The Atacama Desert: Calama

calama atacama desert

The Atacama Desert is known as the world’s driest desert. You may think, just like I did, that there is nothing to see there. To the contrary, if you ever find yourself in Chile, make sure to find the time and resources to pay a visit. It is a vast desert, so to get to the places of interest, first you need a flight to Calama, which takes about two hours from Chile’s capital, and then about a 100 kilometers drive to the village of San Pedro. Once in San Pedro, you can do daily tours to the major sightseeing destinations in the region.

Getting to Calama

Flying over the Atacama desert from Santiago de Chile to Calama didn’t take long, but it made me question my choice of destination. I knew that soon I will land at Calama’s airport, but for a moment I wish it wasn’t so. For all my life I have never seen a place, which so literally matches the concept of “nothingness”. Staring through the airplane window I could see nothing but an endless plain, curved by rises, stretching from the coastline all the way to the foothills of the Andes.

The arrival

During my trip in South America I grew very fond of LAN, the continental airline, but when the pilot said we were preparing for landing, I thought he was crazy. My Chilean friend ensured me he knows where we were going, so I kept telling myself to calm down. After all, it was a safe flight. A few moments later, I started spotting some pieces of land covered by grass. What a relief!

As soon as we reached the arrivals’ lounge, my friend headed to the car rental service, and I made my way to the parking lot outside. Tens of pickups were waiting for adventurers like ourselves. The only way to get around the Atacama desert is through rent-a-car. Of course, local travel agencies can take care of your tours, but it is cheaper to rent a car and drive to the destinations yourself than to pay for an organized daily tour. I always prefer to set my own schedule and to have the chance to adjust it on the go. So there we were, heading to Calama in our huge truck-like pickup.

To the city

Once I spotted the city ahead of us, I really did calm down. People managed to survive living here, so no need to worry. We stopped by the first supermarket we saw on the way to buy food and plenty of water. I also needed to exchange some money – the Chilean peso is tough to handle – just have a look at the currency rate! The supermarket turned out to be the start of my sightseeing tour – from all the fruits that were sold there I was able to name just about half. Some had sharp thorns, and others were so colorful, that I felt sorry for peeling them. Just like a kid in a candy shop, I took one of each. To my great disappointment, I enjoyed the taste of just one. And don’t you ever try to eat raw papaya – I was surprised that some of my friends back in Bulgaria knew they have to cook it first. Obviously, it is a common, ordinary fruit in this part of the world, because Chileans use the exclamation “Papaya!” to say “a piece of cake”.

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Calama and Copper Mining

Leaving the supermarket with bags filled with fruits, we needed to find our way to the village of San Pedro de Atacama, where we had booked a room. On our way through the city I was wondering what sustains the economy in a town like this. My friend explained to me that the whole city developed around a copper mine. Weeks later, when I was reading about it online, I found out that Chuquicamata, as the mine is called, is actually the world’s largest open pit copper mine. Earlier, I was asking myself why men would settle in such harsh environment, and the answer was mining. That also explained the huge amount of copper souvenirs in the region. However, it didn’t explain their high prices!

Heading to San Pedro

Calama is relatively small and known to be one of the world’s driest cities. It is referred to as “the gateway to the desert”. We didn’t plan to spend time there, because there were few tourist attractions within the city itself. Besides, I took no interest in the mine, which was, apparently, the most impressive destination close by. I was thankful for not getting the altitude sickness, as many other people complained. The city is located at about 2400m, so for those, who are more sensitive to altitude it can be quite an uncomfortable stay. To ease such discomfort, locals sell coca leaves – either fresh by the bundle, or dried in packs. Help yourself and off you go!

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