Welcome to Chile!

Over 4000km long and under 200km wide in places Chile is a country which can boast many extremes. The most striking in our short trip through has been the landscape: wild coast at sea level, up to 6000m+ active volcanos in the same panoramic view. Contrasts exist at every turn - wealth and poverty, hot and cold, the liberal and the hardline conservative, the militarist and the pacifist. One thing is a constant though, everyone is football crazy.

Pachamama... by bus

The only tour covering the whole of the north of the country was the one we inevitably chose: Pachamama by bus!

For the Incas of ancient Peru, Pachamama was a goddess that personified the Earth. Pachamama and her husband Inti, the sun god, were their main deities, throughout the Incas rule over Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Northern Chile, until the Spanish conquistadors arrived and conquered their territories in 1532.

Led by a team of two - our legendary driver Marco, and our eco-warrior tour guide, gigging musician, and fervent rastafarian Hector, we bussed through Andean foothills, semi-arid farmland, past miles and miles of empty beach, and dotted fishing villages into the depths of one of the driest parts of the planet - the Atacama desert. Reggae music took precedence always, only lowered in volume for Hector to announce the points of interest of our next port of call.

As we got deeper into the desert, we were struck by the starkness of it all, sometimes, the road looked quite foreboding, but never uninteresting!

It was definitely the best way of seeing many of the highlights of the north of Chile. And we met some great people along the way - Oscar and Isolda from Barcelona, Charlie from York and the legendary Jay from Stuttgart.

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It's all MINE!

You can't go far in Northern Chile without being confronted by the effect of the mining industry over the last 150 years. Although not rich in the gold that the Spanish had originally set forth in search of, Chile has enormous reserves of copper, nitrates and salt.

Of the three industries, only salt and copper are still mined as sodium nitrate mining died almost overnight once chemical methods had been discovered to produce it more easily and cheaply. Its legacy remains in the form of abandoned mining stations, cemeteries and old train stations, one of which we visited. The trains are in fairly good condition as there is no moisture in the desert to rust them.

The effect of mining on the indigenous populations from Bolivia into Peru and down in to Chile has been fairly lethal. They were hired to work on the nitrate mines until they closed down and the US, German and UK companies left town. Naturally, many died working in terrible conditions on the mines.

The salt mining today uses up underground water tables which have always fed little villages of indigenous people in the Atacama desert. We visited a town where every house had a black flag flying outside its door to protest the destruction of their village through mining. We were also quite shocked by the very visible impact which copper mining has on the environment today - we came across this copper-laced beach in Pichidangui.

The wealth in minerals in Northern Chile is a mixed blessing, and it's unfortunately the case that the environment and the indigenous people of the region come off second best.

Long live Bob Marley!

One of the treats of travelling the Pachamama trail was being treated to an array of reggae music by our aforementioned guide Hector. Not only were we taken down memory lane with classic reggae like Bob Marley, but we also got to experience newer sounds, and even Reggae Chileno! By our third day we were totally sold on reggae, I started braiding Marc's hair (and beard), and Marc considered knitting a green, yellow and red scarf!

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GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAL!!!!!

Forget Man Utd vs Chelsea - the club football match not to miss during any given season in Chile is between two of the country's most bitter rivals: Universidad de Chile and Universidad Catolica - both from the capital Santiago.

We were unaware of the importance of the fixture until on the Saturday afternoon Hector, our earnest tour guide and fearless Universidad de Chile supporter, and Marco, our driver and die-hard Universidad Catolica fan announced that the reggae music would be suspended for 90 minutes in order to listen to the match on the bus radio. The build-up patter was fierce and everyone on the bus started getting into the spirit (despite not being able to understand much of the match commentary.)

So, without more than 50 words of Spanish between us, we were then treated to a commentary to end all commentaries - the commentators hardly paused for breath from start to finish, and not even our Chilean hosts understood everything that was being said. In the bus it was hectic though - Hector on the one side, and Marco on the other, slapping the dashboad, yelling slogans, gesticulating wildly. We just sat back and watched the bedlam unfold.

Shouting, screaming, waving, booing. Then a bit of pushing and shoving. Then half-time. Then more shouting, then singing. Then a goal! 1-0 to Hector's team. More singing. More pushing and shoving then an equaliser from Marco's team. 1-1. A frantic finish, with everyone following the ever-diminishing desert radio reception. Then, to top it all a winning goal just before full time for Catolica. 2-1. The whole bus cheered. Hector almost cried. Marco stopped the bus, got out and kissed the road. Tremendous!

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Announcing...the best sunset IN THE WORLD!

We were totally blown away on day five of our Pachamama experience when we were dropped off at the National Flamingo Park to watch the sunset across the Salt Flats while flocks of flamingos did some late afternoon brine skimming. Our photos of the sunset don't do justice to the moment which Marc just had to take in from every direction.

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Spotted...Pink Flamingos!

Having hugged the coastline before turning east towards the Atacama desert, we were treated to beach after beach of coastal birdlife, all of which was spectacular. We particularly enjoyed watching the majestic pelicans making their slow elegant turns across the skyline, and descend onto fisherman boats in the hope of scoring a fishead or two for their trouble.

However, undoubtably the highlight of our animal-spotting moments has to be the sight of dozens of pink flamingos wading through icy the lagoons which emerge surreally from the salt flats of the Atacama desert. The entire experience was made even more spectacular by a sunset which was interrupted occassionally when a handful of the birds decided to cross the skyline for a better feeding position.

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