Chuquicamata: A Tour

Originally I had wanted to go to Potosi, Bolivia to see the silver mines that fueled the Spanish Empire. Those plans were scrapped after considering eight hours on the bus and our motivations to get to Chile. Instead, we learned that a cousin of a friend lived in Calama and her husband worked as a geologist in Chuquicamata, the largest open pit copper mine in the world. A few emails later, we had reservations for a free tour and a futon to sleep on.

All the tour books describe Calama as drab and gritty. It’s a working town. Everyone who works in the mine lives in Calama, a small oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert.  There aren’t any signs for yoga or massage or spiritual healing like San Pedro (a tourist town) to the East.  Instead, you will find red work trucks with wheel chocks and safety flags, everywhere. They are the symbol of Calama. They make me smile.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

Our tour starts at 1 PM in Calama where we board a bus with a number of other interested foreigners. We briefly stop at the old town of Chuquicamata right next to the mine. The town was closed in 2007 when the unwanted mountains of rock excavated from the mine began to encroach on the town. I also understand that arsenic is present in the mine dust. All the residents were moved to Calama.

We continue past one of the largest copper refineries in the world and on to the hole. At 4.3 Km long, 3 Km wide and 900 m deep it’s the largest hole in the world by excavated volume.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

We spend 45 minutes peering into the hole. We watch trucks get filled at the bottom and start their journey to the surface. When loaded they require one hour to drive to the top. Each filled with 320 to 360 tons of rock which contains 0.8% copper on average.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

This ore is dumped at the surface and pulverized further until reaching 0.3 mm in size. The copper is then concentrated to about 30% by mixing the dust with water and aerating from underneath. The precious metals bind with the air and float to the surface where they are removed. A secondary step removes molybdenum from the copper concentrate.

The copper concentrate then goes through a smelting process that increases the purity to 99.7%. Impurities are essentially burnt off at high temperatures through multiple stages. The 99.7% pure copper is poured into rectangular molds approximately 3′ x 4′ and 3″ thick.

At this point the copper is sent to the refinery where it undergoes electrolysis. The large plates from the smelter (the anode) are put in a bath with a cathode and electricity is run between the plates. Copper moves through the bath from the anode and is deposited on the cathode with 99.99% purity.  The copper is now ready for sale. The mud left at the bottom of the bath contains gold and silver concentrates that will also be sold.

Chile produces about 30% of the world’s copper followed by China with 10%. China is the world’s largest consumer of copper, consuming almost half of the world’s supply.

And so concludes the tour.

Check out this site for some photos of the process side.

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Dinner on the Road

Dinner is a slowly evolving single pot meal. It began as rice and lentils. Originally red lentils. The red lentils would cook down enough that they dissolved into a pot of rice creating a nice thick meal. This soon grew old. We started adding bouillon for a little more flavor. Beef or chicken. Whatever we had. This too, soon grew old.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

We moved on to concentrated mole flavoring and eventually found tomato sauce. The tomato really adds a lot of flavor and umami to the dish. Our “Mother” dish.

Red lentils were replaced by standard green lentils. Not by choice but because they are all we can find south of the border. They don’t cook up as well as the red, adding a little crunch to dinner. They are, however, cheap and nutritious.

Variations on the mother dish are numerous. In Mexico and Guatemala we bought tortillas, cheese, avocado, and onion.  The mother was used as a warm filling in the tortilla while the other ingredients were diced and put on top. For a special treat, one can warm the corn tortillas on top of the pot while the mother is cooking. 

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Additional variations include cracking two eggs into the mother when it is half cooked.  Oil, if you have some, adds richness to the dish. Soy sauce can create a nice contrast to the rich tomato.  Salsa can replace the tomato sauce in the Mother to make Mother Casera.

When really lucky, a nice host will provide the weary cyclist with fresh greens from the garden. Add carrots, broccoli, and onion to the Mother while cooking. Drop in two eggs half way through and stuff the pot with swiss chard. Force the lid on and let everything steam together. This is high dining.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Tomato sauce has all but disappeared in South America and has been replaced by Salsa de Tomate. Don’t be confused, it’s just Ketchup. It’s also terribly sweet and doesn’t work in dinner. We have tried. The Ecuadorian Mother has become pasta (cooks faster at altitude) and cream sauces. Cream of Mushroom and Cream of Corn being two staples. Toss in fresh or dried veggies when available.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

Clean the pot by adding two cups water and any available tea. Jamaica was widely available in Mexico. Horchata is the tea of choice in Ecuador. Heat to a boil, swirl to clean, and enjoy.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

La Comida de Colombia

As a cyclist, I’m always looking to pack on calories. One way to do that is to continuously search out new foods to try. Colombia sticks out for its fruit.  There are endless types here that I have never heard of. Guanábana, Tomate de Arbol, Lulo, Pitaya, Granadilla, and Maracuyá to name a few.

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Granadilla by Elizabeth Ellis

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Lulo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Maracuyá

Much more obscure are pinuele and guaba. You won’t find these at the fruit stand or on Google. I’ve tried. They are an indigenous snack foraged from the wild. Estan muy rico.

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Pinuele from the Paramo

Not only are there new types of fruit but there are odd varieties of tropical classics. Fruit vendors may have three different varieties of pineapple that range in flavor from watery and mild to sweet and tart. The same can be said about the papaya.

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Piña by Elizabeth Ellis

Many of these fruits are taken as jugo naturale con agua or leche. Restaurants come equipped with blenders ready to make your order. A granizado incorporates ice into the blended juice for a refreshingly cold treat. This is particularly wonderful in the hot climates of low elevation Colombia where one’s daily liquid intake es muy importante.

I meant to make this post just about fruit but the food of Colombia goes beyond that. Want a tinto, chocolate, or agua de panela? All are served hot and take the chill off a rainy day in the high Andes. Add some aguardiente to your aguapanela for a true South American hot toddy.

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Chocolate by Elizabeth Ellis

All good Colombian cafes serve buñuelos, empanadas, and a new favorite, papas rellenas. Not all papas rellenas are created equal. The basic version is a hard boiled egg covered with mashed potatoes and fried. My favorite papa rellena is a variation on a shepard’s pie. Spiced ground beef, hard boiled egg, all enveloped in moist mashed potatoes and fried. They go down super easy, even when cold, and are a big calorie bonus for a hungry cyclist. I can often be found stuffing my frame bag with these on big cycling days.

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Papa Rellena by Elizabeth Ellis

Arepas? Those happened too. Do you smell butter? Butter? Butter was all but non existent in Mexico and Guatemala. Not the case in Colombia. Arepas can be sweet or savory but all come dripping in butter. The best arepas aren’t found by looking. They are found with the nose. Smell browning butter? Go check it out! My favorite arepas are filled with queso and golden brown. The best street vendors add a dollop of butter to the arepa and then wrap it in a silver space blanket to keep warm.

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Arepas de Choclo by Elizabeth Ellis

Lastly, I’ll touch on almuerzo. Or lunch. It’s big and cheap. Almuerzo comes standard with soup, rice, beans, salad, meat, and an unlimited supply of juice. Other ingredients often making an appearance are potatoes, yuca, and plantains. I’ve also eaten chicken feet, stomach, and tongue. I hate to draw this comparison but it’s very close to cafeteria food in the states. It’s the closest thing we have found to a well balanced meal and it’s offered at a great price. It’s not fancy. It’s plain, simple home cooking.  It’s the food of Colombia and I’m a fan.

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Almuerzo by Elizabeth Ellis

On A Mission

It all started in Montana. Hot on the trail of Lewis and Clark we discovered that the Shoshone provided horses to Lewis and Clark in a time of need. But where did these horses come from? The only plausible explanation is that they were traded north from the Spanish. I didn’t understand. The Spanish?  What did they do in North America?  Only now, after three months in Mexico, am I truly beginning to understand the influence of Spain.

Lewis and Clark traveled west in 1804. Large portions of the United States were unknown prompting Thomas Jefferson to develop the Corps of Discovery. This is what I learned in school. What I didn’t learn, is what the Spanish had succeeded in doing to our South long before Jamestown or Plymouth. Or what Native Americans had been doing on this continent since before the birth of Christ.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Teotihuacan)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Teotihuacan)

When we reached Santa Fe, we began to hear about the Camino Real. A trade route reaching south into Mexico or Nueva Espana as it was known by the Spanish.

In Baja California, we had the chance to see a beautiful example of a Jesuit Mission, an example of the Spanish attempts to colonize the region. Remote oases surrounded by desert characterize the missions in Baja. Small refuges attempting to bring the local population under the crown of Spain and opening additional trade routes.  But the Baja never grew much beyond that. It was too remote, too dry, and not on any major trade route. Most of the missions there have since crumbled or been destroyed and used by the locals for other purposes. San Ignacio is one of the best preserved in Baja and also my favorite.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (La Purisima Ruins)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (San Ignacio)

Upon landing in mainland Mexico it quickly became apparent that things were very different from Baja. There was more money here. More people. The cathedrals larger and more ornate. Historic centers larger and older. Banners in Durango celebrating its 450th anniversary. We began to hear about the Camino Real once again.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Sombrerete)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Sombrerete)

In Zacatecas, our host took us to Guadalupe, one of the northern most Convents in Mexico. Used as a jumping off point, this Convent helped support the missions in Northern Mexico. It was also a part of the Camino Real.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Zacatecas)

The Camino Real, originally a loose network of trails used by Native  Americans, was improved by the Spanish as they saw fit.  The silver mines in Zacatecas and the surrounding area were a significant reason for its expansion. The road stretched from the port city of Veracruz to as far North as Santa Fe. Significant riches removed from the earth of Mexico traveled this road and were  loaded on boats for Spain, for the King. The Missions continued to grow and amass new subjects for the king, as well as labor for the mines.  Any resistance was dealt with quickly and harshly.  Under Spanish rule the church and state were seemingly one entity.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Mexico City)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Mexico City)

Over time the road continued to expand and Spain profited greatly up until Mexican Independence in 1810.  This was an enormous blow to Spain which soon lost control of nearly all its colonies up and down North and South America.  While the Spanish Aristocracy has not been in control of Mexico for over 200 years, their presence is still heavily felt in the culture of Mexico.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Oaxaca)

La Tortilleria

I’m addicted. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was the tacos. I started by eating a few each day. That was a month ago. I think about how many I had yesterday. Was it 15? Or more likely a 1/2 kilogram? Supposedly the “healthier choice” over flour tortillas, I’m told it’s OK by a friend who lives in Mexico.

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Maíz tortillas aren’t for everyone. They dry out quickly and break easily, dumping their contents on the floor. Their mouth feel is granular. However, they are slightly sweet, cheap, and when prepared properly have a particular bounce that makes me return for more.

Fresh is best. Each town in Mexico tends to have their own Tortilleria and it’s busy before meal time. Everyone wants a steaming stack of fresh tortillas to share with the family. As they come skidding off of the machine, workers weigh them out in stacks. 

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

They come in half or whole kilogram increments wrapped in paper. The fancier stores use bleached paper that have logos printed on them while smaller local stores use non bleached paper similar to a newspaper without any ink.

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At home, the hot stack of tortillas is kept in its paper cover and further wrapped in a towel to preserve moisture and heat.  When dinner is ready (or rather any meal because they are eaten all the time) the tortillas are placed on the table and eaten as an American would eat fresh bread.

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They are rolled up and used to push food on the plate. They are dipped in soups. They are made into food vehicles conveying tasty tidbits into your mouth. They go with everything. It’s OK to have a couple kilograms of maíz tortillas at home. They will get eaten.

Of particular note is that the warmest tortillas are the best. While eating dinner with a friend I noticed that she didn’t take from the top of the tortilla stack. Rather, it is important with a fresh stack to find a tortilla in the middle and pull it out. It’s like getting the center roll out of a fresh baked pan of rolls.

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After dinner the tortillas are wrapped up in the towel and left to cool. They will last another few days but they won’t be as good as they were when fresh. Slowly, the moisture escapes and the maíz tortillas become brittle and dry. They are rejuvenated for each successive meal by heating in a hot skillet or over an open flame. Their flexibility and bounce returns.

Eventually, the heat treatment will not rejuvenate the days old tortillas.  They are destined for a new life as Chilaquiles.

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El Boleo Mining Company

“Disminuya Su Velocidad.” The sign reads as we descend a steep hill toward the Sea of Cortez. And then I see it. A horizon line on the already steep road. Where does it go? The earth drops away from our bikes as we roll over an even steeper section. Gravity is in full control. We will be in Santa Rosalía soon.

We pass the dump and ride through an industrial section. It’s an active copper mine outside of town. Further down the road the town begins to take shape. Grocery stores and concrete housing all painted in bright colors. Abandoned industrial buildings. An old wharf built many moons ago.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

We ride down a street surrounded on both sides by wooden houses in various states of repair. Large porches with high ceilings. Clapboard siding. Each a different color. Old locomotives and mining equipment staged in the middle of the road to show off the history of the town.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

The mining museum is at the end of the road in one of the more unique wooden structures. Again, surrounded by a beautiful porch with cast iron railings. Copper was discovered in 1868 and a French mining company was soon to set up operations.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

The ore itself was of such a fine grade that ovens were used to heat the material up and concentrate it even more. A multi step process created copper ingots 99% pure. Marked with the company name “Boleo” these ingots were loaded on sailing vessels and shipped abroad. Slag (3-5% copper) created during the refining process was loaded on ships and dumped at sea.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

The town had electricity and telephones. All the latest technology. Gustav Eiffel even designed the church in town. A pre-fabricated metal structure replaced stone as a building material.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis

In 1954, the French company handed assets over to the Mexican government as it was no longer profitable. The Mexican government continued operations until the mid 80s. At that time, the copper ore was of to low a grade to refine in ovens. The old factories in town were shut down. 

The majority of this information we gleaned from a gentleman at the abandoned mining facilities. We did this in broken Spanish with two other cyclists we had been riding with. The facts may not be perfect but I feel they are pretty close.

Renewed interest in the copper deposits has encouraged the developement of a new project outside of town that is capable of handling lower grade ore. Many new jobs are expected as a result.

P.S. We passed the world’s largest salt making facility in Guerrero Negro. They offer tours. I was unable to take one. Next time.

A Point Above

I wake up early in the morning and peer up at the sky. Venus is coming around into view. Soon a sliver of moon and the first rays of morning appear. Venus rolls higher into the sky. My eyes wander to the Big Dipper and the North Star low on the horizon. Both are emblematic of home. Both are on the state flag.

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At home the North Star is always there. So high in the sky I have to crane my neck to see it. So high in the sky that it’s useless as a navigation device. Instead pilots turn to grid navigation as I recently learned while rafting the Grand Canyon with friends. 

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Photo by Jerami Marsh (Floating the Grand Canyon at Night)

As I look at the North Star now, so low in the sky, I fear we are about to lose it. I don’t know when it will happen. Sometime in the next few months. As we ride south, it will slide North and disappear from view. The North Star, a friend since childhood, will no longer be with us.

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