19-Nov-2015 -- This was the last of four Confluence visits that I made during a quick trip to Chile in November of 2015. The first visit was to 20°S 70°W visit #1 then I went east to 20°S 69°W visit #1 and after that south to 21°S 69°W visit #1. After completing the third visit I still had enough daylight left to get on the road in my rented Toyota Hilux 4 wheel drive and head towards this Confluence. I drove back up the steep rocky road I had taken to the Confluence until I reached highway A-85, then went on it high up and over the mountain south of the Collaguasi Mine until I was back on the road to Ollague. This was a narrow, unmaintained washboard road and it was a slow drive all the way to the site of Yuma where I camped for the night.
Yuma was an interesting place. It is a cluster of now roofless stone buildings built on both sides of an abandoned narrow-gauge railroad track that ran between the Collaguasi Mine and the border town of Ollague where it met the Antofagasta to Bolivia Railroad. There is a short spur track that ends next to a large building. Judging from the number of structures, it looked to me like Yuma was some sort of rail station. I slept inside the walls of one of the buildings that night to get out of the wind and in the morning after taking a walk around I was driving south again. It was going to be a long drive to this Confluence from the last one – I had to go 4° of latitude to the south, which is 445 kilometers (275 miles) in a straight line.
The road got better as I got closer to Ollague and now I was seeing volcanoes in every direction – some of them smoking. I went through Ollague and then south on Ruta 21 with a quick detour for a soak in the hot spring on the north side of the Salar de Carcote. Ruta 21 was a good road and I made fast time on it. At the place where it crossed the Rio San Pedro I turned left onto highway B-145 and drove east and then south up the broad valley to cross the Rio Toconce near its headwaters just west of the Linzor volcano. This last stretch of road was nerve-racking for me to drive through. There were long stretches of deep loose sand - the sort of places where if your vehicle gets bogged down you will be stuck and it will be almost impossible to get moving again. I camped up high at 4500 meters (14800 ft) that night in an area that was crossed by narrow roads that looked like they were hand-built. I don't know what they could have been except old Inca roads. I'm sorry to say that I didn't take time in the morning to do some exploring - I guess I was in a hurry to get to the Confluence. That gives me a good reason for me to go back there someday.
Early in the morning I was driving south again through this mountainous country. The road was bad but the Hilux had no problem with it. Once over the last pass I descended down into Geiser El Tatio just in time for the morning rush of tourists from San Pedro de Atacama. It was very crowded there and I'm still mad at myself for not spending the morning walking on Inca roads and then going to Tatio later in the day when I'd probably have it all to myself. I didn't stay there long before I got back on the road to San Pedro. That place was full of tourists too and it took a bit of driving around on the narrow crowded streets until I found the Copec station and filled the Hilux and my extra fuel cans with diesel. I had planned on spending an hour or two in San Pedro to have lunch at a cafe and write some postcards, but it was too crowded and busy for me and I left as soon as I could.
The road that I took south went through the valley called Llano de la Pacienda which was to the west of the Salar de Atacama. It seemed to go on forever and I drove for hours at highway speeds on its smooth natural gravel surface. Finally I went out the south end of the valley and got onto highway B-55 going west towards the Escondida Mine. Before I got to the mine I turned south onto the road that would take me into Llullaillaco National Park and to the Confluence. I found this road on GoogleEarth when I was planning my trip but what GoogleEarth didn't show me was the sign on the side of the road that said: RECINTO PRIVADO – PROHIBITO EL PASO and in small letters at the bottom: Minera Escondida. I'm not one to trespass - but I had came too far to quit now, so I parked the Hilux nearby and called it a day.
In the morning after a short hike up into the nearby hills, I drove back west on B-55 to the Escondida Mine. I stopped at an intersection where heavy mining equipment was crossing B-55. There was so much traffic going through that there was a stoplight and crossing gates there. I parked and walked up into the tower where the man controlling the traffic was working. I speak very little Spanish and he spoke no English but I was able to show him on my road map where I wanted to go and he had me wait there for a manager to come. When the manager arrived we still had a language problem but between me talking to him in broken Spanish and him using his smart phone to translate his texting into English he told me to follow him in his truck and we drove on B-55 back towards the east. Once past the mining area he stopped, got out and walked over, and showed me a text on his phone in English that said to take the road going to Llullaillaco National Park and to drive safely - I thanked him and I was off again on my way to the Confluence. Once around the hills and going south into the valley of the Salar de Punta Negro I found out why the road was closed to the public. The entire valley was a network of roads, powerlines, water wells and pipelines. The Escondida Mine needs a lot of water to process copper ore into a slurry that is sent to Antofagasta through a pipeline. I got lost a couple of times in the well field but eventually I got through it, entered the National Park, and continued south on the road through the wide and barren valley between the Cordillera Domeyko to the west and a row of volcanoes dominated by Llullaillaco to the east. It was while driving through this area that I saw a cloud of dust a short distance off the road. I thought at first that it was a vicuña because I was always seeing them in my travels but when I got closer I could tell this this was no vicuña. It turned out to be a
Darwin's Rhea and there were two of them.
Soon the GPS told me to stop and get of the Hilux and start walking to the Confluence. It was only about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the road and a nice easy walk that crossed the mouth of a wide drainage then went up a shallow slope towards some hills to the southest. When I got to the hills I climbed up onto the side of a ridge above a small canyon and followed the vicuna trails. At about the place where I was reaching the top of the hills and entering open county again I had to cross the drainage below me and get to the ridge on the other side where my GPS told me the Confluence was. After a little bit of hunting the GPS zeroed out and I was there.
The Confluence was near the top of a rounded ridge that had a surface of small broken reddish rocks and scattered outcropings of these same rocks. The vegetation was sparse and was mostly the dry bunch grass that is found at this elevation and there were a few small bushes. Since I was below the top of the ridge I didn't have a view of much besides the local area. When I was finished with documenting my visit I walked back to the Hilux by way of the bottom of the canyon that I had skirted on the way in.
Now I was finished with my Confluence visits and it was time to return to Iquique which I did in a two-day drive by way of the coastal highway Ruta 1. Chasing after these Confluences was a great little adventure for me and I would have never gone out into these places otherwise. I'd like to give a shout out to some people and things that made my visits possible. The Degree Confluence Project - There is a Confluence only 18 kilometers (11 miles) from my home and I might have visited it someday on my own but I never would have gone to the altiplano of Chile and found out what a wonderful place it is if there had been no DCP. The Toyota Hilux 4WD turbo diesel that I rented is an awesome vehicle – I wish I could buy one in my country. GoogleEarth – The best tool ever for planning outdoor adventures. I use it all the time for finding new places to go to and for figuring out how to get to them. When I'm old and decrepit and can't get out of the house, I'm still going to go out exploring with it. Most of all – the people of Chile that I came across in my travels. Without a single exception, they were all friendly and helpful to me.
I've heard some people scoff at the idea of visiting Confluences because they think it is silly to go to a spot that to them is nothing more than the intersection of two lines on a map. Anyone who has made a Confluence visit in a remote area knows that it can take as much planning and effort as climbing a mountain. There are many wonderful places to see in the world and visiting Confluences is a great way to do it - whether it is deep in a wilderness or in your own backyard.