Desert Blooms

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, December 13, 2004

After our adventure on the Bolivian Salt Flats we figured that we had earned ourselves a short respite - and where better than on a quiet, secluded beach somewhere. Heading further south and back out across the desert to the coast we reached the port city of Antofagasta by late afternoon. After checking out a handful of potential campsites, we chose one run by an eccentric ex-pat Greek, "El Grecio Viejo". Beautiful long sandy beaches, barnacle-covered rocky promontories, high water pools and coves of infinitely varied seashells for beach-combing - all to the rhythmic backdrop of the surf and breakers coming in off the Pacific Ocean. What could be nicer? What indeed?.....until the four disco clubs of the area started pounding out their deep bass beat by late evening!! Well, surely they'll only go on until 1 or 2 am at the latest? Wrong again! By 5:30 am the parties were just starting to wind down. Oh well, guess we'll be taking a long siesta like everyone else!

A couple of sleepless nights later - once we knew every current Chilean pop tune by heart (and could sing them in our sleep, as it were) - we decided it was time to hit the road again. Surrounded by desert, still totally arid with not a single sign of plant life, we climbed over the coastal cordillera to about 6,000 ft and then dropped down to the small National Park Pan de Az˙car for an overnight stay. At every stop on the coast in northern Chile we've been amazed at how cool the air is during the day, despite the relentless desert sun. This is attributed to the cold Humboldt Current sweeping up north along the coast from the frigid seas of Antarctica. The nights of course are very cool, and great for sleeping (as long as you are out of earshot of the discos). This particular area is noted for its diversity of plant species - mainly cacti and succulents - supported by moisture from the 'camanchaca', or morning coastal fog. Nearby islands also teem with marine life, including pelicans, penguins, otters and sea lions.

Further on down the coast, we turned inland to Copiapˇ - a clean and attractive small town nestled in a rich agricultural valley. The intense green of irrigated fruit and vegetable fields was a welcome relief after seemingly endless and lifeless desert. Another highlight of the day was discovering that we could fill our propane tanks without fuss or danger to life or limb - remember our antics in Cuzco back in early September! Here, propane gas is available at roadside stations and the tank fittings are the same as in North America - our first time since Mexico.

As we moved from Region III to Region IV we started to see a little more vegetation, as the desert changed from arid to semi-arid. This was a very welcome change, but at the same time indicated that we were now unlikely to see the Atacama Desert come into bloom - an event that Region III is famous for if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time (shortly after a spring shower). This was something we had been hoping for since we read about the same phenomenon in the Chihuahua Desert back in Big Bend National Park last February (refer to our TravelPod # 01). Our mood was also rather sad, quiet and reflective as it was three months to the day since Mike's death. Imagine our joy then, as we rounded a bend in the hills, and dropped down into a desert valley that was carpeted as far as the eye could see with a wild profusion of flowering succulents and cacti. We parked the van and set out for a hike around the valley, happily marvelling at the variety of multi-hued coral, cream, mauve and purple blooms. It was a magical and somewhat surreal moment, as if a unique and spectacular exposition had been arranged especially for us. None of the other occasional vehicles on the Panamerican highway stopped, and it seemed as if their drivers were oblivious to the show. Later that evening we had another treat, with a stunning sunset over the massive Cross of the Third Millennium across the bay from the seaside resort of La Serena.

This touching poem was written and sent to us by Lila Engberg, a friend and colleague in Guelph, Ontario:

On Being Alive

You are here, with us Michael
You are here in our hearts
We are holding you here
Even if our hearts are scarred.

I know now there are spiritual and inner places within me where I can hold you.
And I can hold your parents - Sharon and Gerry. How did you find them?
They still have a lifetime to live.
They have a passion for life which helps all of us live our lives more fully.
God be with them in their sorrow and throughout life's journey.
This I pray!
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