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.


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