The International Writers
High and Dry
Laguna Verde, El Norte Chico
at the top of the world, you cannot help gasping. There is the
altitude, 4,328 meters, to be sure. The air is as thin, dry, and
uninspiring as gallows humor. That makes you gulp for air, though,
not gasp. No, the sheer incongruity of the environment does it.
Where there are no birds or animals or plants or sound except
the keening winds or shadow that can withstand the sunlight, water
should not exist. Yet it does, hot and cold, all in motion.
Here, at the top of the world, you cannot help gasping. There is the altitude,
4,328 meters, to be sure. The air is as thin, dry, and uninspiring as
gallows humor. That makes you gulp for air, though, not gasp. No, the
sheer incongruity of the environment does it. Where there are no birds
or animals or plants or sound except the keening winds or shadow that
can withstand the sunlight, water should not exist. Yet it does, hot and
cold, all in motion. Foot-high waves run before the wind over the five-kilometer
length of Laguna Verde, a frigid lake the color of lime Jell-O that fills
the caldera of an inactive Andean volcano. Not three meters from the shore
are hot springs that spill out of their catchments and trickle down to
meet the waves. You look up from this freak of nature and rising overhead
are the peaks of Las Tres Cruces (6749 meters), El Muerto (6470 meters),
Carrancas Blancas (6119 meters), Incahuasi (6616 meters), Ermitaño
(6187 meters), Azufre (or Cerro Copiapó, 6052 meters), and mighty
Ojos de Salado (meters 6893), all within 90 kilometers. They loom like
stolid giants in a collective brown study. The occasional whiteness streaking
their dark slopes comes primarily from salt. Now, in April, at the beginning
of the austral autumn, snow exists only in small, scattered fields. You
look up, you look down, caught between two improbabilities. Your jaw cannot
keep pace. That is how it is in northern Chile.
My wife and I came to this lake in the high Andes from the city of Copiapó,
which lies just inland from the coast 800 kilometers north of the national
capital, Santiago. With 126,000 residents, it is the second largest city
in Chiles El Norte Chico (the little north). We joined a tour, Atacama
Expeditions, run by Ovidio Rodriguez, a man with a heavy foot on the accelerator
and an insouciant fatalism about road conditions. Both are necessary characteristics
in this area. Although Route 31, which has brought us to Laguna Verde,
is a major road and continues another forty kilometers to the border with
Argentina, it is tortuous as an epileptic cobra and paved sporadically
with asphalt, salt, or ragged stone. The highest pass tops 4500 meters,
where Rodriguez was unwilling to shut down the engine for fear it would
not start again in the thin air.
First, a side road took us into Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces
and past a salt lake, Laguna Santa Rosa. There flamingos scooped their
upside-down beaks through the turquoise water. Beyond, on the altiplano,
Rodriguez turned off the road and raced across a shortcut through the
trackless, utterly flat gravel. That is all that can stay put, gravel;
the soil that long ago was carried down the mountain slopes by floods
and lahars has been picked up by the wind and blown into Argentina.
The road occasionally dips through deep canyons of the Rio Lama. It is
called a river by courtesy. Any water that manages to move downhill here
earns that distinction. Anywhere else in the world it would be a runnel,
intermittent at this time of year. It runs so for about 50 kilometers
before the altiplano absorbs it. As thin as the stream is, wherever the
canyon spreads out, the water supports coarse meadows, billowing pampas
grass, low trees, the goats herded by Coya Indians, and guanacos (wild
cousins of llamas) and vicuñas. Yet these fertile oases are never
more than slivers of green. Minerals provide the dominant colors on the
landscape. Down the mountain slopes run broad swatches of blue, black,
pink, rust-red, orange, malachite green, coffee, yellow, gray, and dun.
Rodriguez pointed happily at one spur and exclaimed, "Ocho colores!"
He repeated it in English, "Eight colors!", to the other pair
of tourists in his Toyota 4-Runner: Oliver, from Austria, had piqued Rodriguez
patriotism by extolling the seven colors on one of Argentinas mountains;
now he has a topper. The area in fact looks as if, long ago, one of the
mountains had entertained itself with a set of Play Dough, molding and
twisting until the colors folded together, then laid it aside as a foothill.
time at Laguna Verde is short. The altitude brings on a headache
and an uneasy stomach. While on the pass, Portezuelo Piedra Pornez
(4552 meters), I have trouble concentrating when trying to convert
meters to feet so that, as an American, I may get a feeling for
the relative height. (When at last I succeed, I realize that I am
standing some hundreds of feet higher than the tallest mountain
in the lower forty-eight states, Mount Rainier [14,410 feet/4,392meters].
That so many towering peaks crowd together in so small an area heightens
the vague claustrophobia I felt on the way here through the deep,
narrow canyons.) Moreover, we quickly chill in the wind and are
glad to return to the Toyota. At speeds that, given the road surface,
set our teeth juddering, Rodriguez takes us back over the passes,
the salt pan, and the altiplano, past the copper, iron, and gold
mines, so that we return to Copiapó, a round trip of five
hundred kilometers in twelve hours.
Five hundred kilometers: thats nearly three times the average width
of Chile, which has 6,435 kilometers of coastline from Peru south to Punta
Arenas, the southernmost city in the world.
The Atacama Desert and Bahía Inglesa
harshest terrain awaits us to the north of Copiapó. During
our drive on the Pan-American Highway (Highway 5 in Chile) to the
beach resort town of Bahía Inglesa we approach the southernmost
marches of the Atacama Desert, the driest terrain on Earth. The
previous day I asked Rodriguez when it last rained here. He thought
for a moment, then replied, "1997, I think. Or maybe 1998.
But then, you know, the desert was one big garden of flowers, red
and white and yellow." Not now it isnt. As soon as we
leave behind the vineyards and orchards around the city and go over
a low pass, the land turns so dry not even cactus can survive: nothing,
nothing, nothing in all directions except colorless flats and brown
hills, the Andes pale blue to the east, the sky overhead pearl-gray
from sea fog creeping inland.
We pass the new Copiapó-Caldera airport, just a year old. Strikingly
stylish in design, it stands in the desolation like an ultramodern oasis
of steel and glass. A couple of buses and a few cars are in the parking
lot, but the tarmac is empty. The facility seems a gesture of hope, as
if by building an airport airplanes will be attracted and land.
Most travelers to this area are miners, for this is Chiles mining
center. Of the remainder, the majority come for the beaches, above all
the one at Bahía Inglesa, named for an English pirate, Edward Davis,
who sailed here in 1687. Thirty kilometers before Caldera we turn off
the Pan-American Highway and drive down-slope across a featureless plain.
Suddenly the bay opens before us, a broad, deep scallop in the coastline.
At the north end is the tiny fishing village, where two hundred or so
permanent residents live. During the summer, however, the population swells
to many times that number as people flee smoggy, frenetic Santiago en
masse for the pellucid north. It is quickly evident why many come to relax
here. A wide, tidy, kilometer-long beach of fine white sand and a single
street lined with small hotels and restaurants separate the village from
the bay. The sea itself is pale blue near the beach. Islets of black rock
foil the small waves running inshore so that you can float peacefully
in the clear, still waters--provided, that is, you can endure their chill.
Beyond the rocks the water turns deep blue. A small fleet of fishing dories
rests at anchor just to the north, and in the middle distance the surface
is dotted with blue floats the size of basketballs. A high headland in
the far distance protects the bay from winds. The air is warm and soft.
There is just breeze enough to keep the sun from raising a sweat. When
we arrive in late morning, the beach is practically deserted, and it seems
less like a real beach than a museum diorama of a beach; all that is missing
to complete the illusion is an interpretive sign: "Coastal paradise,
Hacienda Los Andes, Rio Hurtado
go in Chile, you have but to scratch the surface to find the presence
of other countries. We stop for three days at a German enclave:
Hacienda Los Andes. It is a bed-and-breakfast in the narrow valley
of the Rio Hurtado at an elevation of about 1200 meters and 500
kilometers northeast of Santiago. The valley floor is a brilliant
green from fields of alfalfa, vegetables, and herbs, vineyards,
and dense lines of trees. The hills above are sere brown, where
only a few stunted, dusty trees find a purchase among the quiscos
(tall cactuses bristling with ten-centimeter spines) and barrel
cacti, known locally as the "mother-in-law seat" (asiento
The proprietor, Clark Stede (58), is a man of parts. Formerly a photographer
for Der Stern, he left the magazine and Germany for a round-the-world
voyage in a sailboat with an Australian filmmaker; he published three
books about the experience. Thin, intense, with icy blue eyes, he is also
a man of restless energy and environmental idealism. After he moved to
Chile in the mid-1990s, he bought 400 hectares along the Rio Hurtado,
built a hacienda-style complex with six guest rooms and horse stables,
organized the locals to be his suppliers and labor pool, and worked tirelessly
to make the establishment self-sufficient and environmentally benign.
The entire complex gets its electricity from solar panels and uses only
well and river water. Valley-raised produce and livestock feed the guests.
Stedes vineyard supplies a light. slightly sweet red wine. Locally
produced wool makes up the bed and horse blankets, as well as other textiles
for sale. Planted around the central courtyard are trees of entrancing
variety: pimiento, lemon, pomegranate, plum, olive, apple, fig, palms
of different kinds, willow, and eucalyptus. Morning glories and honeysuckle
drape off the lower limbs. In the courtyards center is a small fountain,
its water-music bringing to the deep sense of peace there the perfect
leitmotif. During our stay the weather was flawless, the sky overhead
an intense blue. Small hawks, vultures, thrushes flew by, and the occasional
condor high up; in the evenings flocks of raucous green parrots screeched
past, a comic touch as night began to fall,.
Clarks wife, Manuela (also German), is an accomplished equestrian
and guide, but the day that we decide to join a horseback expedition,
she is away on a two-day excursion. Clark is our guide in her stead. The
two other women on our trip, one from Germany and the other from Switzerland,
have never ridden a horse before. (During our stay, by the way, only one
other guests were non-German: Hacienda Los Andes is well known among adventurous
travelers from Germany.) He begins their instruction with a warning: "You
know, Im a rude Prussian." They smile uncertainly in response:
Its clear that hes only half-joking. In fact, my wife and
I experienced his aggressive brand of guest-control as soon as we arrived.
"Oh, yes, you are the Americans," he said by way of greeting.
"Why do you Americans drink only bottled water? What are you afraid
of? Here the water is very good. You dont need your plastic bottles."
I assured him that I always rinse my mouth with whiskey after brushing
my teeth, but he was not amused. To change the subject I asked him about
visiting Tololo Observatory, a world-famous astronomical station that
is nearby. He replied, "No, they dont want to see you there
- Only herr doctor professors from big universities."
Now he treats the two neophyte riders with a combination of disdain, ironic
humor, impatience, and exhortation. As the first struggles into the saddle,
the second, a Chrysler-Daimler executive from Berlin, is fuming. "We
are paying money for this. We should not be abused." She speaks loudly
enough for everyone to hear but directs the remarks at me. Clark is unfazed.
Finally, however, we are all in the saddle on our way. My wife and I,
from Montana, have some experience with horses. It soon becomes obvious
that we are very fortunate indeed in our mounts. They are beautifully
trained--gentle, responsive, unopinionated, and smooth in their gait.
Clark and Manuela conducted the training themselves, and their care shows:
We could even walk up directly behind the horses without fear of being
The five of us amble through the valley floor and then turn uphill. Within
twenty meters, the terrain turns from lush green to xeric and steep. The
extent of the horses training now shows. We climb some 1500 meters
in an hour. The trail is seldom more than one-third meter wide, switchbacking
up the dry slopes and cross ridges where the drop-off is at time more
than 50 meters. Clark assures us: dont worry about falling because
you wont go far; the cactuses will catch us.
It is a daunting ride even for experienced riders; for those new in the
saddle it is nearly overwhelming. Out of nervousness, one of the woman
has trouble giving directions to her horse. Confused by her handling of
the reins, it frequently comes to a stop. Clark ties the horse to his
and leads it awhile, then has his guest go first, still attached. On a
flat stretch, though, he motions the rest of us to stay silent, unties
the leader, and lets the woman go off ahead on her own about 30 meters.
Then he whistles to her. She looks back, and realizing the deception,
a look of anger crosses her face, replaced quickly by pleasure. She has
been riding comfortably on her own, she realizes. No further difficulties
trouble her during the expedition, even when the trail grows even rougher
and steeper. By the end, she is enjoying herself immensely, chats happily
in German with Clark, and vows to continue riding back in Berlin. Her
earlier complaints about Clark are entirely forgotten.
He leaves my wife and me largely on our own, although periodically he
warns me not to overheat my horse. I suspect that he worries I might suddenly
let out a whoop, wave my hat in the air, and gallop off down an arroyo
like a demented buckaroo. As we walk the horses to the stables at trips
end, he asks me if Ive enjoyed myself. I tell him, "I havent
had so much fun since the hogs ate my little brother." At that, for
the first time, he is amused--very much so.
Vicuña and Mamalluca Observatory
Stedes admonishment, we do visit an observatory, although
not quite what I had looked forward to originally. After leaving
Hacienda Los Andes, we drive on a perilous dirt road over a pass
into the Elqui valley, an agricultural center famous for its muscatel
grapes and pisco brandy. We stay in the regions largest town,
Vicuña, whose pretty Plaza de Armas looks as if it has not
to have changed much in the last century, except in its advertisements.
Aside from pisco, the areas fame rests with Gabriela Mistral, Chiles
first Nobel Prize laureate in literature (1945) and the only South American
woman to win the prize. We visited the museum dedicated to her. It is
a masterpiece of exhibits--photos, manuscripts, books, documents, paintings,
biographical placards--that somehow avoid producing a clear picture of
the subject, perhaps intentionally. Mistral (a nom de plume for Lucila
Godoy y Alcayaga), like Chiles other laureate, Pablo Neruda, spent
much of her adult life as an ambassador or expatriate, looked a little
uncomfortable in her role as the symbol of Chilean culture, was deserted
by the three most important men in her life (two by suicide), and wrote
sonnets that spiritualized the harsh beauty of Chiles northern landscape--poetry
whose tone of frustrated longing is as striking as its imagery.
In the evening we board a minibus for Mamalluca Observatory, where the
austere, dry mountains reveal an entirely new dimension to Chiles
national aspirations. It is a Potemkin observatory, in a way. Its two
silver domes stand on a spacious hilltop a thousand meters above Vicuña,
and its principal instrument is a beautiful 30-centimeter Celestron Cassegrainian
telescope. But it is entirely an amateur facility (although with some
research projects: for instance it participates in the international watch
to spot and monitor "near-earth objects" that may pose a threat).
The telescope, in fact, was donated by the professional astronomers at
Tololo Observatory, 40 kilometers away and much, much higher in elevation.
Clearly, the pros hope that Mamalluca will divert the tourists away from
The night we visit it appears to be working. Two large tour groups, one
for English-speakers and the other for Spanish, crowd into the domes.
Our guide is young and possesses a proselytizing enthusiasm. He ticks
off the advantages of northern Chile for astronomy: the still, dry air;
the remoteness from cities and relative absence of light pollution (Chile
has a policy to reduce it even more by requiring its citizens to switch
from incandescent bulbs to dimmer sources for outside illumination); and
the extent of visible phenomena--82 of the 88 named constellations. He
uses the telescope to show us Saturn, the moon (which he finds boring),
star clusters, binary stars, and nebulae. All the while there is a message:
the future of Earth-based astronomy lies in Chile. It already hosts several
of the worlds largest visible-light telescopes. More are coming,
financed by the European Union, United States, Japan, and Chile itself.
He laments the fact that Chile lacks 35 of the 150 astronomers it needs
to make use of its allotted time on all these state-of-the art telescopes.
shows us the plan for one of the new ones, and his manner almost
bespeaks adoration. It is to be a mammoth instrument: 100 meters
in diameter. Its collection of mirrors is to be constantly controlled
by computers to cancel out any conceivable atmospheric interference.
It will perch on the high altiplano where it has not rained since
before the last ice age and where the skies remain clear 360 days
a year. It will see further and more clearly than even the Hubble
Space Telescope. It will reveal answers (our guide assures us) to
questions that have not yet been imagined.
That is a sobering thought as, later, twenty of us English-speaking astronomical
tourists lift our faces toward the Southern Cross, now thoroughly aware
that from several other mountaintops professional astronomers are doing
much the same. Our guide recites the names of the nearby constellations
in a half-dozen languages, and our jaws, collectively, drop open before
the unimaginable depths that he assures us lie beyond the bright white
pinpoints overhead, depths that are coming into focus from northern Chile.
For all the improbabilities of this surreally arid, convoluted region,
here is the greatest, that it is the Earths most discerning eye.
With gratitude to Joe and Doris Garry of Santiago
© ROGER A SMITH May 2007
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