Summer Solstice at Salar de Atacama

Author: David Kotok, Post Date: December 23, 2013
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Early Saturday morning, December 21, 2013, we were sitting in the San Pedro de Atacama square, celebrating the solstice south of the equator. Overnight the temperature had fallen to 40°F, but during the day it rose steadily again to about 70°F. Under cerulean blue skies, we were surrounded by small birds chirping, tourist shops, hotels, hikers and trekkers, cyclists, horseback riders, and desert watchers on one side, and a small village church on the other.

We thank readers for their comments in response to our commentary regarding Calama, Chile. It was an interesting couple of the days in the Atacama Desert. An oasis is formed by runoff from rain and snow on the Andes side of this very large valley. The highest peaks tower 20,000 feet. On the opposite side the valley is bordered by an older mountain range that is no longer volcanic or actively growing. Those mountains have been eroding for 20 to 40 million years longer than the Andes have and do not feature the dramatic peaks.

An oasis in a high or a low desert is still an oasis. Green life, humans, birds, and other animals thrive due to the presence of water. I recall an oasis in Jericho, the lowest in the world, while I am now sitting in the middle of an oasis at over 8,000 feet. The similarities are striking. The surrounding desert, regardless of elevation, is of course extremely dry. There is the same large variation in temperature, day to night, and the two places simply feel much alike.

Explora Atacama is an extraordinary hotel (http://www.explora.com/explora-atacama/atacama/). Excellent food from a superb chef and programs for all levels of hikers, trekkers, and other outdoor-oriented people are organized in wonderful ways. This writer joined a desert trek for the first time in his life. By happy coincidence, my trekking companion, along with our two guides, was a British writer, Sarah Ingham. Sarah is a world traveler and successful author. Strict coincidence put us on the same desert tour and in the same vehicle. She, younger and in much better shape than I, was able to scamper down the high sand dunes at the end of the trek. I had a little more difficulty. Fortunately Oscar, one of our guides, accompanied me in this unusual and nerves-inducing activity.

Suffice it to say, I made it down. Sarah then showed me the photograph she had taken,

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The two dots in the picture are me, on the left, and Oscar next to me. This is the lower of the two dune levels. The picture does not show the higher level, which looms behind. We had hiked to the top of the ridge and then descended via the dunes. Many thanks go to Oscar for guiding, to Sarah for the companionship and the photograph, and to all of the folks at Explora Atacama, who organized three terrific days of high-desert experience in northern Chile. A photograph of the ridge top where our hike peaked at over 9,000 feet.

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In another photograph – this time of the plain – you can see nesting flamingos in the distance.

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They migrate from Patagonia. A second species, the James flamingo, migrates from North America. The otherworldly rocky expanse in the foreground is composed of porous salt rocks formed over the millennia.

Here is an early morning street scene in San Pedro de Atacama.
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This is before the noise revs up and tourists invade and drive away those seeking quiet. Two hours later, in the town square, the centuries-old serenity has been replaced by a cacophony of 21st-century music blaring from a street vendor trying to entice Chilean youth to try out his version of adventure. I prefer the desert trek, for reasons that may be obvious from this photo taken in the town square.

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This is my 15th trip to Chile and my 1st to the northernmost region. Here, the Bolivian border is only 45 kilometers away. Peru is not much farther. It’s high desert here – a dry climate, but very settled, with expansive industrial buildings because of minerals and mining. We are told that over half of the world’s lithium comes from the Atacama region.

I recall a meeting years ago at the central bank of Chile with then-governor Vittorio Corbo Lioi. Vittorio was describing what it was like in his youth in the northern provinces. He was the son of a poor but hard-working family. In those days, when Chile was run by dictators, there were no universities with branches in the north. But as he was getting ready to go to college, Chile transitioned to a capitalistic system that included a voucher system for education. Vittorio described to me how the system was income-based, so that wealthier people would receive fewer pesos in voucher form. The system featured a database that included everyone in the country, enabling the universities to compete for students. Thus he was able to go on to study economics at the University of Chile. Students from his region used to face a 1,000-kilometer commute to any college, but today there are branches of universities in all 12 provinces of the country. And here I am now, on the campus of a Catholic university in the territory of northern Chile, thinking of Vittorio and his history and observing the continuing evolution of this fascinating country. I have fond memories in many ways.

It is interesting to be in Chile and to think about the fact that only a few decades ago the country was once again under the heel of an oppressive dictator. In 1973 the Popular Unity (Socialist) regime of Salvador Allende was unseated by a coup, and Augusto Pinochet came to power. His oppressive rule lasted until 1989, when democratic elections took place and a revitalized, vibrant Chile began to emerge. The country successfully experimented with a mix of democratic and socialistic political forces and entrepreneurial, free-market capitalism.

Today in Chile, a woman (Michelle Bachelet) has been re-elected president with a huge majority and strong political power base. Across the border in Argentina, another woman (Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) is president and is following a completely different approach to operating her government. In Chile, an independent central bank manages financial affairs. A high-tech operation puts fast internet connections in every village. The flourishing economy has a nearly fully funded retirement system with no long-term social-security issues, and it operates in a growth-oriented way while still extending protective benefits to its population. Across the border in Argentina, by contrast, that country is headed for its sixth default in a century. Inflation is rising; government programs are failing; and regional strife and corruption create conflict with the political power center in Buenos Aires. What a contrast between the western and eastern sides of the Andes!

A woman has also been president of Brazil since 2011, but how Dilma Rousseff will ultimately direct her country’s evolution in economic and political terms still remains to be seen.

The contrasts in South America and the political and economic evolution that has occurred in the space of just a few decades suggest that the continent can continue to expand in positive ways if permitted and encouraged. The question is whether, in today’s rapidly shifting global economic landscape, these natural-resource dominated economies will flourish. Will investments in their stock markets bear fruit? And will US policy remember and acknowledge that powerful influences on the US come through the immigration, legal or otherwise, of Spanish-speaking peoples from south of our border?

We are headed south to the Rio Puelo, in the verdant southern region of Chile. It is filled with rivers, snow-capped Andes, the Osorno Volcano near Puerto Montt, and at least one friendly trout that I am sure will be pleased to renew my acquaintance. We leave the Atacama Desert now, with more fond memories.

Many thanks to all the readers who sent wishes for a Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year. We will be back shortly.

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