Traveling independently, the inexpensive way
Internal frame backpack, backpack cover (to avoid soling of it while hitching), 30-litre daypack (enough to carry things and clothing needed for a full day out) Shorts, sandals, trekking boots, T-shirts, light long sleeved shirt and pants, light windbreak jacket, Sun hat (ideally w/ neck coverage), sunglasses, bathing suit.
In winter (April-October) add to those: gloves, balaclava, fleece jacket, warm socks. There’s of everything in Calama, and there are always some drug stores and other businesses open 24/7.
Anyway, if you have a favourite sunblock brand, bring it with you (it should be a high-factor one) Slide film can be a bit difficult to find, or somewhat expensive, or there would be a limited choice. Print film is found anywhere, at reasonable prices. Black & white film is scarce and expensive, and so it is its processing (not done in Calama, anyway).
The landscape around Calama is quite good to be captured with long telephotos (don’t be afraid of bringing a 600), rather than wideangles, as the “emptyness” is way too big and featureless, without too many evident points of interest (but don’t forget your 20 mm.).
All brands and types of batteries can be found, but there’s no qualified service for highly-electronic or digital cameras, or for professional-type ones (take them to either Antofagasta or Santiago, instead). See camping gear recommendations on my San Pedro de Atacama page.
Nevertheless, there’s a camping ground (operative in summer only) near Vado de Topater (around the Calama- San Pedro cloverleaf), and a Municipal Riverside Resort (kinda of) with a natural swimming pool on the Loa river.
A die-hard city in a die-hard desert
Although quite uninspiring, even for their own dwellers, Calama is not that bad and boring, and better it is like that, as it is an unavoidable place to land for any traveler going to either San Pedro, or Uyuni/Oruro (Bolivia) via the Death Train. Maybe the only ones that could avoid passing through it, are those fortunate enough to have their own aircraft to fly directly into San Pedro, but being this a rather remote possibility, we will not even consider it.
Calama (S 22º 27’ 36,0” /W 68º 55’ 44,3” - alt.2288 mts/7,505 ft) is surrounded all around by the Atacama desert –the driest on Earth, which here sometimes look even drier- and two ranges of barren mountains, the highest one to the east (the Cordillera de Domeyko) and reaching altitudes of about 3400 meters (11,150 ft.), although many of the nearby Andean peaks are well above 6,000 metros (19,700 ft.), making it a delight for any mountaineer.
It is not on the main Pan American Highway, but on a detour 213 kilometers northeast of Antofagasta, so not all the buses going straight north (i.e., to Arica or Iquique) pass through it, and the same applies to some flights.
East of the city, the Loa river flows from north to south, and 10 kilometers north of it, is Chuquicamata, the world’s biggest open-pit copper mine.
Yes, and because Calama is almost an industrial city (but not at all, because the mine is not right next to Calama itself), it is not too attractive for travelers, and that seems not to matter too much to their inhabitants, who seem to enjoy quite a good standard of living, and to have unexpected amenities in such a barren and dry place.
Daytime maximum temperatures, in both winter and summer, can reach between 27º and 32ºC, but minimum temperatures that in summer are in the range of 4ºC or so, drop to –10ºC or less in winter, and in any case, winter nights and mornings are always below zero.
In spite of these range of temperatures, air humidity is always very low and there’s rarely a drizzle or rain, or snow; actually, in the last 80 years Calama had had rain some 4 or 5 times, and received a few centimeters of snow twice or so in the same period.
But the main reason for travelers to pass -and sometimes stay- in Calama, is that the international train for Bolivia leaves from here, and arrives from Bolivia to Calama as well (both at night, usually, making it impossible to go on to somewhere else immediately), and that almost all overland travelers to San Pedro have to change buses here too, so you better like it, or at least try to find something interesting in it.
Come on: it isn’t that hard as it seems.
Calama has a bizarre reputation for:
a) Sex trade, and
b) Grisly murders
The first one is rather expectable for an industrial mining city with a large population of well-paid single men with virtually no other entertainment close by. Unless you are interested in it, this “feature” does not interfere with the traveler’s business, who are usually left alone by the people involved in it, although in weekends and, especially, payment days, finding a cheap room to stay for the night is almost impossible.
And about the murders... none of them had ever affected or been related to travelers, but Calama has a long-standing story of gruesome, violent killings, many of them becoming somewhat kinda tourist attractions, or having signed the city’s life forever which, by the way, is quite peaceful and sleepy.
(See my travelogue on Calama to learn more about this).
Beyond all this, Calama makes a very good operations base to explore the nearby Andean towns of Chiu Chiu, Conchi and the beautiful surrounding countryside, greener than most of the thousands of square kilometers around it thanks to the Loa river basin, and to visit the Kunza and Aymara ruins –much better kept and less visited than those around San Pedro- like Lasana and the petroglyphs that are found in the hills.
Enjoy it: you may find the way to.
Roadsign in the desert. Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., f.11, 1/30 sec.