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