Over Atacama Desert and Andes Mountains

As our plane took off from Bolivia’s El Alto airport for Santiago, the capital of Chile, my excitement soared just like the plane did.  We were flying out of the world’s highest airport and over a fascinating land, the most Andean and indigenous of the South American countries, and second only to Tibet in elevation.

And we were headed for Chile, a country whose geography makes it unique among nations.  Present-day Chile is 4,270 km long but only 356 km wide at its widest point and 64 km at its narrowest, with an average width of just 175 km.  Our flight path lay over its entire northern half on a sunny day without so much as a speck of cloud to obstruct our view of the land below.

To my right were the placid blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, below us the world’s driest desert, the Atacama.  And in the distance to the left I could see the shimmering surface of the Bolivian salt plain. Looking even further, I could see the peaks and ridges of the Andean range.

Stop-overs in the two Chilean cities of Arica and Iquique, seized from Peru in the War of the Pacific (1879-83), and flying over the 400-km length of what had been Bolivian territory until that war, including the major town of Antofagasta, added a fragment of history to the spectacular geography and the scenery below.

Santiago sits quite literally under the shadow of the snow-capped Andes and is less than a hundred kilometres from the Pacific Ocean.  Though it is the capital of the country, the seat of the national parliament is in Valparaiso, over a hundred kilometres to the northwest, by the sea.  It sits in a new building there since 1990, quite at odds with the rest of this old city with narrow cobblestone lanes, and away from the national capital.

Valparaiso is a lovely town that was.  Now it is full of street dogs and dog poo.  I have not seen a place with so much dog poo and such robust street dogs. They look well-nourished, to which the amount of poo is a testimony.  Hungry stomachs yield little.

Anyway, Valparaiso looks to be in decline and its best days are behind.  It was a regular port of call for ships making it through the Straits of Magellan from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Suez Canal and the Panama Canal led to a sharp decline in the town’s fortunes.

It had South America’s oldest stock exchange and Chile’s first public library. It was also the home of Nobel Laureate, the great poet Pablo Neruda, which is now a museum. Businesses and people moved out to other cities included the large nearby town of Vina del Mar, which now adjoins Valparaiso.

The national parliament was moved from Santiago to Valparaiso by General Augusto Pinochet, the army chief who seized power through a military coup in 1973, not to inject new life into the city but to demonstrate the decline in the parliament’s own fortunes.  The general did not like politicians, elected parliamentarians or, for that matter, democracy. So Pinochet wanted the parliament to be out of sight.

Out of sight, out of mind, he might have thought. But the politicians – and the thousands who suffered under his dictatorship – could hardly get him out of their mind.  So, years later, when the political atmosphere got overheated, the general opted out.  But that wasn’t the end of the matter, for he was later charged for human rights offences and corruption, and died in disgrace in 2006.

Santiago is the most developed of the South American cities and Chile has overtaken the rest in terms of economic development. Credit for this economic success has to be given to Pinochet. I can think of a few countries which have been well-served by dictators, despots or authoritarian regimes, besides Chile:  Turkey, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.  Sadly, Pakistan is not one of them, though it has had more than its share of dictators and despots.

Santiago is located at about the centre of this remarkable country.  Chile’s border with Argentina is 5,300 km long, the world’s third longest between any two countries, the longest being the USA-Canada border (8,891 km), followed by the Russia-Kazakhstan border (6,846 km).

While the north has the Atacama Desert, where it may not rain at all for years, the south is one of the rainiest areas in the world.  Lakes with clear blue or turquoise waters, torrential rivers, gushing waterfalls and lush green meadows, all against the backdrop of the snow-covered Andean peaks, abound in the south.

When I sat on the front seat of the upper deck of a double-decker bus in Valparaiso, headed for the Argentinian city of Mendoza on the other side of the Andean mountains, I knew what to expect.  In fact, that is why I chose to go overland by bus rather than catch a plane. I had previously flown over this section of the Andes on my way to Rio de Janeiro from Santiago. It was a scary flight and an amazing sight, our plane almost skimming the snow-capped peaks which spread out in all directions as far as the eye could see.

I was reminded of the flight from Islamabad to Skardu many years ago.  I have flown over the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas and the Karakorum, but it was the first time we were asked to fasten our seatbelts without any unusual turbulence.  A normal practice on this flight, I was told, because of the dangerous flight path of the plane.

By Razi Azmi

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