Last known location: London, England

Back on the English Beach

We continued our journey along the Pacific coast, heading another seven hours north along the Pan-American Highway to the beach town of Caldera. Further south the coastline had been rugged yet relatively flat, but almost as soon as we left La Serena we were climbing into the mountains, and we soon had a spectacular view down to the coast behind us. Eventually we stopped climbing and continued along for hours across a high desert plateau, passing only the occasional mine and observatory – the area has more sunny days than almost anywhere in the world, and the clear skies make it ideal for a spot of stargazing.

We eventually started heading downhill, and stopped at the town of Copiapo, a desolate place in the middle of the desert, close to where the Chilean Miners were trapped in 2010 – a disaster the Chilean government seems to have turned into a PR triumph! From there we turned back towards the coast and soon arrived at Caldera. As we entered the town Gem had a distinct ‘is this it?!’ look on her face – tiny place seemed little more than a few dozen shacks in a bay where the desert met the sea. We were indeed in the right place though and wandered off to find somewhere to stay. This wasn’t difficult as the peak tourist season ended a couple of months ago, so there was no shortage of rooms available.

That night we explored what there was of the town – a little beach, a small fishing port and a tiny square. The only reason Caldera exists at all is because silver was found inland at Copiapo in 1850, and a port was needed to export it, although we couldn’t see much of that going on there these days! Being perched on the edge of the desert gave the place an other-worldly feel – after the 8 blocks or so of civilisation back from the beach there was nothing!

The following morning we caught a Collectivo (a kind of shared taxi with fixed destinations) to nearby Bahia Inglesa, literally translated as English Bay, and named for the pirate Edward Davis, who landed there in 1687. It was truly spectacular, with white sandy beaches and crystal clear water, and the desert in the background coming down from the mountains all the way to the sea. The place was deserted too – we only saw half a dozen people all day!

On the way there I’d vowed to go for a swim in the Pacific no matter what, but regretted it as soon as I got my feet in! Inviting though the water looked it was absolutely freezing – the Humboldt Current flows all the way up this stretch of coast from the Antarctic bringing the cold water with it. It should also bring Penguins of the same name but we failed to spot any! Anyway, we both finally managed to brave it for a few seconds, and it was refreshing to say the least! We spent most of the afternoon sunbathing and fell into the age-old trap of being fooled by the wind into thinking it wasn’t that sunny, and by the time we went for a glass of wine in one the empty beach bars we were looking distinctly rouge! We had a great day though and the amazing setting made the whole stop here worthwhile.

We couldn’t stop in Caldera without sampling some of the seafood, and that night we found a local place to try some. I struck lucky and got what was basically fish & chips – the Chileans definitely know how to do proper chips – and Gem had fish of some unknown variety with fresh prawn sauce. All very tasty!

We still had one more day in Caldera, and with little else to see we visited the old railway yard which is now a museum, and had a nose round the fishing docks, before settling down for a big lunch in front of TV while watching Spurs try to do the impossible, an endeavour that ended in predictable failure! Whilst we were there we met a Swiss man who was cycling all the way from Patagonia to Panama – rather him than us!

The next morning we were up early and on the bus north to Antofagasta, a large port city that according to our guidebook smells of brine and sweat, so much to look forward to!

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