Atacama — El Río Loa

La tierra del sol y cobre–
Once a storm of sandstone 

Had a seabed churning

Waving at the heavens
Now it is

Lost of its sea
As though

San Pedro, San Pablo

Miño, Láscar

The volcanoes

Burst at once

Melted the ocean

And left 

La tierra del sol y cobre
Left the marbled earth

To bake in the southern sun

A crucible of copper

And quebradas

Canyons

Carved of wind 

And water

The little that remains
One morning, still sleepy eyed, gravity decides to abandon you. Thinking that you are just drifting back into a dream, you leave your chair at the breakfast table, rise above the toast and jam, boiled eggs and coffee, reach out to get one last sip of java as a bit sloshes out and stains your nice shirt. Now you know you’re awake. You feel anxious to be late for work, to be wearing slippers rather than shoes as you float out the window into public airspace, there is a bit of toothpaste on your face, as you rise, and rise, and rise straight up, above the neighborhood, watching all the other people down there doing people things, bringing their kids to school, walking the dog. What will I tell my boss? Did I leave the damn stove on? 
But as you witness the slow unfolding of earth below, the patches of green, the blue of the sea, the curve of the horizon against the forbidding black of space, you forget those worries, and you see this planet in all its humble and thrilling form with the clouds rolling over you like a swimming pool of egyptian cotton, and speaking of Egypt, there it is, the brown and brown and brown of earth, the little pyramids and the stretch of green, that long thread of life we call the Nile. And then around you go, past India where you smell the sweet spice of Madras and the indian ocean and the climbers on Mt Everest up north look like little lego people, and the Earth is spinning and you feel dizzy, and over the Pacific Ocean, what if I fall in there?? And then South America, and over the red flowing sediment of the desert an earsplitting roar comes out of nowhere, and a jet airplane rushes by. In the intense adrenaline of that moment, time slows to a crawl, and as the turbulence around the Boeing 737 shakes your very bones, you see me and my curly hair and wide eyes, ogling out the window at the desert below, and you think, what on earth has this kid on such a sugar rush about this barren land that looks like the coffee stain on my shirt?
Well, here I am, alive in the desert. And I want to tell you why I am so excited about it. 


Stretching west from the Andes, from southern Peru and southwestern Bolivia, through northern Chile and Argentina, along 600 miles of Southern Pacific coast is the Atacama. Marked by high peaks and volcanoes, enormous salt flats, canyons wandering through the sandstone, and hundreds of mines active and abandoned, the Atacama is often recognized as the driest place on earth. But for Antarctica, this is true, yet the Atacama has supported humans living here for 13,000 years or more. Atacameño peoples have made the oases of this desert home, cultivating the arid soil with water from the slightest of rivers, or vertientes and ojos de agua, desert springs falling from the cliffs or welling up out of nowhere. Civilizations like Tiahuanaco and the Incas traded and at times had sovereignty over communities in the desert, using the great wealth of mineral resources and access to the sea to their advantage. 
I was drawn here on my geopoetic quest by the lore of Río Loa, Chile’s longest river, which tumbles and winds its way from the fractured rise of Miño Volcano through 440km of desert until it meets the Pacific. The Río Loa and its tributaries are truly remarkable. Fed at once by snowmelt from the peaks, and by springs and geothermal upwellings, even geysers, the river, apart from its staggering canyons, is not what many people would recognize as a river. In the abundance of water of New England for example, Río Loa would be no more than a brook, but here, it is everything. 


When I flew into Calama, I was relieved to breathe the crisp desert air, air that reminded me so much of home in New Mexico. Outside, the sun was hot, and with this sensation, I felt the twisting of seasons having just entered austral autumn, coming from the northern winter. Not only that, it was my first time across the equator. 
Doña Virginia Panire, a friend of my professor from College of the Atlantic, Patricia Ayala Rocabado generously offered to pick me up at the airport. Doña Virginia came and met me, explaining that she had arranged for me to stay at her sister’s home in town. On the way, we stopped at El Parque Loa, Loa Park, and I got my first real glimpse of the river. The city has put up some small dams to create a swimming hole in the river, and there are places to walk and sit on either side. The flow is not very dramatic, but Doña Virginia told me that in February there was a lot of rain in the mountains and the river rose enormously. I learned that this is a feature of the “Bolivian Winter” when during El Niño years, the Andes receive lots of precipitation from the pacific.
 Doña Virginia started telling me about the region as we walked around, pointing out a replica of a church in Chiu Chiu, the oldest church in Chile, and some of the mountains and volcanoes around the area, San Pedro and San Pablo, and Paniri, a mountain with which Doña Virginia shares her family name. She explained to me that their family is rooted in Turi and Ayquina, villages to the east near Paniri, and that they only live in Calama so that their kids can attend school. 


From Parque Loa we drove to the house where Doña Irma, Virginia’s sister was waiting. She showed me my room, which is actually a studio for spinning and weaving wool. I felt so welcome and their warmth was remarkable, treating my as a friend before we all remembered each other’s names. 
Over the following days I learned that Doña Irma and her husband Don Rene have three boys, Matias, Juan, and Tomas, and Doña Virginia has one, David. All of the kids play music, Andean music with various groups here in Calama. I learned that Doña Irma is working with wool for a living, and Don Rene worked in the hospital for many years as a paramedic, and now he and Doña Irma run a hotel/restaurant in Ayquina on the weekends, and he does construction work and all kinds of things during the week.
On Thursday we went to the Calama shopping mall to see the opening of a product that Doña Irma worked on called Volvimos a Tejer, “Back to Knitting.” It is a bag that comes with three balls of yarn made from a sheep and alpaca wool blend, and knitting needles. It also has instructions about how to knit. Doña Irma and her friends spin the wool for the bags, and it is sold in big department stores called Paris all over Chile. The idea is that here working with wool is an extremely important part of life, and has been a livelihood for people in the region for centuries. Doña Irma wants to encourage young people to continue the practice and tradition and Paris wants to sell products made locally. 


Though it was commercial, it was good to see that this big business was supporting Doña Irma and the other women of the group. Doña Irma told me excitedly that she dreams of making a wool cooperative in Turi, the village where she grew up and where her mom still lives and keeps sheep, goats, and llamas.
On Friday, Don Rene and Matias and I drove out of Calama to Ayquina. There was a major dust storm with wind blowing east, bringing dust from the copper mines at Chuquicamata all across the desert. On the way to Ayquina we stopped at Laguna Inka Coya, a salty lake in the middle of the desert that confounds visitors and scientists alike. The formation is very deep, so deep that people are not sure of the source. It is coming from groundwater, and some people believe a legend that is is actually an “ojo del mar” an eye of the sea, and that the water is actually seawater. It is an anomaly in the desert where all other lakes only fill if there is rain, and otherwise remain as enormous salt flats in the desert. 


Arriving in Ayquina I was surprised by the number of houses. There were hundreds of houses, but I was told that only seven houses are actually occupied. Why so many others? I asked. Don Rene and Matias went on to explain that Ayquina hosts an enormous festival every September for the Virgin of Guadaloupe, and 70,000 people come to Ayquina to celebrate. The rest of the year the town is like a ghost town, and because of a conflict with the government about money stemming from the celebration, the town remains a private entity, without services of the state like electricity. There is a generator for the village that runs for just two hours at night, so for the rest of the time, it is either solar power, personal generators, or no electricity. Because Don Rene and Doña Irma run a restaurant and hotel, they have a generator. 


Ayquina sits in an opening to a canyon of the Rio Salado (Salty River), and the resturant, El Valle, is the center of town, next to the church. The view out the front window is staggering–it looks right out over the canyon and the small parcels of corn and alfalfa growing with water from a vertiente that comes right out of the canyon cliffs. In the evening after we arrived and gathered firewood (pallets that Don Rene brings from Calama), we started up the woodfire oven as friends of Don Rene’s began to arrive. They were friends from his time at the hospital, and we all sat together sharing drinks and stories through the evening. 


The next morning as Don Rene was preparing to roast mutton over an open fire, I went off on an adventure up the canyon, walking through the river and thinking about the weeks and months to come. 


The canyon is about 200 feet deep, and after the arable land around the vertiente at Ayquina, the canyon starts to narrow, and the walls get steeper. There were animal tracks all over that I could follow, and along the sides of the river, a type of wide sedge was growing that reminded me of the type of plants in the intertidal wetlands in Maine, something that likes salt. Further up the canyon, the sheep tracks went up and there was a choke where some enormous boulders had fallen from the walls onto the river. I climbed around in these rocks the size of houses for a while, feeling the intense vulnerability of a human in such a place, so many stories of people heading into canyons and never coming back. 


Leaving the rocks, I went to the north side of the canyon where I could see some small constructions under an overhang. Climbing up, I followed a path that was fairly easy to make out over volcanic pumice stone. On the way I was stopped dead in my tracks by some petroglyphs carved into the canyon. I just stood there staring for awhile, wondering who carved this face and the llamas and the little people on the wall. Struck by the wonderful reality that someone hundreds or thousands of years past was communicating with me, telling me something, a small fragment of the past. 


Then I looked into the little constructions under the overhang. There wasn’t much there, but I couldn’t help but feel the thrill of this place, that humans could be here, live here, for so long. I continued out of the canyon where I had to jump a sheep fence where a sheep had been less successful than I. At the top I was struck by how different the world in the canyon was from up top. Up top it was windy, the plants were all diminutive, and the horizon felt so, so far away. 


Back in Ayquina after climbing out of the canyon, I got a ride to watch Matias play soccer with the Ayquina team against the neighboring village Chiu Chiu. They played on a pure dirt field, no grass. It was quite something to watch them play with the 20000 foot volcanoes in the background. I forgot my camera, so you’ll just have to imagine. After the game we returned for lunch, and we munched the amazing roasted mutton. 
In the evening, we went out to Turi, a village much smaller than Ayquina to celebrate mother’s day with Doña Virginia and Doña Irma’s mom Doña Maria. Turi isn’t directly on the river, rather it is watered by a vertiente, a spring that just bubbles up from the ground. It is quite near Volcan Paniri, where Doña Irma told me she has an apple orchard. Turi is also home to Pokara, an Incan ruin, one of the largest in Chile. I didn’t get the chance to explore it yet, but I will. Matias and I went outside at some point and the stars were booming across the sky. For the first time in my life I saw the Southern Cross and the deep blue of the Milky Way around it. 
I will post night sky photos soon, but not yet. 
On Sunday we prepared lunch and served it to people who had come to church in Ayquina. Doña Irma and Don Rene made chicken, pork ribs, and llama meat, soup, and salad. After cleaning up, we headed back to Calama. 
In the evening I sat looking at maps for hours. I found the headwaters of the Río Loa, on Volcan Miño pass through a canyon called Quebrada de Mal Paso, the canyon of bad passage. For the first 150 kilometers of the river’s journey, there are no towns and at over 12,000 feet of elevation the place is cold and scattered with canyons on all sides, making it difficult to cross. Further on, as the river starts passing through towns, the water diminishes dramatically because the mine at Chuquicamata has bought up water rights from many of the villages for use processing ore, and sometimes this leaves the river dry.
Below Calama the river goes through a series of intense canyons in absolute desert as it makes a u-turn through the desert and then arrives and Quillagua, before heading straight west through the biggest of all the canyons, at least half a mile deep, before it wanders into the Pacific. 
I started reading studies on the water quality of Loa and its tributaries, and especially noted the high levels of arsenic as well as other heavy metals like mercury and even detergents. One paper I read blamed most of the serious pollution on the mine, but an article from the Journal of Applied Geochemistry notes that the waters in the area are heavy in arsenic and other metals as a result of the groundwater coming from young volcanic rock, for example the Río Salado is born from geothermal geysers at El Tatio. The article blames the mine some, but moreso it blames evaporation and water impoundment for the concentration of harmful materials. 
In 1997, the town of Quillagua was devastated when floods, not unlike those that Doña Virginia told me happened this February, caused sediment in three reservoirs above the town to get stirred up. This sediment was holding unnaturally high concentrations of heavy metals that had built up over time behind the dams. Suddenly the water went from having 300 µg/L (micrograms per liter) of arsenic to having 30000 µg/L, while the recommended maximum for drinking water is just 50 µg/L. This flood apparently devastated the crops, animals, and the people in Quillagua, a town that at the time had not received rain in 40 years. It has still to recover and most residents have left. Quillague is considered the driest town on the planet, and the Loa, the oasis, was what kept it alive. The floods also seriously damaged the fishery off the coast.
With all this in mind, I am redressing my plans to trek the length of the river – the Quebrada de Mal Paso, the heavy metals, the danger of canyoning alone, and the potential for drinking seriously polluted water along the Río, even with a good filtration system, it probably isn’t safe. Tomorrow and Thursday I am going on a reconnaissance to explore the river in a vehicle, to see what these places really look like. Reporting back soon.
Look out the window

The dark of space, the light earth

A desert laughing

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