Since all bus tickets out of Santiago heading north were sold out, we narrowly escaped being stuck in Santiago for 5 extra days by eventually getting the last two seats on a 24 hour coach to Calama. Although not our intended destination, it got us within an hour or so of San Pedro de Atacama; our last stop before leaving Chile.
Due to the fact that the coach wasn’t heading to the tourist hub of San Pedro, it was full of local mine workers heading north via Chiles second largest and important city, Antofagasta.
Since we were the only gringos on board we had developed a strange following from the mine workers, who seemed to stare at us is bemusement at the fact that, as perusal, we were wearing shorts and flip-flops whilst they preferred to be wrapped up warm in thick jackets. One particular local decided to break the ice and practice his English with us since he had spent some time living in Sweden before returning to Chile 8 years ago to capitalise on its prosperity. Whilst interesting at first, he turned out to be a bit of a freak; stubbornly attempting to get us to stay in Calama with him and go out for dinner before finding some prostitutes!
The highlight for the men (apart from Andres shorts) was when we were taking a lunch stop at the central bus terminal. After quickly grabbing some food we decided to have a quick look at the city from a view-point whilst having a fag. My after food ritual was abruptly brought to an end when Andre looked back over to the terminal only to see our coach leaving and the local men on the bus banging at the windows for our attention. After a mad dash (fag still in hand), we managed to stop the bus, where a sea of laughter greeted us as we passed our newly found fan club; ‘the freak’ being at the centre of it all.
As with most of the long haul coach trips we had taken over the past few weeks coming from the South, we passed through most of the same, flat scenery that simply didn’t seem to change. This all changed when entering into the Atacama desert, which is the driest most deserted place we had seen so far. Had it not been for the few mining communities that we passed along the way, you could have been on the moon for all you knew.
The most interesting part of the final climb up the mountains was passing the ghost towns of Chuquicamata and in particular Chacabuco. This place was once the worlds greatest copper producers with mines that go on for miles. The US Anaconda Copper mining Company effectively muscled out the local firms and created a fully functioning mining town which now lays completly derelict and in ruins following the fallout with the Americans and the nationalisation of the mine.
Interestingly by the 1960s the 3 largest mines owned by Anaconda controlled over 80% of Chiles copper production. This accounted for 60% of total exports and 80% of the countries tax revenues. By this point the copper had all but run out and the entire community had to relocate to the larger town of Calama. Strangely the ghost town is now a national monument, however it is now deemed unsafe following an earthquake in 2007. It was also a prisoner camp during the early years of the Pinochet regime.