DRY SUBLIME – gouaches of the Atacama

With only ten days to pick our olives and prune around a thousand vines, among many other farming chores here on our Andalusian finca, this post has few words and is all about the pictures. Suffice to say, I always felt the dry chalkiness of thickly applied gouache was a perfect medium for expressing the tonal aridity of the fabulous Atacama Desert. As ever, I hope all of you who pass this virtual way agree! Wishing all my visitors, readers and followers a 2018 as epic as the incredible Chilean desert itself…



“MARS ON EARTH” – Chile’s Incredible Desert

Of all the photos in my extensive archive of old camera film, there few that still excite me as much as those I took in the Atacama Desert in 1991. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have something of a passion for deserts and wildernesses.

Rather than try explain in words what it is exactly that gets my juices going (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand myself) here are a set of images from that trip. I made a series of mostly huge canvases together with a complementary set of small gouaches from these pictures, and they were the basis of two of my last one-man shows as a fine artist – one held at the Chilean Embassy in 1992. The first picture presented here (91 Chile Atacama) was the basis of the super-large canvas that eventually found it’s way to an architect’s studio in Seattle, as payment for the designs for our house in Spain.

The original images were taken on my then-antique Nikon FE using Agfa chrome slide film, and one day I hope to have a scanner with sufficient power to faithfully reproduce the pictures digitally — or better still, pay the Atacama a return visit with my current camera. Nevertheless, I think that with these pictures I’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of Chile’s genuinely awesome “Mars on Earth”…



The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.

Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.

Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.

These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…


Followers of this site will already be familiar with many of the details of our remarkable trip to Chile back in 1991, just several months after the demise the Pinochet regime.

As if to mark this new era of democracy, freedom and hope, the month we arrived, the southern Atacama Desert experienced – what we were assured by the locals – were the first meaningful rains in forty years, and so exploded in a celebratory riot of colour. It was as if a vast technicolor carpet had been laid atop the normally monochromatic desert floor as every cactus, every succulent and every dormant seed erupted into flower.

Even in normal circumstances Chile’s many disparate landscapes offer a  stunning smorgasbord for the visual senses, but this was simply wondrous. Rarely have we experienced, before or since such good luck being in the right place at the right time.

The dozen or so images presented here give a taste of what we were so privileged to witness with our own eyes…

(Camera used: Nikon FE with Agfachrome film)


Those of you familiar with my posts might already have seen my cartoon record of our trip to Chile in 1991. Well, here are some images from that same wondrous journey, from photos taken just months after the new democracy had been born. From the man moodily anticipating his bowl of chicken cazuela in a Santiago soup cafe to the gentleman posing dignified and proud before his humble Antofagasta home, the people of of this amazing country were an endless source of photogenic fascination. But of all the images here, the unfocused and shaky picture of two waitresses doing an impromptu cueca (Chile’s famous national dance) remains one my most cherished visual records from all of my many travels…




A few hours following our brush with the youthful vigilantes our car broke down. The good news was that we had only just passed by a small town so the walk back for assistance wouldn’t be too long – the bad news, was that it was a Sunday and we didn’t have high expectations of finding a mechanic who would be working. As it happened, our ballet friend spoke good Spanish so Dido sent the two of us off back to town on foot while she stayed to mind the car.

The walk back to the town, including a fruitless hunt for a mechanic, took us around an hour I guess, and we were both in low spirits as we began the traipse back to Dido with the bad news. Our despair turned to puzzlement however as soon as our car came back into view. At first, we both thought that the shimmering heat-haze rising from the distant tarmac was playing tricks with our eyes: We thought we could see our car with its bonnet raised, and several motorcycles with flashing blue lights parked behind it; and then as our pace instinctively quickened and we got nearer, we thought we could make out two policemen ostentatiously directing traffic passed our car; and then (by now we had broken into a jog) we thought we could make out a line of traffic cones placed around our car. And as we got closer, and realised that our eyes were not deceiving us, our puzzlement was increased by the fact, that of Dido, there was absolutely not a trace…

When we reached the car, we passed by three parked police motorcycles, and approached the fist of the two cops directing the traffic. Our ballet friend asked him what had happened and he merely gestured with his head towards the front of the car and as we walked round we at last understood why Dido had apparently disappeared: In what remains one of the most surreal scenes of all our many weeks in Chile (which the drawing below barely does justice to) she was in fact immersed beneath the bonnet, leaning into the engine, together with a third policeman on he left and a man in bluejeans on her right.

What had apparently occurred was that twenty minutes after we left for the town, the three motorcycle cops appeared on the scene. After Dido – doing her “best blonde damsel in distress routine” – explained the problem one of them took a look under the bonnet and diagnosed a loose alternator belt. A few minutes later they hailed down a passing truck belonging to a local mechanic. Although he protested that it was his day off  and he was on his way to his mother’s for Sunday lunch they insisted that he fix our car first. He grumpily confirmed that it was the alternator belt, but that without the kit from his garage he would need two spare pairs of hands if he was to fix the problem in situ.

It seemed that, in common with their Guardia Civil Traffico cousins in Spain, the Chilean carabineros had an ethos that cars broken down on the highway must be got moving again at all costs. Hence, Dido coerced into immersing herself in car engine together with a policeman, holding on with all their combined might to a clamp, while the mechanic tightened the belt sufficiently for us to make it back to Santiago.

After many weeks in Chile we remained uncomfortable around the carabineros, and so it took a while for the fact to sink in that we owed those three cops an enormous debt of gratitude…

28 Atacama breakdown


We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and  beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was (and is still) one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is truly infectious, so that she has this knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.

I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, somehow, and before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.

I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.

Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.

Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the very far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture below describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver  and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.

My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!

(Readers interested in learning more about the remarkable Georgina Gubbins can visit her website here: http://www.georginagubbins.cl/)

 29 Rolling over Pinochet's house


So mortified was I from my disastrous jet-lag experience at the start of the trip at the  Italian restaurant  in Antofagasta, I still had misgivings about entering another such establishment  some ten weeks later. However, we’d reached that stage again where we were keen for an alternative to Chilean cooking and thus decided to chance our palettes on a highly-recommended uptown tratoria.

As things turned out the food was indeed excellent and I managed to avoid losing consciousness for the entire meal. But even if I had suffered a freak recurrence of that temporary narcolepsy I doubt very much that I would have actually fallen asleep at this particular restaurant; for this particular restaurant was “blessed” with the presence of a singing maitre d. And the singing maitre d didn’t merely sing the occasional refrain from a popular tune; he didn’t restrict himself to the odd verse from o sole mio; this was no mere gondola crooner; no, this guy fancied himself as the real, full-on, operatic deal.

The only time he stopped singing was when he had to talk to his guests, and even then he didn’t so much talk as warble in a form of recitative – whether recommending a wine or pointing out the way to the toilets.

At first, both the novelty of the experience, and the fact he did have a decent enough little tenor voice meant that we didn’t find the singing too intrusive upon our dining – which was after all, our primary reason for being at the tratoria. But after about half-an-hour it began to irk, and then it began to grate, until by the time he warbled to us the deserts of the day we were ready to throttle him – but then something much better happened.

A diner at a neighbouring table, with a far bigger and better tenor voice decided to sing back at the maitre d. The maitre d in turn, not getting the message, and not knowing when he was beaten sang back – louder! This then descended into an all out competition, culminating in the two men not so much singing at each other, but actually screaming. It ended eventually- much to the relief of everyone in the restaurant – when the maitre d’s voice finally cracked, breaking down into a pathetic croak…

30 Duel of the tenors




One of Dido’s most onerous tasks during our Chile trip entailed her working with a group of mentally and emotionally handicapped teenage boys, several of whom had what these days we euphemistically refer to as “challenging behaviours”; in truth, one or two of the lads turned out to be downright psychotic. To help her share some of the organisational and practical load Dido enrolled the assistance, for two weeks, of a former ballet colleague whom she had flown down from Los Angeles. But however difficult the forthcoming days with the boys would be, nothing could have been more “challenging” than the act of merely meeting said-colleague at Santiago Airport.

I wonder how many people reading these adventures remember the delirious scenes of joy and celebration on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv following the dramatic rescue of the hostages from Entebbe by Israeli commandos in 1976? Well, the arrivals hall at Santiago was that scene, but on steroids, and was happening when we arrived to meet our friend, and continued without abatement until the time we left – some three hours later – having failed in our endeavour. Fortunately, our friend – another seasoned traveller – on failing to meet up with us in the melee, used her initiative and made her own way to our hotel. As for why the arrivals hall was in such a state of continuous delirium, we never discovered…


25 Arrivals


Before the three of us began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality always had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no Nazis, no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree of kitsch, it was like walking into a cliché. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every facade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the owner of the hotel: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: With her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, she resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…

26 The Lady of Kitsch


As we had a car for a few days we decided to explore the Coquimbo region. At one stop we received a lesson in “car-parking vigilantism” Chilean-style. We’d parked up by some roadside cafe miles from anywhere and were about to go inside for a snack when three boys – of disparate age and stature – appeared from behind the building. Before we had a chance to get out of the car they had positioned themselves around the vehicle in a manner that I can only describe as casually menacing. The largest and oldest of the three boys leaned against my side of the car and tapped on the window. Nervously, I wound the window down and in my best Spanish asked him what he wanted. He asked me if we intended to park the car here, to which I replied, yes. He then asked me; ‘But who’s going to protect your car while you’re in the cafe?’ to which I ingenuously replied; ‘Why do we need the car protected? There’s nobody here!?’ He then smiled wryly at me, with an expression far too cynical for a lad of his tender years, and said knowingly; ‘Well my friend, you never know do you? You never can tell what could happen, even in a place like this…’ then he revealed – as if by magic – a long piece of wood, an old bat of some kind, with a jagged nail protruding from its tip. He swung it nonchalantly by his side with his wrist then added; ‘But of course, with three trusty guys like us guarding your car, I can assure you that nothing will happen to it…but if not’ he continued, waving the bat more vigorously now, ‘I would be very concerned…’

We wanted to just drive on, but the next stop was over three hours further down the road, so with a mixture of repressed rage, fear and frustration I dug out a handful of pesos from my jeans pocket and placed it in the open palms of the smallest boy whose hands were reaching up towards me. 

To be fair, the big lad was as good as his word, and they did indeed guard the car for the entire time we were in the cafe, and nothing bad happened to it…

27 We can take care of your car...




Germans had been colonizing the Lake District of Chile since the mid 19th century but somehow we were totally unprepared for just how much their presence influenced the region.

This was a break for us from Dido’s work and represented a chance to have a few days r&r and for that reason we decided to splash the cash and stay at a decent hotel. Our Lonely Planets guide suggested a timber-faced  chalet-style establishment on the edge of Villarica Lake, but what it omitted to describe was the intensity of the Teutonic atmosphere within the building. As our luck would have it, the day we arrived was some sort of German related  holiday and the entire staff together with all the German guests were donning national (Bavarian) dress, with all the men resplendent in lederhosen and feathered hats, and their “wenches” in dirndl. I’d ski-id as a youth in Austria, so I was used to this festive sartorial tradition. But what I wasn’t used to and hadn’t expected – at least not quite so overtly – was the proud and brazen identification of the hotel management with their Fatherland’s recent military past. Of course, I knew all about Nazis fleeing to South America at the end of the war, and about Eichmann and Mengele, but somehow I’d always connected this sort of thing with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I was rudely disabused of my ignorance however, just after we had checked-in and the bellhop took us into the elevator, which, instead of the usual mirrors was decorated with numerous photographs of Panzer crews posing on and about their tanks. Amazed and naively thinking that this was some sort of retro decorative gimmick – albeit in alarmingly poor taste, but essentially innocent – I asked the bellhop who these soldiers were?

‘Ach!’ he exclaimed, putting our bags down on the the floor, obviously thrilled that I had shown an interest; ‘This vas mine faater’s Panzer groupen”  he said in an accent which was all German without a trace of Spanish,

‘Das man here’  pointing at the largest of the photos at a black-uniformed soldier leaning nonchalantly against his vehicle, ‘das man here ist mine grandfaater. A hero ov ze Eastern front!’

‘Oh gosh’ I replied limply.

‘Ya! A great hero – unt all his camaraden – all heroes!’ he added, gesturing expansively  about the elevator. ‘Such gut fellows – yah…’ he suddenly tailed off in sombre contemplation.

‘He was a great man for sure’ I said trying not to betray my total insincerity.

‘But no! Nicht vas my friend!’ he responded.

‘What do you mean?’ I queried, fearing the answer.

‘Nicht vas‘ he repeated. ‘You just met him – zer olt man at zer reception…’

As he walked us down the corridor to our room I pondered what was worse: That I had just shaken the hand of a Nazi “war hero”, or that he had our passports in his possession…

22 The Boremann Suite


The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides.  While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!

23 Lonely Planets - we hate you!!


We decided to end our visit to the Lakes region of Chile with a day-trip to the famous Island of Chiloe – famous among other things for being the original home of the potato. However, when we’d planned the excursion we hadn’t realised that the ferries which conveyed people and their motor vehicles from the mainland to the island were converted military landing craft – apparently of 1940’s vintage. As our bus rolled onto the craft we were perturbed when we noticed no safety gear of any kind – no life-jackets, no life-rings and certainly no life-craft. Our anxiety was increased by the fact that even with the front part of the boat on the landing ramp we were already being buffeted by an extremely rough sea. Once again, with our recent flirtations with mortality still fresh in the memory, after a mere exchange of looks we were off that bus, and off that boat before you had time to say “Herald of Free Enterprise”! Chiloe would have to wait for another time…

24 Chiloe - not quite




No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows on the right-hand side. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture below. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…

16 Dizzy heights at Chungura


As I’ve implied earlier we liked most of the food we ate in Chile. While the cuisine is basic, there was a wide and exciting variety of raw material – animal and vegetable – and nearly everything was simply yet expertly prepared. This included the hamburgers, which, everywhere from Puerto-Varas in the south to Arica in the north, were always huge, freshly made prime-beef patties. Grilled over charcoal in the posher establishments, or on hotplates in the diners, they were reliably succulent and filling. The only problem I had with the Chilean hamburger was the choice of accompaniments with the burger within the bun. At first I found the ubiquitous slice of beef tomato, cos-lettuce and thick slab of avocado – yes, avocado – to be a novelty. A tasty and healthy change from cheese, bacon or salad onion say… But by the time we were in Arica the novelty – of the avocado in particular – had worn thin. I’d come to the conclusion that avocado and a beef patty just weren’t good bedfellows. They didn’t so much complement each other as vie for attention in the mouth. In simple terms, they just didn’t get on. But by removing the avocado, the burger then became somewhat plain and bare, and the local vinegary ketchup certainly didn’t help matters. Then one afternoon we were at our favourite eatery (where we’d already established a steady supply of good fresh coffee) and I asked the cook if I could have some onion with my burger in place of the avocado. First of all, he looked at me as if I were crazy, but then he shrugged his shoulders and accented. He asked me how I wanted the onion cooked? I tried to explain that I wanted it raw. More looks of incredulity and then another shrug of the shoulders…I went and sat down and waited for my burger, which came about five minutes later with an onion; with a raw onion no less; a bloody great onion, skin and all, perched precariously on top of my beef patty…

17 Too heavy on the onion...


For most non-European readers of these adventure, the next two episodes will not seem surprising at all. But for us, then, the whole concept of “fruit checks”seemed like a hangover from the Pinochet era – just a way of controlling the free movement of citizens. As it happens we were wrong and fruit-checks were / are a key method in preventing the spreading of potentially lethal agricultural pests. Nevertheless, the fact that in Chile, these checks were carried out by jack-booted carabineros with all the charm of a pack of pit-bulls on an enforced vegetable-only diet merely reinforced our misconceptions and resentments. Both of our fruit-check experiences occurred on the long bus ride back south from Arica to Santiago. The reason for this was that our luxury “cama” coach journey (we were feeling a bit more flush with our budget by now) crossed several regional (state) lines and the unlicensed movement of  fruit and vegetables was prohibited from one region to another. Our first check was on the Arica/Iquique border when we were all ordered off the bus while two officers searched the vehicle. We’d all been nervously standing around on the roadside for about five minutes when one of the carabineros slowly made his way down the steps of the coach. Holding up a half-eaten bunch of grapes in his right arm he glowered at us before demanding that the guilty party declare him or herself. After a few moments, during which we all exchanged anxious looks, a middle-aged man stepped forward with his head bowed in shame – like a naughty schoolboy being summoned to the front of the class by the teacher. The carabinero then read the poor man the riot act, threatening him with all sorts of sanctions and fines before eventually offering him a way to make amends – to finish the bunch of grapes then and there. This the man did, fairly gorging them down in his relief , and so allowing us to continue on our long journey…

18 Whose grapes!!




During our stay in Iquique we took a day trip to see one of Chile’s ancient man-made wonders, The Giant of the Atacama. We anticipated that getting to see the “largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world” with our own eyes would be one of the highlights of our entire visit to Chile, and so it would have been, if we hadn’t vastly overestimated the number of fellow travelers to the same site. We presumed The Giant would be a mecca for a whole host of visitors, including everyone from the millions of credulous believers in Von Daniken to the thousands of people with an interest in pre-Columbian civilization – and all those in between. Obviously, knowing the remoteness of the site we didn’t expect everyone to be there at the same moment, but we took it for granted that there would be dozens of people there at any one time. Thus it never entered our minds that we would have any trouble getting to and from The Giant without our own car. Even worse, we had misread the distance on our – by now very worn – map, from the Highway 5 bus stop to The Giant as being only 2 kilometers (easily walkable, even under the desert sun) when it was in fact 12! Nevertheless, when a car stopped and we were given a ride to The Giant almost before we had even begun to raise our thumbs, our original presumption seemed to have been correct. However, we had been at the site barely ten minutes when our kindly lift-givers got bored and decided to leave. So, when they offered to take us back to the highway bus stop (which we now realised was 12 ks and not 2) we had a decision to make. Ignore the significant fact that we and our ride buddies were the only people there and stay on a while longer at this amazing site, or do the sensible – “been there / seen it” – thing and accept the lift. Like the classic “Darwin Award” idiots we all read about everyday in the newspapers (who go fell walking in sneakers, or swimming in pools known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles or who light up a cigarette while standing over a cesspit) we decided to stay on “a while longer”… Needless to say, an hour passed and nobody came. So, we decided to walk the actual 2 kilometers back to the dirt track (marked as “minor-road 15) and see if we could at least get a lift from there. Problem was, by this time we were already down to the last few sips of water in our single 1/2 liter bottle and beginning to roast as the sun reached its highest point in the vast desert sky. By the time we made it onto the track we knew that we might be in serious trouble. There was no shelter of any kind, our water was gone, and our exposed arms were beginning to burn. At this point we didn’t know whether we should stay put or attempt the 10 k walk to the main road. After a ten minute rest we began to walk – or rather, stagger along the track, and then almost immediately we heard a vehicle approaching from behind, going in our direction. But our elation was only momentary, as the car sped past without even slowing down, it’s exhaust and dust adding mocking insult to injury. But then, after about another hour, a second vehicle – a small truck – emerged from the east, heading west and its driver , this time, took pity on us and dropped us at the bus stop. Now whenever we think of The Giant, or just about any other South American geoglyph our first reflex is to reach for a water bottle…

13 20 kilometers! Not 2!


From Iquique we made our way to Chile’s northernmost major city of Arica. The picture below is an exaggeration of what at the time, we feared might really happen when, during the drive north we passed a military airbase of some kind. One can imagine our fright when a light aircraft flew just a few feet over the roof of the bus before landing on the road in front of us causing our driver to make an emergency break. For some reason unbeknownst to us and our driver too, judging by his outburst of expletives – and presumably something to do with financial expedience  – it turned out that this particular section of road  doubled as a runway. Whatever, it certainly livened up what up until that point had been a particularly dull, desert drive…

14 Dual purpose highway


One of the few things that disappointed – not to mention surprised – us during our first weeks in Chile was the fact that wherever we went, and wherever we stayed (smart or shabby) we could only seem to get instant coffee. To make matters worse, this wasn’t even granulated coffee, but old fashioned, cheap and nasty powder coffee. But then, in Arica, we befriended a likable and knowledgeable young English couple taking their gap year in South America – let’s call them Susan and Bob – who explained to us where we had been going wrong. It turned out that if one wanted real coffee in Chile one had to ask for it twice. In other words, instead of asking for a “cafe” one asked for a “cafe, cafe”. When they told us this we thought that our new friends were teasing us, but when we went to dinner with them for the first time, at the end of the meal Bob asked for “Cafe, Cafe”. And hey presto! As if by magic, four cups of exceptionally good real coffee were delivered to our table…

15 Cafe, Cafe