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Off the Beaten Track

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In the rubble

Not so interesting – Diamond in the rough – Welcoming people – Herd instinct – Shades of gray. (Map this!)

There is usually a reason why certain spots are off the beaten path. Most of the time this is because there is not much of interest to be gained at that site or the trouble involved in getting there does not merit the payback in entertainment value. On the other hand, going to sites mobbed with tourists can be quite off-putting and most places cannot handle the large volumes of people wanting to see them. Rare is the site like Machu Picchu that can handle hordes of visitors and still feel uncrowded and spacious.

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Employee housing

But still we persist, trying to find that diamond in the rough, that place of special value that few have taken the time to examine. Often times even these places are mobbed with tourists and the supposed diamond in the rough turns out to be a poorly cut zirconium. The most obvious case of this have been the supremely mediocre villages of the Guatemala highlands, full of noise, pollution, and little of natural and cultural beauty. Indeed, with the exception of Tikal and Volcan Pacaya, I would put the entire country of Guatemala in that category.

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Chacabuco Theatre

One of the paybacks of going to a less visited place is that usually the people are a bit more open and a bit more willing to spend time with a visitor. In the town of Mompos, in Colombia, we were personally greeted by the director of tourism and given a long and enthusiastic explanation about all the little spots of interest in town. This warm and generous welcome was quite common throughout Colombia, until recently, an entire country off the beaten path.

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The scream

And so we still persist, hoping that the beaten path is a result of herd instinct and that our unique and less traveled path will make all the difference. This is how we found Chacabuco. Not mentioned in any guide books and so far off the ruta normal that even the tourist office in nearby Calama knew nothing of it, I came across it while doing research on Chile’s nitrate ghost towns. In addition to being an ex-nitrate oficina, Chacabuco was also used as a concentration camp during the Pinochet years. I had to visit – maybe to find the phantasms of those who dared opposed an absolute regime, maybe to find the ghosts of a land raped by mining and drill baby drill.

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A happy place

After the detention camp was closed down an ex-prisoner decided to keep the memory of Chacabuco alive and appointed himself as caretaker of the site. In an ironic twist of fate his own memory came under the assault of retrograde amnesia of Alzheimer’s disease. So we undertook a journey deep into the Atacama desert, hoping to meet an old man slowly going crazy in a place of hidden horror. When we finally arrived, hundreds of kilometers from anywhere, we found someone we least expected – a blond girl of slight build from Dresden, Germany, named Maria Schöne.

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If this were a television sitcom script I would greet Maria’s arrival about as warmly at that of Ted McGinley, but this is not a script and I found Maria’s story as interesting and fascinating as the one that brought me to this place. An architect interested in post-industrial design, she is dedicated to preserving the memory of Chacabuco and is the current administrator of the site. She is also suspicious of the motives of the old caretaker – large scale theft of materials from Chacabuco took place during his tenure and former prisoners that she has met do not recall the caretaker as a fellow internee.

Maria was extremely enthusiastic about the site and gave us a spirited tour, and she also stayed with us until sunset so we could get good photographs. In the evening she invited us to her place for dinner and we talked about Chacabuco, its past and its future, and how a girl from Dresden came to live in an isolated part of Chile.

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Welcoming hotel

So as it is with most topics of substance the story gets very complicated and gray as soon as one scratches the surface. This is as it should be – a world without clear answers is ultimately a more interesting one for it is in that murkiness and lack clarity that we find space to form our own opinions and conclusions. As for Maria her research at Chacabuco led her to find Victor, a handsome Chilean man living nearby to whom she is now married.

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Unknown Machine

View Window

Roof lines

Nitrate oven

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Storage tank

Picture window?



5 Responses to “Off the Beaten Track”

  1. fred says:

    Chacabuco really must be off the beaten path to have not been stripped of its valuable metal for scrap. By far one of the most mysterious places you guys have encountered so far.

  2. Neena says:

    Hi Fred,
    Maria, the German architect, zealously guards against such theft! Although she says that by the time she arrived, all the valuable Oregon pine was gone. The buildings have no roofs now.

  3. madhuri says:

    Unknown machine looks like a work of Keane :-)

  4. Neena says:

    Hi Madhuri,
    Who is Keane?

  5. madhuri says:

    Checkout http://www.keane-eyes.com/
    Beautiful paintings!