Mining towns seldom are touristic attractions. There are good reasons for that. Usually they are quite polluted; dust from the works can ruin even the bluest skies. Most of their populations work in mining or related positions and would probably avoid encounters with nosy travelers asking silly questions. Finally, holes in the ground are of little interest to most people, regardless their size, shape and uses. However, these towns are sometimes along the travelers’ path; and this is the case with Calama. Located almost 2300m above the sea level, it is just above the halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Altiplano – the Andean High Plateau; expectedly, it is one of the driest cities on earth. Yet, a small river – the River Loa – crosses the town. Unbelievably, this is the longest river in the very narrow Chile. Its meager waters bring enough humidity for trees to grow in the town. This is a major improvement over the other cities and towns visited in this trip, adding a surreal touch of almost being on a desert oasis.
Given the location, the definition of Calama as a city is surprising; yet it is almost as big as Iquique. The wonder is the result of the nearby Chuquicamata Mine, one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world. By far, this is the main attraction in the way to San Pedro de Atacama. The deep hole in the ground resembles a man-made valley, displaying the odd colors of the once hidden minerals. At places it seems deep enough to match the level of the nearby ocean.
No place suffered such a dramatic change as the result of the War of the Pacific as Calama did. Before the war it was part of Bolivia and its role was mainly that of a stopover station between the pacific shore and Potosi, the continent’s largest silver mine and once the largest and richest city in the Americas. After the war, it became a major mining center, its former communications advantages having been obliterated. Calama was chosen for a railway station of the Antofagasta-Bolivia Railway, part of the peace agreement between the countries. As of 2011 that railway doesn’t exist.
Yet, slowly a different future is emerging for this sleepy town. It is becoming the Atacama Desert travel hub, offering easy access to other attractions on the higher parts of this desert, including the Chuquicamata Mine, San Pedro de Atacama, the Valley of the Moon, the Licancabur volcano, R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, Los Flamencos National Reserve, the village of Chiu-Chiu, the Aguas Calientes salt flat, the Tuyajto lagoon, the El Tatio Geysers, and probably a few others in the process of being developed. Friendly guesthouses – basic but reliable – and cozy travel agencies abound in the town’s center. Thus, planning here for a longer stay than in Antofagasta is essential in order to see all the attractions. Otherwise, the path ahead is clear: San Pedro de Atacama and then Bolivia.