The Driest Place on Earth

“Stretching away between the ocean and the mountains, a seemingly endless belt of sand, rock, and mountain unfurls itself, more absolute and terrifying in its uncompromising aridity than the Sahara.  The first glimpse of a strange land usually elates; but the sight of this grim desert oppresses the mind with a sense of singular desolation.” – Stephen Clissold, Chilean Scrapbook

Dry, vast, empty, inhospitable, and yet very beautiful, Chile’s “Far North” occupies almost a quarter of the country’s territory, but contains just five percent of its population.  Its single most outstanding feature is the Atacama Desert, which stretches down from the Peruvian border for over 1,000km; the driest desert in the world, it contains areas where no rainfall has ever been recorded.  The landscape of this desert is not one of rolling Arabian sand dunes, but rather one of bare rock and earth spread over a wide pampa, almost completely barren – alleviated only by the distant mountains that shimmer in the golden daytime heat haze, and glow red at sunset. Continue reading

Bolivia’s Salty South-West

Southern Bolivia is not only one of the most beautiful areas of the country, it’s one of the most interesting parts of South America.  The area south of Potosí is full of sights, from Tupiza (where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand), to Tarija (home of the world’s highest-altitude vineyards), to the empty border with Argentina (where the population density is single figures per square mile).  But the most famous part is in the far south-west, near the border with Chile, where the otherworldy landscape includes smoking volcanoes, hissing geysers, bubbling mudpools, multicoloured lakes, and huge salt flats. Continue reading

The Mountain That Eats Men

“I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of mountains, envy of kings” – First coat of arms of Potosi, 1547

“There are those who, having entered only out of curiosity to see that horrible labyrinth, have come out totally robbed of colour, grinding their teeth and unable to pronounce a word; they have not known even how to ponder it nor make reference to the horrors that are in there.” – Bartolomé Arzans de Orsua, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí, 1703

Set among the barren, windswept mountains of southern Bolivia, at over 4,000 metres above sea level, Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, and possibly Bolivia’s most fascinating (and maybe saddest) place.  The architecturally-rich town, with its cathedrals and churches, owes its entire existence to the nearby mountain Cerro Rico (rich hill), once the most profitable silver mine on earth, and the source of most of the Spanish Empire’s fabulous wealth.  Cerro Rico’s immense reserves of silver not only bankrolled Spain for centuries, it turned Potosí into the biggest city in the Americas, and the richest jewel in the Spanish Empire’s crown, with the expression “Vale un Potosí” (“Worth a Potosí”) used to describe anything priceless. Continue reading

South America’s Strangest City

Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which, like its fellow Andean capitals Bogotá and Quito, is high up in the mountains, at a lung-challenging 3,600m above sea level (making it the highest capital in the world).  The city sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes on all sides, including the permanently-snowcapped Huayna Potosí and Illimani mountains, with the colonial buildings, church spires, and office blocks of the flat centre slowly morphing into the gravity-defying houses of the ramshackle poorer suburbs, stuck precariously to the steep sides of the valley.  And down at street level, there’s the usual assortment of squatting beggars, wandering salesmen, street markets, traffic jams, smoke-belching buses, and honking horns.  So, not very different from many big cities in this part of the world, then. Continue reading

Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu

After spending time among the mountains of central Peru, it’s time to rub shoulders with what looks like the entire continents of Europe and North America on their summer hols, as I head to the country’s most popular city, Cusco.  Home to the most famous pre-Colombian civilisation in South America, it’s the eastern end of the Sacred Valley, a series of mountainous villages that run along the Andes, all the way to the most famous ruin on the continent. Continue reading

Peru’s Mountainous Middle

Following on from my tour of Peru’s historically-fascinating and architecturally-interesting (but not-very-tropical) coast, it’s back into the mountains.  And not just any old mountains either, but the highest peaks in the country, the highest mountain range in the tropics, and some of the highest in the entire Andes. Continue reading

Peru’s Historical-but-not-tropical Coast

One of the things I love unequivocally about Central America is the beach.  The coastline of this part of the continent, from Mexico to Panama, is simply stunning.  On the Caribbean side are the reefs, islands, and cayes of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras (plus more idyllic scraps of land in Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and Panama’s Kuna Yala).  And on the Pacific side are the less-relaxing (but no less-appealing) volcanic grey-black beaches and powerful breaking surf.  Plus, being both in the tropics and at sea level, the climate’s hot and the water’s warm. Continue reading