Maria Elena Chile Atacama

Several years ago, I caught part of a BBC travel documentary about the most extreme locations on the planet – the hottest, the coldest, the highest, etc.

My ears perked up when the host said he was going to Coya Sur, Chile. This place is only 78 km from Tocopilla. It’s situated in the altiplano, 2,160 meters above sea level, an ear-plugging climb on a road that winds up through the Andes from the coast.

He was going to Coya Sur, he said, because it was the driest town on the face of the earth. Camaras rolling as he walked up to a small, rustic office where he introduced himself to the man in charge of measuring precipitation. I can only assume now that this man was Coya Sur’s caretaker. The two of them wandered over to a small fenced-in area where a box sat atop a pole. It looked like a bird feeder. The caretaker opened a little trap door and with a smile, he withdrew his hand saying that the only thing in the box were some bird droppings. The camera zoomed in to confirm it. Zero humidity. Zero precipitation.

I loved that short documentary. So on our next visit to Tocopilla, I asked if we could go up to Coya Sur. I wanted to be able to say that I’d visited the driest town on earth. Plus, I wanted to walk a distance up there to get a more full experience.

As it turns out, my mother-in-law was born in Coya Sur. It used to be a small mining community (they call these little places ‘oficinas’) but now all that’s left of it is the cemetery and a gated ghost town that’s guarded by a lone caretaker.

My husband and I made our way by bus up to María Elena and from there we took a taxi for 7 km out to Coya Sur. Its cemetery, in the midst of the yawning desert, was still relatively well-kept. Little tombs were painted bright pink and green and white and some of the graves and plastic flowers had been dusted off, a sign that relatives still make the trek.

The taxi driver was surprised when we said we wanted to walk back to María Elena. He shook his head as he drove off.

Water bottles in hand, we began our journey along the dry stretch of highway. It was late morning, the sun was high and there was a light breeze. Wind storms don’t usually come up until mid-afternoon. We could see the town of María Elena in the near distance. Electric cables that run to the mines are strung between tall towers that rise far above the desert floor. They make an eerie sound. Other than that and the occasional sound of an approaching truck, it was quiet. The sun was already too bright in the endless, cloudless blue. More than the heat, what strikes me about the desert, is how unrelenting and bright the sun is.

We walked at a relaxed pace, and my husband told me about how, as kids, they used to come out to Coya Sur and María Elena to play football on the gravel fields. The saltpetre mines were going full speed back then and there was a lot of activity. Given the state of the place today, I had a hard time imagining its bustling past.

No less than three truckers on their way back from the mines, air brakes signalling their stop, leaned out their windows to ask if we needed a ride. They, too, shook their heads when we politely declined their offers.

We had only covered a few kilometers when a fourth trucker stopped. I wanted to keep walking but, thinking about the chatty taxi drivers we’d met in the north (some taxistas even sing for you and some songs are their own compositions!), it suddenly occurred to me that the trucker might have an interesting tale to tell. We climbed up into the cab. He shifted into gear and as we bounced our way along the highway to the plaza in María Elena, I anticipated a good story. But by the time we approached the town, it was apparent that this particular driver was the shyest Chilean I’d ever met. He never said a single word all the way to María Elena. We should have continued our walk-in-the-driest-place-on earth experience.

Next time we go up north, we’ll make the full trek from Coya Sur (with bottled water, good sun glasses and hats that won’t blow away in the wind) and we won’t pay any mind to the truck drivers who will probably mutter “gringa loca” under their breath when we decline their offers of a lift to town. And maybe for the stories, we can join some truckers at the busiest café in María Elena.