“Stretching away between the ocean and the mountains, a seemingly endless belt of sand, rock, and mountain unfurls itself, more absolute and terrifying in its uncompromising aridity than the Sahara. The first glimpse of a strange land usually elates; but the sight of this grim desert oppresses the mind with a sense of singular desolation.” – Stephen Clissold, Chilean Scrapbook
Dry, vast, empty, inhospitable, and yet very beautiful, Chile’s “Far North” occupies almost a quarter of the country’s territory, but contains just five percent of its population. Its single most outstanding feature is the Atacama Desert, which stretches down from the Peruvian border for over 1,000km; the driest desert in the world, it contains areas where no rainfall has ever been recorded. The landscape of this desert is not one of rolling Arabian sand dunes, but rather one of bare rock and earth spread over a wide pampa, almost completely barren – alleviated only by the distant mountains that shimmer in the golden daytime heat haze, and glow red at sunset.
Coming from the Bolivian border, the altiplano slowly drops in altitude (until it’s just the plano maybe?); and eventually we reach the town of San Pedro de Atacama, at 2,400m (considerably lower than the previous few days in Bolivia). I queue up to cross into Chile, which includes the usual cursory look at my passport and an unusually thorough search of my bags – not for drugs (for once), but for fruits and vegetables. There’s also a strange and disturbing poster warning the incoming tourists that they’re not allowed to bring into the country any “animal liquids”…
Looking at the desolate landscape, it’s incredible to think that there’s anything of value in it, or that it could ever be able to support any life. But like Bolivia’s altiplano over the border, the Atacama is rich in minerals – in this case nitrates, chemicals so valuable that Chile went to war with Bolivia and Peru over them (or invaded foreign territory, depending on which country you’re in). Chile won the War of the Pacific in 1883, and the deserts of the north produced enormous quantities of nitrates over the next 30 years. And soon after synthetic nitrates were invented (pretty much destroying the nitrate industry), Chile handily discovered copper, in even bigger amounts, making the country the world’s largest exporter of the essential metal, boosting its economy, and turning it into one of the most developed (and expensive) countries in South America.
San Pedro is not much more than a large oasis village, albeit one that’s been here for centuries (as it’s a stopover on the trade routes between the Pacific and the Andes). But it’s all about tourism now, with hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies on every cobbled street. The pretty plaza, with its adobe church and distant views of Licancábur volcano, is good for a stroll. And then it’s off to the tour agencies to see what’s around town. Just like in Bolivia’s altiplano towns, there are early-morning trips to see geysers, salt flats, lakes, flamingos, and mountains. But having seen all of these things already (and often the very same things, just from the other side of the international border), there’s actually very little of novelty for me to do here (and Chile is considerably more expensive than Bolivia, to boot). And I certainly don’t fancy a walk or bike ride in the punishing daytime heat and relentless sun to a place called el Valle del Muerte (the Valley of Death).
So I opt for a sunset tour of the evocatively-named Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). It certainly sounds nicer than the death one. The otherwordliness of the region is reflected in the poetic place names, from the Devil’s Throat to the Plain of Sadness. And it is an extra-terrestrial landscape – as a European, there really isn’t anything remotely like it where I come from. The Valley of the Moon certainly lives up to its name, a lunar expanse of sand dunes, eroded rock, and distant volcanoes that’s as busy with tourists as it is beautiful to wander through. Looking around the alien landscape, it’s no surprise that NASA tested their Mars Rovers here. And every sunset, the place is coloured with golds, oranges, pinks, and reds, as the sun sets behind the mountains.
Moving on from San Pedro, it’s another day of travel down a lonely (but well-paved) road through the desert to Calama, a modern and bland town that’s a handy stopover between San Pedro and the coast. But its chief role is as the main base for Chuquicamata, one of the world’s biggest copper mines, located a few miles north. And just like Bolivia’s Cerro Rico silver mine near Potosí, tourists can tour the mine (and its now-abandoned town next door).
The first stop on the tour is the company town of Chuquicamata, now empty after subsidence (from the mining) forced the owners to move the inhabitants down the road to Calama in 2004. Once occupied by several thousand workers (and complete with cinema, school, hospital, church, and sports stadium), it’s now an empty and eerily quiet ghost town.
Chuquicamata mine itself isn’t much more than a hole in the ground, but its dimensions are mind-boggling. Along the way the way, we pass by some of the many enormous trucks that bring the ore up from inside the ‘crater’, and their 4m-high wheels are bigger than our bus. And standing at the lookout, gazing down into a hole that’s 4km across and 1km deep, those huge trucks at the bottom are barely visible, like tiny crawling ants.
Continuing east towards the coast, we pass Chacabuco, one of Chile’s many nitrate oficinas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were hundreds of these company towns scattered across the desert, extracting the Atacama’s nitrates and sending them by rail to ports on the Pacific coast. These chemicals (also known as saltpeter, and used in everything from fertilisers to food preservatives) occur throughout the region, and were so valuable that Chile even went to war over them. Despite Chile being the undisputed victor in the War of the Pacific, the development of synthetic nitrates in the mid-1900s means that the nitrate industry in Chile is over, and the oficinas are all ghost towns, slowly being reclaimed by the desert. Eerie and empty, Chacabuco crumbles in the desert heat, its houses slowly baking in the sun and its machinery twisted and rusting. And Chacabuco has a darker history than the other oficinas – after General Pinochet’s military coup of 1973, it was used to house more than 2000 political prisoners; and though none were executed here, the town was surrounded by land mines to ‘discourage’ any escape attempts.
At the coast is the city of Antofagasta, a Bolivian town until 1879 (when it was annexed by Chile during the War of the Pacific); and now the export centre of the region’s huge copper mines. It’s less than half a degree south of the Tropic of Capricorn (the same latitude as Alice Springs in Australia); but the Humboldt Current, bringing cold air up from Antarctica, keeps the weather considerably cooler than Oz (the Current was also responsible for the dry conditions that created the desert in the first place).
Heading south on the Pan-American Highway, there are two more Atacama ‘attractions’. El Mano del Desierto is a huge granite hand poking up from the sand, the creation of a Chilean sculptor. And finally, we pass the turn-off to the Cerro Paranal observatory, housing some of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world (it can spot a person on the surface of the Moon), housed in a building so remote and futuristic-looking that it was used in the climax to the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. The almost-total lack of clouds here means that the Atacama averages 330 clear nights per year, making this desert one of the best places in the world for star-gazing. And with its lunar/martian landscape by day and celestial displays by night, the Atacama Desert is a truly otherwordly place.