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Chile

A Mine Of Its Own

A Visit To The World's Largest Open Pit Copper Mine

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CALAMA in northern Chile may have little to offer for travellers, as I've written previously, but to be fair every cloud has a silver lining even if in this case the lining is copper.
That's because Calama is home to Chuquicamata, the world's largest open pit copper mine which is definitely worth a visit.
Chuquicamata, meaning tip of the spear, is really home to Calama, the city itself having grown from humble beginnings ever since large scale exploitation began in 1911 by copper company Codelco.
My reasons to stay a few days in Calama were administration related although on one of the long waits to see a public official I spoke to an ex-miner who remembered Calama as no more than a large village surrounded by ranches - now long gone.
In those days many miners were driven the 14km out to the mine in "long, narrow cars", as he put it, six men in each, which would topple over in the fierce crosswinds the desert could whip up!
And so a tour of the mine, organised by Codelco, Monday to Friday (free, but book in advance at the tourist office) was on the cards.
The tour begins with a drive around the town built by the company inside the factory gates. It has become a ghost town to the 20,000 workers and their families since early 2008 when they were moved to Calama for health reasons.
The main square, overlooked by the church, and once the communal focus on a Sunday afternoon, now stands deserted while the schools, shops and bars are likewise earily silent.
Behind the town is a range of tall hills, all artificial, the mineral-stripped rubble piled up after almost a century of excavation. A reminder that not just the miners' homes but their natural environment was created by the company.
Following the dust up the road for about a kilometre and you get to the mines themselves, the largest being an enormous hole in the ground extending to a depth of 1km, stretching 3km wide and almost 5km in length.
As if this wasn't big enough it will be joined up with the "South" pit in 2010 guaranteeing itself a place in the Guinness Book of Records for years to come.
As you can imagine the sides of the pit do not drop vertically but slope inward allowing the 330 tonnes trucks to meander their way up and down. And so it is expected that by 2017, Codelco will have mined and processed the remaining 200 metres left of the open pit at which point they will change gear and start mining underground.

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Posted by donncha 14:49 Archived in Chile Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Knowing Your Place...In The Universe

Understanding The Night Sky From The Atacama Desert

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STANDING in the middle of the Atacama desert on a cold night staring at the stars I finally understood something.
That we are all one, how each and every one of us is the centre of the universe, and at the same time an almost insignificant speck of energy forever being converted to different forms.
Drug induced hippy nonsense? Far from it. Modern physics folks.
Or so I learned in probably the best astronomical tour on offer in Chile, itself one of the best countries to view the night sky.
This tour, leaving nightly from San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is the work of French astronomer Alain Maury who provides an amazing overview of the constellations, planets with a self-mocking humour of the arrogant Frenchman.
Highly entertaining and informative, this tour is a must for travellers to the Chilean desert and for once I am not complaining about the heafty 15,000 Chilean peso entry fee.
Alain points out the main features of the sky, explaining how groups of stars or constellations were culturally grouped depending on what the particular society thought they could see, be it a sausepan or a big bear. (Or a 4x4 landcruiser - it's there, believe me.)
As he put it, "Some constellations are easy to see, some are easy to see with imagination and some are easy to see with hallucination.
"Every culture has its vision of the universe based on observation with superstition filling in the parts they don't understand," he said, noting that that was just about everything.
For example, the Eqyptians believed that the earth was flat so therefore the sun every night had to take a magic boat running straight under the earth to be back in position in the east the next morning.
However, despite only using the naked eye, the ancients had some amazing insights into the movements of the stars.
"They were watching black and white TV with the same thing on every night so after a while they knew the movie," he said.
As well as the brilliant lecture at his desert home over a hot mug of chocolate, Alain also allows use of the largest tourist telescope in the country along with seven others to see various marvels.
Some of the night wonders on view are a group of stars in the shape of a butterfly, the rabbit on the moon, a nebula, a "globula" of over 3 million stars and planets such as Jupiter.
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Bookings from Astronomical Tours, Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama. Best time to go is when the moon is at its smallest. Bring your wollies!

Posted by donncha 14:12 Archived in Chile Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Real Wild West - But Tamed for Tourists

San Pedro De Atacama - A Desert Oasis

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CHILE has two main tourist destinations - the glaciers and stark mountains of the south and the dusty desert of the north.
San Pedro de Atacama is the northern mecca, a small one-horse oasis village in the heart of the Atacama desert which is one of the driest places on earth. It rains so little here that a footprint made in the rain will likely survive hundreds of years.
The village is a haven for backpackers, mainly European, who use it as a base to explore some of the most beautiful desert sights imaginable (that is until you cross over into neighbouring Bolivia).
The village's main road, Caracoles, is lined with plenty of tour agencies and restaurants offering the gambit of mostly half-day and one-day trips, although multi-day trips are on offer too.
This time around, I mainly lounged around the village, because having been here twice before I had done most of the popular tours and wanted to save my money for neighbouring Bolivia where prices drop by half.
The mainstream tours include a trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) to see the sunset on what is the closest terrain to the moon here on earth and where NASA in the past tested their equipment before the real thing.
Another is Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) so named because nothing grows there and not as I overheard an English girl tell her mother in an internet cafe, "because someone died there or somethng". Great spot to sandboard if you're up to it.
The other attractions are the Salar or salt flats and the Geysers del Tatio, dozens of small geysers best seen in the freezing morning (you leave the village at 4am) due to better condensation of the water vapor.
Other trips include visits to lagoons at high altitude, where new shades of blue can be discovered.
On the cultural side, the local museum is a good start as well as tours to various Inca settlements and pre-Inca forts called pucaras.
In these you can still find fragments of Inca pottery and even stone arrow tips if you keep your eyes open, although be discreet in pocketing them as it is considered theft.
Trips around the pueblos or villages, dotted around the desert, are invariably dissapointing, as you do not get the opportunity to meet locals. Generally the alloted ten minutes means a few pictures of the local church and a trip to the toilet.
However, on a previous visit here I got to spend a couple of hours in one of these villages as our bus suffered a double puncture.
Being the hot dry day it is every day, a beer was in order.
To my horror the local restaurant/shop didn't sell beer but a group of friendly locals sent me up the hill, around the corner to the third house of the right. Great! I didn't need to knock as the door was open and on entering I sensed something was not quite right. The dark corridor and musty smell of neglect with rags lying on the floor gave that one away.
The silence at my "holas" was suddenly interupted by a screeming woman of undecernible age coming out of the dark in a fight not flight mode.
So the locals sent me to the local nutter's house. Redfaced, not including the sunburn, I returned to the plaza empty-handed.
Next our guide Pablo, a decent chap from Santiago, explained it really wasn't my fault, it was that the locals hate the tourists and strongly dislike people from the capital, but if anyone could get a beer it was him.
He returned, canless, explaining that there was no beer - the closest pace was 15km away in the next village.
Resigned, we sat in the shade waiting for the replaciment bus, when the group of locals who misdirected me appearted and called me over.
With Pablo looking nervously on I approached them. It was all in good jest, they explained, producing a six pack for me. In the meantime they had driven to the nearest village and bought beer for me. And they wouldn't take money for them. Hats off to the Irish that day!
Going to the desert can be expensive, everthing costs more but don't bring the tent, it was cheaper to hostel it.
Off season look for deals and avoid going around the Chilean national festival (September 18). For the cheapest and best eats in town go to the kiosks near the bus station close to the main plaza.
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Posted by donncha 08:49 Archived in Chile Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

From Calamity To Calama

Entering Is Easy, Leaving Is Harder

SOMETIMES you decide to take a trip somewhere and sometimes the trip decides to take you somewhere else.
The Chilean border control officer looked at my Chilean ID card and eyeballed me.
"It's out of date," he said.
True, I replied, but I was in the process of getting a new one in Santiago, then lost my job, global economic crisis you understand, and so I'll just be leaving your beautiful county now, if you don't mind stamping the exit forms, thanks very much.
The man was having none of it, even when I nipped back to the bus and produced three detailed forms showing I was in the process of getting a new ID card and that I could freely leave and enter the country.
In a way only cops can do, he dutifully studied each form, stared at me for too long and calmly said "And?"
And nothing. That was that. I had not paid a small administrative fee six months beforehand and so was not allowed leave the country. I would now have to go to the international department of the gobernacion in the nearest city.
Back on the bus and the two Japanese girls who chatted and giggled all the way to the border were suddenly silent, pretending not to look at me as the bagpack was hurled off the bus, a note of panic in their eyes.
"Not every Irishman is a terrorist," I said to them, making them clutch their handbags tighter. Couldn't resist that one.
And so an unscheduled trip was made from the border outside San Pedro de Atacama to the mining city of Calama, apt really as "boring" is a word that definitely springs to mind.
Luckily the paperwork only took two days, getting up at 6am to be the first in line for 8.30am - unluckily the next bus out of Calama to Bolivia was three days later.
For a populaton of some 240,000, Calama has surprisingly little to do apart from a visit to the local copper mine, the largest of its kind in the world.
I did find a park on the outskirts, an amazing site, being the only park I've ever seen without a blade of grass or a flower in it. It resembled a carpark.
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Still, I found a large tyre which was filled with gravel next to a stream.
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One local man in his 30s told me what I suspected, that there was very little to do.
He said that while the mine is the largest employer in town and workers there enjoy a relatively high wage with many benefits, not everyone works for them.
Life is expensive in Calama, he said, high rents, expensive food (it is a desert after all), and a huge immigrant population from Peru and Bolivia struggling to survive, means that the gap between haves and have nots is striking.
He added that the influx of cheap drugs, mainly cocaine from Bolivia, was another problem in Calama although the number one addiction was the drink.
"Have you noticed how many bars there are in the centre?" he enquired.
"Yes, yes I have" I replied. Kind of remined me of home.

Posted by donncha 18:08 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Rapa Nui - Meeting The Locals (Bring a Six Pack)

A Willingness To Dig Deep and Listen Helps

MEETING locals on Rapa Nui is relatively easy but comes at a price, mainly beer, cigarettes and food. And at that price don’t expect much in the way of a conversation, rather you should expect a well rehearsed monologue.
Take Pamela, the native doctor who uses tradicional medicines to cure just about everything and seems to have treated half the population.
I met her and was invited back to her cottage for lunch. Very friendly in showing me where to buy the best local produce, but no attempt on her behalf to contribute financially. Lunch for three I enquired. Make it for six, she replied, you never know who we will meet on the way.
She normally walks home but decided on a taxi that day, apparently for my benefit. Picked up that tab too.
Or Moa and his extended family, who live on the far side of the island where the beer costs twice as much as it does in the main town, which itself is twice as much as on the mainland.
What about the three local men who started chatting with me at their front gate and invited me to sit on their porch to drink. After they shared a few sips of a local sweet liquor and I shared all my cigarettes I bid them farewell. But they still asked the price of a six pack as a parting gift.
But that’s how it is on Rapa Nui.
The other aspect is that once you are talking to them you realise that actually they are only interested in talking to you.
They will tell you how they are proud of their heritage (and right they should be) how they are warriors (in and out of the bed) and how they hate Chile and Chileans. But don’t expect any enquiries about your own culture or views – they just don’t care.
This is because they are so isolated. Living thousands of kilometres from the next country and being a small population – less than 4,000, many of them related – has led to an isolated, beseiged outlook on the world.
Another reason is that every day, hundreds of new tourists are arriving, who all appear the same to them.
Tourists are like the friends of friends who turn up to your party. Obviously you are polite to them and maybe even engage in a bit of chit chat.but really you are thinking “Who the f**k invited them?” But then again, if they bring a few drinks to share around....
This all sounds a bit harsh on the natives, but it’s just the way it is.
If you can factor the above in, without feeling you are the latest tourist fodder to be used, then it really is a small price to pay to meet real locals outside of the organised tours. With patience you will get a feel of how this tiny island ticks.
And if you have the money and like to drink excessively you’ll be in your element. Just remember to claim you are from a country which was brutally oppressed, offer a round in solidarity and you will have friends for life. Or at least until your plane leaves later that week.

Posted by donncha 16:13 Archived in Chile Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (7)

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