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Full Circle

Day 174: Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama

Michael Palin - Full Circle6.15 in the morning. We are on our way through the streets of Santiago. Running along by the flood walls of the Mapucho River, past the striking glass vaulted roof of the Museo de Belles Artes. A full moon is still up. Huddled groups of men, windcheatered and bobble-hatted against the cold, wait to be picked up for work. The city looks an edgy, besieged sort of a place at this time of day, full of shadowy figures, standing at roundabouts and intersections hoping to be hired and taken somewhere.

We are being taken some 900 miles due north, to the mining town of Calama, just the other side of the Tropic of Capricorn, on the edge of the Atacama Desert, in that part of Chile they call the Norte Grande. Our flight, from the restrained autumn mists of Santiago to the brash heat of brick red, bone dry hills in just a few hours is a short, sharp, shock to the system.

The desert road out of Calama starts unpromisingly. Rubbish lies piled on either side of the tarmacked highway. Nothing corrodes or deteriorates in the dry air, so it just lies there in heaps where it's dumped. We pass a dead dog which has been pulled off the road and left on the dusty verge, legs sticking straight out as if frozen in the act of rolling over. There is a temptation to assume that we are in the middle of nowhere but in fact this road, Highway 23, is to be widened and extended in the next few years to give Argentina and Paraguay road access to the Pacific for the first time. Soon we pull away from all evidence of human habitation. We cross over a pass and in front of us is a measureless expanse of dried up salt lake. The terrain is not white as you'd expect, but dusted with red sand, the colour of raw meat. It is completely without cover and the sun shines day in, day out, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 174
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: Atacama Desert
  • Book page no: 229

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