Monsieur Eiffel’s early work and the nitrate boom in Arica and Iquique, Chile

Sea lions waiting for lunch at the port in Arica

Iquique in northern Chile was at the centre of the nitrate boom in the 19th century and many Europeans including English and Germans made their fortune here. Apparently, this city was so decadent in its time that it is alleged more champagne was drunk per capita than anywhere else in the world. Interesting to know that Brits getting pissed abroad didn’t just start in Ibiza in the 1970s. Nitrate was heavily sought after as a fertiliser in Europe and the USA until Germany stopped buying during World War One and then developed a synthetic version. After that the boom years were over. 

Houses on Baquedano, Iquique

I have to admit I was rather ignorant of this European presence in those boom years, so it was fascinating to wander along Baquedano street and see the grandiose town houses they built and which have been restored.  I also looked around the excellent Museu Regional and saw objects connected to nitrate mining, like boots and lamps and a fascinating old time clock for workers made in Liverpool, as well as luxury items such as teapots and gramophones. In the Palacio Astoreca the attendant was very keen to show me the full size billiards table and antique scoreboard made by Burroughes and Watts, a British company.

Houses on Baquedano, Iquique

Iquique has a fascinating setting, squeezed in between the sea and the brown Cordillera de la Costa mountains in a small gap of only about 500 metres. I stayed half a block from the Playa Cavancha (the main city beach) which is nicely maintained.

Playa Cavancha, Iquique

I’ve finally made it to the most northern city in Chile, Arica, just a few kilometres from the Peruvian border. The journey from Iquique was one of the most spectacular so far. Route 5 goes inland away from the sea and has to cross several huge canyons, plunging down along hair-raising bends, then passing through the ravine with steep dusty arid slopes on either side, before climbing up to the top again. 

The port and fish market in Arica

Arica is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, but unfortunately my first day here was more like a miserable overcast British summer’s day. It was the perfect opportunity, though, to visit the Azapa museum and see some mummies from the Chinchorro culture which started the practice of mummification in this region about 7000BC well before even the Egyptians.

Chinchorro mummy
 The modern day city is a bit of a rundown place and not particularly attractive. It’s main church, the Catedral de San Marcos, does have one claim to fame though. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel before he came up with the little tower in Paris. It was prefabricated in Paris entirely of iron and then shipped to Arica. Quite why, I’m not really sure. Sadly, it’s being renovated at the moment and is surrounded by boards and scaffolding.

Catedral de San Marcos

Today the sun came out and I wandered down to the bustling fish market at the port. Fishermen were hauling the day’s catch onto the pier and others were gutting and cleaning the fish ready for sale. Further up the steps vendors were weighing the fish in huge scales and finally customers were buying. All around pelicans swooped and hungry sea lions bobbed in the water below waiting for scraps. 

Preparing the fish in Arica’s fish market

After that I explored the beaches south of the city and soaked up the sun. This will be my last view of the sea for many weeks as tomorrow I head for the altiplano again and then Bolivia. 


Llamas, volcanoes, lagoons and geysers in the Atacama Desert


Salar de Tara
Typical, isn’t it? You wait 2 and a half weeks for a llama, then a whole bunch comes at once. I was on my first all day excursion out of San Pedro de Atacama. It was still early and the sun had only just come up as we skirted the base of Volcan Licancabur. A group of llamas were grazing by the road with the volcano behind them, almost as if they knew they looked more photogenic with a good backdrop. 


Llamas posing against Volcan Licancabur
I was in a group with six others, all Chilean, to visit the Salar de Tara. A Salar is the Spanish for salt lake or salt flat and there are many to be found in this area. They are formed as water runs off the Andes carrying with it minerals. It is then trapped on the altiplano with nowhere to go and so it evaporates in the blistering sun leaving behind salt. 


Salar de Aguas Calientes
Renan, our guide with a good and apparently filthy sense of humour, tested my Spanish to the full as he embarked on lengthy stories which were full of double-entendres. We drove up to the Salar past astonishing rock formations to an altitude of almost 4900m. Vicuñas ran skittishly as we approached, but there was little other sign of life. We were on the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, surrounded by volcanoes. It felt like a set for a science-fiction movie, remote, forbidding but exhilarating.


The following day I was booked on another tour, this time to see the Tatio geysers. The unfortunate thing is they are only active around dawn, so this meant getting up at 3.45am! They also stand over 4000m above sea level and at that time of the morning, it’s perishingly cold. As you are are herded around in a tour bus with countless other shivering, bleary-eyed tourists, you start to wonder if it was all worthwhile. However, the sight of these gushing geysers spouting as the sun rose was quite breathtaking. 


El Tatio geysers
The last day was spent on another excursion which took in the Piedras Rojas, the lagoons of Miscanti and Miniques and the stunning Chaxa lagoon in the Salar de Atacama where you can see flamingoes feeding.


Laguna Chaxa
I stayed in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama, or rather on the edge of it with great views of Volcan Licancabur. The quaint centre of town was for me a little too touristy, a victim of its own success. You know the kind of place – every building is a tour agency, restaurant or hostel. Luckily, the surrounding area is what you really come for, but pretty much all of the attractions are too far afield to explore on your own, so you have no choice but to take expensive and over-priced tours. I like to be able to get out and visit places on my own steam, but this wasn’t an option here. 


Church in the village of Machuca
San Pedro is Northern Chile’s top attraction and justly so, but you have to come prepared for what that entails, ie. crowds and higher prices. I’m just glad I was here before the high season starts. If you’re coming from Bolivia, as many people do, you might find it an anticlimax, but as my first taste of the High Andes on this trip, I was not disappointed.

Flamingoes in flight over the Salar de Atacama

Fish, bingo and Winston Churchill, from Caldera to Antofagasta


Sea lions in Caldera
“Fish,” the man cried in English. I looked around me. I was in the fish market in the coastal town of Caldera in northern Chile surrounded by glistening wet fish. I nodded in agreement and smiled. “Yes, fish.” The man repeated,“Fish!” and grinned. “Yes, a lot of fish, ” I replied and tried to move off, but the man wasn’t letting me go that easily. “Fish!” he exclaimed, even more vociferously. By this time a curious crowd had gathered. I wasn’t sure if the man was trying to sell me fish, practise the only word in English he seemed to know, or maybe he was the village idiot.


Paila marina
In fact, fish is one of the great delights in Chile. My favourite dish so far is Paila Marina, a kind of soup piled high with all types of shellfish, some of which are not easily recognisable, but still delicious. After I’d managed to escape from the most repetitious conversation of my life, I had lunch in a restaurant in the market next to the port. And yes I had fish. Below the market sea lions basked in the sun on the rocks below waiting for … fish.


Sea bird in Caldera
Caldera is a slightly rundown town, but has a certain quirky charm, especially in the off season. Just down the coast is Bahia Inglesa, where there is a small and pleasant beach which certainly doesn’t live up to the excessive praise the guidebooks give it. It’s pleasant but nothing special. But then, you don’t really come to Chile for the beaches. In the 17th century English pirates came to sack the place, hence the name Bahia Inglesa (English Bay).


Bahia Inglesa
 The coastline from Caldera all the way up to Antofagasta is certainly striking, but in a rugged, desolate kind of way. There are few sand beaches, just rocks and cliffs. The inaptly named Pacific Ocean batters the shore with huge waves and in many places a persistent fog lingers over the coastal areas. The road hugs the coast for much of the way making for a spectacular journey.
It’s desert here, but not the rolling dunes of Lawrence of Arabia. This is desert in the sense that nothing grows. The towns and villages are small and the buildings are rarely more than a few storeys high. They’re surrounded by dust and have an unkempt feel. And everything looks brown. Very brown.


Harbour in Antofagasta
I was anxious to get to San Pedro de Atacama, but it was a long haul by bus, so I decided to break the journey in Antofagasta, despite the fact that the guidebooks don’t give it much of a write-up. Guess what? It’s actually okay for a night, with a dramatic sea front in the suburbs with waves crashing in and a nicely renovated pier in the centre.

Antofagasta has an interesting history and some old buildings survive from its prosperous past as a major export centre for the mines in the interior. It used to belong to Bolivia until Chile captured the area and Bolivia then also lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific in 1879. The British had a strong presence here too and the main square has a clock tower that is allegedly a replica of London’s Big Ben. Well, there is a British flag on it next to the Chilean one.


Antofagasta’s Big Ben
Most bizarre thing I saw in Antofagasta: two scantily clad women salsa dancing in a bingo hall of all places. I wonder how many distracted patrons missed that all important number.

Most interesting thing I saw in Antofagasta: in a temporary exhibition on the railroads there was a telegram from Winston Churchill thanking the city for the good wishes it sent him on his 90th birthday in 1964, just a few months before his death.

Seeing stars and cooking by the sun in the Elqui Valley


The Elqui Valley
Every now and then you come across a place that surpasses your expectations. The Elqui Valley is one of them. During the magical three days I’ve spent here, I’ve sipped tuna juice (not what you might think), learned about the first Latin American to win the Noble Prize for Literature, eaten food cooked by solar rays and gazed at distant nebulae through a giant telescope. Apparently, it’s also famous for UFO sightings. So far, though, I have no X-files to report.


Adobe house in Diaguitas
I’m staying in Vicuña, just an hour’s bus journey east from Coquimbo and La Serena, in a great little hostel, Donde Rita, presided over by Rita herself who is originally from Germany. The valley is bordered by stark brown mountains, but a ribbon of green threads its way along the course of the Rio Elqui. Much of the agriculture here is taken up by vineyards, but the grapes that are produced here go to make the national drink, pisco, which is quite potent. I speak from experience! Mixed with lime and sugar you get pisco sour.


Grapes at the Capel Pisco distillery
On the first day I hired a bike and cycled along a 14 km loop around local villages and pisco distilleries. I recommend saving the pisco tasting until towards the end. The village of Diaguitas is really pretty with a fascinating church. The houses in the villages are all made of adobe and painted bright colours. I stopped for lunch in a restaurant which specialises in solar cooking. The food is cooked in sun traps and no artificial energy is used. Of course, that’s fine in a place that sees rain one day a year, if that. It wouldn’t work so well in the UK. I also got to try tuna juice which comes from the fruit of the cactus. In English we call it prickly pear.  


Solar ovens
The next day I took a tour to Pisco Elqui, another village further along the valley as well as Montegrande where there is a museum dedicated to Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral. She had quite a tragic life, but is highly venerated by Chileans. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945.


The Elqui Valley
The skies here are renowned for their clarity. During the days the sky is a glorious brilliant blue, while at night you can see the Milky Way. So, it’s no surprise that there are several observatories around the valley which allow tourists to visit and peer at distant stars and galaxies. I went to the Mamalluca one. It’s informative and interesting, but the experience of looking through a telescope was a bit underwhelming to be honest. All you see are big white dots. Far more rewarding was simply looking at the night skies with the naked eye and enjoying the lack of light pollution. It’s something you never get to see living in a city.


Church at Pisco Elqui
The last day I decided to go it alone and abandon guidebooks and agencies. Rita recommended a visit to Gualliguaica, a village which was moved in 2000 to make way for the Puclaro dam and reservoir. There’s nothing to see in the village itself, but the hike up the mountain behind the church gave great views down to the valley. I saw many cacti and the tuna fruit growing on them. I was even rewarded by a family of parrots which came to perch in a nearby tree. Best of all, I was totally alone. 


Puclaro dam
I’ve done a huge amount while I’ve been here, but I also feel completely relaxed and far removed from city life. The only thing I haven’t succeeded in doing is sighting a UFO. Maybe if I have a few more pisco sours tonight, that might do the trick.

Parrots near Gualliguaica

Tea and tsunamis, from Santiago to Coquimbo

  Tourist gaffes, we all make them. Whether it’s pointing your feet at a Buddha statue in Asia or wandering around a strict Muslim town in a bikini, I’ve seen it all. My little faux pas was tiny in comparison. After a strenuous day exploring the sites of Santiago, I was desperate for a cup of tea and so staggered into the first place I saw. I ordered my drink and then asked the waitress where the chairs were, not realising it was a famous stand up only  bar, a café con piernas, coffee with legs. Not only that but the waitresses are dressed in skimpy mini skirts to show off their legs and it’s the kind of place where bored businessmen come to drink coffee, do business, and, well, ogle. The tea was great, though.

 It’s all very retro 70s and very politically incorrect. But I also saw families with kids and respectable old ladies there. No one seems to mind. In a way it summed up my impressions of Santiago. It’s changing a lot and there’s a huge amount of construction going on, but there are still characterful barrios or neighbourhoods with tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and bars. The bland uniformity of globalisation has not yet swept away independent stores and cafes, and you can still see shopfront signage that hasn’t changed in 50 years. It reminds me a little of Madrid 20 years ago. 


 The setting of Santiago at the foot of the Andes is wonderful and the flight over the mountains from São Paulo was breathtaking. And yet it’s the little details that really strike you, the square and fountain you come across by chance, the little streets with graffiti, the friendliness of the people.


 As I headed north to the coastal town of Coquimbo, I began to realise how different Chile is from Brazil. And it’s all down to geography and the Andes. The mountains here are brown and stark, instead of the lush tropical green of Brazil. The seafood is spectacular, a result of the colder waters of the Pacific. The coastline is rugged and dramatic and the weather drier. This is a semi-arid desert landscape. And it’s also prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The last one in September 2015 wreaked a lot of damage and the rebuilding work is still ongoing. You can see signs showing you tsunami escape routes. Basically, don’t head for the beach, run up the nearest hill.
Like I’m going to be reading instructions when a huge tidal wave is rushing towards me. 

Coquimbo is a grimy industrial port city next to the neighbouring twin city of La Serena which is much more attractive but Coquimbo is cheaper so I’m staying there. But the Barrio Ingles has been nicely restored and is a testament to the presence of the English here in the 19th century when the city was a huge copper exporter. In the centuries before that, however, English pirates had sailed up and down the Chilean coast ransacking cities.  La Serena itself was sacked by the pirate Bartholomew Sharp. 


 When you think of Andean Latin America you might think of the usual cliches like llamas grazing by high-altitude lakes, perilous bus journeys across mountain passes, men in colourful ponchos playing panpipes and women in bowler hats selling coca leaves. So far Chile has none of that. The capital has a distinctly European vibe and Coquimbo has the out of season feel of Blackpool, but that’s okay. For the moment I’m enjoying great food, pisco sours and a sense of security that is often absent in South America. However, I’m also looking forward to getting into the high Andes. I might even buy a poncho….