In the end, we had a large group for Christmas dinner. Over 30 campers from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Britain, NZ and us from Canada. We made at least 60 meat and vegetables kabobs, grilled over charcoal along with steak and Mediterranean rubbed chicken. All kinds of salads and deserts including a NZ trifle. Later, the Swiss family grilled whole bananas filled with chocolate. Eaten with a spoon right out of the skin. Delicious!
That evening, a fox, the Andean Zorro, snuck out of the surrounding desert into our camp. Everyone stood up in a group and tried to scare him off, but he continued to hang around, way too close. He was bigger than the foxes we see at home. We learned from Daniel, the Colombian, that on the previous day, he and his girlfriend were petting and watering a cat. A stray orange one that visited around. Suddenly el Zorro dashed into their camp, snatched kitty by the neck, and fled back to the desert. What the heck? Well…..Adiós cat!
When relating this story, they were still in shock. They had loved that cat.
Over Christmas we became friends with a Chilean family, Edwin, Patricia and their sons Manuel (12) and Cristobal (8). Edwin works at the copper mine in Calama, about an hour north of San Pedro. Calama once had the worlds largest open pit copper mine but now all mining is done underground. Chile is the worlds largest producer of copper, which accounts for 50% of the country’s exports. It’s one reason that the economy here is so good.
Leaving San Pedro de Atacama, we drove north to Calama, then took 26 back to the Pan-American highway. We stopped at the city of Antofagasta and found a campground on the outskirts. There we parked on a cliff with the back doors overlooking the ocean below. If we opened a back door and a side door the breeze blew through, creating the loveliest spot to read all day. Listening to the waves, music from the beach, the smell of savoury grills and burning rubbish. The ugly and the beautiful all mixed together. This is Chile.
A long bicycle path took us on a pleasant 1-hour ride into the heart of the city. The shopping mall was new, with moving sidewalks that were wide enough to carry you and your grocery cart to the second floor. There we found an amazing amount and variety of food. One long aisle of just yogurt. On the return, we broke up the ride with a restaurant stop for seafood. Ceviche for Bob and a shrimp Cesar salad for me. Very tasty.
The beach below our camp gradually filled up with cars, tents, coolers, families and music. Our campground began to overflow with people at the pool. Charcoal grills smoked all day long. New Year’s celebrations had begun.
Patricia called to invite us to a New Year’s Eve dinner at her parents place in Antofagasta. She had driven down from Calama with the two boys. Tanya and Paul arrived at camp that day, and so the four of us drove to the house around 6 pm. Patricia speaks a little English, the others none. But no matter. Patricia’s dad provided a lot of entertainment. He grilled, spun CDs, danced with all of us women, sang, talked about social reform, and raised his glass every 5 minutes for a “salud”. Then he cheerfully refilled glasses. Fortunately, as the designated driver, I could decline. The others tolerated a lot of wine.
Manuel and his Grandpa had stuffed a set of blue coveralls to look like a man, with a stick head, hat, gloves and running shoes. The filling was mostly paper with a sprinkling of firecrackers. What fun for a 12 year old boy! He had written “El cabeza chica mata pacos” on a piece of paper stuck to the chest. We English speakers puzzled over this as the cellphone translator gave us quite a vulgar English translation. Not suitable for a young lad. Finally Patricia explained that it meant to “shoot the president in the head”. More suitable then. Say no more.
After much anticipation, we went outside at midnight, and Manuel excitedly set the man on fire. It flamed, it smoked, firecrackers would go off, fizzle out, then more would go off. The shoes stunk from burning rubber. In the dark sky above we saw red flares and a few fireworks. We heard banging pots and other noisemakers from individual homes. Across the street another group lit a bin on fire, which became quite a blaze. Random stuff like that. After a few more toasts with a traditional drink of Pisco, mango juice and milk, we said our goodbyes and drove slowly home through the dark city. Slowly because I was driving the NZ van, and there were still groups of pedestrians out.
Chileans have big hearts. I have just finished reading a book by Chilean author Isabel Allende, My Invented Country, in which she writes that if you tell a Chilean that you like something, they may well give it to you. I can now attest to that being true as I came away from the party with a Chilean sweater, right off of Patricia’s back, and her dads favourite CD of Chilean charango music. They insisted.
The Panamerican highway, also called route 5, has excellent tarmac on wide double lanes. Huge blue signs provide information or direction, emergency phones are placed at close intervals, rest stops with bathrooms and showers are numerous. There are many well marked Retornos if you need to turn around. It’s such easy driving that we can listen to music. We pass many boring hours looking at sand and rock.
Now and then, we are rewarded with a gorgeous vista, like a stretch of golden sand backed by mountains streaked with red, white and chocolate brown. Or the Hand in the Desert. Wow!
We stopped at a lovely little town called Vallemar nestled in an oasis of trees. Camping by the river, we swam in the clear frigid stream. Water and greenery. Very refreshing.
Blessed with 10 months of dry clear nights, low light pollution, and a safe political climate, Chile has been deemed the best location in the world to view the night sky. For this reason, the European Southern Observatory ESO, maintains three observatories in this part of Chile. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, we registered online for a free tour at La Silla. We left our campsite at 7, and arrived at the main gate, located 16 km east of the Panamerican, about 2 hours later. The parking lot gradually filled with people. At 10 we boarded a bus which took us another 14 km quite straight up to the mountain peak. From there we had a 360 degree view of the cordillera. Except for the telescopes, nothing but mountain ranges.
The newest telescope, called the NTT, does not look like a telescope. It’s boxy, as opposed to the older round ones that look like grain silos. NTT stands for New Technology Telescope. Not very imaginative those astronomers. NTT uses 3 mirrors. The first is 3.58 meters in diameter, reflects to mirror 2, and on to mirror 3, which reflects the light to two side cameras. So with a zing, zing, zing, and zap, the camera has the image. The cameras are kept at a cool minus 150 to 200 degrees C, using liquid nitrogen. Otherwise they get too hot.
This gigantic telescope can move on it’s axis, from zero degrees, which is straight up, to 90 degrees pointing at the horizon. The whole building rotates, while the telescope flips back and forth, so as to provide 100% view of the stars. It can also use infrared to see through nebulas. The telescopes are so sensitive to temperature, even body heat, that the astronomers sit in a control room in a separate building, using computers to move the telescope and to capture the images from the camera.
Interestingly, we learned that the astronomers from around the world can apply to use these telescopes for only 1 to 5 days at a time. Like any workplace they had numerous computer screens, troubleshooting manuals, textbooks, a phone number to call in case of cardiac arrest, and a poster announcing how to contact the dispute manager.
Having continued on route 5, we are now camped at the town of La Serena. The beach across the road is an 8 kilometre stretch of soft sand lined with food kiosks and seafood restaurants. Our campsite has shelving, a light, an electrical socket, and a grill. We only have to buy charcoal which is very cheap here. Amazingly it also comes with a key to our own designated bathroom and hot shower. How cool is that!
Vanna Life: In most countries car insurance is mandatory, and we usually buy it at the border. But recently, we learned that there are expats who sell insurance online for Argentina and including all neighbouring countries. After a few emails, sending photos and documents, we now have 6 months of insurance for Vanna. It was sent on good faith as we have not yet paid. Now we have to figure out a way to pay, and also get the pages printed in white, with one page to be printed on green paper. Details, details. Why green? I don’t know.