Every time we arrived in a new place, we start all over again from scratch. What we learned in the previous city or town is pretty much useless except for cultural clues or language skills acquired. Occasionally, we have second-hand info but mostly, we’re jumping into the unknown. We don’t know if we’re going to find a hotel (or if we have one, how good it is), we don’t know where to go, where to shop, where to eat, what to see and what to do. We have no plan either.
But we always know where to start—explore and figure things out.
It takes a little while, so in case you were wondering what the hell keeps us busy all day, this is the answer. We are figuring things out. Practical stuff, like where the business centre is, where the banks are, can we do the laundry here, and yes, Mark, you’ll get Fanta as soon as we find it, but also more random, general stuff. Why do I suddenly have to shop at Tottus instead of Lider Express and why are all the empanadas fried in this city instead of al horno? Are shops really closed or is it siesta time? How do Chileans see the new influx of immigrants from Colombia, Venezuela or Peru? Do weather conditions affect life expectancy in the world? Why do Chileans love hot dogs so much when there are great fruits and veggies available?
But before even tackling these random questions—for which, most of the time, we don’t have an answer but just a point of view—we had to figure out Antofagasta. It was a big change of scenery and culture after Santiago. We were now in the Atacama Desert and at the centre of a major mining area.
Antofagasta is off the beaten track and the Lonely Planet author evidently didn’t fall in love with it—there was little useful information provided and no map in the guidebook. The advice was basically “sure, go ahead, stop there if you don’t have the choice, but move on.” If the author was right, this was “a rough-and-ready jumble of one-way streets” and a “sprawling port city”—hardly glamorous but damn fascinating because both the desert and the mining culture were new to us.
One thing was certain, it was unlikely to rain in the world’s driest desert.
As Feng and Mark were waiting for the room to be ready, I took a walk around the block. Remember, I had no map—don’t follow me, I’m lost too.
So far so good. It was dry, bright and hot but not unbearably so. Sidewalks were paved, I wasn’t walking in the sand. I found water. There was no procession of miners marching in full gear covered with freshly mined copper.
In fact, Antofagasta looked pretty nice and normal. Long one-way streets from the port up to the hills, a central market, the Pacific Ocean on one side and the desert on the other.
We started with what we were most familiar with—the ocean side. Past a giant shopping mall was the Terminal Pesquero where sea lions were circling below the busy fish market selling ceviche (raw fish with lime and spices). A bit further, past the seagulls scrambling for scraps, was another smaller market selling empanadas, fruits and veggies. Playa Paraiso wasn’t exactly paradise but still, this was the Pacific Ocean—not the “pathetic Ocean,” Mark—and it was a rare sight for us.
Then we turned around and walked toward the Puerto de Antofagasta, a port complex of seven docks, and we followed the Paseo del Mar along the ocean. Don’t look for nice beaches here—there aren’t any. In fact, there’s no sand, just rocks, a steep coast and big waves. The only place where it’s safe to swim is the Balneario Municipal, an artificial beach completely packed on Sundays.
It took us a few hours to figure out the costal edge and find our bearings but we went to sleep pretty happy with the city.