18-Jul-2004 -- The confluence: On the edge of the driest desert in the world in the middle of a salt pan at 700m. Our GPS error was ±7m. Local flora: none. Local fauna: almost none. We did see one insect on the trip.
The Chilean Atacama desert is the driest in the world. There are places there where there is no record of any rain, ever. It has a magical attraction. The colours and shapes, the weird geography of the landscape and the broad expanse of some of the clearest skies on the planet, have tremendous appeal.
Adding to the attraction is the uniquely Chilean religious festival of La Tirana which celebrates the last minute conversion of an Inca princess, La Ñustra. Imprisoned by the Spaniards, she escaped in 1535 and succeeded in harrying her former captors with such un-princess like fervor and success that she became known as “La Tirana del Tamarugal”, the tyrant of the Tamarugal. Her downfall was falling in love with one of her captives and upon realising that he would be put to death she opportunistically converted to Christianity tempted by the promise of spending life (or death) everlasting with her new-found loved one.
The resulting festival brings together devotees from the regional towns and villages who spend a carnival week offering dances to the Virgin. Andean men and women in outrageously decorative costumes, dressed as gypsies; diabolical versions of the conquistadores; (for some unknown reason) red-Indians and many other weird creatures; leap and dance to the repetitive sound of brass bands and drums. All the troupes share the square in front of the church drowning the senses in a cacophony of colour and sound. Marvellous.
Back to the confluence. The village of La Tirana is almost in the dead centre of 4 confluence points. We managed to get to within 7kms of .20W 69S but at 3800m those 7kms were too much to do in the time we had. 20W 70S is 25kms off-road across open desert, not to be risked with just one jeep. 21W 70S was more manageable. Heading south along the coast road out of the port town of Iquique we turned into the desert near the port of Platillos, a port dedicated to the transport of salt.
The road heads up to a 800m high plateau and some 10kms from the coast the is a depression in which lies the salt pan with the imaginative name of “Salar Grande” (Big Salt Pan). The surrounding desert is pure, not a sign of life in the undulating bare rock and sand. Marring this pristine scene is the Punto de Lobos salt mine on the edge of the salt pan. We turned south following a rough dirt track that skirted the western edge of the salar. The track took us to the ruins of another mine and 2.5kms from the confluence.
The salt pan is an almost dead flat depression surround by bare ochre hills. Rock salt forms imperfect hexagonal lumps tipped with white on the floor of the depression. We attempted to drive across an even rougher track across the salt pan but, although our jeep was capable of it, we were being bounced to bits. 2kms from the confluence we got out to walk.
Although this was mid-winter the heat was not too fierce. More of a problem was the dryness of the air. What minimal moisture is in the air is instantly absorbed by the salt. You can feel your skin cracking. 40 minutes walking and we arrived at the spot -indistinguishable from any other spot. It did occur to us that perhaps no-one had ever set foot there before. If they did, then we can't work out what they were doing there. We took the required photos, had a long thirsty drink to celebrate and headed back to the jeep.