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Chile High and Dry
Laguna Verde, El Norte Chico
Roger Smith

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.

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 Chile’s 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 Argentina’s 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.

Our 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: that’s 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
Chile’s 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 isn’t. 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 Chile’s 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, pre-Cataclysm Era."

Hacienda Los Andes, Rio Hurtado
Wherever you 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 de suegra).

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-1990’s, 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. Stede’s 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 courtyard’s 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,.

Clark’s 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, I’m a rude Prussian." They smile uncertainly in response: It’s clear that he’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 kicked.
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: don’t worry about falling because you won’t 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 trip’s end, he asks me if I’ve enjoyed myself. I tell him, "I haven’t 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

Despite Stede’s 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 region’s 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 area’s fame rests with Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s 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 Chile’s 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 Chile’s 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 Chile’s 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 them.

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 world’s 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.
He 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 Earth’s most discerning eye.

With gratitude to Joe and Doris Garry of Santiago

© ROGER A SMITH May 2007

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