The Chuquicamata mine alone represents nearly 7% of national GDP, copper representing 50% of this GDP. It was not possible to visit the mine because of the social situation, but a small drive along the barriers allowed us to realize the importance of this site which has no equivalent in Europe. Copper is not the only mining resource, with a dozen other smaller mines producing saltpeter, antimony, silver, lead, molybdenum, formerly rock salt and recently lithium. It is thanks to this last resource that we have today an additional aerodrome (Minsal) located at the southern end of the Salar of Atacama, allowing us to fly a little further in safety.
This city therefore totally depends on the mining activities which extend over hundreds of kilometers. As this is essentially a primary activity, the population is mainly made up of unskilled workers housed summarily, while executives reside in secure closed neighborhoods.
The ballet of the CAEX trucks coming out of the hole and going up to dump their cargo at the top of the artificial hills, 450 tons of ore every minute, or almost 5 tons of pure copper, or approx. 25,000 US $. For the record, these are the trucks that were used for the construction of the Serre-Ponçon dam, all imported from the USA.
Following the dust pollution, the workers’ village near the mine, 10 km from Calama, has been closed and 8,500 people were displaced in the city. Motor traffic is therefore mainly composed of buses transporting personnel between the mines and the city, and thousands of 4×4 pickups vans (camioneta) double cabin with “Standard Minero” strictly red with yellow safety strip, rollover bar and HF antenna. It is the standard rental vehicle, at a point that I had to go 200 km on the coast to find a small passenger car, in addition to our 4×4 van that came by road from Viña del Mar (1,600 km) in parallel with the glider in flight (1,200 km and 8 hours of engine). The photo of the airport car rental fleet is self-explanatory.
Despite the city’s apparent poverty and filth, the cost of living for a European is not significantly lower than at home. The rental of an apartment for 4 people via AirBnB, consisting of three bedrooms, living room and kitchen, in a sufficiently secure medium-standing area, cost € 1,750 for a month, probably more expensive than in Europe, but the demand of the mining industry is strong, it is the law of the market. Food expenses were € 20 per person per day, more than in France, and € 5 more than the budget, our team was made up of four people.
The airport rental car park: large choice of models and colors!
The former workers’ village, now closed and emptied of its inhabitants.
The 2nd P, “Perros“, the dogs, was the worst calamity for us. Aside from the thousands of stray lousy dogs who drag themselves miserably through the streets emptying the trash cans on the sidewalks, most homes have one or more dogs that, for some unknown reason, start barking in concert at any time of day and night, long enough to interrupt a sleep already quite disturbed by the altitude (2,400 m). The Stilnox and the coca leaf infusion (free trade) were not effective enough, we will return exhausted.
The 3rd P, “Putas” [prostitutes] is not my competence but it is easy to imagine that with 10,000 workers including a part of Bolivian and Peruvian expatriates, the business must be flourishing.
Calama, dirty, expensive, polluted, noisy city, without any tourist interest. But a must go through because of the secure airport, including all tourists going to San Pedro. A national survey on the quality of life in the 24 main cities awarded him the red lantern.
If we launch another expedition, it will be from San Pedro, but it will be more complicated, see other chapters.
After only ten days in this hell, Pancho Corral, our senior Chilean Captain, sent me the following message: “If Dante had known Calama, hell would be bigger and a little more miserable.”
the figure below shows the territories we explored during November 2019, that is to say approx. 350 km in length, equivalent to the Sisteron-Samedan course, satisfactory for an absolute first.
Tracks of the main flights of the expedition. 350 km length equivalent to Sisteron-Samaden.