After three long stretches, I arrived in what might be the third or second-largest city in Chile, depending on who you ask. Antofagasta is the port town famous for exporting copper to the rest of the world. The town, which sits between the desert and the Pacific Ocean coast, is also the most polluted country thanks to copper mining plants. I find it hard to drink tap water because it smells like a rotten animal had swum inside the central storage. Despite the bad condition, I somehow spend two memorable days at my New York friend’s Fatunatus’ place. Fatunatus, who works with a mining company here, has a lovely apartment on the 27th floor of a tall building overlooking the ocean. I love the house, but I’m not comfortable sleeping so very close to the sky!
Antofagasta has beautiful views to offer, especially for tourists who pass by on the way to San Pedro de Atacama. Cycling out of the town, I turn east towards Calama, which is 216 km away. Before crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, I pass by the coast of the plateau. Covering ten kilometers in an hour sounds disappointing when you’re focused on covering 200. Mining companies line the upper part of the desert. And I start understanding why Chile produces almost 16 percent of copper and some wine and olive oil for the world. With the rise and fall of the world market for copper, I realize this is also the reason behind the high value of the Peso. I remember Zambia.
It’s normal for people anywhere to blame their government. When I meet new people, they tell me about the unequal distribution of resources and the ruling class’s monopoly. But strangely, the middle class of Chileans doesn’t have much to complain about. They figure out things for themselves, what you would call taking the law into one’s hands. You will find the youths along the streets demonstrating free university education, which appears to be unaffordable. Generally, the neighboring country, Argentina, considers Chile expensive, which is an understatement. In Argentina, I could camp for $3, but here it’s an entire $8!
Cycling across the Atacama from west to east, I had the privilege of a tailwind, though the situation could change as I approached the Andes. The desert here is drier, and the oases are far away. The road I ride along goes through a salty area with lots of ruins dating from the 1900s. Chile got this region from Peru and Bolivia after winning the war, which left Bolivia landlocked. While Chile focuses on its salt potential, I think Argentina supports Chile for Patagonia’s change, who recently discovered oil. It seems there was a booming period of salt harvesting, leading Chile to import more laborers since its small population couldn’t keep up with harsh conditions. That explains the Chinese presence in Chile. After the ‘Salt Era’ and deep excavation of the resource, the surface lost its value. As I sit in the ruins, I wonder how the country would survive if they won’t find more ground resources.
I start to think I won’t arrive at Calama today because last night I had slept late and I seem to spend too much time in the ruins. With 70 kilometers to Calama, I decide to camp in the desert. The following day, I have lunch in Calama. A big sign welcomes me: “Bienvenido Calama la Ciudad de Sol y Cobre.” Welcome to the city of sun and copper. The sign doesn’t lie, for the sun here is so hot you would think it had been lowered towards the earth. In the shade, I can see my skin hasn’t wasn’t spared of change. I’m peeling off, and the color of skin seems to have doubled in intensity. Luckily I won’t be staying here for long. I’m hoping to get my visa for Bolivia next week, then cross the desert to the Andes. It will be a long way to La Paz, the highest capital in the world. At this point in this story, I would like to thank everyone who, in their ways, kept supporting my project.