Calama and around

Calama is a somewhat seedy city, set at 2265 m in the oasis of the Río Loa, with beautiful views of volcanoes in the Ollagüe area. An expensive and modern town, roughly 200 km northeast of Antofagasta, it acts as a service centre for the large nearby mines of Chuquicamata and Radomiro Tomic. Initially a staging post on the silver route between Potosí and Cobija, Calama superseded San Pedro de Atacama in importance with the development of mining activities at Chuquicamata. Most travellers use Calama as the departure point for San Pedro de Atacama, however, football fans will certainly want to make sure that their visit coincides with a home match of Cobreloa, the most successful Chilean football team outside Santiago in the past 20 years or so. Nearby are oasis villages such as Chiu Chiu and Caspana with their historic churches and altogether slower pace of life.

Getting there

Calama is easily reached by regular buses from Antofagasta and the south, and by less frequent buses from Iquique and Arica, which often travel overnight. Note that the TurBus terminal is quite a distance from the town centre. For those heading to Uyuni in Bolivia, there are several weekly buses. There are also three weekly buses to Salta in Argentina. The airport is served by daily flights to/from Antofagasta and Santiago.

Getting around

The central part of Calama is relatively compact and you should not need to take public transport. There are, however, many
colectivos
, most of which pick up on Abaroa or Vargas.

Tourist office

They provide maps of the town and can book tours to Chuquicamata. English spoken, helpful staff, but don't expect any info on San Pedro. See www.calamacultural.cl.

Calama

The centre of Calama is Plaza 21 de Mayo, a shady spot in which to relax. The peach- coloured
Catedral San Juan Bautista
on the west side with its copper clad spire makes a pleasant contrast to the colours of the desert. On the northeastern side, the pedestrian walkway of Ramírez continues two blocks east, where visitors will not be able to miss the bright red, phallic statue of
El Minero
, erected as a tribute to the bravery of the region's miners, but also an unlikely piece of kitsch in the Atacama.

This area comes alive at night. In the plaza, teenagers flirt with one another, while Argentine backpackers down on their luck ponder their next move. The pedestrian walkways of Ramírez are awash with young and old, beggars and hippies, not to mention buskers and an old man winding a barrel organ, watched by his pet parakeet.

On Avenida Bernado O'Higgins, 2 km from the centre, is the
Parque El Loa
, which contains a reconstruction of a typical colonial village built around a reduced-scale reproduction of Chiu Chiu church. To get there take bus B or X or
colectivos
8 or 18 from the centre. In the park is the
Museo Arqueológico y Etnológico
, which has an exhibition of local pre-Hispanic cultural history. Nearby is the new
Museo de Historia Natural
, which has an interesting collection devoted to the
oficinas
and the region's ecology and palaeontology.

Chuquicamata

A visit here is truly memorable. Some 16 km north of Calama, Chuquicamata is the site of the world's largest open-cast copper mine, employing 8000 workers and operated by
Codelco
, the state copper corporation. Although copper has been mined here since pre-Inca times, it was the Guggenheim brothers who introduced modern mining and processing techniques after 1911 and made Chuquicamata into the most important single mine in Chile. In other parts of the plant, 60,000 tonnes of low-grade ore are processed a day to produce refined copper of 99.98% purity. Output is over 600,000 tonnes a year, but the diggers are having to cut ever deeper into the desert, making the extraction process increasingly expensive. In 2005 the town that surrounds the mine was closed and the families moved to Calama, leaving only a small historic centre for visitors. This will enable Codelco to exploit the copper that is buried in the earth beneath the houses and will make Chuquicamata the latest and the largest in the Atacama's long line of ghost towns. The latest plan is to link the three mines in the area, Chuquicamata, mina sur and Radomiro Tomic to create a hole in the earth 14 km long producing 10% of the world's copper supplies.

A visit to the mine at Chuquicamata is highly recommended for the insight it gives into the industry that bankrolls Chile's economy. Although you don't actually go down into the mine you can see right into it, and there are also fantastic views of the desert pampa and the volcanoes to the east.
Guided bus tours
, depart from the ex-
colegio Chuqui
(the former school). The tours are in Spanish (although guides usually speak reasonable English).

North and east of Calama

Chiu Chiu
was one of the earliest centres of Spanish settlement in the area. Set in the shadow of the Volcán San Pedro, it is a peaceful oasis village and a nice contrast to the bustle of Calama. In the glades nearby, horses graze on surprisingly lush grasses and the local people cultivate alfalfa. Chiu Chiu's plaza, fringed with pepper trees and opposite the church, is a pleasant place to while away a few hours. The church of
San Francisco
, dating from 1611, has roof beams of cactus and walls over 1 m thick - please leave a donation. Some 10 km away on the road to Caspana is a unique, perfectly circular, very deep lake, also called
Chiu Chiu
or
Icacoia
.

From the village of Chiu Chiu, the road continues north towards Ollagüe. Just beyond the oasis, a small turning branches off the main road and follows the course of the
Río Loa
. Here the canyon is green with crops, and donkeys plough the earth - it seems like a secret valley. This area has been settled for millennia and petroglyphs are clearly visible in the rocks on the right-hand side of the road heading towards
Lasana
. This small hamlet, 8 km north of Chiu Chiu, has striking ruins of a pre-Inca
pukará
, a national monument; drinks are on sale. At
Conchi
, 25 km north of Lasana, the road crosses the Río Loa via a bridge dating from 1890; there is a spectacular view over the river from the bridge, but it is a military zone, so no photographs are allowed. Access to the
river is by side tracks, best at Santa Bárbara. There is interesting wildlife and flower meadows and trout fishing in season; you can obtain a permit from Gobernación in Calama.

From Conchi, a road branches east following the valley of the
Río San Pedro
, which has been a route for herders and silver caravans for centuries, to
Inacaliri
, from where a very poor road (4WD essential) runs south to Linzor and the
El Tatio geysers
. While there are several direct routes east from Chiu Chiu towards the geysers, only one is in good condition: just north of Chiu Chiu, turn right off the Ollagüe road and continue until you reach a fork some 22 km east of Chiu Chiu. Take the right fork, ignoring the large sign pointing left to El Tatio (this leads to another very bad track via Linzor). At Km 47 a track turns off north to Caspana; again, ignore this turning and continue along the main road as it climbs steeply up the Cuesta de Chita. At about Km 80, branch left to Tatio; this branch meets the main Tatio-San Pedro road some 5 km further north.

Caspana
is beautifully set among hills with a tiny church dating from 1641 and a
museum
, with interesting displays on Atacameño culture. Basic accommodation is available. A poor road runs north and east of Caspana through valleys of pampas grass with llama herds to
Toconce
, which has extensive pre-Hispanic terraces set among some interesting rock formations. There are many archaeological sites nearby and the area is ideal for hiking, with the
Cerros Toconce
,
León
and
Paniri
- all over 5500 m - within reach.

Some 20 km west of Toconce is
Ayquina
, in whose ancient church is enshrined the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her feast day is 8 September, when pilgrims come from far and wide to celebrate and worship.

Six kilometres north of Ayquina are the lukewarm thermal waters of the
Baños de Turi
and the ruins of a 12th-century
pukará
that was once the largest fortified town in the Atacama mountains. Close to the village of
Cupo
is a large, ruined pre-Hispanic settlement at
Paniri
, with extensive field systems, irrigation canals (including aqueducts) and a necropolis. Some of the fields are still in use. The area around Cupo is one of the best for seeing the Atacama giant cactus (
Notocereus atacamensis
); flamingos are also visible on the mudflats. Surrounding the
baños
is an oasis of ancient pastoral land, the
Vega de Turi
, now drying up due to the water consumption of the mines. It remains an important site for the llama- and sheep-herders, who believe it has curative properties. At several times in the year, especially September, herders from a wide area congregate here with their flocks.

Ollagüe

Situated 198 km north of Calama on the dry floor of the Salar de Ollagüe at 3696 m, Ollagüe is surrounded by a dozen volcanic peaks of over 5000 m. It is a cold, dusty, windswept place, but remarkable for its sense of remoteness. At this altitude, nights are cold, while the days are warm and sunny, there are only 50 mm of rain a year and water is very scarce.

The road to Ollagüe from Chiu Chiu runs north to Estación San Pedro. This first section is in poor condition, however, from Estación San Pedro to a
carabinero
checkpoint at
Ascotán
, it is worse. This is the highest point of the road at 3900 m. Ask at Ascotán or Ollagüe about weather conditions before setting out, especially in December and January or August. North of Ascotán, the road improves as it crosses the Salares de Ascotán and de Carcote and Ollagüe. There are many llama flocks along this road and flamingos on the
salares
. There is no petrol between Calama and Uyuni in Bolivia, although if you completely run out, you could try buying some from the
carabineros
at Ollagüe or Ascotán, the military at Conchi or the mining camp at Buenaventura.

Some 5 km south of Ollagüe is the sulphur mining camp of
Buenaventura
, which is situated at an altitude of 5800 m, only 150 m short of the summit of Ollagüe Volcano. Camping is possible and there are amazing views over the volcanoes and salt flats. A road leads to the sulphur camp but be wary of walking the route if not coming from Bolivia, as you will not yet be acclimatized for exercise at this altitude. You should also bear in mind that temperatures can drop as low as -37°C.

A road runs west from Ollagüe to the sulphur mines, now closed, of
Aucanquilcha
, where there are the ruins of an aerial tram system. A high-clearance vehicle is needed to drive to the mine but from there you can scramble to the summit of Aucanquilcha, at 6176 m, from which there are superb views. An interesting excursion can also be made north from Ollagüe to the village of
Coska
with its traditional agriculture and herds of llamas and alpacas.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

South American Handbook 2016

South America is epic. Home to the world's highest waterfall, the longest mountain range and the...

Patagonia Handbook

Patagonia is a pioneering land of vast horizons and limitless possibilities. Footprint's Patagonia...

Chile Handbook

A place of extremes and contradictions, Chile is home to a bewilderingly diverse geography and...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!
Read more...