Iquique, Northern Chile: Arid Land of Stark Beauty

Behind Iquique is a giant mountain of sand, driving over it gets you to the high desert.
Behind Iquique is a giant mountain of sand, driving over it gets you to the high desert

Notes from Chile: Water is Everything in Arid Iquique, Chile

By Max Hartshorne

“What time is it?” Sony asked with a yawn, as we sat finishing dinner beneath a thatched partial roof at the El Tercer Ojito, or “The Third Eye,” in Iquique. Twelve-thirty, I answered, and to that Cristina Burchard, the proprietor told us that here, parties begin about now.

She sat sipping Cabernet and told us how she named her comfortable, open-air restaurant after one she visited in Katmandu. She used to have a hammock and showers for passing travelers, now she just concentrates on good food like grouper cheeks, quinoa with shrimp, and veggie lasagna.

We flew up north and arrived in Iquique, a mining town of 200,000 right on the Pacific coast, and practically in the Atacama desert.

More than 20,000 here work in giant copper, salt, and other mines, the men work 10 days in a row with the fourth day off. The jobs are coveted and passed down from father to son.

It rains about two millimeters a year, so restaurants like El Tercer Ojito don’t need any real roofs. “When it rains, it’s just piffle,” said Cristina. By the beach, we saw an entire gym set up outside with no roof.

Water, of course, is very scarce here in this arid climate, and it comes from faraway rivers and lakes. The talk of the city is how they want to force the big mining firms to pay for desalinization plants as they do in Antofagasta, Chile’s second-largest city.

“Water is everything,” our guide told us, as we passed a monument to water that stands right next to the pounding Pacific surf. “Nothing grows here unless you water it like crazy.”

Mountain hut at Taypi Samanan Uta, Laguna de Huasco, near Pica, Chile.
Mountain hut at Taypi Samanan Uta, Laguna de Huasco, near Pica, Chile.

Wide Eyed and Awake in a Bunk at 12,000 Feet

The pantomimed caricature of a man holding his eyes open proved to be an omen. Our bus driver was showing me what would happen tonight as I lay in a bunk bed with two snoring roommates after chewing on three coca leaves earlier in the evening.

It was a sleepless, restless, and anxious night up here at 12,000 feet where we stayed with Aymara Indians. One family named Lucas lives up here, and they offer guests a chance to watch their native dances and spend the night in simple bunkhouses.

Swiss Family

Native Chileans at the lodge built by the Collhuasi mine in Northern Chile.
Native Chileans at the lodge built by the Collhuasi mine in Northern Chile.

A family from Switzerland, three generations strong, joined us at the communal dinner table, where a hunk of chicken was served in broth surrounded by quinoa, the grain that everyone lives on in northern Chile. They loved roughing it despite the fact that the water truck had not arrived so there were no showers or running water during our stay.

To help us with the altitude, which at these heights can make the unaccustomed wheeze and get altitude sickness, our hosts offered us cups of chachacoma tea. Oh, and those coca leaves that one of my roommates bought in Pica also helped keep me up.

The rugged scenery up here is spectacular: the sunsets up against the brown mountains are even more dramatic when used as a backdrop for the native dancers in their bright red costumes.

The lodge where we are staying was built by the Collahuasi mine. The company’s largesse is what pays for people’s education, cars, houses, and just about everything. In exchange, they use a lot of water and get to chew up vast amounts of land and pretty much get their way. Getting a job in one of the many mines, despite its tough regimen, pays nearly $12,500 a year.

That’s by far the highest pay anyone earns, so the jobs are coveted by nearly every young man in this northernmost region of Chile. A woman who works in a local trade school said that occupations like food service and auto repair are never, ever as popular as mining.

One of our guides, who lives in the town of Pica, has organized an awareness campaign, to let local people know the price that the environment has paid through history by their fealty to the big Canadian, Australian, and Chilean mining companies. The water table is getting lower and lower, and the vast open territory is littered with piles of tailings and holes in the ground.

The vast distances in the altoplano are frightening and awesome.
The vast distances in the altiplano are frightening and awesome.

Punishing Distances in Chile’s Alto Plano

The distances in Chile are staggering to the uninitiated… and the altitude here in the altiplano makes even busses wheeze, chugging up a moderate incline because the diesel engine is starved for oxygen. All along the road are memorials to drivers who died in head-on collisions, we were told that many of the fatalities result from miners high-tailing it home after a seven- or ten-day work week where they live at the remote mine and want to get back to families and civilization.

Accommodations would continue to be rustic here in this hardscrabble northernmost section of Chile called Tarapaca. Temperatures during the day climb easily to 90 Fahrenheit, and at night tumble down to 35 or 40. We met a couple, Marco Fernandez-Coneha and Coco Coello who offer camping stays in an outdoor hotel called El Huarango, near the roadside village of Le Tirana.

Tent camping at El Hurango, in Northern Chile.
Tent camping at El Hurango, in Northern Chile.

Entering at night, there are cots with warm comforters, and stand-up tents lit by candles. Pathways to each tent are lit with candles too, and our evening meal was taken at wooden tables with plenty of wine to accompany the hearty food part of which was cooked with a solar cooker.

The couple is warm and friendly and loves to take guests on tours of the house that they built outback with mud bricks. It’s comfy and stays a constant 19 degrees throughout the searing day and chilly nights.

While we visited their German Shepard had just given birth to eight pups, who squirmed inside their mud dog house. Marco also showed us the subterranean storage chamber where he keeps his supplies and his immaculate workshop with each of hundreds of tools in its special place.

As we drove back down from the altiplano, suddenly people on the bus began yelling about rainbows, and we pulled over to tumble out clutching cameras. Up in the sky was a circus of riotous rainbows, a circle right above us with all the colors of the spectrum in a round colored arc and three other rainbows on either side.

Wow, that’s Northern Chile for you.

Iquique Faces the Roaring Sea, with a Giant Dune Behind

Fishing boats in Iquique harbor. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Fishing boats in Iquique harbor. photo by Max Hartshorne.

Waking up underneath a thick comforter was bliss… at last a long and luxurious night’s sleep, one of the things that you take for granted but crave after a succession of tough nights. I’m feeling great up here on the 15th floor of the Terrado Hotel, anticipating a morning of tandem hang gliding. I am trying to not think about the famous movie star whose son died this way. No, I prefer to anticipate the great shots and the scenery up there.

Corn at the public market in Iquique. It's eaten here on the cob and in ceviche, the raw fish appetizer. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Corn at the public market in Iquique. It’s eaten here on the cob and in ceviche, the raw fish appetizer. photo by Max Hartshorne.

Going the Long Way Home

Today after our aerial theatrics we will begin a long journey home. Chile has once again provided us with an overflowing bounty of great photos, and scenes of intense contrast. That’s one of their marketing angles — 22 of the world’s 25 different environments can be found in this 4000-mile long string bean-shaped place.

Before I left I got many emails wishing me a great trip to Chili… something about it makes many Americans mistake this country for their favorite casual dining spot. But then again I was told to watch out for kangaroos once when I was about to visit Austria.

The city has a sad underbelly that’s far away from this 15-story seaside suite hotel. We saw it when we chugged up next to the world’s largest sand dune, the favela-like shacks that were built by squatters with nowhere to go.

Now adorned every few feet by Chile’s ubiquitous political campaign posters, the tin shacks are being replaced by tiny cement apartments.

Circular rainbow around the sun in the desert of Chile. photo by Sonja Stark, Pilotgirl Productions.
Circular rainbow around the sun in the desert of Chile. photo by Sonja Stark, Pilotgirl Productions.

Iquique looks out at the Pacific, and up the other way to a giant brown wall of sand. At night an eight-foot high light provides a giant digital clock to tell the public what time it is.

At the public market, a dark-skinned young woman who look Peruvian stack tomatoes, gnarly ears of corn, strangely shaped orange peppers, and zucchinis in perfect diamond stacks…it takes them two hours each morning and every night they take each piece down.

Many vendors make their livings in renegade markets outside the public space. All over the city, people have things to sell that they offer to pass cars or set out for the public on sidewalks.

Max Hartshorne is the editor of GoNOMAD. Read the accounts of his travels on his blog Readuponit.


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