Four hours of desert and a brush with officialdom; from Arica to Iquique

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January 8th 2015
Published: January 8th 2015
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If one flies into the city of Iquique, in Northern Chile, one lands on an airstrip more or less on the beach, surrounded by desert and at the foot of a giant mountain of sand. The gigantic sand dunes and the desert, spread from the Andes in the east, to the ocean in the west. Virtually the whole of Northern Chile is desert, from the Peruvian border down to the Atacama, where it hasn´t rained for over one hundred years; it is an endless landscape of sand. If, however, one crosses the desert bus, as we did on Monday, then it is necessary to descend one of these monster dunes (not quite in the style of Fifth Gear) to reach the city. It is quite an experience, seeing the city and the Pacific far below, as the bus slowly winds its way down the steep roadway; the road is tarmac, a perfectly good road, although somewhat steep, but it is built on sand! The foolish man? We were glad when we completed our descent! Today we took the gentle route and flew out of Iquique to Santiago, where we are now.

The bus journey across the desert from Arica, took four and a half hours. In all of that time, we only saw four areas of green, a little oasis here and there, where there was water. Otherwise, not a tree, not a shrub or cactus, not even a blade of grass, nothing alive was to be seen. It was awesome! Sometimes the sheer drops from the road, which winds up and down these giant mountains of sand, were so steep, one feared the stability of the ground at the edges of the tarmac. There were several places were landslips had occurred.

After a couple of hours, we had a most strange experience, surreal in one sense, but seriously real in another. It was a police check, in the middle of nowhere! About an hour beforehand, the bus conductor asked us to give him our passports. We refused. He mumbled something about needing to show them “to the police”. What police? We didn´t know about the forthcoming police check at this point. So he mumbled something else about it being our problem, then proceeded through the bus to collect everyone else´s ID. They all surrendered them willingly. We were the only two non-South Americans on the bus, so everyone else had ID cards. Now, the advice on the internet from is that one does not give passports to anyone, not even the police (who could be bogus) unless one is crossing a border, where one has to surrender passports to customs officials. Otherwise, officials can look at passports, but not take them away; this surely includes bus conductors! Anyway, having not even believed that he needed our passports to show “to the police”, lo and behold, we came to a road block in the middle of the desert, manned by the police! They didn´t look bogus, obviously the real thing! Whoops! Oh well, if they want to look at the passports they can ask us to show them! The conductor got off the bus, with his wad of ID cards and his passenger list, obviously complained about the two difficult “gringos” to explain why he was two documents short, then next minute a policeman came on board. He stopped, gave us a hard stare and we smiled back ignorantly, making no attempt to find our passports. He then gave a little nod, a tiny smile and passed on by. He then ordered all of the Chileans off the bus, stood them in a circle and proceeded to lecture them. They all looked quite nervous, like naughty school children. He then ordered them back on the bus and we went on our way. We never did find out what that was all about, because as soon as we got going again, the conductor put a noisy DVD on and conversation stopped. So, we passed through a desert police check without showing our passports! It was a strange experience. South American countries are seriously police and military dominated. The presence of both is everywhere, manifest, “full on” and to be aware of. However, this does not mean that one has to comply with every quasi/official request to hand over one’s passport, and certainly not to bus conductors. In this cultural climate, the indigenous people just do as they are told, without question; but we are British, so we follow our government´s advice. End of story!

Iquique is a lovely seaside city with a beautifully kept promenade, public gardens and beaches. Above it all, however, the high sand dunes of the desert loom quite threateningly; some houses are very close to them, and there is evidence of landslips everywhere.

The food here in Chile is more varied than we found in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia and the Chilean wine is not only pretty good stuff, it is also reasonably priced, so our wine deficiency has ended! Empanadas are a speciality, made with a wide variety of fillings, fish, meat and vegetarian, in lovely flaky puff pastry, served with dip-in chilli sauces.

Our flight today to Santiago, took just over three hours, including a thirty minute stop-over in Antofagasta, another city on the edge of the desert. We didn´t have to get off the plane. Santiago is in a gorgeous setting, fringed by the Andes. It looks stunning from the air. We have until Saturday to explore this beautiful capital city, then we are off to Valparaiso for a week by the ocean, before we board our ship. We have a self-catering apartment right in the city centre, so it will be easy to see the main sights. It is on the twenty-second floor and Viv wasn´t too happy about that, until she saw the view of the Andes from the windows, then decided it was worth getting used to!

When we arrived, the first thing we did was to go out and find a supermarket. We were like kids in a toy shop, because this was the first big supermarket we have been in for nearly three months, and we bought fruit, Greek yoghurts, cereals, wine, pasta, meat, as much as we could carry to last us three days. It has been great this evening cooking a meal, having eaten out every night since we left home. Lovely!

Right now, with the washing up done, we are watching BBC World News. The tragic murder of journalists in Paris is so shocking; such an attack on freedom of speech is sickening. We are only four hours behind Central European Time, just three hours behind GMT, so the news we are getting is fairly current.

It is 9.30 p.m. here now, the sun has just set and the city looks beautiful at night. The temperature has cooled a little, after a very hot day (tomorrow´s forecast is 36 degrees of sunshine). It is hot! Summer has well and truly arrived here in central Chile, and we don´t have air con, but we do have a big fan! We will survive! At least we are now out of the desert and cannot wait to explore the city tomorrow. ¡Buenas noches!


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