However inhabitable the landscape seems, I learned a lot about the saltpeter mining industry, which drove three countries into battle for years over this inhospitable land. The saltpeter, key ingredient of gunpowder, is right at the surface and merely needs to be scraped up and processed. The first night in the interior, I spent in a bonafide ghosttown, formerly with more than 3,000 inhabitants, churches, schools, markets, tram station, houses, offices, everything, now empty wooden structures. If there were any ghosts, they let me sleep in peace.
In addition to the mining history, there are some impressive enormous petroglyphs created by a long-ago culture to indicate where to enter and exit the desert to reach various places of interest. I've seen petroglyphs on many of the pilgrimages, but never so large as these. Kudos to the early crossers of this empty space, the dryest desert on earth.
Funny thing, walking along a highway, even a little traveled one... the things that collect on the side of the road are thought provoking. In the one day from Iquique to the ghosttown of Humberstone, I collect 284 pesos and a wedding ring. At an exchange rate of nearly 500 pesos to 1 US dollar, the value wasn't so life-changing (600 pesos for a beer), but the little coins people come to loose add up; and the wedding ring? did someone throw it out the window in a fury or was it an unintended loss? Who knows. Funnier still, the number of marbles lying about the roadside... it's unclear if a few people lost all their marbles or if many people lost some of their marbles. Either way, it's evident: people have lost their marbles.
I faced a weighty decision... a very kind young man, whose churchlady grandmother invited me into the house for the night - a large and lovely, exquisite modern home, hot and cold running water, no sand - offered me during the course of conversation a large modern edition of a book written in the early 1600s by the son of an Incan princess and a conquistador nobleman about the pre-conquest Incan culture. Rich stuff, right up my alley of interest as I head into the core of Incaland - but at nearly a kilo, what's an egghead pilgrim to do??? If I take the book, I'll likely regret it on the big ups to come; if I decline thinking I'll find it and read it sometime in the future, I'll likely regret it just as well. Doh! I took the book and am reading it as fast as I can with the thought that I'll send it ahead once I've finished it.
The border crossing was relatively uneventful and I refilled the water bottles for the remaining 30 kilometers of desert crossing to Tacna, the first town in Perú. Despite enormous tiring efforts, I could find no useful map of the country suitable for a journey on foot. Google is useless, showing a wonderful highway that doesn't exist and misrepresenting distances with inexcusable error. Shame on Google. The women of the tourist information center went to great lengths to help me, and with a photocopy map of the province, I started out. I met the first challenge by accepting a ride for 40 kilometers, hopping out at the ruins of a mule station for the final 40 kilometers to the first village of the mountains.
The rise in elevation was less strenuous than exciting - I heard the sound of running water beneath baked rocks; the patter of little critters in the underbrush; oh, the existance of underbrush! Up and up, some big ups, twists and turns, more big ups... up up, the temperature dropped, more scrubby brush, some small trees, some bigger trees, some vicuñas, cloudcover, more birds, some little rabbity animals called cuyes, more ups toward a pass. My heart pounded hard in my ribcage and I thought it was from having gotten soft during the desert trudge and from carrying an unnecessary but interesting weighty book, but no, the sign at the pass indicated more than 4,000 meters of elevation - an incredible ascent in one day, from a start of 800 meters.
The first full day walking in Peru and the slight miscalculation of the impact of the two-hour time difference at the border resulted in the arrival in the wee village of Estique Pampa a half-hour after nightfall at 6 pm. Fortunately, the police control point, staffed by one young and very bored officer, was well-lit and resounded a television variety show, allowing me to find my way down the dark switchbacks easily enough. The officer was happy to have a guest, fed me well, heated some water on the stove for me to wash my dusty clothes, and opened an unused barrack for me to sleep the night away. I took the wool blanket from every one of the empty cots and stayed warm enough through the cold night. Sunrise at 4:30. In full daylight, the verdant valley of terraces and stone cottages seemed right out of a travel advertisement for this land of Incas. Forty shades of green there are not, but a good half dozen anyway and an inviting contrast to the shades of inanimate desert beige.