The Real Copiapo, The Real Atacama...
by a resource stock analyst who lived there
Long time readers may recall that I lived in Copiapo, Chile for quite a while - 2 years to be exact, although I now live in the very different Lake District in southern Chile, near Pucon. With the eyes of the world suddenly on Copiapo and the nearby San Jose mine because of the sensational and unprecedented mine rescue, thousands of reporters have descended on the town, and are searching out every angle to this story. However, a little over 2 months ago the vast majority of these reporters knew less about the Atacama region than they do about Mars, which is perhaps not surprising as there are some similarities. As usual with these human interest stories you will get plenty of views of the mine site and close up shots of relatives celebrating and weeping, but will get little context; learn little about the area or about what it's really like to live in Copiapo. The purpose of this article therefore is to correct this imbalance - to share with you the insights of an English resource stock analyst who actually lived there, and some of the photos I took during that time.
Oct 14, 2010
Copiapo town - plaza is green square to center left of photo...
Let's starts with some facts and we'll get to the juicier stuff later. Copiapo is a medium-sized town of about 150,000 people and is the capital city of Region 3 of Chile, the Atacama region. That means it is in the Atacama desert, the driest in the world along with the Gobi. It hardly ever rains in Copiapo - sometimes it doesn't rain for up to 7 years or more but when it does, as is the case this year, the surrounding desert bursts into bloom as millions of seeds that have been laying dormant for years start to grow and the plants rapidly complete their lifecycle before they run out of moisture. It means that many people can't be bothered to fix their roofs, so if it rains heavily water often comes into the house. Also the drainage system can't cope and the streets flood.
A brightly flowering plant festooning the ancient trees in Copiapo plaza...
One of the best things about Copiapo is the climate - if you like sunshine that is. It must be one of the sunniest cities in the world. This being so Maund has renamed it "Sun City." Fortunately it is situated about 70 kms east of the coast - fortunately because much of the coast of Chile right up to Arica and Iquique is frequently plagued by depressing overcasts. The reason for this is the cold Humboldt current which comes up from Antarctica and chills the air, causing the famous, or perhaps infamous Kamanchaka, which does at least provide the moisture for various plants and cacti to survive in the otherwise barren desert. These overcasts are at their worst in Winter when the sun is weakest and the sea is coldest, and there are places which barely see the sun for weeks, although it never rains. Even though it is sunny most of the time, Copiapo is not completely immune from these overcasts, which take advantage of the sun's absence during the night to sneak in from the coast on a west wind, especially in Winter, so that you often wake up to leaden skies, which the sun frequently takes most of the morning to burn off. Although sunny and pleasantly warm most of the time, a breeze from the not-too-distant coast ensures that Copiapo does not get unbearably hot considering its latitude, except during January and February when it gets a bit much, although the sun can be fierce for much of the year.
Sun or cloud? - on the coast it can be sunny all day, but 5 kms away it can be overcast all day...
Vineyards just a short distance from the city...
Copiapo is a small and isolated city, and until the advent of the relatively recent cheap air connections with Santiago, the ordinary citizens of the town, which account for most of the population, hardly travelled anywhere, except locally. This means that they are people of simple tastes who are easily satisfied. If you should find yourself attempting to live here, you may need to adapt. Instead of trying to talk to people about opera or fine art, learn to appreciate the subtle difference between the work of Don Omar and Daddy Yankee and to feel happy with a glass of pisco sour or the excellent Chilean wine in your hand - the more of these you drink (within reason) the easier it is to fall about laughing and you suddenly find yourself fitting in.
You can't expect young virile mining types to live lives of abstinence, and being a long established mining town Copiapo caters for the young mining employees' every need. This may explain the strange magnetism of the town for "gringos", especially those who do have but are not fully satisfied with their wives or girlfriends back home. In addition to the usual "boy's club" evening pastimes of drinking and falling around laughing at jokes, many technical mining staff such as engineers and geologists can avail themselves of the city's classic mining town entertainments that include pole dancing and strip clubs and brothels masquerading behind the facade of drinking dens. Actually, by the standards of old mining towns what goes on in Copiapo these days is pretty tame, but then of course the age-old pastimes have to compete nowadays with television, film and the internet. For those with more varied tastes the town sports a vibrant transexual community who seem to come out in force after midnight - and here Copiapo's mild climate is a great help, as it enables them to show their wares to advantage, without the need to be burdened with heavy coats or unappealing jackets. And it's not just the visitors who get "a piece of the action" - more than a few Copiapinos, as they are known, have two or more partners - well, it gets lonely when hubby goes off down the mines having fun for 10 days at a stretch.
Copiapo does have a nice plaza with ancient 200-year old trees with massive trunks, although at one time it had a beautiful fountain feature at its center, which one of city's mayors saw fit to largely tear up and pave over. All that is left of it is a non-functional dilapidated fountain at the very center of the plaza, which pigeons perch on to groom themselves. The trees were recently disfigured by being heavily cut back in a CYA operation, due to some old guy on a bench being killed by a falling branch, after which out came the chainsaws. The plaza is a vibrant place during the day, with various entrepreneurial musicians plying their trade with wildly varying levels of ability, vendors with small stands selling sweets and drinks etc., sometimes an artesanal market where you can buy desert and mining-related souvenirs, unemployed men whiling away the time of day on lines of benches who pass the baton to skateboarding teenagers as the shadows lengthen, dogs in groups pursuing bitches, but otherwise laying on their sides, until nightfall when they tear open numerous trash bags for sustenance and gypsies harrassing gringos for handouts. Walking around the town you need to be mindful not just of where the dogs have been, but where they actually are, as they sometimes sleep right in the middle of the sidewalk. In addition the pavement is often in a poor state and if you don't watch your step, you can easily end up with a twisted ankle or falling under a passing car. Over the past year or two the plaza has been disfigured by a soviet style "slab architecture" hotel, along one side, which has the cheek to charge quite high prices, and whose only virtue from the point of view of the average citizen is that you can ascend it to get a good view of the plaza - or you would if they cleaned the windows more often. Someone probably received a nice "backhander" to allow this to be built.
Speaking of backhanders Copiapo's new airport is one of the riddles of our time. It must rank as one of the remotest airports in relation to the town giving rise to it in the world. The question on the lips of visitors arriving at the airport for the first time, particularly those from Las Vegas, is "Where's the ******* town then?" since you can't see it from either side of the plane as it descends even on the clearest day. The reason for this is that it is about 60 kms away, so the journey from the airport to the town by road takes nearly as long as the journey from Santiago on the plane. The airport itself is actually well designed and efficient and pleasant to use, there's just the small problem of the location. Why did they build it here? Maund has 2 theories - one is the anticipated future development of the nearby small coastal towns for tourism, the other is to generate a "nice little earner" for Copiapo taxi drivers, which it certainly is - maybe it was a combination of the two, but one thing is certain - it is a pain for those flying to and from Copiapo, whose journey time is increased by at least 50%. Any reporters on the mining rescue reading this will know exactly what I am talking about.
The word Copiapo means "crucible of gold" and while the town's economy rests mainly on copper and gold mining, a less known but important plank of the town's economy that has come to the fore in recent years is agriculture - modern irrigation techniques have allowed subterranean water sources (having their origins in Andes meltwater) to be increasingly exploited to support a range of dramatic vineyards that spangle the desert valley leading to the village of Tierra Amarilla, and other areas nearer to the city with splashes of bright green. The vineyards in this scenic valley produce grapes for wine and for raisins, and make a major contribution to the local economy. A big problem arising from the ever-increasing offtake of underground water by big mining operations like the huge Candelaria copper open pit outside Copiapo now owned by Freeport McMoran, and by the vineyards is that the underground rivers are both receding and drying up. Many years ago the river bed in Copiapo was occupied - by water. Now it is bone dry and only has a generous sprinkling of plastic bags from nearby supermarkets. Copiapo has a serious water shortage problem, which is not helped by the poor state of the water system - there are frequent pipe ruptures - and the problem is set to get worse. Water pressure often drops in parts of the town to the point that showers become unusable.
Dramatic vineyards in the desert in the valley towards Tierra Amarilla...
South Americans in general are a colorful and music-loving people, which makes them fun to live amongst. This love of colour and vibrancy even extends to the realm of architecture. Some of you may have watched the hilarious annoying orange videos in youtube, and it is very likely that conservative Austrians happening to visit Copiapo (about as likely as me winning the lottery) would have found the orange painted municipal building in the plaza pictured below very annoying indeed. However, any conservative Austrians reading this can relax as the building has now been painted a more sedate color.
There is a lot of graffitti in Chile ranging from vast amounts of the usual worthless and unintelligible teenage scribble right up to the downright artistic. As there are a considerable number of communists and other malcontents in Copiapo, much of the graffitti is negative and ugly, but if you look around you can find finer expressions of the human spirit such as that shown below...
Protests in Chile aren't just confined to old commies and Pinochet haters. The wages for workers are often pitifully low given that Chile is quite expensive for a Latin American country, so many protests are motivated by frustration over low pay. Schoolkids also get in on the act, and you can understand why when you see the conditions in many schools, and of course, it's also the perfect excuse to bunk off lessons.
In the old days one of the first trains in South America, if not THE first, ran on a line from Copiapo out north-west to the smart port town of Caldera. The small train in the photo below looks too small to have made this run, and was probably a mining train. It is located outside the newly restored historic train station in Copiapo.
Copiapo has the second best mineral museum in South America. This underappreciated museum is an Aladdin's cave of colourful, gleaming and glittering crystals and minerals. Away to the east up on the Altiplano near the Argentine border is the other worldly Nevada Tres Cruces National Park with green lakes, flamingoes and a 7000 metre high volcano, Ojos de Salada.
I have already mentioned that Copiapo is very isolated - the nearest town of any size is Vallenar, which is a 2 hour drive away to the southwest. It is deep in the Atacama desert, and while the surrounding country may be poor in vegetation it makes up for that by being rich in mineral deposits. In addition to the massive Candelaria copper open pit not far from the town to the South West, there are numerous other mines and prospects, including of course the now world famous San Jose mine.
A classic Atacama desert scene just 20 mins drive west of Copiapo...
Another mountain west of Copiapo, from which the photo above was taken...
A large dune out towards the San Jose mine...
The desert close to the San Jose mine...
Drilling south of Copiapo, Maund at right...
A little known fact, at least internationally, is that there are some beautiful beaches west of Copiapo. Many of them are undeveloped, and the principal problem with them is that they mostly lack shade - unless you improvise your own you fry. If the sun is out that is - it often isn't on this coast due to the water being so cold, which is why it may be wishful thinking trying to develop this area as a tourist resort - Chileans with money go to Brazil or the Caribbean where they know they won't be suffering from chattering teeth.
At Bahia Inglesa, an hour's drive west of Copiapo...
The writer's wife, Susana, at Villa Allegra, 90 minutes northwest of Copiapo...
The beautiful Playa la Virgin, an hour west of Copiapo...
Chile is an amazingly diverse country geographically, like many countries rolled into one, and is a good place to live. Although it does have socio-economic problems and is expensive compared to other south American countries, it is a country which is on the up, which is more than can be said for places like Britain, Spain or the US and it is blessed with a wide range of natural resources. Food is good and cheap and the wine is excellent. Taxes are low compared to the old world and land is quite cheap too, although prices are rising. Generally it is a safe country to live although petty crime such as theft is a problem, especially in Santiago. True, it is a long way from much of the rest of the world, but that provides some defense from the hordes of immigrants who might otherwise show up here. The new President, Sebastian Pinera, is an exceptionally positive man who is a tremendous unifying force, as he knows how to make almost all classes within society feel included, so that it is very hard for commies and socialists to "pin anything on him", despite him being a billionaire, which might otherwise be used against him. Even Evo Morales the Bolivian President, who is not known as a capitalist, seems to like him.
Desert sunset, from a hill just outside Copiapo...
So, I like it here and have no plans to leave.
All photos by Maund, unless he is actually in the photo.
Oct 14, 2010
is an English technical analyst, holding a diploma from the Society
of Technical Analysts, Cambridge, England. He lives in Chile.
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