I spent just over 36 hours on the ground in Antofagasta and managed to pack quite a bit in. First, let me just admit up front that I was not in a particularly good mood during this trip. I wasn’t in a bad mood, per se; I suppose a good word would be “fussy”. Perhaps “whiny”. I was tired, I had a lot of work to do, I’ve traveled a lot, I still need to pack, etc. Basically, little stuff bugged me.
So that could be the reason I thought the following: Antofagasta is a weird place.
It sits on the coast in the southern reaches of the Atacama desert. The city itself is under an almost perpetual inversion layer as, it seems, is most of the Chilean coast. The city is about the size of my home city, roughly 350,000, but, like a lot of coastal cities, it mimics Chilean geography by being narrow and long. Antofagasta is a huge center for mining and construction and has the highest GDP per capita in Chile. It has also been booming the last 10-15 years. Therefore, I expected a newish, happening kind of place. And, like I say, I was not there long and didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city but it was nothing like I expected. There were many abandoned buildings falling into ruins. In the section of town in which I stayed (the southern part, just a few blocks from the casino, which opened in the 2000s and looks exactly like I imagined the whole city would look) nothing was open on Saturday night and the feel of the place gave me a bad vibe. If you told me I was in a city that had fallen into ruin 25 years ago I would have believed you.
Sunday in the city was entirely different. I walked first a couple miles south along the coast. There were hordes of runners and cyclists on the wide sidewalk up from the beach, many with families in tow. In the north of the city, they had shut down the southbound lanes of Ruta 1 to provide a few miles of seaside biking, running and skating territory. Under a bright winter sun at the Tropic of Capricorn with families out on the street, the city seemed much different than it had the previous night.
Again, I didn’t venture out much or for long. My quick take could be completely wrong. Perhaps I just booked into a lousy part of town. Hopefully. Certainly the countryside surrounding the city has the otherworldly beauty that I’ve come to associate with the Atacama. There were places where I could easily convince myself I was on Mars and the usual palette of color was evident everywhere. Of course, there was also a lot of industry in places and it was clear that this desert was a busy desert.
I think it might be best to do the rest of this in pictures. Briefly: I went directly from the airport to Cerro Paranal, location of the European Southern Observatory and four 8.2 meter telescopes. It was an incredible drive and I really blew it by not coming to this stretch to observe. I then spent a few minutes looking at the Hand in the Desert. I spent much of Saturday night grading in my hotel room. I walked the beach Saturday morning and then drove a long, lazy loop in the desert. I ended up back on the beach at La Portada where I hiked a couple miles north through the party region of the beach. I then did another long lazy loop on a peninsula before spending an hour trying to find gas.
The telescopes of Cerro Paranal sit at 2600 meters (about 8,500 feet) above sea level, well above the inversion layer that hugs the coast. From the mountaintop, you see islands of other peaks surrounded by a sea of cloud. The drive is about two hours from the airport and the last half, really three quarters, is premium Atacama. Hardly any vegetation, wild streaks of color and a clear, blue sky. This is the third major observatory I’ve visited. Mauna Kea and McDonald are the other two. Mauna Kea is incredible because it’s at 15,000 feet. Our visit there wasn’t really an observatory tour but a visit to a high mountaintop for sunset (which is incredible) followed by descent to about 8,000 feet for observing. The visit to Cerro Paranal told me two things about myself: I’m not keen on visiting huge telescopes under beautiful skies when I am not, in fact, going to be allowed to use them. I was very sad to drive back down the mountains to the city knowing that great telescopes under a clear sky were so close. Second, I miss being in lab. This trip is the longest period of my life since January 1990 that I haven’t been in, or around, a lab. Part of the Cerro Paranal tour is to the control room with many offices with obsessed people doing all kinds of frustratingly difficult things. I miss that place.
The “hotel”. I had mistakenly thought you could actually stay here and was really bummed not to have. But, it turns out, it’s just for staff and visiting scientists. Okay, I wouldn’t mind being one of those, either.
The four domes for the identical 8.2 meter telescopes. They can be used singly or in network using an interferometer.
One of three instrument packages at the Cassegrain focus. The primary mirror, 8.2m in diameter, is just above the photo.
Looking up at the secondary mirror which, admittedly, is hard to see here.
The control room.
The view from the control room.
A look down at the inversion layer from the mountaintop. The ridge in the clouds is, roughly, the coast. The observatory is only 12km from the ocean.
The big dome holds one of the 8.2 meter scopes. The little dome to the right holds a 1.8 meter scope. That’s a 70-inch scope, folks. Used as a “helper”. Sigh. Couldn’t I just borrow it for a couple of hours?
A model of the 8.2 meter primary mirror. Unfortunately, none of my photos of the actual mirror (which I really saw!) turned out. The mountaintop and four big domes are visible in the background.
Mano del Desierto
I’m only a little ashamed to admit that this was the driving force in my choosing Antofagasta as a last hurrah in Chile. It is in my guidebook, you see. The hand in the desert is a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal who also did a similar work in Uruguay, which I’m now sorry to have missed. It’s a hand “emerging” from the ground, though, to me, it seems more a hand grasping to escape the earth. Half-full / half-empty, I suppose.
The Atacama Desert is incredible, as I’ve written many times. Often I’d find myself in a place where there was no vegetation of any kind. If I’d been braver, or had a better car, I could have found places with no vegetation or signs of humans. I keep saying “otherworldly” but that is what it is. It is an environment that seems completely at odds with what you know about living on Earth. And, indeed, if you tried to live here on your own, you’d likely succumb pretty quickly.
After an enjoyable night of grading, I rose for a stroll on the beach. I stayed at the southern end of the city right on the shore.
I got a bit of a funny story here. To get to the beach from the little church next to the hotel, I had to edge around a bit of very old fence. As I wrote above, there was a lot of old, ruined stuff around and I just assumed that this was one more example. I walked awhile on the beach, wondering why no one was there – it was a nice stretch. I was also hemmed in by the raised sidewalk about 30 yards inland. I finally saw an access lane and exited to street level. Turning around, I saw this:
If you’re having trouble reading that, it says, “Propiedad del Ejercito de Chile.” Translated, it means, “Property of the Chilean Army.” Gulp. I was momentarily worried but then I thought, look at the state of the sign, look at the state of the fence, that can’t be true. But, no, walking back to the hotel, I passed this:
It was Sunday morning so it must be okay. Right?
I was just down the hill from the Huanchaca Ruins Museum. I really blew it here as the museum was open on Sunday and is reputed to be an excellent presentation of the history of mining in the region. The ruins were a giant smelting plant around the turn of the 20th century for, mostly, silver, which came in from the surrounding area. Antofagasta was a Bolivian port city until its capture in the War of the Pacific and was crucial in the export of mineral wealth from the region as it still is. It is also the site of a lot of tension between government and companies on one side and workers on the other, with the former killing the latter on occasion. I would really have liked to see the museum but had known from the start it could only really be Sunday and I foolishly assumed it would be closed. When I walked up to take a picture, it was clearly open. I checked and discovered they were closing for lunch and I decided to continue my plan to tour the countryside.
On the way up the hill to the ruins, I passed military housing for the Chilean Army’s First Division. It was more impressive when the wind unfurled all the flags at once. Sadly, I didn’t capture that.
After this little romp around town on foot, I headed back out into the desert. I’d hoped to make it to the famous Escondida mine but there is a guard post at least 30 miles before you get there and a very nice older gent carefully explained that I didn’t want to go there. He offered up all sorts of other things to see in the desert. He never explicitly said I wasn’t allowed but he also blocked my path. We eventually agreed that I would head back to Antofagasta. His constant smile got even bigger. Ah, well.
I circled around Antofagasta, passing enormous and busy industrial areas supporting the region’s many mines. Eventually, I made my way back down to the beach to the famous landmark, La Portada – a sea arch north of the city, near the airport. It really is very cool. I walked north along the beach for a couple of miles. It’s a very dirty walk as there is a lot of off-road biking and 4-wheeling and it’s clearly a party spot. Lots of bottles. A few discarded bits of clothing. You get the idea. But if you stay focused on the sea, it’s beautiful.
After lunch along the coast, I drove up the peninsula to the end of a couple of roads. This was, perhaps, the strangest part of the drive: I was clearly in the Atacama Desert but, right there, look!, was the Pacific Ocean.
With that, it was 4pm and I needed to gas up the car and get to the airport. I’m not sure I’ve written much about it but finding gas in Chile can be difficult. Most small towns do not have gas stations. When I was in the Hurtado Valley, the nearest gas was Ovalle, over an hour away. In Antofagasta, the airport is about 25km north of the city and I had to drive well into the city to find a station. Basically, the assumption is you will return to the city to refuel. I’m not sure how rural citizens deal with it except for the fact that a lot of them don’t have cars. Buses run frequently in the countryside and many just use that. They need to return to the city in any event to do other shopping. The gist is that rural Chile is much more isolated than what I’m used to in the United States. Or, perhaps, I never got the hang of it here.
The airport was another odd experience. Most of the Chilean airports I’ve been to have had very good free public wi-fi. Not so Antofagasta. Additionally, cell service was quite poor, as it was throughout the region. Pretty much everyone was struggling to access data in the airport. In what is described as the richest Chilean region outside Santiago and at an airport through which an army of mining and construction workers (and executives) pass daily, I’d have expected better.
As I wrote at the top, I was never in a grand mood on this trip so that could have colored a lot of it. I certainly enjoyed the weekend overall – I don’t know how long I could spend in the Atacama before being bored by it but it’s more than the week I’ve had so far. But Antofagasta itself just struck me as a bit odd, not quite what I expected nor did it fit the descriptions I’d heard.
Well, that wraps up the traveling unless something really crazy comes to pass. I’ll be recapping the program the rest of the week and packing up my apartment.
And I am almost done with grading.