Ghost Town of the Altacama

We went to sleep fairly early, despite Silvio’s longstanding habit of watching television until he goes to sleep. We woke around nine, and were on the road shortly after washing up, Silvio driving until we pulled over for him to use the drone in the desert. We did that, dumped a load of waste water, and then I drove until we found a huge sculpture of a hand in the desert. It is apparently a common tourist site, and before long, a van full of four Aussies and Kiwis pulled up and unleashed their own drone. Silvio went to talk to them and brought the drone flyer back to discuss drone software and configuration. I talked to a couple about their trip and what the experience was like. Their camper van is a rental, so they were excited about Silvio’s truck. Mostly, however, Silvio and the drone guy chatted and the others merely wanted know how far it was to Bahia Inglesa.

I talked to a few truckers about what the hand meant and they said it represented the people of the desert. I asked them about the rest of the body. They laughed and then asked where we were going. I told them we were going north, although I was reluctant to bring up Peru. That has implications about how much money we have and contains too much information about where we will be on the road.

Silvio found out that he could program the drone from the traveler we met so he ran down one of the batteries trying it out. After we left the hand the highway widened, a new toll appeared where we had to pay full price, although the tarmac improved.

We had just stopped for fuel, and strangely got money from the gas station attendant who helped us, when we were climbing above the town and saw a ghost town. We turned around and drove up to the entrance and Silvio got out to ring the bell, which was done with a hammer. Finally an older man came and they chatted and I drove into the entrance. We parked beside the park office and the man’s house, if there was a distinction between them, and he drove us around the park. There is a route that he takes the tourists on, including a church a man made in a house when the church was burned by militars.

The town had originally been the company town of Salitrera Chacabuco. It was a mining town built by a British corporate which was meant to support the mining of nitrate. After the minerals ran out the town was used for housing political dissidents during the American Pinochet period in the early seventies. A number of people were killed here as well as tortured and some of the carvings into the dead trees in the square show that. The houses are row housing like you would find in a British mining town, and the entire village is surrounded by a wall. The houses are in ruins now, and the support buildings as well. Only the theatre is restored, although not likely to its former glory. It operates as a kind of museum with a few placards and posters as well as materials in cases.

Walter, who runs this place does a weeklong shift and then his friend comes. He is here to give tours, maintain the buildings for the park, and to make sure locals don’t come and destroy the place. Many of the houses are graffittied and the furnishings have been taken. As well, the park is used a crossroads for people smuggling cocaine out of Bolivia and into Argentina and Chile. The mules—who are people carrying backpacks of drugs across the desert for three days—wait outside his gate to transfer their load to the drug dealers. He has found drugs before lying in the desert but he just leaves them there. Otherwise he fears they would come by and kill him.

The other danger, if you worry about such things, are the ghosts which haunt the site. Apparently, two old man stroll about and then disappear. They seem to be as substantial as the living although the dogs do not seem to notice them. The other ghost is cuter. A young girl stroked the shoulder of Walter when he was sitting on a bench near the theatre. He told her she should go to sleep and she went away. She appears quite frequently, but when I went down to the square alone she didn’t appear. I stepped into the foyer of the theatre but it was dark inside and creepy so I didn’t go beyond a few metres into the yawning cavity.

I came back without sight of my ghost and Silvio later told me Walter asked whether he should shut off the lights while I was down there. I was thinking that when I was there. I thought I would try to scare them and then wait for them to arrive and freak them out some more. When they looked down toward the town centre this evening they could see ghosts pacing in front of the theatre. I saw nothing. Maybe they saw the trees moving in the wind. It is some distance away, so it was likely nothing, but their emotionalism demands a more vivid explanation. I ate my potato and ignored their assurances.

Silvio backed the truck into Walter’s compound and we are now working on our respective devices, him with his video and me with this attempt to record our adventures.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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