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High, dry and breathless in the Atacama desert

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JohnM

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After a few diversions and distractions since I arrived home from my 7-week 2014 DONE5 in mid-October, I’ve gotten around to doing a TR.

This TR will focus on the Atacama Desert part of the trip, rather than have a muddled RTW report. It was the more unusual part of the trip, and the bit that I was particularly looking forward to. To kick off, here’s the outline of the DONE5:

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RTW aficionados will immediately notice the ‘deliberate mistake’ – two trans-cons in Australia. Originally, the second-last sector was CX HKG-ADL, followed by QF ADL-PER, just to make sure of using all 16 sectors. Subsequently the HKG-ADL was cancelled, so a phone call to QF resulted in the HKG-MEL-PER routing (and a few more SCs and points).
Here’s the routing: PER-SYD-xDFW-YYC-xDFW-RIC-xDFW-SFO-xJFK-xSCL[SCL-ANF-SCL as a separate whY booking] -xMAD-LHR-TXL-LHR-xHKG-xMEL-PER.

This was the mission plan:

YYC to rent a car for a few days in Glacier National Park in Montana (and the smaller Waterton Lakes Park on the Canadian side). I had the great pleasure of meeting RooFlyer, the doyen of AFF TRs, over good steak and plenty of wine on a balmy evening in Calgary.

It was then over to RIC to rent a car and check out various Civil War and War of Independence historical sites in Virginia, drive the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park (160 km) and the Blue Ridge Parkway from end-to-end (750 km Virginia to North Carolina). Both are listed amongst the ‘World’s great drives’ – and rightly so. Highly recommended.
Then it was a visit with friends at Clemson, a university town in South Carolina, over to Savannah Georgia, then looping back to Richmond via Charleston SC and Williamsburg VA. Then it was over to SFO for the weekend, followed by a sweet little SC-earner across to JFK in F on the new AA A321T. From JFK to SCL on LAN for my first ride in a B787, separate whY booking SCL-ANF-SCL to rent a car and head into the Atacama, back to SCL and over to MAD (LAN B787 again) and on to LHR.

A couple of nights in London, then over to Berlin for a few days where I had the pleasure of meeting Mattg, kermatu and *A Flyer and chowing down with them on sensational traditional pork knuckle and grosse biers. Another great AFF night!
I then rented a car and drove to Dresden before looping back to Berlin via Leipzig (checking out the (in)famous Colditz Castle POW prison on the way - fascinating BTW) and on to home.

OK- turning to the Atacama Desert. A regional map to show the location in N Chile and a map of my route. It borders Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.

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The red lines show the main route: Antofagasta-San Pedro de Atacama-xTocopilla to Iquique along the coast-xArica to Putre in the far N-back to Arica for a night and then an 8-hour haul straight down Ruta 5 back to Antofagasta overnight and out to SCL the next day.

The blue lines show schematically the day trips out to parks and sights in the high country.

After a night in Antofagasta, Chile’s second city, I headed inland to San Pedro. Cities on the coast in N Chile sit on a very narrow coastal plain, with what seems like an enormous sand dune backdrop very quickly leading up to the 1500-2000m coastal plateau. Beyond that is the altiplano at around 4500m leading up to the Andean cordillera where Chile borders its neighbours.

Antofagasta is a large city, stretching along the very narrow coastal plain. It’s nothing special and there is a definite mining boom-town feel. Unlike Karratha or Port Hedland, it’s a true big city but, nevertheless has the same mining-town feel, albeit like being on a monster dose of steroids. Note the big ‘sand dune’ escarpment in the background – it really dominates the coastal cities of N Chile.

Driving out of Antofagasta and getting on to the famous Ruta 5 (Pan America Highway), the Chileans have not wasted their mining boom. The roads are superb. All the road surfaces are proper tarmac (ie. Hotmix, like our freeways), not the crappy Australian coarse-chip surface that results in so much tyre roar that even the best car manufacturers struggle to eliminate within their vehicles. It’s dual carriageway to around Calama, a major copper-mining town (sort of like Newman on really serious steroids). FIFO does not seem to occur in Chile on the mass scale of Australia, so mining towns have very large new dormitory suburbs spreading everywhere.

I’ve done a lot of driving in Australia, but Chile makes roads like Great Eastern Highway to Kalgoorlie and on to the east, Great Northern Highway to Newman and beyond and NW Coastal Highway to Port Hedland and beyond look (and, particularly, sound) very largely like second-rate efforts. The Chilean main roads, even the non-dual carriageway sections are like driving on Australian intra-city freeway surfaces – but they connect hugely-separated places. It makes for very relaxed driving, even in the rugged manual diesel 4WD dual-cab without cruise-control vehicle I had.

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Antofagasta; dual-carriageway section of Ruta 5 on the way to Calama; big mining truck bits; a roadhouse Atacama style - bring your own shady tree...

Mining (predominantly copper) is huge in the region. Like in the Pilbara, there are 4WD dual-cabs with flags, reflective markers, roll bars and beacons buzzing everywhere. The only difference is that the favoured colour there is red, not white. Why, I do not know. I joined the party and had a Hertz red dual cab replete with whopping reflective signs, roll bars and wheel chocks on cables. It was clearly just off a mine site and did get a few stares in some of the more remote tourist regions I visited – along with considerable scepticism from the Carabinieri at a mandatory checkpoint when I, with hopeless Spanish, tried to explain to the non-English speaking officer that I was merely a tourist.

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My ‘mining certified office’ for a couple of weeks (but I’m a mere tourist!). I felt like a bit of a dill at times as people seemed to stare at this ‘worker’ cruising around national parks – but that’s what Hertz gave me. Well protected on the inside; the secondary road towards San Pedro; at ANF you can have any colour you like, as long as it’s red...

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There’s copper in them thar hills; mine dumps that say something to a chemist about the extraction process; a very dusty view of the huge Chuquicamata mine at Calama – with power lines running right in front of the view-point; the end product - electrochemically refined to copper metal on site (hence power lines everywhere). The train had about an equal number of copper wagons and acid (sulphuric, IIRC) tank wagons.

One thing that I think is worth noting about travelling in Chile and Argentina if you have not been there or are considering some independent travel in the region is the truly amazing bus system. I’ve never used them, as I prefer to be totally independent, but after much observation it just has to be about the best long-distance bus system in the world.

There are many bus companies and countless buses, all extremely modern, high quality and immaculately clean and well-presented. Many of the buses are double-deck with full cama lay-back seating of business-class standard I’ve been told. The single deck buses are semi cama. Here are a few pics to underscore, at least from the outside, what I’m saying.

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JohnM

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Tur-Bus is one of the very big companies whose buses are frequently seen everywhere but there are many others of the same immaculately-presented style. Buses like these are a constant feature on the roads.

One very interesting thing that I have noticed before in Chile and Argentina are memorials along the roads. My previous experience of them in Argentina is that they were quite simple, albeit a little bizarre by consisting of a little doll’s house-sized construction often surrounded by empty plastic soft drink bottles and red flags.

I was uncertain about their significance but some similarity to the ones I had seen in Argentina and their occurrence on many simple side roads, such as around Mendoza, led me to conclude that they were more a religious symbol than a memorial to road crash victims. A little investigation showed that to be the partly the case. The red coloured ones, more common in Argentina, are memorials to ‘Gaucho Gil’ a Robin Hood-style figure from the mid 19[SUP]th[/SUP] century, and revered as a de facto saint.

Placing drink bottles (that start full of water) is an offering to ‘calm the eternal thirst’ of ‘Difunta Correa’ (‘Deceased Correa’), a woman who, legend has it, died in the desert seeking her forcibly-conscripted husband in the mid 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century.

However, in N Chile roadside memorials reach an astonishing new level and it is clear that they are pricipally to honour and remember people who have died in a road crash at the locality. While they are extremely common, indicating a high road toll, I found the standard of driving to be extremely good. I encountered almost nobody speeding and no aggression to speak of. Yet there does not appear to be a dedicated traffic police force. All the police and Carabinieri I saw were in dual-cab utes; no pursuit cars were to be seen.

While it seems from the constant encounters with the shrines that road deaths are common, I think it represents an accumulation over a very long period – and from a time when the roads were probably very poor. Things don’t deteriorate very quickly in the dry atmosphere. A lot of these memorials really intrigued me.
Here is a selection of these roadside shrines, ranging from the very simple, to the whimsical, to the elaborate, to the messy, to the garish, to the incredibly sad.

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The ‘tree’ was I am sure just a large branch from elsewhere dug into the ground because there were certainly no other trees around there! Serious effort has gone into building and maintaining some of the memorials, many of which are miles from anywhere. Many had plants and watering systems but generally, the watering system couldn’t cope with the aridity and infrequency of mourner’s visits.

More (I had to give up photographing them after a while because it was taking so much of my time. I thought a fascinating exercise for a keen photo-journalist would be to record and publish these intriguing monuments.)

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I did say some are bizarre! The one at middle right was on a very rough back road, way up high near the Bolivian border. There were many like the tiny one at bottom right; some like those looked very, very old. The more elaborate ones seemed a lot newer in general – I guess a reflection of greater affluence and the propensity for many things to be over the top these days.

This one, overlooking the rather grotty town of Tocopilla on the coast (there’s a great, ugly power station right on the coast at the edge of town supplying power to the mine at Calama) was very elaborate. Once explored, it was clear to see why; it was very sad and, of course, not an unfamiliar story in Australia:

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Eighteen year old boy and 16 year old girl. There were solar panels on the roof, providing lights and pumping water to a holding tank for the irrigated trees. Being close to the town probably allowed for regular maintenance that would not be so easy for more remote memorials. If they had died because of their car going over the edge at that point, it was a very long way down an extremely steep slope. Quite heart-rending. Dinosaur theme – right on the side of Ruta 5! Imagine a local council in Australia allowing such a thing on Great Eastern Highway or Hume Highway!

Just a few more:

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The last three were going up to the high altiplano near the Bolivian border. Some very steep roads and drop-offs made any carelessness or mistakes in driving unforgiving…

On the graves theme, there were some old ghost towns along the way that had rather interesting cemeteries. While most graves looked very old (1930s), there were some instances where it seemed that more recent burials had taken place. But these were ghost towns. It’s times like these that a local guide would be very handy.

Cont...
 
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JohnM

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Old adobe township ruins; unique graveyard; seemingly recent childrens’ graves. Notice the coins on the ground on what is obviously the grave of a child. This is out in the middle of nowhere, but I’m sure nobody would take those coins.

San Pedro is quite touristy but still very pleasant with it. It has an adobe village feel with plenty of small B&B-style accommodation and endless companies doing small-group tours to the surrounding sites. The general vibe is the backpacker scene but that is a bit misleading and the tourist age range is right across the spectrum. All-in-all, it’s a nice experience. San Pedro is at about 2000m, so no altitude sickness dramas there.

The great majority of visitors bus in and do tours (albeit in small buses and 4WDs) – but precisely why I do the independent self-drive thing. I used San Pedro as a base to do day trips up across the high altiplano as far as the Argentinian border, up some (really rough) back roads to the El Tatio geysers, out to the Valle de la Luna (very close to San Pedro and very tourist-infested), the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and Laguna Miscanti, a serene high-altitude lake.

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Approaching San Pedro (the green patch in the middle distance); the outskirts; the symmetrical volcano Licancabur that makes a lovely backdrop to San Pedro (the opposite face is in Bolivia); San Pedro street scene; town square (both bottom pics). I was there just after Chile’s Independence Day, which is taken very seriously, so flags were everywhere.

While the region is extremely arid (rain is almost non-existent for years on end), once on the altiplano, there are lagunas (lakes) and salars (salt pans) fed from snowmelt across the region that support an interesting array of wildlife. Fascinatingly, there are four species of flamingo in the Atacama. There are also four species of camelid: guanaco, vicuna, llama and alpaca.

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The black-tailed flamingos are Flamenco andino.

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The red-tailed flamingos are Flamenco chileno.

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Andean gulls; Andean geese; Andean fox; cute young burro and mother, guanacos.

Cont...
 
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JohnM

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16.JPG
Guanacos; strange patterns left on the valley floor landscape by guanaco middens; guanacos strolling across a salar; guanaco and flamingos at a laguna; vizcachas, a hare-sized rodent related to the chinchilla; a bird whose name I have forgotten but it was like a large bee eater that nested in holes in banks of earth.

As might be expected, there are plenty of cacti.

17.jpg
About 90 km NE of San Pedro is the El Tatio geyser field. It is notable for the huge cloud of steam forming in the cold morning air making an eerie dawn sight so there are many tours that leave San Pedro at about 4 am to visit it. I opted not to do that and drove up during the day, but I went the back way, which was seriously rough in parts. The heavy-duty vehicle came in handy!

I may have missed the dawn steam sensation but I had the solitude of being there alone in the middle of the day. While the geysers are not anywhere near as spectacular as Yellowstone, they are the highest geysers in the world at 4300m and the backdrop is more spectacular. About half way back to San Pedro on the main road are well-patronised thermal springs.

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The caution sign seemed superfluous; Chilean high altiplano outback; one of the geysers; information sign; hot springs; heading back towards San Pedro and its landmark volcano.

I did a day drive to the Argentinian border, about 150km from San Pedro. It’s a major transport route and car-carrying trucks, in particular, are very numerous. They cram about 12 cars aboard.

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Let’s go to Argentina; the prime mover must have broken down so a trailer load of cars was sitting and waiting; closer view of Volcan Licancabur; a high laguna; checking the altitude on my GPS. Jogging at lunch time not recommended.

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Some mangled Armco on a downhill section steeper than it appears in the pic; looking back up the pass; looking down from that across the altiplano; a truck had its trailer tipped over and plenty of other drivers were rallying around to help; I was reluctant to stop too close to the activity in case of being considered ghoulish (even though nobody was injured) and being unable to explain myself because of the language barrier.

Cont...
 

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21.JPG
Lagunas and salars can be quite extensive; evidence of a lot of volcanic activity; different coloured volcanic ash.

Just outside San Pedro is the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). It crawls with tourists at sunset.

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Spectacular sand dune and badlands-type landscape in the Valle.

Driving the coastal road from Tocopilla to Iquique often meant fairly murky fog. Typical of most west coasts in temperate regions (N America, Namibia – but notably not W Australia for quite unusual reasons), coastal fogs are typical. The Tocopilla Golf Club was unique; all the ‘trees’ are fakes.

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Iquique is a nicer city than Antofagasta. The beachfront is pleasant with a white-sand beach, and extensive parkland. The Baquedano pedestrian mall in the old part of town has been well preserved. It has wooden boardwalks and is maintained in its colonial style.

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A day trip up to the Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga (c. 200km) near the Bolivian border was a long day but worth it. It’s quite remote and I got to areas that only independent travel can easily achieve. A highlight was the Puchuldiza geyser which shoots up like a spear of water that freezes into a large iceberg-like structure. The big block of ice formed is permanent and apparently in the coldest weather the geyser itself can freeze.

As at the El Tatio geysers, I had the place entirely to myself. Lovely solitude like outback Australia.

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The geyser and its ‘iceblock’; a herd of alpacas; more signs of volcanic activity; good road with an ‘estacionamento’ (parking bay) with solar-powered battery lights that come on at night! Nothing like that in Australia that I’m aware of.

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Heading further north on Ruta 5 towards Arica, passing through some endless flat plain as well as some mountains, with agriculture in the deep valleys.

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Arica is a pleasant town. It’s a major port for land-locked Bolivia and the road up to the border carries an endless stream of trucks. Chile and Bolivia had a war back in the late 19[SUP]th[/SUP] century or thereabouts. Chile won, which resulted in Bolivia becoming land-locked. They now have an agreement for Bolivia to have a major road transportation corridor from Arica.

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The coastal plain broadens at Arica compared with further south; pleasant plaza and buzzy pedestrian mall; a constant stream of trucks chugging up to the altiplano.

Putre at 3500m, on the road from Arica to Bolivia is a small town that is the gateway to the Parque Nacional Lauca to the north with its highlight Suriplaza, the Monumento Natural Salar de Surire (a large salar, about 60km around, to the south that is used in parts for extraction of considerable amounts of borax) and Lago Chungara to the east close to the Bolivian border.

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Putre township; pleasant and highly-recommended B&B with lovely, helpful hosts; in the park; Llareta (aka Yareta) plants are fascinating – very old and slow-growing with a compact surface-hugging structure.

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The Suriplaza was spectacular on a perfect sunny day. Again, I had all to myself. Blissful solitude!

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The vehicle gasps at 5000m (me too – although I never felt sick or had headaches from the altitude. Some people get very badly affected with severe migraine-like headaches.) It really had to be revved hard to get it moving after stopping, although once under way it was OK. The peaks in the area were around 6500m.

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Symmetrical volcanoes; some volcanic activity; restored church in village on the way to the Salar de Surire; a small section of the Salar de Surire. The storm brewing caused snow by the time I had almost completed my circumnavigation of the salar; two views of the famous Volcan Parinacota (6342m) looking across Lago Chungara. It sits right on the Chile/Bolivia border. A bit unlucky with the cloud – the typical publicity shots show the beautiful symmetrical cone across the blue lake and against cloudless skies. Spectacular, nevertheless.

Well, that’s it. A most memorable trip in a fascinating region and one that I’d heartily recommend!
 

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Wow! great TR ... thanks!

That graveyard in post #3. I have very similar pics when I visited there in about 1994 (must be the same place), on a mining/banking trip. Story I was told then was that the local community put a new well down, then many started dying shortly thereafter. Turns out that they had put the well down through a layer of toxic salts (?arsenical?), not uncommon in the very dry conditions there, where they form and lie quite stable for thousands of years. It was OK until the water spilled at the head of the well dribbled down and dissolved the salts, which poisoned the water.

Very sad.

Ummm.... Shhhhh ....Don't tell anyone .... I might have a word to you on the quiet about the location of the initial pics in post #7. Those red/orange colours almost certainly indicate copper mineralisation. Fancy going back to peg it :) (except that something like that would be pegged for sure!).

Fantastic volcanoes!
 

JohnM

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Wow! great TR ... thanks!

That graveyard in post #3. I have very similar pics when I visited there in about 1994 (must be the same place), on a mining/banking trip. Story I was told then was that the local community put a new well down, then many started dying shortly thereafter. Turns out that they had put the well down through a layer of toxic salts (?arsenical?), not uncommon in the very dry conditions there, where they form and lie quite stable for thousands of years. It was OK until the water spilled at the head of the well dribbled down and dissolved the salts, which poisoned the water.

Very sad.

Ummm.... Shhhhh ....Don't tell anyone .... I might have a word to you on the quiet about the location of the initial pics in post #7. Those red/orange colours almost certainly indicate copper mineralisation. Fancy going back to peg it :) (except that something like that would be pegged for sure!).

Fantastic volcanoes!
Thanks RF! :). I saw a couple of other graveyards like that - one with metal frames around the graves rather than the wooden ones.

The Suriplaza is in a National Park - does that count against pegging in Chile :confused::p.
 

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Thanks RF! :). I saw a couple of other graveyards like that - one with metal frames around the graves rather than the wooden ones.

The Suriplaza is in a National Park - does that count against pegging in Chile :confused::p.
Same graveyard - note the building and the mountain profile ...

Graveyard1.jpg

As for Suriplaza .. bug*er ... that explains why that gossan is still there! :(
 
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JohnM, your TR brings back good memories!

Between 2008 and 2011 I made several work related trips to La Serena, about halfway between Santiago and Antofagasta. On each occasion I got one of those 4WDs from Hertz! They seem to be standard issue for off-bitumen use.

In 2012, when QF introduced their direct route to SCL, I got sale tickets and was able to take Mrs jxv to Chile. We flew to Calama, visited the copper mine and went on to San Pedro, from where we took a few day trips. Amazing scenery in the Atacama! Later that trip we went to Salta in Argentina, from where we explored the other side of the same part of the Andes. Completely different scenery!

Thanks for sharing your photos!
 

JohnM

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JohnM, your TR brings back good memories!

Between 2008 and 2011 I made several work related trips to La Serena, about halfway between Santiago and Antofagasta. On each occasion I got one of those 4WDs from Hertz! They seem to be standard issue for off-bitumen use.

In 2012, when QF introduced their direct route to SCL, I got sale tickets and was able to take Mrs jxv to Chile. We flew to Calama, visited the copper mine and went on to San Pedro, from where we took a few day trips. Amazing scenery in the Atacama! Later that trip we went to Salta in Argentina, from where we explored the other side of the same part of the Andes. Completely different scenery!

Thanks for sharing your photos!
Glad you enjoyed them and the memories. La Serena, in that big bay, looked good flying over it.

I haven't yet been to Salta but it's on the list. Colombia is my S American destination on this year's DONE5 in Sept-Oct.
 
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Glad you enjoyed them and the memories. La Serena, in that big bay, looked good flying over it.

I haven't yet been to Salta but it's on the list. Colombia is my S American destination on this year's DONE5 in Sept-Oct.
"The List"! It gets longer all the time and its shortening is restricted by time and money...

Enjoy Colombia!
 
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