What is the driest place on earth? Not the Sahara Desert, nor Death Valley, nor any other that comes immediately to mind. The driest place on earth is the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes. Sound far-fetched? Well, we discovered that this is one of the few places on earth where it essentially does not rain. They get about 3 mm annually. Three millimeters is less than half an inch. The rain falls in the mountains inland. If it is cold enough in the heights, it becomes snow, if not, if just runs off to the rills and valleys at high altitude. Eventually, either as direct runoff or as snowmelt, it makes its way to the sea. Therein lays the wonder of Arica, Chile. This is a small city, about 500,000 people; on the edge of the Pacific that serves as the main port for – drum roll here – Bolivia!
When driving through the city, one sees gardens and other signs of cultivation and then you discover that everything – everything – is hand-watered. Who knew?
We had a short trip into the desert to view the XXXXX Titulares, or People Sculptures that a local artist erected to honor the various peoples who populate the hills and valleys in northern Chile and southern Peru. We found that this part of Chile was, until relatively recently, part of Peru originally – as was Bolivia. I have posted a few of the pictures here.
During our visit to the desert, at the sculpture site, we were entertained by a local folk group composed of young people from one of the arts high schools. They wore beautiful and fantastical costumes and played traditional music. Again, several pix are posted here.
You might notice that in one of the pictures, one of the dancers appears to be familiar. You have probably heard of Fred Astaire, well who knew he had a brother, Ed Astaire? As we were standing along the sidelines watching the troupe entertain, they broke into a line-type dance and started to approach those watching from the sidelines. One of the dancers held out her hand for me to join in and I did so, believing that they wanted to get a few of us to join in the fun. Well, about a minute into the circling and rushing to the center and back out, I realized that I was the only one of the “civilians” up there! Oh well, Fred has nothing to worry about as far as his reputation as a better dancer than his unknown brother…
After our desert adventure we went to a local archeological museum for a history lesson, followed by a short visit to the main cathedral in the center of town. The museum was no great shakes, but our guide was very knowledgeable and I, personally, learned a lot – for instance, that stuff about the water at the beginning of this entry.
The cathedral (picture included here) is unique because it is built entirely of iron and steel. All the pieces were fabricated in Europe - France to be exact - and shipped over to be assembled like a giant Erector Set. Perhaps, if you examine the picture closely, it will evoke a memory of another giant iron and steel structure located in France – the Eiffel Tower. Yes, this church was designed by Gustav Eiffel! He also designed the local Old Customs House, now a museum. Both of his structures were the only structures to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
It was a short day, but a full one. Now we have another sea day and then on to Coquimbo, Chile. Working our way south to the end of the world…