Where in the World is Connie? travel blog

The church at San Pedro de Atacama

Another church view

Quiet streets of San Pedro

Nativity scene in San Pedro's plaza

A somewhat unwilling participant in the Calama nativity scene

Partial ghost town streets of Chuquicamata

Chuquicamata open-pit copper mine

One of the monster trucks for hauling the copper

Me beside on of the massive wheels

What comes out of the mine

Loading one of the trucks

A fleet of trucks coming up with full loads

Heading to the processing plant

Strange landscape of Salt Mountains

Salt Mountains

Walking through Death Valley

The "Three Maries"

View of 3 Marys from other side, showing sandy desert landscape

Climbing the sand dune at Moon Valley

Walking across the sand dune

View of sand dune in Moon Valley

Waiting for sunset

Connie waiting for sunset

Colors are changing as sun sets

Pink mountains appear

Enjoying sunset at Moon Valley

San Pedro de Atacama is a small, friendly, laid-back little oasis village sitting between the Atacama Desert, the most arid desert in the world, and the Andean high plain leading into Bolivia. It has narrow dirt streets, a pleasant tree-lined plaza, postcard-perfect church, and small adobe houses.

During the nitrate mining era of the early 1900's, it was the main rest stop on the cattle trail from Salta in Argentina to the nitrate offices where the cattle were driven to supply fresh meat to the workers. Over the last 10 years or so, San Pedro has transformed itself into the travel mecca of northern Chile receiving large numbers of Chilean tourists and hordes of gringos who are touring around the surrounding area or getting set to cross the border into Bolivia. Despite its increase in annual visitors, it's somehow retained its delightful small village ambiance, so for me it provided a wonderfully warm and relaxing rest stop after my whirlwind tour through Bolivia with Pieter.

So, after a fun couple of weeks of traveling together, Pieter and I went our separate ways from San Pedro, him heading to Buenos Aires and beyond, and me, well I was now back on my original plan of traveling in northern Chile. Starting with a few more days in San Pedro to take in some of the surrounding area.

A couple hours northwest of San Pedro is the city of Calama, and just north of Calama is "Chuquicamata", the world's largest open-pit copper mine. This mine really is enormous, currently measuring 4.5km long, 3.3km wide, and 850meters deep. It's carved out of the ground like a giant sunken amphitheatre, and dwarfs everything within it, making the huge trucks carrying the raw material up from the crater floor look like tiny crawling ants. By the way, these truck tires alone are an incredible 4meters high, and each cost around US$12,000! Chuquicamata currently has a fleet of 110 of these massive trucks, each with a loading capacity of up to 360 tons. Let me tell you, after just standing beside one of these trucks I developed a whole new respect for my nephew, Ryan, who I believe drives one of these huge monster trucks for his job at one of the coal mines in Canada.

More than 1000 people work at the mine in three 8-hour shifts. The town of Chuquicamata, where most of the miners live, is currently being relocated to Calama in order to tap into copper reserves beneath the town.

I went on a tour of the mine, which was interesting but somewhat disappointing as we were only taken by bus to an open-pit viewpoint where we could simply watch and take photos. We didn't visit the processing plant, or for that matter even receive any information on what happened with the material once it was extracted from the ground. It was certainly an interesting site to behold, but I left feeling none the wiser on the actual mining process.

I also took another tour to take in some of the more famous landscape outside of San Pedro. We stopped for panoramic views of the Salt Mountains, with dramatic wind-eroded hills surrounding a crust-like valley floor. Then we went on a 45-minute hike through "Death Valley" in blistering mid-afternoon temperatures of no less than 40C! Next we visited "The Three Maries", rock formations believed to be approximately one million years old, that have been shaped from intense erosion and resemble the Virgin Mary in 3 positions: (1) bent over in supplication, (2) standing with arms raised holding Baby Jesus, and (3) kneeling in prayer. Let's just say you need a bit of imagination to see these images. Our final stop was to "Valle de la Luna", or Moon Valley, which is famous for its resemblance to a lunar landscape. An immense sand dune sweeps across the valley and a climb up and walk along the dune's crest leads to a great place to sit and catch the view. The valley is at its best at sunset, when the surrounding hills are transformed into a colorful palette of golds, pinks and reds.

And with that it was time to move on again....

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