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Fishing, the Atacama's second economic surge, began 20 years after nitrates went belly-up. Fish have always flourished along the Chilean coast because upwelling carries very cold water from the depths, bringing nutrients close to the surface where sunlight triggers profuse plankton growth that fattens up the fish. So between 1950 and 1980 thousands of unemployed nitrate miners found work on the sea.

Until 1994 the port city of Iquique stank and rattled with a dozen processing plants that reaped a gluttony of biomass—anchovies, sardines, jack mackerel, and sea bass. Nearly 90 percent of the catch was ground into meal, which became food for pigs, chickens, and other livestock.

Luis Torres Hernández, an administrator for Lidita canned seafood, offers us small cups of sweet coffee at his office in the port. Torres is a comfortable man wearing a Tommy Hilfiger shirt. "Iquique was the biggest fish-meal port in Chile, but fish meal is a predatory business," he tells me. "The plants were owned by international corporations that took anything and everything and put it through the grinder." By all accounts, the large fish-processing companies were not concerned with issues such as workers' rights or the depletion of fish stocks. They came in, made their money, and left.

Climatic changes affected fishing as well. Six years ago El Niño, the warming of water temperatures, began driving pelagic fish from the coast. Then La Niña, a chilling of the waters, produced so much food that fish dispersed instead of traveling in schools.

When the heyday of fish-meal production ended, many workers drifted inland looking to snap up new jobs in the Atacama Desert's copper-mining industry. All but two of the seafood-processing plants are gone, but Iquique remains an important port city for trans-Pacific trade, and the fish-meal industry shows signs of reviving. And there's still a frontier quality to the place: Strings of unkempt wooden row houses run up against the 2,000-foot-high (609.6 meters) sandstone bluffs that loom over the city. Bleached whale bones decorate street corners. At the same time, a glittering casino and a few high-rise resort hotels have sprung up. A paragliding outfit offers to strap adventurers on a tandem parachute, where they can soar like a condor in the updrafts for hours.

Small-scale fishermen remain in Iquique, unloading their eclectic catch—everything from tuna-like cojinova and cusk eels with brown splotches and slimy tapering bodies to sea bass and flounder—at the market dock each morning. It's here that I meet an old local fisherman named Santiago Cere. "There used to be a pier where you could just drop in your line and bring up fish bigger than this," he says, stretching his arms wide. "Albacore tuna were so plentiful that you could harpoon them." Cere swivels stiffly and braces himself, then with a pleased smile, whips his arm forward, harpooning the tuna of his dreams. "Whoosh! Whoosh!" he sings.

From Iquique we continue south along the coastal road, headed for a remarkable astronomical observatory perched in the nearby mountains. Pressure blasts snap our eardrums as semitrailer trucks whip past. The sea pounds against dark lava rocks, and the mountains flaunt mineral colors—maroons, blues, greens—that seem nearly organic.

Near the sea a dense fog called camanchaca flows thick. When the stable high-pressure cell offshore traps cool ocean air against the hillsides, the air condenses into low-lying clouds that float along the coast as fog. The camanchaca isn't wet enough to produce rainfall but does provide for an opportunistic ecosystem high above the shore—moss-covered cactuses, a variety of shrubs, some rodents, and a few foxes—all thriving off the mist.

After six hours of driving we switch from the coastal highway to the inland Pan American, which climbs above the camanchaca's reach. The sky turns a soft blue as we veer onto a dirt road toward Cerro Paranal. Here, in a place where the air is utterly dry and clear, free from industrial pollution and city lights that obscure the heavens, a consortium of European nations has built the world's largest optical observatory and perhaps the most technologically advanced. Called, rather blandly, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), it consists of four telescopes, each fitted with a specially designed mirror that feeds images to a central viewing station, offering astronomers an extraordinary window into deep space. Like Inca priests probing for cosmic favors, they've built their temple closest to the heavens, where they can decipher riddles of the universe under a full-starred sky more than 300 nights a year.

As we near the observatory, I can see its four shiny aluminum structures clustered atop an 8,645-foot (2,635 meters) summit. Security is tight. The safety officer ushers us along a ramp into the living quarters for 15 astronomers and some 100 support staff—cooks, chambermaids, engineers, maintenance men. It looks like a low-slung office building, its flat roof capped in the center with a white geodesic dome, but the door opens to reveal an indoor oasis, complete with lush tropical vegetation and a sparkling swimming pool. The entire compound is built into a sloping hillside to prevent ambient light from interfering with celestial observations.

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