I am a bit breathless at 4,230m high (our campsite for the night) but I will give it a try.
The mine tour starts at 13:00 so we had the whole morning to explore the surroundings. First we visited the nearby town of Chui Chui where they have the oldest church in Chile (1540). An Inca road ran over this high plateau and there is a 12th century fortress a bit further up stream in the canyon. The priests must have followed this road when going about their preaching.
Past Chui Chui on the road to San Pedro de Atacama there is Laguna Inca Coya. It is a perfectly round small 80 m deep oasis. (San Pedro itself we plan to visit when we come back from Bolivia).
The visit to the mine was very professionally organized. We all gathered together in a large lecture hall and were called up one by one to receive our safety equipment. Unfortunately there was no informative presentation about the mining process nor how the copper was extracted from the rock. During the trip Rudy quizzed the guide and got most of the information. The open pit mine is some 1500 m deep and at the end of its life. Too much waste rock has to be removed to follow the ore body any deeper. The ore sits in a faulted zone in the rock. Next year the underground mine will be opened. The reef will be accessed by a tunnel and the ore transported out by a conveyor belt. The large 500 ton (350 ton net) trucks will become obsolete and the deep hole will slowly fill up with water and rocks. The tour first brought us to the abandoned mining town next to the mine. The town is dwarf on 2 sides by the large waste dumps of the mine. For safety reasons the town was closed down in 2005 and all inhabitants had moved to Calama. The town had some 20.000 mine employees. All other indirect support staff lived “off camp”. I could not help getting a déjà vu feeling (of our shell camp life) when wandering the streets and seeing the staff supermarket, theater and recreation centers. There was also bachelor and married accommodation. The more senior you were the higher up on the hill you lived. At the mine we drove through the extraction facilities and up to the rim of the pit. The large trucks passed us by slugging up the winding road out of the pit. A large shovel was next to the viewing gallery.
After the mine visit we search the town for a mechanic who could determine of the alternator was broken. Unfortunately he could only measure the voltage and not the amps delivered by the dynamo. So we still are not sure if that is the cause of our charging problem. It was too late to drive far so we decided to drive back in the direction of Chui Chui but this time camped at the fortress ruins of Pukara Lasana which we visited the next morning.
We drove back though Calama and took the road north east towards the coast. First there was a climb till some 3000 m before a long and almost straight road down to the RN 5 at 1,200 m. By shifting between the gears and not giving any gas you could easily control the speed. At the RN 5 we drove north again rather than continue on to the coast and follow the RN1. This way we covered quite a bit of ground and could make some nice side stops. The first one was at an old dam (1910) in the river. The Rio Loa is the same one we camped at the previous nights. There is at this moment not much water in it but it still has cut a deep valley in the 1000 m high plateau on which the RN5 runs. The dam was built to use the water for running 3 large turbines generating electricity. This was used by all the nearby Saltpeter mines. Most of them have closed down in the 60’s as has the electric plant.
Further up the road we made another side trip to see the second largest collection of geoglyphs dating from 500 to 1450 AD. (The Nasca lines in Peru are more extensive). The hills are covered with large pictures of lamas, people and many geometric figures. There is a walking path over the salt crust with sun shelters to observe the various groups of rock art.
As it’s shower time again, we decided to stay at a nearby Conaf paid campsite with facilities. There we met Tim and Liz, an American couple on their way down from Oregon. They have been on the road for over a year and were slowly running out of time. We exchanged travel experiences and gave tips as to what to see.
Our next stop on the road north the following day were 2 ghost towns from the Chilisalpeter boom period (1870 – 1930). As mentioned above, the whole area is in fact a dried up lake of rock salt. The top layer (NACL) is scraped off and below that there is a layer with K,NaNO3. This rock is mined, milled, leached and dried to obtain pure NaNO3 which is sold as fertilizer. Currently there are other ways of making artificial fertilizer so this whole industry has died.
The American travelers we met drove along the Andes rather than following the coastal road south. I did not expect that this was feasible but they said the roads were well marked and drivable. Of course there are some stretches of washboard. Based on this advise we decided to drive up to the Andes via the Rn15 to Cochane and camped as high as possible in order to start acclimatizing to the high altitudes of Bolivia. Before we turned east, Rudy wanted to at least see the coastal Free Port city of Iquique to the west. It was a 2×45 km detour but at least we could also tanked some diesel. When coming down the steep road of the plateau the extensive city lies below you, squeezed between the ocean and the mountains. High apartment buildings jump out of the large mass of low buildings. We touched the coast and were glad we could turn around and leave this metropolitan behind us. We probably missed some lovely sights in town but we prefer nature.
It was already after 18:00 when turned in to the Rn15. A quick detour was made to see one last geoglyph: El Gigante de Atacama. The road slowly climbed up towards the Altiplano. At a height of 3,156m we called it quit and found a small side road where we camped. There was no flat ground to be found so we were rolling in bed and stumbling through the camper (camper listing on the left). Since Jamaliah was not feeling good (altitude sickness) the meal was just heated leftovers.
Today we drove on slowly up to the border post at 4100 m. At this height you use primarily the second and third gear and have to run the engine at around 3000 rpm to get any traction. The same as we get out of breath after a small walk so does the car. In Colchane there was nothing going on. It had a large new plaza with the Chilean standard fitness equipment and nearby some stalls with old ladies selling snacks to the bypassing bus passengers. Unique for us were the large cactuses they used here as decoration instead of trees.
The adventure began when we started to drive north again over a well maintained graded road (we met the maintenance team after 20 km). In IOverlander, previous travelers had pointed out the interesting sights so our route was laid out for us. At one point however the route to a hot spring goes for 3 km over Bolivian territory. We did not want to take the risk (it was open country so nowhere to hide) of an illegal border crossing so we made a 30 km detour climbing up to 4736 m and rounding a mountain. We made it back to the hot spring and Rudy had a dip/wash in it. He did not smell any cleaner afterwards. Because of the sulphur vapors we decided not to camp here. The hot springs are on the side of the large Salar de Surire. This is a large salt lake with a lake still in the middle. We decide to make an extra detour and are now camping on the eastern side of the lake up against the large border volcanoes. Along the way we have seen several herds of the small wild vicunia and the larger domesticate lamas. At the place where we are camping we have a clear view of the flamingo’s feeding in this salt lake. The headache has gone down a bit (drinking lots of water) so hopefully we can sleep at this altitude (4230 m). Jamaliah even managed to cook the cabbage, carrots and eggs (she make frittata) we have with us as we are not sure if we are allowed to bring in raw vegetables etc into Bolivia.