Our 4 day tour of the Atacama has ended, and we have waved Ercio, our guide, goodbye in preparation for our bus to La Serena.
Day 1 - Ercio identified the quatro gringos as we stepped off the bus from Santiago and whisked us into the desert sand dunes for breakfast. Next a meander through Copiapo via the old port and the first excursion into the mountains before lunch in Bahia Inglesia then a walk up another mountain pass to see rock paintings and a night in Copiapo as the olympics start in earnest.
Day 2 - up and at 'em after an eggless breakfast (wild cheering from team Hall) and off along the Pan American highway north before turning into the campo. Night at Hotel Inca in El Salvadore, a mining town that is a ghost town at weekends and full to bursting during the week. The hotel reception is womaned by someone for whom customer service is more a theory than a practice, but she does upgrade us to block 5 after Sarah discovers that the toilet doesn't flush and I can't fix it. This is a container hotel - all room are sea containers fitted out with bathrooms, beds, TVs and patios. The key panel has 100 slots, most of which contain keys, but we are told that we can only stay one night as it is fully booked tomorrow, Monday night. The restaurant is another matter altogether - a wide ranging menu, a very decent pisco sour with lomo a le pobre, served with some pride! Muy bueno!
Day 3 - any plan that we have seems to hinge on our finding Felix, an inhabitant of Inca del Oro, a mining town that, as the name implies, is focused on gold. Some of the dilapidated stacks on the Main Street have mines under them, now filled with trash. On the way out of town Ercio asks directions from a motorcyclist who turns out to be a independent, solo miner who rents his mine for a 15% share of the spoils. He gets us s tour of his estate and ends by showing us the process of sampling the ore for gold. Using a lump hammer he crushes the samples and the grinds the rock grains into finer and finer powder again with the lump hammer. He then fills a beer bottle top with the finest powder and tips it into a hollowed bull horn and adds water with detergent which he gently swirls and swishes and tips out, leaving a reducing amount of red powder and a little liquid in the horn. After four or maybe five squirts, swills and spills he tilts the horn and taps it and as if by magic fine grains of gold appear.
This lets him estimate that he'll get a gram of gold from 70 kg of ore, or two 35 kg sacks brought up from the seam in the 80m deep mine he's working. This is a significantly better return from strip mining that might get 1.5 grams from one tonne of ore, and will earn him 250,000 peso or a little under 400 quid.
Ercio pays him a few dollars for his time and he gets out this mineral museum - a tin drum full of rocks - and gives us each an exhibit to keep! We pose for photos and I sense we have participated in the birth of a new tourist attraction.
The higher mine has not been as affected by the 25th March 2015 alluvial flood that struck the whole south west Atacama region as those lower down the hillside that filled with water, mud and general crap that swept down the hill when a year's worth of rain fell in a few hours. This was caused as the isotherm (the point where rain falls as snow had moved from 3000m to 4000m, meaning a vertical kilometre received rain not snow, causing extensive flooding and as the water courses ran together off the mountainsides it brought earth together in ever increasing volumes which swept away all before it - houses, people, tractors, trains ... you name it.
The area is a big copper mining heartland too. One of the major methods of copper extraction to to spray piles of ore with dilute sulphuric acid and collect the run off on big tanks and use electrolysis to extract the copper in a highly pure form. Tankers of sulphuric acid were caught in the flood that moved at speeds of upto 220 kph. Sulphuric acid and water makes a very toxic combination that was eventually dumped into the sea. An environmental disaster that cut the Pan American highway for over a week, effectively severing the country's main artery and erased towns and people.
We leave Eduardo and picnic on the outskirts of Inca del Oro before heading to the Pan de Azucan, a coastal park with a range of fauna including humbolt penguins that are hunting at sea at this time of year. We are all quite weary and decline Ercio's offer of a cactus valley walk in favour of strolling on the beach and sitting in the veranda of the beach bungalow we are in while he heads to town to get supplies for tonight's barbecue.
Ercio certainly knows how to cook a mean steak - the joint is done to perfection and we all eat, drink and talk late into the evening.
Day 4 - after breakfast we find the cactus walk was only postponed, but it is another facet to the very varied landscapes of Chile. We stop en route to Copiapo at a truckers roadside cafe that specialises in fish. Jude groans, but I am delighted. Ercio orders grilled swordfish for each of us and starters of abalone and a very large bivalve muscle I don't recognise but which is very firm and tasty - locos is the local name.
Fuelled up we head for the dunes from day 1 breakfast and some off-road rally driving before parking up and just revelling in the view and the sand.
Then is back to Copiapo bus station for the final bus journey of our trip, only to find it's an inexplicable hour late fro