Today was our last stop in Chile, at the port of Iquique (EEE-KEE-KAY), from which we took a day long tour inland to see the Atacama Giant, one of almost 500 prehistoric geoglyphs carved into the desert rock. At 86m tall it is the largest anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figure of its kind in the world. It may have been used as an astronomical calendar, its various parts aligning with the moon to let people know what season it was and when certain crops could be planted (in the ravines and less barren areas bordering the desert), or it may just have depicted the sun god in a place where people could gather to celebrate.
Iquique is the busiest port in Chile (we’ve never seen so many shipping containers in one place on our travels so far) and a duty-free zone, so it has become a sprawling city stretching past the port along miles of beautiful beaches. The homes are unique for Chile in that many of them are built out of Douglas fir, which was used as ballast in the sailing ships which would otherwise have returned empty to pick up nitrate. As we’ve seen in other ports, though, the houses are a mix of old and new, well-maintained and in seemingly total disrepair, and painted in a variety of garish colours.
Our bus climbed along highways cut into the steep sides of the coastal mountains to reach the desert, passing “the dragon”, the largest urban sand dune in the world at 1500 ft tall and about 2.5 miles long. It’s shape really does look like a sleeping dragon – with a little imagination.
Once we were over the coastal mountains, the view on every side was sand, small volcanic rocks, no vegetation….. and FLAT, FLAT, FLAT.
Nine times drier than Death Valley. A landscape that has been compared to Mars. So dry that even the mountains higher than 6000 m (20000 ft) have no glaciers. Some geologists think this plateau stretching from Chile into southern Peru may have been continuously arid since the Triassic period. It is home to rich deposits of copper and nitrate, and the now mostly abandoned mining towns related to those resources.
It is certainly unlike anything we have ever seen before.
On the way to the single large hill on which the Giant was created, we stopped in the “ghost town” of Santa Laura, a mid-sized nitrite mining town. At one time, Chile was a “giant” in the production and export of nitrate – third in the world. Although the mining operations were shut down in the 1930’s, and many of the smaller artifacts plundered, the offices, stone crushers, leaching vats, crystallization flats and iodine extraction tubs still exist inside huge, rusty, corrugated iron structures. The “waste kegs”, large hills created by piling up the waste from the nitrite processes, are visible everywhere. As we drove through the desert, those hills marring the otherwise flat desert marked the many spots where nitrate was once processed, even when nothing at all of the facility remained. Now that the negative effects of synthetic fertilizers are becoming more widely known, a couple of new nitrate plants have opened, using a less water and power-intensive process.
Then we moved on to the main attraction: The Atacama Giant. For whatever reason it was created, it is awe-inspiring.
Tomorrow morning we will wake up in Peru, and it will be 2 hours earlier than if we were still in Chile, since we’ll be in a new time zone. We opted not to take the 5 day side trip to Macchu Picchu, but I have no doubt we’ll have some amazing experiences nonetheless.