Ruta 1 gently undulates as it winds it’s way south, hugging the Pacific coast. The hills to the east seem to form a wall separating the narrow stripe of low lying coast from the rest of the Atacama.

There is still almost no fresh water – I did cross a bridge at one point that had a river actually flowing beneath it, but it was hardly more than a trickle.

Nevertheless – there is plenty of life. Shellfish abound in the sea, a variety of birds wheel overhead, and enormous sealions laze in the sun, bellowing at one another. Crabs scuttle amongst the rock pools which teem with small fish, anemones, and lots of things I don’t have names for. There are small iguana-like reptiles too- one was curious enough to come very close to my tent, and seemed to enjoy nibbling scraps of pasta left over from my evening meal.

Scattered along the coast are small villages- people come here to surf and swim, though fishing and gathering of seaweed are important as well, perhaps more so. (The latter – I’m not sure for what purpose)

There is an airport just south of Iquique, which apparently has a military purpose as well – civilian airliners climb rapidly away, while smaller jets patrol a little closer to the earth.

The wind is strong here sometimes- but the variability makes it so much more bearable than the coastal deserts of Perú. It is even possible to play golf here – I didn’t see anyone actually playing, though there is a choice of venues, one even describing iself as a ‘country club’.

Tocopilla us dominated by it’s large electric plant and port facilities – such saltpeter that is still extracted is transported from here, as is the (nowadays) more profitable copper. Heavily damaged by an earthquake seven years ago, the town is nonetheless cheerful and busy.

And it’s so very nearly Christmas! The supermarket in Iquique was blaring out a terrible version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ while I was there, and the coffee I had at the Rio Loa customs post came in a mug decorated with festive snowmen. “Es Navidad!” the girl cheerfully explained, as we both looked out at the pitiless sun beating down on the Atacama desert outside. Claro que si.

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