It may appear drab and gritty but Calama (elevation 2250m) happens to be the pride and joy of northern Chile, an economic powerhouse that pumps truckloads of copper money into the Chilean economy year on year. And while it holds little attraction for visitors – most people will only stop here for the night (if they have to) on their way to the lala-land of San Pedro de Atacama – there is a visceral appeal to this mining town that definitely goes that extra mile in 'keeping it real.'
Everywhere are reminders of the precious metal: copper statues, copper wall-etchings and reliefs, and even a copper-plated spire on the cathedral. In 2004 the city also inherited a wave of copper refugees when the entire population of polluted mining town Chuquicamata relocated here.
The city's short history is inextricably tied to that of Chuquicamata. It's a measure of Calama's relative youth that it did not acquire its cathedral until 1906 – until then, it was ecclesiastically subordinate to tiny Chiu Chiu.
Calama sits on the north bank of the Río Loa. Though the city has sprawled with the influx of laborers from Chuquicamata, its central core is still pedestrian-friendly. Calle Ramírez begins in an attractive pedestrian mall leading to the shady Plaza 23 de Marzo, which bristles with market stalls and pigeons.