In February of this year, Chile’s massive 8.8 Richter scale earthquake made international headlines but only the specific timing was a surprise - like the Pacific Coast of North America, Chile is one of the world’s most seismically active areas. The February event was unique only in its scale - three years ago, for instance, the coastal Atacama Desert town of Tocopilla suffered a little publicized 7.7 quake that destroyed 7,000 homes and, even today, more than 500 families are living in simple shelters known as mediaguas.
When I first visited Tocopilla, in the early 1990s, it was a ramshackle town with a small port and huge thermoelectric energy station that still powers the massive copper works at Chuquicamata, some 130 km to the east. At that time, coastal Ruta 1 from the city of Iquique was only a dusty but scenic gravel road in an area with some of Chile’s most impressive beaches and best surfing, with little or no competition for waves. Southbound, my aging Argentine Peugeot pickup could barely make the steep grade over the hill where the Galleguillos tunnel has now simplified communication between the two cities, which are about 230 km apart. The larger port of Antofagasta is 180 km farther south.
At that time, Tocopilla’s most unexpected site was its downtown baseball stadium where, on a sunny day with a cool breeze off the Pacific, I stopped briefly to watch a team from the local Asociación de Beisbol Tocopilla work out. Despite grand ocean views, the field itself was barely a sandlot - in reality, it was a hard dirt surface on which you wouldn’t want to dive or slide, and you certainly wouldn’t want to crash into the concrete outfield walls while chasing a long fly ball. Nevertheless, baseball (owing its origins to the US presence in the copper mining industry) has been played here since 1928; in 2005, Tocopilla defeated Iquique for the national championship. Other diamonds, such as the one pictured here at the nitrate town of María Elena, are scattered throughout the region.
That was then, and this is now: on my last visit to the city, in December 2008, it was even more ramshackle, and the outfield was where those 500-plus families were still living in their mediaguas. This week, though, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera met local residents and pledged to finish a new hospital and build another thousand houses by next year. Then, perhaps, the Asociación de Béisbol can think about regaining the championship.
Baseball, meanwhile, is not the only unexpected sporting presence in Tocopilla. About 20 km north of the city, at the Tocopilla Golf Club, the “greens” consist of crushed black volcanic rock and the fairways are the brownest around (except for planted, or rather emplaced, plastic palms). The ocean views, though, are hard to equal anywhere this side of California’s Pebble Beach.