"A die-hard city in a die-hard desert" Calama by Glospi

Calama Travel Guide: 13 reviews and 12 photos

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.

  • Last visit to Calama: Apr 2004
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (8)

Comments (6)

  • pepples46's Profile Photo
    Mar 30, 2005 at 7:43 PM

    and when I think of Chile, my eyes still fill with tears!!

  • joernme's Profile Photo
    Sep 10, 2004 at 2:42 AM

    Daniel, your Calama page stories show in a wonderful way, that despite your profession you don't only fotograph with your eyes. Siempre un placer volver a paginas nuevas tuyas. The Rainlover (not really) from Germany...

  • titti's Profile Photo
    Aug 25, 2004 at 11:05 PM

    I love reading (and listening to) your stories, even when they are the sad ones related to the recent history of your country. Useful page!

  • Maillekeul's Profile Photo
    Aug 17, 2004 at 10:50 AM

    I've been there, but never thought that there had been such frigthening events up close... What about the croatian community there ? Great page, as usual...

  • Irine_29's Profile Photo
    Aug 16, 2004 at 5:15 AM


  • mafootje's Profile Photo
    Aug 14, 2004 at 12:24 AM

    Well i dont know if i would like to go here..tips are good though


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