Monday, August 19, 2013

Route 5 to Arica.

Leaving Iquique we headed inland for the final stretch of route 5 to Arica, the most northern town in Chile. Driving east through the desert, there is an abundance of ghost towns; their deserted shells providing only glimpses of what were once homes and roads are eerie reminders of a time when this area was a booming nitrate mining region. The ghost town of Humberstone was designated an historical monument in 1970 and in 2005 a World Heritage Site and yet even this “town” is still only partially restored and is prone to vandalism and looting. Many of the buildings are decayed and crumbling and the small tourist center was closed when we were there although we could see the remains of the old narrow-gauge railway that used to take miners to another ghost town of Santa Laura about 2 mile away. From Pozo Almonte, we are on the Pan Americana Highway again – route 5 climbing the high antiplano areas of the Andes. The scenery is amazing as we climb steadily to about 6,000 feet before leveling off. And it does level off. The two lane road has a sheer drop into the ravine below. We did not know it but from this point until Arica the road fluctuates between 4,000 to 7,000 foot elevation with winding, hairpin turns, steep ascents and equally steep descents all with the road dropping off on our right. Just when we thought it could not get worse, we arrived in Cuya. This is another town which is a grim reminder of the defunct golden age of nitrate mining. For us it is memorable in that we were stuck here for four hours. Roadwork and from the booming we can here, dynamiting into the cliffs. We sit, we walk, we read, we eat, we are so bored! When the road finally opened, we found that they are not only repairing the road but completely rebuilding it. As a result for miles there is only one way dirt and gravel track which means we were still sitting for 15 minutes or more at a time waiting for the signalman to indicate it was our turn. This is the only road from north to south and the major truck route into both Peru and Bolivia so we have lots of company. We also pass over two cuestas (mountain passes) Cuesta de Camarones and Cuesta de Chaca which left our nerves jangling. An unpaved narrow access track not a real lane, high mountain elevations with death plunging steep drops to ravines 3,000 feet below and no guardrails. “If my mother were here she’d have her rosary out” Tom joked but even he admitted it was scary rounding the hairpin turns with only inches between us and a drop. “White-knuckle driving” comes to mind. To make matters worse, it is getting dark and we are still about 20 mile from Arica. We finally began to make our steep descent into the city, which is at sea level and breathe a sigh of relief. We pull in to the first large gas station we come to which has parking facilities. We know there is a campground somewhere towards the north edge of town but decide to wait to find it until morning. “We’ve done enough for today” Tom told me, “I need a beer!” Amen to that. What a day. This road may be finished sometime in the next 5 years or so, there is a lot of work to be done!

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