2007 Roadtrip The Desert on the Pacific Coast of Chile

Maria Angelica at the Antiplanico in San Pedro de Atacama had warned us about the bad condition of the section of the Panamericana Highway, from where you pick it up west of Calama to Iquique. This was our first experience with the Panamericana, the main north-south road through Chile and Perú. And it was awful. Our other choice was the coastal road. We wanted to do that on our way back south though. So, despite the warning we took the Panamericana. The pampa desert is an ugly clay-like brown, the road was full of potholes (actually more like landmine/craters) and it was boring. There were 487 km to Iquique and it took us 5½ hours.

The only interesting feature is the geoglyphs. Audre had never heard of these things so we began our discovery-tour of them in Northern Chile. They are a form of pre-Columbian native art where the dry clay-like sand of hillsides are decorated by huge figures of human, animals, birds and abstract shapes. The figures are made by grouping dark stones over light-colored soil and they are huge enough to be seen from a distance. Dimitri calls them graffiti.

When we had broadband in our hotel rooms, Dimitri had prepared CDs from the radio stations we could receive. So during our long and boring drives we could listen to music downloaded from our favorite jazz station, KPLU Seattle, or Radio Beethoven Santiago.

Iquique is 47 km from the intersection of the Panamericana. This is mining country and that doesn’t add to the scenery. Our guidebook Chile: A Remote Corner on Earth had not prepared us for the sight of Iquique. Here’s what it said "The road drops steadily down towards the coast until, at km 37, it takes a spectacular plunge down the face of a 600 m cliff. At the bottom is the Pacific Ocean and, squeezed on a narrow strip of flat land between cliff and sea, lies Iquique. This [descent] is the closest thing to an airplane landing you will experience without leaving the ground."

Looking back to Iquique from the Mariner's Monument, with the looming sand mountains

It did not say, for example, that the town is incredibly ugly, with lots of poor, half-built houses against a backdrop of brown, clay-like sand mountains. The color of nature is so monochromatic that the houses are painted garishly. That only adds to the overall impression. Next to the sea are a series of highrise buildings that complete the unsightly scene. The only redeeming feature is the ocean itself.

We took an apartment at Hotel Club Terrado (Av. Aeropuerto 2873, Playa Brava, fono: 437-878), in a highrise and had a view of the sea. Dimitri negotiated by asking for the corporate rate; it was US$67 a day. Our apartment was on the 23rd floor and, while we didn’t have a balcony there were ledges outside of our windows (which were always open because we didn’t have air conditioning). I don’t think you can imagine our shock when at 5 p.m. on our first afternoon, huge, ugly, black birds roosted on the ledges outside of our open windows. Dimitri said that they looked like vultures and eventually we identified them as turkey vultures. We never made friends with them but, after the first day, they weren’t scary any more.
The turkey vultures roosting outside our Hotel Club Terrado apartment
We stayed 5 nights in Iquique, probably too long since we weren’t interested in swimming in the ocean (too cold for us). We had some nice bike rides along the coast (that weren’t particularly pretty) and found a fish restaurant that served erizos/sea urchins. We went to El Español (Paseo Lynch Locales 2 y 3) twice for lunch, it was so good. We had a good dinner at El Sombero (Terrado Suites, Los Rieles 126, fono 488 000) and a bad one at the Casino Español (although the building is spectacular.
The interior of the Casino Español
We think that our photos look better than the real thing. Actually, the buildings in the downtown area of Iquique were interesting and some quite historic. It’s just the overall views of the town that offend.
Baquedano street in Iquique, a walk street, with the Georgian-style buildings

We did some chores in Iquique too. We had the Toyota Subaru dealer in Iquique give us an estimate for fixing the damage that the Argentine goat had done to our car. The dealership did not inspire confidence so we put off the work until Lima. And off we went further north.

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