San Pedro to Bahía Inglesa, December 6-9

After returning from Bolivia, we spent one last day in the tourist region of San Pedro de Atamaca. We indulged in pizza, ice cream, and cappuccino, then drove to the nearby Valle de la Luna for the night. (Yes, it's our second Valley of the Moon -- Parque Ischigualasto in Argentina goes by the same name.) Climbing a large dune to catch the sunset over the desert rock formations (photo 1) marked the first time since coming to South America that we found ourselves amongst an unpleasantly large horde of tourists, mostly on organized tours from San Pedro. We abandoned the dune, and in the morning had the large reserve to ourselves.

Our next stop was the city of Calama, where we successfully met three objectives:
  1. Major grocery shopping. Chilean hipermercados are even bigger than Argentine ones, inconceivable as that is.

  2. Laundry. Laundry's been a persistently annoying issue throughout our travels. (Jennifer still has nightmares about the laundromat in Paris.) The problem is partly philosophical: we resist spending too much of our valuable travel time dealing with this necessary but dull task. On this occasion, the first laundry service we tried was backlogged several days, but we were led to believe there were some self-service laundromats (lavenderia autoservicios) in town. As always, everyone we approached cheerfully and confidently sent us in the direction of a lavenderia autoservicio; invariably, we either didn't find it at all, or we discovered a drop-off laundry service instead. After spending the good part of an afternoon with no progress, we concluded that self-service laundromats don't exist in Chile (later corroborated by our guidebook), and we still have no idea what a lavenderia autoservicio is. We located a drop-off place offering overnight service for a hefty $45.

  3. A visit to the Chuquicamata mine. It's the second-largest open-pit copper mine in the world (the largest isn't far away), and a significant factor in Chile's relative wealth. Tours once a day (requiring advance booking -- they're very popular) include a bus ride around the mining buildings and a long stop to check out equipment and gawk into the vast mine itself (photos 2 and 3). If you've seen or read The Motorcycle Diaries, you may remember the scene at this mine -- apparently it was a turning point for Che Guevera in his travels around South America. It was a turning point for us too: when we left the mine we finally pointed our camper due south.
We soon joined up with the Pan-American highway, which officially stretches from Circle, Alaska to Puerto Montt, Chile (with one 54-mile gap) . For the next 400 kilometers, we drove through the most barren desert imaginable -- no water in sight, no people, no plants, not even a blade of grass. It's no wonder the Atamaca Desert, of which we actually saw only a small portion, has a reputation as the driest place on earth. We'll follow the Pan-American to its terminus in Puerto Montt -- with a number of side trips -- for most of our remaining time in Chile..

Our last stops in the desert were on the coast. Three of us arrived by bicycle -- Alex was stuck in the camper once again -- and we much appreciated our first glimpses of the good ol' Pacific Ocean.

At Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar (photo 4, once again remarkably similar to Wikipedia's), the highlight was hiring a local fishing boat to take us to the small island seen in the photograph. It's home to thousands of Humboldt penguins (photo 5), as well other birds, otters, and seals. We continued biking/driving south (photo 6), visiting some coastal towns and eventually arriving in the popular and attractive beach resort of Bahía Inglesa.

By the way, you might imagine us looking pretty cool cruising South America with mountain bikes strapped to our camper (photo 7; the fourth bike is in a storage area behind the rack). In reality, we quickly discovered that the bikes get extremely dirty riding on the back, even though we're driving primarily on paved roads. We've been covering the bikes with a plastic sheet (photo 8), which often billows dramatically as we drive, to the amusement of onlookers. We just purchased a fancier nylon car cover to try instead; we'll see how it goes.

The kids have continued to do their schoolwork while we drive, and they've been diligent about practicing their musical instruments, too. They're also finding a fair amount of time to read, and they've been tearing through their books. With few luggage limits, we brought a huge number of books for the kids, but apparently not enough -- they've both nearly finished their piles. They'll need to swap, reread, or hope for international bookstores in Santiago. We did participate in a book exchange at a tourist office in San Pedro. It was taken remarkably seriously: the owner was contacted to approve each exchange, and it was suggested strongly that second and third choices be provided, just in case. The protocol was justified by a sign explaining just how valuable a commodity English-language books are in an outpost like San Pedro.

Food in Chile hasn't been any more interesting than it was in Argentina (an exception being good fish on the coast), so we generally eat out only for convenience or a little bit of variety. Cooking in the camper is a challenge, with a finicky oven and tiny kitchen area (the back bed comprises the main counter space), so our menu options are limited. One night, to avoid dealing with the oven, we tried frying some frozen salmon we'd picked up at the hipermercado. Apparently we don't know all that much about oil-ice reactions -- huge flames rose up immediately. Had we been in sight of anyone (which we weren't), it would have been quite something to witness the camper door fling open and a frying-pan fireball fly across the desert. After a short break to calm nerves and assess damage (nothing significant), we recovered the frozen block of salmon, washed off the sand, and poached it instead.

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