We bought some snacks and drinks in San Pedro de Atacama, and got on our bus around 2: oo p.m. for the long (23 hour) bus ride down to the capital city of Santiago (approximately in the middle of Chile). Since this is such a long bus ride and we wanted to get some sleep, we spent a little extra to get some nice seats that lean far back and have foot rests (kind of like the first class chairs on an airplane, but they lean back much further). We drove back out the copper mining city of Calama to get back on the Pan-American highway to keep heading south.
Calama is an interesting place that is wealthy and has lots of economic growth, thanks to copper mining at the nearby massive Chuquicamata mine. They do huge open-pit copper mining, and you can see enormous piles of the tailings (dug up dirt that doesn´t have any copper in it) from the town, and they look like huge, flat, man-made mountains. The town is successful and you can see all kinds of large machinery dealers (Caterpillar, John Deere, etc.) who must sell equipment to the mines.
The town has many distinct subdivisions that are reminiscent of the repetitive subdivisions in the deserts around Las Vegas. However, the homes seem fairly modern and are fairly nice workforce housing for the large employment base associated with the mines. Lot´s of people drive newish Toyota hi-lux trucks (little trucks with double cabs) and seem to live well from the work at the mines here. Copper is a major contributor the the Chilean economy, and provides one third of the revenue for the government.
From Calama we drove through the desert south. And more desert. Once and a while we saw copper mines and a nitrate processing plant. They used to mine naturally occurring nitrate in the desert here as a big business, but it is no longer such a big industry since nitrates can be made synthetically.
We made a quick stop in Antofagasta, and then drove off into the desert as the sun set. The next morning we woke up around Coquimba, just south of the big resort town of La Serena. A nice change from the desert was some small bushes on the hillsides and palm trees in the city. The dry landscaping along the coast here is reminiscent of the coast near San Luis Obispo. There are eucalyptus, pine (that look like Monterrey pines) and olive trees along the road and coastlines, with other dry shrubs on the hills. There are various little towns along the rocky coast, which look like Mediterranean villages. Coquimba was a nice town with more houses made out of wood, which we have´t seen for a while. We continued along the coast until we eventually got to the big city of Santiago. You could see the towering Andes in the distance under the big blue skies, as we got on the subway to find ourselves a place to stay…