Antofagasta´s business district centered around Plaza Colon is surprisingly nice. In the center of the plaza looms the tower clock donated by the British in 1911. It is said to have a likeness to Big Ben. Entering the plaza from the south east is Paseo Peatonal Arturo Prat, where one encounters the Intendencia Regional of Antofagasta (similar to the regional seat), the headquarters for CorreosChile and a lovely buiding housing the Parroquia San José. The city has a population of 360,000 and is the largest in northern Chile. It is closely linked to mining (predominantly copper) activity, being the closest port to the largest mining area of the country. It has the third highest GDP in Chile, though you wouldn´t know it from the average salaries of 180,000 clp per month (about 380 usd). It is as expensive or more to live here than the SF bay area, at least in terms of food and daily household items, while less for rent.
Having the perspective of having been in Peru now, I am saddened at the militaristic attitude of Chile towards Bolivia and Peru. Antofagasta had been Bolivian’s main port, with a railroad connecting it to La Paz. It exported silver and salt pitre. The excuse for the Pacific war was that the salt pitre company didn´t want to pay the tax levied by Bolivia. After Chile stole Antofagasta and all the territory north to Arica (including Tacna, which they occupied until the 1926 plebiscite), they imposed the same tax on the salt pitre companies. So much for help from big brother. Further north in Arica, on Morro Rock, there is a Chilean military museum where a former Peruvian fort had been located. It boasts of the triumphs of taking over the rock from various points below, and all the brave men who died. The usual rhetoric and sword waving. It was quite distasteful to me as I abhor militaristic rhetoric.
I visited the naval museum, which waxed on about the sacrifice of Arthur Pratt, the captain of the Chilean ship in the war of the Pacific that was significantly underpowered compared to the Peruvian and Bolivian war ships, but managed to capture their ships anyway. He died in the process, the best way to become a war hero. From there I visited the lovely wooden railroad station, constructed of the ballast from ships coming from England. It was the terminus to the railroad line from La Paz and British built. The infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid supposedly hid a safe deposit box full of money in one of the cars that are on display, only to be caught later in Bolivia, where they met their end.
I pressed on from Antofogasta to the interior of Chile near the cordillera, as the Andes are called, a 5 hour bus trip to San Pedro de Aticama. Unfortunately, I got very sick on the trip and ended up with a horrific bronchial infection which ended up spreading to my inner ear and sinuses. I´m still battling the inner ear infection 3 weeks later and am on antibiotics and steroids. San Pedro is an authentic Aticama town, though there are more gringos than locals wandering the streets, which makes it feel a bit like Disneyland. I met 2 interesting guys, both traveling by motorcycle (separately) all over South and North America. One of them has written a book about his last around the world trip, something I would like to do as well, though not sure the form it will take. I had the opportunity to witness a 2 day ceremony in the village, in honor of Santa Rosa de Lima Peru, baile osado (bear dance) complete with polar bear costumes and dancers wearing an ostrich-like bird complete with head and feet that is native to the Aticama. I took lots of photos and was too weak to stand, so I parked myself in the beautiful church and watched the dance and adoration continue inside. It was a chance to also see the real community, who came out to honor Santa Rosa. I went to the local market and bought a thick syrup made from the seed of the chanar, a local tree. There are almost no trees growing in San Pedro, though it is considered an oasis because of the water coming from the San Pedro River. Unfortunately, as is true all over the world, mining companies are stealing water from underground, resulting in the community not having enough often for minimal use, let alone to support tourism. I spoke with a local about the problem, and found it was the same situation as was occuring in El Bolson, Argentina, where I sat in on a march to protect local water rights. I spent almost a week in San Pedro trying to get better and finally returned to Antofogasta, to sea level, to try to improve. After 2 days Claudio and I pressed on to Iquiquique, a zona franca where all the car imports come in to Chile.