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Antofagasta – The Atacama Desert

I was woken up by a loud warning siren around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.

I opened my eyes and closed them again. Probably just a test. We had those in France too. The civil defence siren sounds on the first Wednesday of each month at noon across the country, which my parents found pretty convenient to remember the date and time. “Ah, it’s noon,” my mom would say. “Oh, it’s Wednesday,” my dad would add.

Then the siren blared again.

Feng was awake too. “Reminds me of fire drills in fucking Australian hostels,” I muttered.

The siren blared again.

We stepped onto the balcony. No one seemed to be rushing out. The neighbours were still partying, the two cats were still chasing each other in the courtyard seven floors below, there was no traffic in the street.

Feng turned the TV on. “I don’t think they have minute-by-minute Fox New-style programs here,” I said. Toy Story was on. He changed the channel. Football game. He started watching, distracted. I sighed. “Whatever. I’m going to bed. Wake me up if you see a wave coming.”

Don’t hold your breath—this is the most anticlimactic ending ever. We went back to sleep and absolutely nothing happened. Worse, I have no idea why we heard the warning siren and what it was supposed to warn us of. I’m guessing it was a test, a long one.

But this reminded me Antofagasta isn’t all sunshine, Pacific Ocean and sea lions. There are tsunami evacuation route signs along the coast and the region is prone to earthquakes.

It’s not all mall culture and hot dog binge eating either around here, which is why I wanted to explore “the hills” and the mining side of the city. Of course, I wouldn’t have access to one of the copper mines. Still, there were cultural clues I couldn’t ignore—we were in a mining city.

The cheap hotels, the red-light district, the cases of liquor and beer at the supermarket, for instance. It was the weekend. Miners relax on weekends and yes, apparently, for many “relaxing” included getting drunk and staring at the waitress’s ass.

There were murals dedicated to miners, many political graffiti related to tough working conditions in mines, helmet-shaped keychains made of copper and bearing the number “33”—a reference to the 2010 Copiapó mining accident and the 33 trapped miners—, a protest where people were demanding better access to water.

Mostly, I wanted to go “up hill.” It was easy to see that the nicest residential districts were close to the coastal edge of the city. Higher, far from the ocean, houses were shabbier. It would have been Rio de Janeiro, I would have used the word “favelas.”

Past Avenida Argentina, I was definitely in the working-class neighbourhood. Sidewalks weren’t nicely paved anymore—it was just sand and rock. Workwear was drying on roofs or on balconies. Cars were older, covered in dust. The second level of many houses was just concrete pillars, as if a few more pay cheques were needed to put a roof on it and finish the damn thing.

I don’t know much about miners but I can tell you many seem to spend their Sunday sitting in front of their house, drinking and listening to melancholic tunes, staring off into the distance—looking toward the ocean side below, though, not the desert in front of them.

They’ll be back at work on Monday, in often precarious working conditions.

Antofagasta: in the desert, you get thirsty
Antofagasta: in the desert, you get thirsty
Estadio Regional
Estadio Regional
Mercado Central
Plaza Colón and Torre del Reloj
Quiet downtown street on Sunday
Av. Iquique, a fuente de soda with the local favoruite, i.e. hot dogs
Av. Iquique, the mining railway
Av. Iquique, the mining railway
Pedestrian street Arturo Prat
Bandera Bicentenario
Paseo del Mar Antofagasta, looking toward the cerros
Corner store on Avenida Argentina
Liquor store on Avenida Argentina
Arturo Prat, going toward the mountains
The railway crossing “dividing” the rich and poor districts (the poorer being uphill)
The railway crossing “dividing” the rich and poor districts
The railway crossing “dividing” the rich and poor districts
The railway crossing “dividing” the rich and poor districts
Sand, so much sand…
Cactus and the cerros
Up in the hills
Up in the hills
Up in the hills
Up in the hills
The hills from the Paseo del Mar
Pedestrian Manuel Antonio Matta
Antofagasta around 10 p.m.
Antofagasta around 10 p.m.

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