7 years of rain in 12 hours – this is the result

Coastal earth road, hardened with salt, towards Domeyko

Coastal earth road, hardened with salt, towards Domeyko

You may remember that we were sitting in Valle de Elqui , after our efforts to enter Argentina across Paso Agua Negra were stymied by a weather event in Northern Chile. We waited for just over a week in the hope that it might still be possible to make the crossing, but were then convinced that there was no chance. However, in the meantime Ruta 5 going north was open again. We don’t like back-tracking so north it was, towards Antofagasta.

National Park Pan de Azucar

National Park Pan de Azucar

Once again we wanted to avoid the major highway, when possible. Chile is very narrow at this point so there aren’t many other options. Along the way that brought us finally to Antofagasta we saw firsthand some of the dreadful devastation caused by the recent heavy rain. Roads in some places were no longer passable and in others were completely gone. Masses of mud, and everything it had swept along in its path, were the focal points in several places we passed through. By the time we reached Antofagasta we were no longer complaining about our failed plans – we had seen people in much worse situations trying to get their lives back to some sort of normality.

Our first experience came less than 150Km from La Serena. The hardest hit area was Chile’s 3rd region – Atacama – and we had just crossed into it. We had left the Ruta 5 to take a road along the ocean and then we had to turn a little inland. As we travelled into the coastal mountains, the road was good and the scenery great. The mountains were anything but boring and the coastal fog started to lift so the sun could highlight their colours. We left the road we were driving, which was headed back to the highway, and turned north on a road to Freirina.

road closure and washed away roads en route from coast towards Freirina

road closure and washed away roads en route from coast towards Freirina (April 2015)

There was a sign at the beginning of it telling us that there were workers on the road ahead. Initially the road was fine but then it became narrower, following a river gorge, and had obviously been heavily damaged by the recent weather. In places it looked like the road had been rebuilt with truckloads of dirt. We finally got to a place where there was a river of dried mud, right up to the edge of the road. Shortly after it there were some workmen who turned us around because the road was impassable. A shame that this detail was omitted on the sign at the start of the road! We turned around and headed back the way we had come – about 20Km! On the way back we took more notice of the surroundings and discovered road signs pointing to roads that no longer existed – you could barely identify where they had been.

where the road should cross Rio Copiapo near Puerto Viejo

where the road should cross Rio Copiapo near Puerto Viejo (April 2015)

Despite this experience, after reaching Freirina via the highway, we persevered with the small roads and had some success until we reached Puerto Viejo and followed sign-posting to Caldera – the next major town we were heading for. Less than 5Km down the road it came to an end. Where the road had been, the Rio Copiapo had rushed through and destroyed everything in its path. The city of Copiapo, further up-river, had been one of the hardest hit areas and we had come this way to avoid the chaos there. We spent the night nearby and walked up to the top of a hill to view the whole situation – we could understand the disaster in Copiapo a little better seeing the state of the river valley close to its mouth! Fortunately for us we only had to backtrack a few kilometres to another road which crossed the Copiapo River with a bridge. This bridge also gave us a clear view of the results of a river in heavy flood.

Sandstone cliffs at Bahia Carrizalillo

Sandstone cliffs at Bahia Carrizalillo

We reached Caldera without further back-tracking. From there the only way north is along the highway to Chañaral. This was another town that had been very badly affected by the flooding. We had been warned that there would be a wait, but we were totally unprepared for the devastation we would witness as we eventually drove through the town. The highway which normally bypasses the town centre on the ocean side had completely disappeared. The roads we followed on the detour through the streets gave us a clear view of the masses of mud towards the beach with cars covered to their windows. These streets were also covered in a thick layer of mud. Some buildings appeared to be damaged beyond repair.

Severe destruction by flood waters in Chañaral, which was hit by a wall of mud

Severe destruction by flood waters in Chañaral, which was hit by a wall of mud (April 2015)

Once we left the town centre and re-joined the Ruta 5 the full story emerged. On either side of the road there was mud as far as the eye could see and many partly submerged vehicles – cars, trucks, heavy mining machinery – buildings almost completely destroyed and people working everywhere to clean up. There was a constant stream of empty and full trucks driving into and out of the work spaces to dump the excess rubble and mud. It will take months, if not years, to clean this up. It was a shocking sight, and we just had to stop. There was devastation everywhere around us and it was too much to absorb.

Flood aftermath visible along Ruta 5 going north from Chañaral

Flood aftermath visible along Ruta 5 going north from Chañaral (April 2015)

Once back on the highway we thought it was all behind us – but, wrong again! A few kilometres up the road we had to take a long detour onto a very rough side track, which could have been the old highway. Soon we saw that parts of the highway had disappeared, and other parts were so undercut by water as to be unsafe to use. Once we got back on the highway, there was mud and debris on one or both sides of the road for many kilometres. You could see where the water had rushed down the sides of the mountains into the valley of the Rio Salado! The first road into Pan de Azucar National Park had a row of stones across the entrance indicating that it was closed. The second road into the park just wasn’t there! There was some mud along the highway for almost the whole way to the turn off to Taltal.

Mountain pattern inland from Chañaral

Mountain pattern (with lava veins?) inland from Chañaral

We decided to leave the highway towards Taltal to find somewhere to spend the night. It’s on the coast so we imagined a sleepy little town with maybe a beach carpark… wrong again!!! As we descended from 770m towards sea level we once again began to see evidence of mud along the sides of the road. The closer we got to the town, the more mud there was. It then became obvious that the road had been a river. The government had several huge signs along the road proclaiming their work to improve the management of water run-off down this valley. As we reached the outskirts of the town there was heavy machinery trying to clear mud, that was metres deep and rock hard, from this newly completed work! We did stay the night, in a parking lot overlooking the beach on the edge of town.

Severe flood damage in Taltal

Severe flood damage in Taltal (April 2015)

The next morning we took time to walk around this attractive little town and were shocked by how little help they seemed to be getting to clean up. The roads were still caked with mud causing dust problems and many buildings were showing signs of being damaged by water and mud with no real clean-up under way. It is a lovely town with a lush central plaza, a very simple, but cute church and many old timber buildings, some in good repair. Had the times been different we may have stayed a few days.

We left Taltal and followed a stunning coastal road to Poposa and then wound up another serpentine road to a plateau at around 2300m. This took us through a barren but stunning landscape for close to 100Km before we rejoined Ruta 5 and eventually arrived in Antofagasta. We parked on the beach, south of the city, and were treated to a magnificent sunset.

The trip from La Serena to Antofagasta is a little less than 1000Km and we had taken 7 days to do it. At home we would maybe have been prepared for the sights we saw along the way – television news would have shown us endless footage. But here we don’t have television and we don’t read newspapers and all of our information had come by word of mouth. To actually witness the aftermath and what it does to people’s lives is quite shocking.

Sunset at the beach in Antofagasta

Sunset at the beach in Antofagasta

We previously published a gallery on our Facebook Page showing photos of the flood damage (many are the same only bigger). This is an impressive video , someone published on youtube, documenting the force of the flood waters.


dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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22 Responses

  1. Derek Freal says:

    WOW! Yes, that’s definitely one thing you learn during the course of long-term travel: the power of mother nature. From monsoons to volcanoes, travel enough and eventually you’ll find yourself at mother nature’s mercy. I myself came to Nepal for one week in April (to sort my Pakistan visa out) only to have a front row seat to an earthquake. Now here it is nearly two and a half months later and I’m still here doing relief work; have put all my travel plans on hold for now…

    Anyway, cheers for sharing, glad y’all (and Berta) are safe :)

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for commenting. The power of mother nature is awesome – in the true sense of the word. The earthquake must have been terrifying but I was pleased to read that you stayed in Nepal doing relief work. Nepal has a special place in my heart as I lived in Pokhara for most of 1988. There was also a devastating quake in the East of the country that year, but the destruction from this recent event sounds catastrophic. Thanks for putting your plans on hold and helping.

  2. It’s unbelievable the havoc water can wreak on people’s lives.

  3. Rachel says:

    Wow, what a mess! I hope the government puts some effort into flood control measures to prevent this from happening again!

    • Yasha says:

      Ironically, one of the places we drove through had work in progress to control such a deluge run-off – but either it wasn’t finished or it didn’t work because it was full of mud… Devastating!!!

  4. Thanks for this post and the photos from Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s hard to imagine this after visiting it in its normal dry state. We were in Chile one year after the quake and tsunami, and even a a distant tremor in the Pacific in Japan had everyone on edge.

    • Yasha says:

      Chile is certainly getting more than its fair share of disasters this year! It was very confronting to see this suffering – and especially so, since on our way from Santiago to La Serena, we had also seen evidence of the disaster wrought by the long drought! And also the volcano eruptions this year…

  5. Your comment, ” By the time we reached Antofagasta we were no longer complaining about our failed plans” really sums up your perception of this disaster and its impact on the lives of so many people. Your pictures tell the story – devastating!

    • Yasha says:

      It really was! I read an interesting quote on Facebook this morning: ‘If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back’ – that about sums it up…

  6. Such an odd circumstance since Atacama has a rep for being so dry! Your comment “Shortly after it there were some workmen who turned us around because the road was impassable. A shame that this detail was omitted on the sign at the start of the road!” could have been mine recently when I drove down Highway 1 to Malibu and found it closed after doing a long drive from Highway 101, with no warning sign. Really irksome.

    • Yasha says:

      Nice to know it happens in other countries too – can’t call Chile irresponsible necessarily… The Atacama desert is very dry, but it has some rivers which support some amazing valleys of plenty. Unfortunately an extended drought had almost destroyed the plenty in these areas and when the drought broke with this terrible downpour, their lives were not improved…

  7. You are so very brave to have taken this route. Must have been risky in terms of further mudslides.

    • Yasha says:

      Not so brave, Irene. By the time we travelled this route the mud was dry – in fact, in most places almost rock hard… In fact, the machinery had to work very hard to move most of it.

  8. A very very sobering experience.

  9. Donna Janke says:

    It’s hard to imagine the level of devastation caused by the rains in Chile. Thanks for sharing your experience and photos. I hope clean-up isn’t too slow in coming.

    • Yasha says:

      I think these cleanups always take much longer than people initially imagine. They got the major highway open again relatively quickly, but the people in the smaller population centres are on the end of the waiting list, I think…

  10. Sue Slaght says:

    Astounding to see the power of nature and the devastation of rain and flooding. Your time in Chile looks both fascinating and heart wrenching. Your photos have captured the scenes vividly.

  11. Takeaway from this post: Don’t ever become complacent about Mother Nature—-a friend in New Zealand is still trying to recover from the Chirstchurch earthquake of several years ago and thanks to social media, we saw the devastation in Kathmandu in almost real time. Then, there are those places that are almost off the grid which, as you found, suffer almost in silence.

    • Yasha says:

      You are so right, Suzanne! There seem to be so many disasters that receive some ‘air-time’ in the initial stages and then disappear from our screens. Meanwhile, the people affected just try to get on with their lives – a process which now includes cleaning up the mess…

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