The view from the air as we flew into Calama was desolate and forbidding. Hundreds of square miles of not a lot though prettily coloured. Was it a mistake coming here? The drive from Calama immersed us in this otherworldly landscape. The enormous sense of space was almost intimidating but the trip of roughly one hundred kilometres passed very quickly on the wide, well made road. The colours were subdued but glowing. The sky vastly blue. We had to stop to savour the lunar weirdness of the place. We spotted a couple of black and white birds of prey though what exactly they were finding to prey on is a bit of a mystery. As the sun dropped the colours deepened. On the horizon ahead the sparse Andean peaks took on a deep indigo. We passed through the Valley of Death, or Valle de la Muerte as the locals refer to it. We rolled past a Ruta de Desierto sign just outside the scattered collection of low lying buildings partly hidden in scrub which is San Pedro de Atacama and turned off to Coyo.
The house at Coyo is reached by a track which becomes progressively narrower and rougher as you go along. After scraping past some thorn bushes we arrived. The place is typical of the area. A low adobe and wood construction adorned on the outside with a shiny modern chimney, a satellite dish and at the back, a solar panel array. The Inside was spacious though it looked a bit worn. The Internet connection was surprisingly good. So was the TV reception albeit in Spanish. The first drawback became apparent when we read the notice in the toilet about the limitations on the septic system. No paper down the WC. Apparently this is the norm in outlying districts. You just bag it and dump it. There’s a cultural meme for you when you couple it with satellite TV and fast internet.
The second hiccup came when we went to light the gas. It gurgled and no gas issued forth. Sounded like it was waterlogged. This was the case as was clear when we called the caretaker lady, Jany, to ask for help. Easily sorted, but by this time what with having scratched the car and the toilet business I decided to email Felipe, the owner and let him know our displeasure. Jany seemed a little nonplussed. She is a local and vey helpful. Her own house does not have electricity. We must seem like spoiled, urban, first world kids to her.
The Night Sky from Coyo
The Hamill Southern Observatory (HSO)
We go out to take a look at the night sky. It is very clear. It is very dark. As our eyes adjust themselves we are gobsmacked by the spectacle which emerges. The sky is alive with the most brilliant, glittering display of stars we have ever seen. But the crowning glory is the Milky Way which stretches in a wonderful band of light right across he sky passing directly overhead. The trip was planned to coincide with the waning moon and with the Sagittarius region of the sky at its highest. This ‘Star Clouds’ region of the Milky Way has to be seen to be believed. It looks like three dimensional pillows of bright, soft light. The whole curl of the Scorpion is visible along with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius. Mars and Saturn are close by too. Our kiwi friends the Southern Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri visible low in the sky. The net effect is stunning.
The bed we use is very comfortable. Waking up in the morning we see the distinctive shape of Licancabur through our window. It is pretty impressive. We go outside and bask in the rising sun, the night has been chilly though we are comfortable enough inside. The name of the peak means something like the ‘People’s Mountain’ not Tony Blair’s idea but that of the aboriginal folk who arrived here around four thousand years ago. The volcano, for such it is, sits on the border with Bolivia and is 19 400 feet high. We are already at about 8 000 feet and it towers over the landscape. Breakfast is taken in a leisurely way as we absorb the view and soak up the sun.
The Magical Landscape
The journey to and from San Pedro de Atacama is quite short. But the road takes you through a transcendental landscape. No attempt I made at a photo or video got near the impossible scale of the place or it’s subtle colour. The air seems to have different optical properties, an almost supernatural clarity. Even the blueness of the sky seems different. It Perhaps an effect on the sheer quantity of it. The volcanic peaks which disappear into an extreme distance towards the south east are subtle shades of indigo, earth red, ochre. These hues are modified by the blue wash of the distance. They take on a magical quality. The whole range is flattened by the distance. It look like an impossible, limitless theatrical backdrop. On at least one occasion we have seen puffs of smoke or steam above a couple of still active summits. The term otherworldly was never more appropriate.
Valle de la Luna
The Valle de la Luna is a well known tourist attraction. The tour buses kick up the dust on the mountain biking youth who toil through its fierce aridity and hurl stones at the hired cars of the senior tourists who frequent it. It’s still worth the visit though. Bizarre rock formations and sand dunes all on a huge scale make up the topography here. We climbed the amphitheatre to view Licancanbur and were joined by a biking lad from Leeds. It seemed strange in such a weirdly exotic setting to be chatting about the new look of Briggate. Lots of folk turn up towards sunset. Alison spoke to a Chilean family and took photos with them. They shared a peanut and honey bar with us. The kids took turns filming ‘slow motion’ movies of the group running along a ridge. At sunset the beautiful subtle colours seen in the surrounding landscape deepen. You are surrounded by a gorgeous warm glow. As soon as the sun drops behind the hills though the temperature drops with it. A chilly wind springs up. We make our way back to the car park, listen to the comments about Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the beautiful evening sky and drive home in the brief gloaming of the Tropic of Capricorn.
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama itself is a tourist trap which maintains a lot of what must have been its original charm. One story Adobe type premises line unpaved streets where walkers, cyclists, cars, loiterers, vans, people pushing huge trolleys of bottled water and of course, dogs mix together with little or no friction. There is a generally laid back air about the place of which the epicentre is the main plaza. This is a large paved square with graceful Peruvian Pepper trees (I think). The church of the Saint in question is at one side, a discrete but solid adobe structure with a campanile and an archway in its decorative walls. Cafes surround it. There are coffee drinkers and lunchers sitting in the sun. Strolling musicians with guitars, pan pipes or both entertain or annoy them as the case may be. The streets themselves are busy in a relaxed, holiday sort of way. A lot of space is taken up by tour operators. They all compete to transport visitors to the main attractions. Telescopes are common furniture on the street corners. Tours of the night sky! Ours is best! Competitive commercial astronomy. There are many, many cafes and restaurants and many hostels. There are artisan craft shops with attractive, brightly coloured woven goods, gems and jewellery. Even a pyrographic artist who burns his wood with the aid of a magnifying glass and the plentiful local sun. There seems to be a local ordnance that all business signs shall conform a to a stylistic norm. Raised lettering and logos on polished wood. It does avoid the graphic pollution which ruins the visual character of streets elsewhere.
Brave New Hippies
The ethos of San Pedro is, in the main, youthful. There are backpackers and young entrepreneurs and shopkeepers. There are older slightly bemused tourists and kids on school trips. There are certainly locals of all ages here too but young seems to be the hot ticket. The town is a popular Chilean resort. This encourages a happy go lucky feeling, gives it a buzz. The dress code is colourful and offbeat ethno-casual. I would guess the place is like certain Afghan villages in the innocent sixties. The hippy spirit is alive here but the driving force seems to be adventure sports and commercial enterprise rather than spiritual quest and enlightenment. New age tomfoolery is in evidence usually to lend an angle to some aspect of the local economy. Andean cosmology to the astro trips, crystal vibes to the lapis lazuli sales, ill-defined but salubrious magical energies to the bus trips. Frequently in the warmth of the day the sound of guitar playing of varying levels of competence is heard in the street.
The perros are not peculiar to Atacama. They are a Chile wide phenomenon as far as I can see. I assume this attitude to dogs, a combination of total acceptance and total unawareness or indifference is a development of the Spanish outlook. We met it first in Santiago. The hounds sprawl lazily in the most unexpected places. Like the one at the Mercado central on the busiest street crossing I’ve seen. They were ubiquitous in Valparaiso. The chorus of barking continuing day and nigh. In San Pedro they seem a little more social forming groups, gentleman’s clubs perhaps. Many wore collars and were nattily turned out with coats or rather rakish neckerchiefs. They spend most of their time lounging in the sun. They are never really aggressive. They do occasionally run after a faster than usual cyclist, possibly they see themselves as traffic cops but in general They seem as oblivious to the humans as the humans do to them. The two species inhabit parallel worlds which don’t interact with each other.
At Coyo we were treated to their nightly chorus. It varied. It might be a solo performance with one dog repeating the same phrase for hours. It might be a duet conducted across several kilometres. At other times we were treated to the full orchestral force of all the dogs in the village in a complex fugue. These various ensembles ran in relays throughout the night. It was rarely silent. I got so used to it that it became almost like a reassuring lullaby. It was the background of my astronomical forays into the dark, dark Atacama nights. For me it is now the soundtrack of the southern sky.
He come with the dawning spreading all the light all around. I have come to appreciate sunrise as never before since staying in Coyo. The nights in the Atacama desert are chill, sometimes very chill. The adobe’s only heating is by a log fire. We just haven’t bothered lighting it. To much hassle. The strategy is to dress for the day and dress for the night as separate arrangements. The days are clear and usually warm to very warm. As soon as the sun sets the temperature drops like the proverbial. A chill wind will often suddenly appear. Then it is time to don the thick shirt and pullover. For stargazing add other layers and don the long johns aka cycling tights under the trousers. The chill often intensifies towards dawn. When you get up it has a definite wintry touch. As a kid I had a thing about dawn and the sunrise for a while. I would carefully underline the official time of sunrise as given in my pocket diary. I would get up very early especially to see it. In part this was the influence of the Gibbs SR and Kia-Ora adverts which skilfully employed images of dawn and early morning to invoke a sense of freshness and renewal. These cutting edge examples of the commercial art of the time provided me with a modern heliocentric mythology. Here in the desert I have regained it. Coyo is virtually on the Tropic of Capricorn. The sun rises at 67 degrees to the horizon. It seems to take off like a rocket. It rises into the Northern sky and very rapidly things warm up. Bringing back the warmth not only to the ground. It has become a ritual for me to sit outside on our porch with a cup of tea and simply absorb the sun’s heat until I feel thoroughly thawed and deliciously, warmly alive.