Apologies for the radio silence, but that is what expedition life can be like. We have been out of WiFi, and indeed telephone, range for almost two weeks. At the time of writing this blog (the penultimate day of November), we have not made our attempt on my principal objective of this trip, Ojos del Salado. So more to follow on that.
Antofagasta is Chile’s second city. Until the mid-19th century it was a Bolivian town. Then Peru and Bolivia made the mistake of picking a fight with Chile. Both Peru and Bolivia lost territory and Bolivia lost its access to the sea. It was to Antofagasta that we came after Llullaillaco – this was for some R&R for me especially. My cough was not going despite a course of antibiotics. Coming back down to sea level should help. Our original one night stop over would turn into three.
Antofagasta’s prosperity is, like much of the Atacama region, based on mineral wealth. So it exports from its substantial port the minerals that are gouged from the ground ten, twenty, fifty miles inland. Our guides thought that taking the most direct route from Llullaillaco to Antofagasta would be a good idea. The only problem with that was it took us through the world’s largest copper mine. Still, a bit of feigned ignorance and a security escort saw us through and a couple of hours saving on driving.
Although Antofagasta is only a little south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the currents of the Pacific are cold here and this moderates the temperatures to the low 20Cs. But there is year round sunshine and, occupying a narrow strip of coastline adjacent to a desert, it rarely rains. Dominated by its port the only other major feature seemed to be a large football and athletics stadium. There was frankly not much to do other than to wish my infection away.
After three nights it was time to move on. Now we were moving south. First it was to Copiapo, another mining town. We followed the coastal route through barren land and along barren, rocky coastlines. This was no route like that between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Pacific here is bounded by a dry landscape of rock and dust. Every once in a while we would pass through a habitation whose reason for existence you wondered about. There was one large town, Caldera, which was obviously another port but that was it until we pointed inland and reached Copiapo.
Copiapo was a pleasant bustling centre with a backdrop of mountains. We were taken to a good, if basic, hotel near the centre of town, hidden behind high walls in a typical Hispanic way. The features of our stop here were a meat dominated evening meal (oh the quantities!) and a morning spent shopping for the days ahead.
Not so long ago our next objective would have been an all day drive. Now with road improvements it would only be 3 hours. Laguna Santa Rosa was where we were going. This is situated at one end of the Salar de Maricunga. It is a stunningly beautiful location, a salt lake of beautiful blue nestled within a ring of high mountains in a broad valley of sand and salt. There is a refuge here but it was full so we had to camp. A gusty wind did not help with the pitching of the tents but soon we were sorted – in time to watch the mountains turn red with the setting sun and for the wind to die as the energy from the sun was lost. The surface of the Laguna became still and the usual groups of flamingos settled down for the night.
Flamingos feed as the day draws to a close
Camping at Laguna Santa Rosa
The purpose of the visit here was to catch up on some lost acclimatisation. Derek had been to 6200m on Llullaillaco but my high point had been back in Mexico on Pico. Whilst we had lived for two weeks at a height equal to or above the highest of the US Rockies, that would not be adequate for our plans. The following day’s climb would be up Siete Hermanos at a little under 5000m. With a round trip of almost 10 miles and 1200m (4000ft) of elevation gain this would be a test for my respiratory system. The initial slopes are straightforward but as height was gained and the wind picked up strength, my coughing became worse. At one point about two thirds of the way up I had a 5 minute coughing fit. Obstinately (stupidly?) I decided to keep going and was relieved to reach the summit with Derek and Edu – celebrated with another coughing fit!
Summit of Siete Hermanas
We found a natural shelter from the wind at the top. The vista was stunning. 6000m peaks ranged to the south and east. The Maricunga salt flats lay below with the brilliant blue of the Laguna shimmering sapphire like in stark contrast to the whites and browns of the surrounding desert.
Laguna Santa Rosa on the descent from Siete Hermanas
I found the descent somewhat tiring and tiresome. The lower we got the stronger the wind became. Soon we were being buffeted and had to lean into the gusts. The wind was sucking the moisture from you. Derek and Edu peeled off the ridge into the pathless terrain of a side valley hoping to find some respite. I stuck with the ridge and its path. Their way was quicker and I trudged coughing and spluttering into camp ten minutes after them. So all in all a successful day despite the cough. But the altitude was 2000m lower than we are hoping to go. We had our second and final evening watching the flamingos as the day stilled.
If Laguna Santa Rosa is beautiful, then where I am writing this blog must be one of the most stunning places on Earth. Today (Saturday) is a rest day as the weather has turned against us. I am at Laguna Verde (Chile). Again ringed by mountains, its colour changes from blue to green through the day. It is flamingo free because the Laguna is fed by hot springs. In the morning the edge of the Laguna steams. People bathe in it and there are a couple of man made pools for sitting in.
Panorama Laguna Verde
I cannot decide if this location is heaven on Earth, or a very clever bit of trickery by Hell. The main problem is the incessant wind. My tent is rattling away. The centre pole of our kitchen tent has just snapped. Out of the wind it is hot. In it the temperature is decidedly chilly. The sun is strong, clouds are few and far between. Dust and salt get everywhere, in your mouth, in the corner of your eyes, up your nostrils, in your hair and eyebrows. I do not think I now have any clean clothes. Grit gets blown everywhere. You close your mouth and your teeth crunch. You open a bag and there is a film of dust covering everything. Not even many animals frequent this harsh land.
Beauty comes at a price I guess.
That’s all for now. Oh, and my cough, better but not gone. For me a real dampener on the trip.