13-Nov-2015 -- At the end of my last visit to Chile in 2012 a friend and I made first visits to two Confluences in the north of the country – namely 26°S 69°W visit #1 and 28°S 71°W visit #1. Visiting those Confluences was something that I added onto the trip to Chile which was mostly spent in the high Andes Mountains south of Santiago. But going to those Confluences taught me two things: That the Atacama Desert and the Altiplano were my new favorite parts of Chile, and that planning and then visiting Confluences was a lot of fun.
During September of 2015 I started planning for another Chile trip and this time it was all about making first visits to four Confluences that were clustered together right in the heart of some new country that I wanted to see. I needed to find a road route that would take me to within walking distance of each Confluence. I tried to find maps with enough detail to show me all of the roads but they either weren't available or so expensive to buy and have sent to me that I couldn't afford them. I ended up buying a new Garmin Etrex GPS and their TOPO Andes map data SD card for it. When I started using Garmin's BaseCamp program to plan the route that I needed to take I found that except for the main highways, a lot of Garmin's mapped roads were in pretty fanciful locations compared to where they were on GoogleEarth. But the TOPO Andes topography was good, so I used GoogleEarth to trace the actual locations of all the roads that I needed to travel on and imported that into BaseCamp as GPS tracks. Once I had a complete travel plan put together I downloaded everything to my GPS and when I was in Chile using it I found that it all worked well. I also used GoogleEarth to find the likely best overland route to take when I parked and started walking to each Confluence. Incidentally, it was at a gift shop at the airport in Santiago on my way home from Chile that I found that Copec – the company that has most of the gas stations in Chile – has a nice series of 1:400,000 scale maps that cover the whole country. They do show some of the same wrong locations of roads that Garmin does, so it must be the raw data from IGM that they both used that is wrong, but those maps would have been good to have had for general planning and basic navigation.
In November of 2015 I flew down to Chile with my GPS and camera and a big duffel bag full of warm clothes and camping gear. I took a connecting flight to Iquique, rented a Toyota 4 wheel drive Hilux there, loaded it up with groceries and lots of water and 75 liters (18 gallons) of extra diesel fuel and headed out. This was the first Confluence I was to visit on this trip and it was so close to town and easy to get to that I'm amazed that it stayed unvisited for so long.
I drove out of Iquique up the steep highway to the top of the plateau that crowds the city against the Pacific Ocean. Once on top I was solidly in the Atacama Desert. I have spent most of my life living in the Mojave Desert of the southwestern United States but compared to the Atacama, the Mojave is a swamp. You can see watercourses on the terrain but for the most part it doesn't look like water has ever gone down through them. The hillsides are mostly all covered with a smooth surface of buff-colored dirt. There are no plants growing anywhere. Nothing. After about 10 kilometers of travel out of Iquique I turned off of the paved highway onto a dirt road that ran up a wide valley paralleling the coastline. I followed this road for about 25 kilometers (15 miles) to Caleta Buena which was a place I found when I was cruising around on GoogleEarth that I wanted to see in person.
Caleta Buena is a small cove at the base of a 750 meter (2500 ft) high cliff where in the old days of the nitrate industry sailing ships could anchor. Sacks of processed nitrate were brought to the edge of the cliff by railroad where they were lowered down longs ramps by cables and then ferried out to the ships on small boats.
After a quick visit to what was left of upper Caleta Buena, I back-tracked about 5 kilometers (2.5 miles) to the south and took a left turn onto a road towards the east and the Confluence. It was about another 7 kilometers (4 miles) until I reached the place where my GPS told me to park and start walking. The landscape here was mostly flat with low drab hills scattered about. It was about a 5 kilometer (2.5 mile) walk south to the Confluence over a 120 meter (400 ft) high pass through the hills.
The walking was easy across the open desert. The surface was smooth but crusty and every step I took would break through the crust to the powdery dirt underneath. There were tire tracks everywhere. I guess that it is no big deal to drive around on the desert here but I didn't drive off of the road to get any closer to the Confluence for several reasons. Besides not wanting to take a chance on getting stuck in the loose dirt that is everywhere under the surface crust, I really disapprove of tracking up (except with footprints) what could otherwise be a pristine desert place – even if everyone else is doing it. I also enjoy walking.
The first part of the walk was across a flat plain to the base of the hills. When I reached them I climbed up to the pass then descended down a small valley that ran south towards the Confluence. No one had managed to drive through this area and it was nice to see it in its natural state. A few kilometers down the valley opened up into a small basin. At the end of this basin I found the Confluence. It was in an area where more vehicles had driven in from the southeast and the Confluence itself was right on a tire track. I spent about a half an hour at the site taking photos and making notes then I returned to truck by the same route that I came in on. The weather was nice and warm the entire time and the round trip from the truck to the Confluence and back only took about three and a half hours.
Next stop: 20°S 69°W visit #1.