The child sits upright, knees bent, wearing woolen garments and a black, four-pointed, finely woven hat topped with a small feather. Alongside lie a basket of small corncobs, a knotted string bag, and a grub hoe carved from a llama jawbone. Brown braided hair peeks out from behind a metal mask that was meant to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife.
Before archaeologists discovered this tiny corpse in 1985, the Atacama Desert sun had baked its exposed tomb for more than 500 years. The mummy—one of several hundred that have been discovered along the Chilean coast—is part of a culture squeezed between the Pacific and the Andes that once scratched out life in a land where life simply shouldn't exist.
Stretching 600 miles (966 kilometers) from Peru's southern border into northern Chile, the Atacama Desert rises from a thin coastal shelf to the pampas—virtually lifeless plains that dip down to river gorges layered with mineral sediments from the Andes. The pampas bevel up to the altiplano, the foothills of the Andes, where alluvial salt pans give way to lofty white-capped volcanoes that march along the continental divide, reaching 20,000 feet (6,096 meters).
At its center, a place climatologists call absolute desert, the Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. There are sterile, intimidating stretches where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. You won't see a blade of grass or cactus stump, not a lizard, not a gnat. But you will see the remains of most everything left behind. The desert may be a heartless killer, but it's a sympathetic conservator. Without moisture, nothing rots. Everything turns into artifacts. Even little children.
It is a shock then to learn that more than a million people live in the Atacama today. They crowd into coastal cities, mining compounds, fishing villages, and oasis towns. International teams of astronomers—perched in observatories on the Atacama's coastal range—probe the cosmos through perfectly clear skies. Determined farmers in the far north grow olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers with drip-irrigation systems, culling scarce water from aquifers. In the altiplano, the descendants of the region's pre-Columbian natives (mostly Aymara and Atacama Indians) herd llamas and alpacas and grow crops with water from snowmelt streams.
To the far south, in the Chilean capital of Santiago, urbanites still consider the desert a wasteland, impervious to environmental damage. Rumors persist that in the mid-1980s the government proposed creating a dumpsite for the world's nuclear wastes in the Atacama, but backtracked to avoid a public relations disaster. "There's a prejudice and lack of knowledge about the desert," complains Patricio Fischer, a biology teacher in Iquique, one of the northern cities. "People see the Atacama as a blank spot on the map."
That blank spot on the map—roughly covering the Chilean regions of El Norte Chico and El Norte Grande, or Little North and Big North—has been the unlikely engine of much of the nation's wealth for the past century, luring legions of ambitious workers to the area during a series of economic booms. Newcomers began to arrive in the late 1800s, when nitrates were first exploited in the Atacama Desert. By the 1930s artificial nitrates had been developed, and the Chilean nitrate industry soon collapsed. Today copper, silver, gold, and iron mining drive the economy.
More recently the Atacama has become a popular destination for European ecotourists and Santiago's adventuresome elite, triggering yet another economic rush. In the Atacama's three largest coastal cities—Arica, Iquique, and Antofagasta—there are fancy shopping centers with bowling alleys and movie theaters. A glitzy beach scene materializes every summer in Arica, when hordes of vacationers arrive from landlocked Bolivia. Many come lugging golf clubs, intent on playing at one of three courses in the Atacama. Entrepreneurs have laid out fairways and greens in the sand: There's no grass, and swaths of blue paint on the rocks demark "water hazards."
Meanwhile, competing natural gas companies are bringing power to the Atacama's copper mines and sprouting cities. Pipelines draw fresh water from the Andes to the coast. A new highway, the Paso de Jama, now spans the mountains to connect Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay to the desert ports, which ship copper and other minerals to a growing Asian market.
With so much unchecked growth—urban expansion, modernization, the influx of new industry, and a burgeoning tourist trade—might there be a lasting, detrimental effect on a place many believe is infinitely resilient? Will the desert shrug off man's incursions, no worse for wear? To find out, I crisscross the Atacama for four weeks with Sergio Ballivian, my guide and translator, a Bolivian-born adventurer who relishes the Atacama's ruggedness. In a four-wheel-drive SUV we motor north to south from Arica to Vallenar, from the boisterous surf to the silence of the pampas, through the thin winds of the Andes, through a science fiction landscape. I want to learn how life survives, even thrives, where it should not.