed avocado and a round of beers. The chorillana turns out to be the most enormous platter of hand-cut chips, slices of fried hotdog, barbequed chunks of beef steak, onions and slices of tomato. Suzy gives up the pretense that the avocado will be enough and passes it around, forking in pieces of steak while we are distracted. In this part of the world, avocado is ambrosial, without exception. Buttery ripe, spreadable creamy with a taste we can’t hope to match with our watery UK specimens. Here in Chile and in Peru, they will a peeled avocado half with mayonnaise smothered cooked vegetables and shred of cooked chicken and sprinkle the top with fresh pepper and sometimes paprika. It is the most satisfyingly fattening salad I have ever tried and it is gone in a very short time. We dig in to the chorillana, dwarfed by the mound of heartstopping ingredients but happy in the way that one is when presented with good, simple food and underpriced alcohol in a sunny bar, far from home. We smile in the sun, pleased to be back here and the rest of the day follows in an effortlessly and pleasantly nothingy way which takes us dozily from bar to beach to hostel. Seven o’clock swims around swiftly and, despite the epic lunch I realise I am in need of some victuals and announce I must be fed some ice cream immediately.
An inspection of the ice cream parlour over the road pleases nobody so Jamie and I walk to the enormous supermarket around the corner. The sun is slowly settling in the sky, elongating our shadows on the pavement as we approach Jumbo and are swallowed by its air conditioned doors. Inside we drift about, unable to make proper decisions. I am staring at the ice cream when the tannoy interrupts my dreamy cogitations. At first I think it’s the supermarket radio station but then the female voice singing merrily over the entire supermarket goes badly out of tune. I look at Jamie.
What was that?!
The singing continues enthusiastically tuneless until I realised that it’s one of the staff or perhaps a customer having a little go at some retail stardom. Somewhere in the building is a woman singing her favourite tune over the PA system very, very badly. I look around at the other customers expecting some kind of chuckling reaction to the karaoke interlude to their shopping but nobody bats an eyelid and neither do the staff. It’s as though only Jamie and I can hear that someone has hijacked the sound system for their personal gratification. I start laughing and Jamie grins.
She is really, truly a terrible singer.
I say and Jamie agrees.
She really is…
We still can’t decide what flavour ice cream to get but suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter so we just pick two. One tub of chocolate and almond and one of dulce de leche will be dinner tonight. Smiling as the voice burbles on, we head to the checkouts to pay and when we get back to Hostel Andina, we find Suzy and David sitting on the roof. Not much effort has been made up here to decorate but with some washing billowing in the breeze, some rickety old seats and a view over the wall to the sea, we are all pretty content. I open the ice cream and Suzy disapproves of our dinner choice before reaching for the tub of chocolate almond and scooping out a few spoonfuls in to her dish. David chews thoughtfully on a sandwich crammed with as many of the ingredients from self catering in Calama as we have left over and we all turn to watch as the sun sinks behind a palm tree. This particular palm is a little wind ravaged and rain starved. During the day it looks a bit sad and droopy as though disappointed it can’t make its star turn as the symbol of all paradisiacal locations. Tonight though, in glowing, fluttering silhouette in front of the setting sun, it looks smashing. We squint at it admiringly and watch the stretching shadows of the joggers running up and down the beach.
Darkness slowly falls and glasses of wine are poured. We are all enjoying the twinkling lights of Iquique stretching in to the distance and the gauzy darkness of the roof top when suddenly the whole place is flooded with a bright light as the Hostel Andina sign is switched on.
I reply and we look at each other and laugh.
I guess that’s that then.
And it is. Tomorrow, we leave Chile behind us, good wine, empty skies and mining towns too. It seems like a good opportunity to have a toast. So we do.
We say in unison, over the sound of clinking glasses and then Jamie quietly reaches for the ice cream and refills his bowl, hoping his mum won’t notice. Which of course, she does.
Palta Rellena- Stuffed Avocado (or Palta A La Reina- stuffed avocado with chicken)
2-3 florets cauliflour
2-3 florets brocolli
half a tin of sweetcorn
a handful of peas
or any combination of the above vegetables- there should be enough to pile onto the avocados in proliferation
2 chicken thighs or any shreds of leftover roast chicken ( if you are making Palta A La Reina)
1 lime/ half a lemon
salt and pepper
If you are making Palta A La Reina, pop the chicken breasts in a small pan of water and bring to the boil. When the water is boiling, turn it down to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes. You can use this water for the vegetables too. Add them in the last 4-5 minutes.
Cut the avocado in half and remove the stone then peel off the skin. Meanwhile boil the vegetables until tender in salted water. Allow to cool then add salt and pepper, mayonnaise and the lime/lemon juice and turn in the mixture until the vegetables are lightly coated.
Pile this glorious mixture on top of the avocado halves and sprinkle with paprika or chilli powder and serve. Even more amazing when made with homemade mayonnaise.