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Northern Chile (Nov. 2000)

posted Nov 16, 2008, 6:58 PM by Gerick Bergsma

After hours of driving through the desolate windswept wastes of Southern Bolivia, the land cruiser in which I was riding finally came to a dusty stop in an isolated outpost near the Chilean border.  After having driven hundreds of kilometers through nothing that even hinted at civilization, I was surprised to see how many people were at this outpost.  Mostly tourists, they had arrived for the same reason that I had, to catch the bus into Chile.  Two of my friends and I got out and collected our belongings from the roof of the land cruiser, said goodbye to those we were leaving, and stood among the people waiting to go across the border.  Soon, a small bus pulled up, and the crowd surged forward, quickly filling every available seat.  Not quite in a hurry to join the insufferable camaraderie forced by standing room only, I held back, waiting to see where the driver might place my luggage.  After having crammed into so many busses, it was quite surprising when the bus driver told me that the bus was full, and despite several open spots on the floor, I was forced to wait.  No worries, the same company, seeing the flux of people, quickly pulled a van up, and those of us remaining boarded the van and were soon on our way.


I suppose that the bus driver's respect for clear aisle ways and accessible emergency exits portended differences between Chile and the three countries I had already visited, but when I got to the border, I was still amazed.  The border crossing was an arid pass through the Andes, and as we bumped along the dirt road to the border, we stopped at the requisite Bolivian border control to get our exit stamps from the country.  We passed into Chile, whose lack of a border control seemed a bit odd after the over-formalized rituals I had become accustomed to, and witnessed an odd ribbon of black snaking through the hills of the desert landscape.  Pavement!  As soon as we crossed the border, the paved highway began, and as we rounded the first bend in the road, I saw what I think was the first speed limit sign that I had seen since leaving the United States!  As we smoothly cruised down the Andes into the Atacama Desert, I was entranced by the mileposts that whizzed by alongside the road – in certain sections graduated to each hundredth of a kilometer!


The international sampler pack of tourists that filled the van, at least those who had traveled through Bolivia, seemed equally impressed by pavement and street signs, and we soon were exchanging histories and travel adventures.  One group of patriotic Australians, with flag covered rugby ball in hand, had spent much of their time in Bolivia teaching locals how to play rugby.  They seemed disappointed to learn that I did not play rugby, but were quite pleased when one elderly Canadian Woman from Vancouver told them that her son played rugby back home, and now, after moving to Chile, had found a rugby club that he joined in Santiago.  The woman, who was visiting her son and was returning from a day trip into Bolivia, sat next to Martin, the French Canadian who called a small border town in Quebec home.  The Australians slipped into a lively banter with an Englishman about an upcoming rugby match, while Martin and the lady discussed differences in the educational systems in eastern and western Canada.  I, unable to join the subdued conversation being held next to me in German, opted for a silent reverie, staring at the desert sands quickly gliding past us.


After several hours whizzing through the desert, our final stop was San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis town right in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world.  Our first stop was the immigration and customs office, as we had not yet officially been allowed into the country.  I got my Chilean stamp in my passport, and was then told that everyone had to go through the department of agriculture's mandatory search.  The busload of people that had left us behind in Bolivia was just exiting the search as we arrived, and it seemed that the inspector was not in a terribly forgiving mood.  One of the girls in the bus, after having driven hours through the desert, had been dismayed to find that there were no toilet facilities in the immigration office, and had opted to relieve her distress behind the building.  The inspector, having apparently seen her, lectured her rather harshly about how inappropriate her actions had been, and then continued to thoroughly search her belongings, making her removed every item in her pack, and even going so far as to make her open all of her film canisters in front of him.  When we arrived, she was practically in tears as she hurriedly repacked her belongings and retreated from the building.  The van people shuffled in behind, and we lined up along the long table where the searches were held, being careful to open our bags exactly as we had been instructed.  I was about in the middle of the line up, and the folks in front of me were subject to relatively careful searches, being told to remove items from their bags, and having each pocket at least looked into.  The gentlemen next to me in the lineup, who spoke little Spanish or English, decided not to take any chances, and declared a number of items that he had purchased in Chile, but had transported into Bolivia and back.  When the inspector arrived, he tremulously presented the items.  The inspector confiscated some apples, and an open package of meat.  After carefully scrutinizing the labels on the remaining items, and verifying that they were indeed from Chile, he began his search of the gentleman's bags.  With his declaration that the remaining products were allowable as they were Chilean, I jokingly commented to him that we would only buy the best products, so they must be Chilean.  He smiled, and as he continued the search, told me about how many Bolivian products contain diseases and parasites not yet introduced into Chile.  The deserts and mountains, he told me, effectively isolate their agriculture, as Chileans enjoy some of the most disease-free produce in the world.  I told him that I understood, as in the United States, we also have fairly strict customs regulations to protect our agriculture.  He nodded, adding that the United States, their chief trade partner, would not allow products that were not disease-free into the country, prompting the strict regulations that Chile imposes.


He finished searching the gentleman's bag, and then moved in front of me.  Rather than begin a search of my bags, he stood there for several minutes, talking to me about international trade, preaching the virtues of Chilean agriculture, and warning me of the evils of Peruvian, Bolivian and Argentine products.  As the discourse winded down, he quickly put his hand in my bag, squeezed my bag of laundry, and then continued to the rest waiting in line, who got equally mild searches.  With the searching over, we reloaded the van, and proceeded into town.


When we arrived in San Pedro, I was already thinking about how to get to Santiago to meet my friends and family who would be traveling with me through southern Chile.  My first order of business upon arriving, then, was to find out how to get to Calama, the nearest large town with bus connections up and down the Pan American highway.  I got off the bus, and declaring my intentions, was joined by Martin, who also wanted to leave for Calama.  We walked to the offices of a couple bus companies, and soon learned that the next bus for Calama was leaving later that afternoon.  We bought our tickets, and then had lunch and explored the town a bit.  We had arrived the day before the town's anniversary celebrations, and everyone was getting ready.  The main road through town was blocked by a large stage erected in front of the main square, and the town's school band was marching up and down practicing for the next day's parade.  We watched the band for a while, and then visited the old church around which the town was built. 


After having seen most of the town, and having several hours yet to kill, Martin and I decided to visit the ethnographic museum in town.  We entered, and for a while were the only people in the entire museum.  The museum was well curated, with interesting and informative displays outlining the lives of Northern Chile's early civilizations.  By this time, I needed a bathroom, and after navigating several corridors filled with ancient artifacts and finding nothing, I began feeling the same distress as the girl in the customs office.  The museum was deserted, but fortunately, I found an archaeologist studying one of the glass cases.  I approached her from behind, and when I asked her if she could direct me to the nearest bathroom, she turned to face me, holding a human skull in her hand.  She smiled and told me that she would show me where it was, leading me to a boarded up hallway that was apparently still under construction.  With skull still in hand, she silently led me through an opening in the barrier, into an area that was clearly marked "no admittance," and down a dark hallway lined with fossils, artifacts and unused display cases.  At the end of the hallway, we encountered the reinforced door of a large vault.  As she stood at the doorway, she extended her arm, with the skull in her hand facing a small door on the wall adjacent to the vault.  "That is the bathroom," she told me, opening the vault door, and quickly disappearing behind it.  After using the facilities, I made my way back through the dark hallway to the exhibit area, and was stared at by several children when I emerged from behind the barrier.  I school group had arrived on a field trip to the museum, and kids were running around everywhere, yelling and screaming.  Martin and I finished our museum visit dodging the hyperactive children as they chased each other down the corridors, reading the messages they had etched into the sand of a recreation of a burial chamber, and wondering how this could possibly be educational for them if they were allowed to simply run rampant through the museum.


We left the museum, and caught our bus to Calama.  The bus crossed the beautiful desert scenery of the Atacama, arriving about six in the evening in Calama.  When we arrived, we immediately looked for busses to the coast.  My plan was to catch a bus to Antofogasta, a seaside city from where I could take busses to La Serena and then to Santiago.  Martin, however, had very limited time in Chile, and wanted to hurry south, going directly to La Serena.  After checking the schedules, and learning that there was a special price being offered to La Serena, we boarded the next bus undertaking the 18-hour journey.  I can say little for the journey, other than it was really, really long, and that early in the ride, we officially left the tropics.  We stopped briefly for a late night snack in Antofogasta (I had my first hotdog since the fateful one in Ecuador, this one without the ill effects), and then followed the coast through the night and the following morning to arrive at La Serena.  Starting with a 14-hour overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, immediately followed by three days of non-stop land cruiser travel through the Bolivian deserts, a three hour van ride into Chile, another two hours by bus into Calama, and now the marathon ride down the coast, I was quite tired of traveling, so Martin and I agreed to spend a couple of days in La Serena before continuing.


La Serena is a beautiful coastal town north of Santiago, with a wonderful Mediterranean climate, and all the modern amenities that I had not enjoyed since leaving the United States.  At the bus station, a nice lady offered Martin and me a room in her home.  We went with her to a pleasant house near the town center, and moved into our small room.  My first goal was to take a shower, as I had not had one since leaving La Paz, after which Martin and I had lunch at a restaurant with an overfriendly waiter whose accent I could barely understand and who seemed bent on convincing us to come back to his restaurant for dinner and again for lunch the following day.  We explored the town a bit, finally wondering down to the beach.


La Serena's beach was a beautiful strip of golden sand stretching several kilometers to the nearby town of Coquimbo.  A large lighthouse that appeared to be slowly sinking into the sand marked the beginning of a walkway that extended south along the beach following the row of condominiums and resorts that stretched into the distance.  The end of hotel row marked the beginning of Coquimbo, where the shore curved northwards forming a narrow bay and a point on which much of the smaller town was built.  Enjoying the beautiful weather, Martin and I walked along the walkway, stopping occasionally to admire the coast and watch the beach life.  We walked a long ways, stopped at a bar, where Martin gave me a brief tutorial on French (I can now say "Seagull" in French), and even picked up some churros before turning away from the beach to follow the Pan-American Highway back into La Serena.


All along the way, the scenery around La Serena had reminded me of Southern California.  The vegetation along the coast as we approached, the palm tree-lined boulevards, the beaches filled with sun worshipers, even the Pan-American Highway, the closest thing to a freeway I had seen in a while, could all have been taken right out of some coastal town near LA.  When I saw La Serena's shopping mall, though, I could have sworn that I had left South America altogether.  It looked like any ultra-trendy mall that you might find in the United States or Europe, but coming out of the deserts of northern Chile and the rainforests of Bolivia, it seemed that I had been transported to some distant land that remained as only a faint memory of a former life. 


The memory soon engulfed me.  Beginning with the gaudy Christmas decorations outside, I was instantly transported into an Alice in the Looking Glass world that, though real, was not quite reality.  The automatic doors parted, and from the isolated wastes of the Atacama, I entered the writhing winter wonderland within.  Immediately, I was fighting holiday crowds that surged from electronics boutiques and sporting goods stores, brandishing cellular phones and credit cards, while their offspring sat discontentedly on the mall Santa's lap.  I dodged a crazed holiday shopper, nearly toppling a painting being displayed near the escalator, and a mall security guard, dressed like the Canadian Mounties, began to eye me suspiciously.   I began to reel from the unanticipated shock of modern culture.  It seemed that everything was out of place.  I was supposed to be in some foreign land, yet it seemed I had arrived at exactly what I had though I had left.  It was changed, though, and now I was out of place.  I orbited in the twilight zone of a psychological paradox that put me, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, in an air-conditioned mall staring at a decorated Christmas tree and listening to Christmas carols.


I had visited malls in other countries I had visited, but without so much effect.  There, there were always reminders that I was not quite back home.  The crowds behaved differently, or perhaps the stores, despite their placement in a mall, were distinctly regional.   In Lima, I had laughed when a father had pointed to me in one of the few department stores in Peru, telling his children in reference to the escalator I was riding, "That is how you use it, you don't have to be afraid."  But here, the people knew how to use the mall, and with Bing Crosby crooning over the intercom, I half expected to leave the mall and find it snowing. 


Although at first it seemed a bit much, I was strangely drawn in, realizing that in some twisted way, I was reentering my element.  Perhaps if this really was what I was so accustomed to, then I could use my knowledge and familiarity to my advantage.  In a realization of epiphanal brilliance, I realized that this might finally be my chance to find a field guide to the birds of southern South America, a quest that had eluded me since northern Peru.  I quickly located the mall bookstore and asked one of the workers if they sold bird books.  She quickly looked it up on her computer, and led me to their nature section, where she pulled out several books.  The first, a book about canaries, didn't quite seem to suit my needs, nor did the picture book of world birds she showed me next.  I explained to her that I was looking for a field guide, and she smiled, pulling out another book.  She proudly held out a picture book of South American Parrots.  When I asked her if she had any books that covered the birds of Chile, she said that several of the birds in the book could be found in Chile.  Not quite what I was looking for.


Although disappointed that I still could not find the book I was looking for, it was a reassuring, though subtle reminder that I was indeed still in a foreign country.  I felt a certain bit of relief having found even the slightest flaw in this parallel universe.  The book brought a sense of realism back to my existence, and there was no Barnes & Noble for me to run to.  After learning that there was only one other bookstore in the city, and that it was not open weekends, I figured that I would just wait until I was in Santiago, where I was certain I could find the book I wanted.


After our long walk, Martin immediately lay down and fell asleep.  Being that it was only about five in the evening, I was not quite ready to hit the sack.  Instead, I befriended a several other travelers that were staying in the house with us.  I spent the afternoon talking to the two Dutchmen (whose names I can't remember, isn't that horrible?), Yada, from Sweden, and Francisca, from Switzerland, going with them that evening to a Blues Club we had seen earlier.  The club was excellent, with good music, a friendly waitress, and an off duty waiter that seemed to take an interest in my Dutch friends.  I joked around with the waitress until I got her apron, and took over her duties for a few minutes.  I was quickly removed from my new position when I tried to enter the kitchen to wash some dishes, but got wonderful service the rest of the evening.  The off duty waiter, seeing a group of foreigners, sat with us, quickly becoming very friendly with the two guys.  What began as friendly conversation ended with him bringing an endless supply of free beer for the two eagerly drinking gentlemen.  Yada, Francisca and I watched somewhat jealously, but were rather entertained that the two Dutch guys seemed quite oblivious to the fact that they were getting hit on.  The evening ended with their new friend taking us all to a nearby dance club.  After a while it became evident that Francisca and the two Dutchmen were intent on partying all night, so I, who had not slept much on the bus the night before, retired with Yada, leaving one of our Dutch friends on the DJ's microphone mumbling incoherencies to a non-English speaking audience, and Francisca on the dance floor in a Cumbia induced frenzy.


The next day, we all slept in, and Yada, Francisca and I were the first ones up (surprising, considering that Martin had fallen asleep so early the previous day).  We decided that we could all make dinner that night, so Yada and I went to the market to pick up some food.  Francisca headed to the beach for a day in the sun, and we agreed that we would meet her there after our grocery run.  We returned from the market to find that the Dutch guys and Martin had woken up, so we all walked down to the beach together.  While the others wanted to take it easy and soak some sun, I chose to walk the length of the beach and explore Coquimbo a bit.  It took me several pleasant hours to traversing the warm soft sand the distance to Coquimbo, a lively little town with an active waterfront.  I had lunch in the seafood market, watching the fishermen unloading their catches, and then walked about town a bit.  A massive cross, which I first saw from the lighthouse in La Serena, dominated the town's skyline, and I climbed to the top of the hill to get a better look.  It was called the Cross of the Third Millennium, and was built to commemorate the church's 2,000 year, and the Jubilee thereby incited.  I caught an elevator from the chapel at its base to the arms of the cross, where I was awarded a spectacular view of Coquimbo and La Serena across the bay.  I caught a bus back to La Serena where I joined the gang at dinner and said goodbyes as they left to catch a bus to Santiago.


Early the next morning, Martin and I caught a bus into Santiago.  We followed the coast south, through familiar scrub desert, finally turning inland towards the Chilean capitol.  We arrived midday, and as soon as we arrived, Martin bought his ticket to Pucon, a small town south of Santiago, where he wanted to scale one of the volcanoes.  Being that his bus did not leave until nine that night, he hung out with me all day, and we explored the massive urbanization in search of the elusive bird book I had been searching for since Peru.  Santiago has a nice subway system, a refreshing way to get around such a large city, and went around the city on our search.  Starting in northern Peru, I had been looking for a book covering the areas I intended to visit, and although the book of Colombian birds worked well in Ecuador, Northern Peru and Amazonian Bolivia, I knew that I would do well to get a new book to cover the Andes and the Southern Cone.  I did not expect to find one until I was in Lima or Cusco, but when searches there failed to yield results, bookstore owners assured me that I could find anything I wanted in Chile.  Even in Bolivia, after searching probably a dozen bookstores in La Paz, I figured I would probably have to wait until I reached Santiago before I could realize my goal.  The hunt was on, and Martin and I went from shop to shop looking for a book, any book, that covered the species of Chile and southern Argentina.  We searched several bookstores unsuccessfully, always asking where there might be other bookstores, and praying that a Barnes & Nobles would appear around the corner.  Our search included the reputed largest bookstore in Chile, but none of them had a field guide. Ironically, several stores tried to sell me the picture book of South American parrots, and one had a book on finches to augment the book on canaries that every store seemed to carry.  I don't think that there are too many recreational bird watchers down here.  Finally, in desperation, I emailed my aunt and uncle, who were about to fly down to visit me, to bring me one from the United States.


That evening, I said goodbye to Martin, accompanying him to the bus station before catching my own bus to the airport.  I arrived at the very modern Santiago airport, and picked up my friend Julie who had just spent several weeks in Costa Rica, and who was going to continue her travels with me in southern Chile.  It was wonderful seeing a friendly face among the legion of wearied travelers coming through customs, and after greeting one another, we went to our hotel and rested to attack the city the next day.