Where the Desert meets the Ocean

We finally had some time to look around this fascinating area. In Chile the distances are huge, and some places that would be nice to see are “just” some 490 km away, which makes it impractical to try and visit when you have a day to do it. To make the rest day most enjoyable and still see something we have decided to limit our scope to the Mejillones peninsula.

The area is only about 40 min away from Antofagasta by car, yet it offers a visitor plenty of sweeping views and an opportunity to formulate an impression of the Chilean coast. For me, this was “Ocean and Desert”. Where else can you imagine the ocean and desert touching each other?

Where the desert meets the ocean
Where the desert meets the ocean

The trip naturally starts with visiting La Portada. The locals are proud of this natural arch located to the North of the city. Again, I saw online reviews saying “5 minutes is enough at La Portada, it is a rock arch”. Yes it is that, indeed. Whether 5 minutes is enough you can decide for yourself; if you are not inclined to admire nature’s wonders you may be better off looking at La Portada’s online pictures. I found it required way more than that, especially if you actually listen to the wildlife officer stationed there on the weekends who will gladly tell you about and even point out to you the hidden jewels of the small park.

Humboldt penguins at La Portada
Humboldt penguins at La Portada

For me the neatest thing was, there is a permanent colony of Humboldt penguins living at La Portada. There are about 700 of them down there, but to see them you have to go around the slightly rundown restaurant area and descend down a flight of rickety stairs that lead seemingly nowhere. At the bottom of the stairs there is a small sloping area covered with loose sand and gravel, perched atop a 100 foot sandstone drop-off. You can see the evidence of this sandstone occasionally breaking off along the coastline, so going down to this area is up to you. I am thinking, in the U.S. this area would be fenced off with a 10 foot chainlink fence extending a mile in each direction, and a TV monitor that would allow watching the penguins. In Chile, the officers supervising the park simply say “Be careful, there is no handrails and you can fall down” and leave you to be a responsible adult.

To watch the penguins you need to get close to the drop-off
To watch the penguins you need to get close to the drop-off

I guess the Chileans haven’t figured out yet that some individuals can try to become reach by suing others as being responsible for their own stupidity, so this little park still is open to the public. On the second thought though, if you went over the edge there I don’t think you would live to enjoy the benefits from a lawsuit, even if there were any.

The penguins perch on the sea-washed rocks at the bottom of the sandstone cliffs, swim in the pools, dive through the surf and flap their little wings and wiggle their tails. They are always busy doing something, and I could watch them for hours.

In addition to the penguins there is a variety of other sea birds at the park, and you can see them both in the air and on the water. The park also has a boardwalk leading down to the water edge, however this boardwalk was closed all the times we were there.

Continuing along the roads through the Mejillones Peninsula you will find yourself crossing vast expanses of dry gravel desert. There is no biosphere to speak of, no plants, or animals, or insects. There is no fresh water. The wind blows all the time, sometimes harder, sometimes much harder. If you keep driving to the West you will arrive in Juan Lopez, a small town that on weekends hosts a bit of a festivity. There are a couple of places to eat, with decent food and very low prices for both food and beverage. The buildings are fairly upscale for a coastal Chilean village, and the roads are mostly paved. When we drove through it the air was filled with the aroma of meat cooked over the charcoals. For a while we contemplated giving in and joining the people sitting in the shade of the red Coca Cola umbrellas and indulging in some local food but the desire to see more prevailed. You can eat later if you want; this was our only chance to see something, so we ignored the food.

Santamaria - Mejillones Peninsula
Santamaria - Mejillones Peninsula

The second road through Mejillones goes North, to the little town of Santamaria. Compared to it, Juan Lopez is a metropolis. The buildings in Santamaria are made of drywall, without any outside sheeting – I guess this is ok to do in a place where it never rains, or of corrugated iron. There were no eateries that we could tell. There were people working in the fishing boats, taking bundles of sea weeds out of them and putting them onto a truck, and some children fishing off a pier and riding bicycles back and forth along the 200 foot stretch of pavement leading to the pier. I really felt like a tourist in this small village, way overdressed in light colored clothes, and especially with a camera that looked more expensive than the vehicles and boats owned by the locals.

Judging from the curious glances, wandering gringos are not very typical in Santamaria. We did not feel any hostility, short of some awkwardness that I felt from being in a place so obviously poor.

Morro Moreno National Park
Morro Moreno National Park

From Santamaria we continued further Northwest to the Morro Moreno national park. This is the first place where we saw native vegetation. It consisted of three or four gnarly little bushes some 3 inches in height, with leaves looking like tiny bulbs. The outer perimeter of the bushes was devoid of the leaves and the soil looked like a little path, as if some animals ran around them a lot and ate all the leaves. Maybe this is what it was but we didn’t get to see any wildlife.

After the entrance sign the road becomes a little bit on the rough side, and another half a mile later it becomes unsuitable for a passenger car. A 4WD vehicle will have no problems, and you can drive all the way across the ridge and down onto the plain on the coast on the other side. We just limited ourselves to a short walk to the top of the ridge and looked out onto the ocean to the North. The rugged dry country with nothing around but dry, hot, sun-baked rock and gravel, left a bit of a daunting impression on me: being from the cold but wooded North, I consider forest a home with nothing to be afraid of. This arid land will left you parched and helpless in no time. I had the feeling that there is no messing around with the desert, it gained my utmost respect. What an amazing landscape though!

On the way back to Antofagasta at the end of this day full of impressions we stopped on the bay for a swim in the ocean. The beach on the bay is several miles long, and the locals pull off the highway at random places, drive up onto the sand and have parties. There can be quite a bit of trash left behind but there are cleaner places one can find, and we enjoyed one of them. The Pacific was as peaceful as usual, with 4-foot swells rolling in that built up sand banks and a trench a short distance from the water edge. Once past the trench it was fun to swim in the waves, the water temperature being on the cold side but still very enjoyable. We came across several parts of the beach where the ocean created deposits of just shells and parts of shells. Small fragments 1/4″ to 2″ in size, smooth and rounded from the endless action of the surf, would lay 10″ deep on top of the sand and take up areas of some 50×60 feet, and we sat in the middle of these, fingering the little fragments of shells as if they were memories from the past, and thinking of the endless cycle of life and of how special it was, being here on this deserted beach.

Antofagasta, Chile: a subtle might

The time has come again for the Global Travelers to leave home and go somewhere they have not been before. This time our path led us to Antofagasta, Chile. From there we will fly our Gulfstream-V airplane equipped with advanced scientific instruments to the West and South over the Pacific to study the effects that upwelling has on the release of gases into the atmosphere that people never measured before and importance of which to global climate change is not well understood. This is the reason our research was funded, and we all believe the reason is important enough to send 20 people half a world away, to measure and record these minute changes in atmospheric constituents to better understand how our planet operates.

La Portada, the Natural Monument North of Antofagasta
La Portada, the Natural Monument North of Antofagasta

 

But this time I will focus not on the science of the project but on the places we are visiting. This is because on our travels we get to meet people we have never met before, whom you discover to be genuine, helpful, interested and partial to our work, which they have not heard anything about just a few days ago.

On our approach into Antofagasta’s San Moreno airport one couldn’t help but notice the striking landscape of the Central Chile. In short, there is nothing under the wing of the airplane. No trees, no rivers, lakes, bushes or even grass. There is a lot of… bare land. Gosh, are we landing on the Moon? Barren, with tire tracks everywhere, some of which probably date back several decades because once there, they don’t disappear and only slowly fade away from the eolian erosion. Bare mountains tower over bare plains, and infrequent threads of paved highways cross this vast, endless desert lit by the relentless summer sun.

Upon landing we have discovered that the land is not that inhospitable. The temperature is a comfortable 27°C and the sun is not as hot as one might think from the looks of the land. We are met by friendly, patient people who wait on us to complete our unusual routine of shutting down the instruments, then covering the numerous probes attached to the wings and fuselage with caps and covers, then finally turning everything off and following our hosts to customs and immigration. I think this is probably when we begin to establish the helpful and benign reputation of “los científicos locos”, in the nice meaning of the word, that the polite Chileans would never let us be known but very likely share in their quick Spanish dialogue behind the scenes.

Now, to the actual impression from Antofagasta.

I have read reviews like “well… there is nothing to see there. It is just an industrial town”. I am glad to see such reviews; this means to me that people I don’t want to meet most likely will not come to Antofagasta. Good for the rest of us.

If you are looking for prepared entertainment, canned excitement and boardwalk sightseeing, head somewhere else. Antofagasta is not for you. Disney Land is probably better.

Antofagasta is wedged between the ocean, desert and the mountains
Antofagasta is wedged between the ocean, desert and the mountains

If you can appreciate the hardy quarter million people building a city on the border between the sea and the desert, if you like the salty smell of the ocean drifting in the evening through your open windows, if you can feel the energy of the young people laughing with their children on the ocean shore walkways – you may like it here. Antofagasta is a happening place. It is not for the pampered but it is full of raw, furious energy during the day paired with hearty, light-minded relaxation in the evening that I have not seen in other places I have been to.

Coastline near Mejillones
Coastline near Mejillones

As you drive along Highway 1 from Antofagasta heading North, the trip we had to make daily for work, you could see one of the two things. It is either the dry, featureless, boring desert spreading like a table cloth as far as you can see, torn up on the East by just as featureless ridge of mountains and with a bunch of shacks at the base of those. Or you could see the intricately structured surface of the land, featured by millions of hours of relentless work of wind, and the tireless people working in the dust, moving earth and raising modern buildings or glass and concrete in the dramatic contrast with the stark landscape. This is how I saw Antofagasta, and it captured my heart.

The city is growing, and it is very obvious. New residential buildings are coming up on the North side, and the older blocks of residences appear obsolete along the new four lane road that edges the city along the coastline. People jog, ride bicycles and walk along the wide sidewalks that stretch for miles through the city along the ocean coast. Tent cities, some curiously appearing semi-permanent, cluster the flatter beaches where it happened to be convenient to set them up; the climate is very forgiving to light shelters with night lows being 20°C.

Large cargo ships drift in the harbor; numerous buses dart around the streets and the cars swerve in and out of lanes, passing slow pokes and big trucks that carry building materials; people cross the roads here and there, going to the ocean shores, in and out of stores, to and from workplaces. Life is loudly abuzz here, and only a snob can miss its pulse. There is one thing I have not noticed: one person working and three people supervising. I will keep looking; so far this sight was for me a sign of a more developed country.

Cars on the road have 2-5 people in them, and some engines smoke; the luxury of single drivers is not common here as I could tell. Gas is expensive at 800 Chilean pesos per liter, or $6 U.S. per gallon. I have not seen too many single driver commuters with cell phones between their ear and shoulder, putting on lipstick or gulping down Starbucks as they nervously pass each other. I have not seen people gesturing to each other even when cut off, they swerve through the traffic because this is the way it is. These roads have a different purpose. They convey a crazy mix of people heading to relax with those doing hard labor. These roads smell of sweat and burnt oil, not Starbucks and irritability.

If I hurt someone’s Starbucks feelings I apologize. I didn’t mean to. My point was, Antofagasta may or may not be the place you ever decide to visit. Tourist guides have information in them, and please do read them. They will help you choose to go or not, or help you get your expectations aligned.

What I am trying to do here is give you a feel for the city. It is a fast, unsophisticated, young and strong place, growing confidently and rapidly in one of the most inhospitable environments I have ever seen.