Published: August 2003
Atacama Desert
By Priit J. Vesilind
Dust flies as shepherds herd goats above an irrigated valley near the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile (1,000-kilometer) stretch of northern Chile squeezed between the Pacific and the Andes. Irrigation soaks up about 15 percent of available water in the Atacama, known as the driest place on Earth. In some spots, rainfall has never been recorded.

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.

Our journey begins as we drive south from Arica on Route 5, part of the Pan American Highway that bisects the Chilean desert. It's a road of ghosts, littered with the skeletons of wrecked vehicles and roadside shrines to crash victims adorned with crosses and plastic flowers. No villages here, no rancheros, no fences: only a few scruffy rest stops called posadas, collections of flat-roofed shacks huddled against each other. The mountains—which look as if they've been skinned, showing vein and sinew—break the eerie flatness.

More than 10,000 years ago, when the Atacama's climate was more moderate, humans started to populate the region. Archaeologists have long known about the desert's coastal civilizations, such as the Chinchorro, and have recently found evidence of human settlements in some of the Atacama's driest caves and valleys. Life could not exist at these inland sites today: An immense and permanent high-pressure cell over the Pacific Ocean fends off weather systems from the west, and to the east Andean peaks drain moisture from clouds formed in the Amazon Basin. On the coast the cold-water Peru Current streams in from Antarctica and chills the desert air, creating a temperature inversion that further inhibits rain clouds.

The arid climate helped spur the desert's first period of industrial development. In the 1830s prospectors found surface deposits of caliche, a raw nitrate formed over millions of years. Without vegetation to absorb it or rainfall to flush it away, the "white gold" encrusted much of the desert's surface. Nitrates were urgently needed in Europe to manufacture explosives and fertilizers. British and other European mining companies arrived with know-how, and by 1895 the nitrate trade to Europe was thriving, supplying Chile with more than half its income.

Soon thousands of workers were migrating to the Atacama's hundred-plus oficinas salitreras (nitrate collection and processing depots), built in the starkest, most inhospitable parts of the desert. The nitrate-era laborers were a mixture of immigrants, unskilled rural workers, and unemployed men from overcrowded Chilean cities. "One great-grandfather came from Liverpool. My other great-grandparents were Swiss Germans," says Patricio Fischer. "Atacama immigrants were mostly young, making a break with their homelands."

In the last half of the 19th century, stiff-upper-lipped and ambitious English mining engineers set up their enterprises in the desert and imposed a culture of time clocks, tennis courts, and Sunday suits on their managers. Ordinary laborers were treated less well: Bosses exercised nearly complete control of workers, who were often paid with tokens good only at the company store. The nitrate industry soon became fertile ground for new, radical concepts of class struggle and labor unions. When the industry bottomed out in the 1930s, thousands of laid-off workers headed south to the cities with anger in their hearts and communist ideology in their heads. It was back to the desert that many Chilean communists would, years later, be sent to die.

In 1970 the nation became the world's first to freely elect a Marxist leader, Salvador Allende. He tried to help the poor by redistributing farmland among rural workers and nationalizing key industries. But his efforts triggered nationwide strikes led by the business community and well-to-do Chileans. Amid severe food shortages, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, a right-wing authoritarian, ousted Allende in a military coup on September 11, 1973. Pinochet's army took revenge on Allende supporters, casting a wide net to jail, exile, or execute tens of thousands.

Many of those who were exiled ended up in remote, throwaway locations such as Pisagua, one of the Atacama Desert's former nitrate-exporting ports. By the mid-1970s Pisagua was a concentration camp that ran out of jail space; the overflow of men were housed in a ruined fish-processing plant, and women were kept in the anterooms of a quaint old British theater.

The theater is still there today. I stop by shortly after we arrive in town and ask historian Catherine Saldaña Suárez, a bright, erudite woman, about the building's history. She says the rooms have been redecorated, the handwritten notes on the walls erased. "The mentality of Chileños is to fix things up. We don't want to remember how bad it was." But her eyes, shining darkly, betray her: "I think a lot," she says, "and there are some things I cannot forget."

Pinochet left power in 1990. One of his prisons here is now a hotel, its cinder blocks painted red and blue. At the town pier I meet Oscar Romero Gallo, a portly fisherman with a wreath of black hair framing wire-rimmed glasses. He has just published a book on the history of Pisagua and says that when people arrived here after the coup they simply disappeared. "I have a feeling that many were killed and put into the sea," Romero says carefully. "How many? I don't know, and I will never know."

At Pisagua's cemetery by the sea, where the thunder of breakers might stifle a scream, a symbolic open pit and bronze marker commemorates 19 people found there, murdered by Pinochet's troops.

The road from Pisagua returns to the haunting loneliness of the pampas and their deep arroyos. Some water in the gorges still reaches the ocean during the peak snowmelt season. We follow one anemic stream to the coast, where the pastel plywood shacks of Caleta Camarones, a fishing village, simmer in the sun like a set from a spaghetti Western.

Eighteen families have lived in Caleta Camarones since the 1970s. To grow plants they use saline river water—brackish from flowing over the desert's surface minerals. The grounds are littered with old nets, broken-down skiffs, and the hulks of cars that have succumbed to the rutted roads and sandstorms. The community's small fishing boats are anchored off a rugged beach, a five-minute walk from the village. Manuel Ardiles, a ruddy-faced fisherman with large, callused hands, isn't very optimistic about the future here. "I'd like to sell my boat because you really can't make money fishing anymore," he confides. "We want to start an aquaculture business here to grow abalone."

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.

Leaving the living quarters, we head toward the observatory. I'm breathing hard from the bite of the altitude as we ascend steel stairs to the catwalk that overlooks the tubular frame of one of the four telescopes in the array. The main mirror is seven inches thick and nearly 27 feet (8 meters) across, ground and polished to exacting standards. Sensors and pumps beneath it make corrections every 30 seconds, pushing and pulling the mirror like the springs of an orthopedic mattress. "We can shift its shape all the time, constantly looking for the best configuration," explains Esteban Illanes, an observatory spokesman.

In the control room astronomers plug coded rows of numbers into terminals. The figures govern the actions of the telescopes, which can be positioned to observe any particular niche in the night sky. The VLT array digitally combines light entering all four of its telescopes into a single rendering to produce the highest resolution images of any observatory in the world. A British astronomer, Rachel Johnson, shows us dim but tantalizing images of an incomprehensibly remote region of stars, part of an Italian colleague's effort to determine a star's birth date by noting its color and brightness.

That night we drive off the mountain in utter darkness: Headlights are forbidden until we reach the main highway. Plummeting down to the coast, then north toward the city of Antofagasta, we take a wrong turn and fly over a two-foot-tall (0.6 meters) mound of dirt, landing in a shivering heap. After straightening out the radiator and changing a tire, we limp into the city.

Antofagasta, on the edge of the desert's vast expanse, is one of Chile's fastest growing cities. It's the center of the Chilean copper industry, and the world's largest copper port. An island between sea and desert, it's kept alive by caravans of dusty trucks, pricey water pipelines, and a railroad linked to the mines. The city has flexed from 183,000 people 20 years ago to a whopping 300,000 today.

"It was like a gold rush when mining jobs opened up in the late 1980s," says Luis Piñones Molina, the editor of Estrella del Norte (Star of the North), the local tabloid newspaper. "A mining driver could make $2,000 a month compared with jobs that might bring in $200 down south."

Inside the huge new shopping mall you can see Antofagasta's newly minted middle class pushing fancy new baby carriages, eating ice cream cones, checking out the newest computer gadgets, ordering Big Macs, and overextending new credit cards. "But the area doesn't particularly resonate with these people," says Piñones. "They don't put their money or their emotion into Antofagasta. They do their jobs here, then go home for the weekends."

Chile's copper wealth lies along the tectonic fault that lifted up the Andes. The ore is scraped from immense open-pit mines that sometimes sully the desert's aquifers. But there are few organized protests. "The Río Loa, the most important river in the north, was contaminated by the Chuquicamata copper mine," says Patricio Fischer. "But the prime industrial base of the nation will not bend over for a few villages on a contaminated river."

At the port of Antofagasta, cathodes of corrugated copper plate are stacked like giant lasagna on wooden pallets. As a copper port, though, Antofagasta's days are numbered: In the next four years the government will shift much of Chile's copper shipments to a new deepwater port in Mejillones, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north, and leave Antofagasta as the administrative and commercial center of the region. Planners will transform the threadbare portion of the present port into an ambitious waterfront development on the order of those in Sydney or Barcelona.

Alvaro Fernández Slater, chief of the port, is a calm young man dressed in an earth-tone suit and tie. He hopes that the makeover will be a turning point, a coming-of-age for the city of Antofagasta and, by extension, the entire Atacama. "There's no real alternative for copper," he says. "We need to build our future now, while we have the money, improving the quality of life so people will make roots and stay. A lot of us came for one or two years and planned to go back to Santiago. But now I have a house, my children go to school here—they've become Antofagastans."

The state-owned Codelco-Chile company produces a third of the nation's copper. To visit the company's Chuquicamata open-pit mine—the largest in the world—we push inland toward Calama, its staging and depot center. Calama is full of greenery and smells of money, but half the mine workers live in Chuquicamata, or "Chuqui," the company town tucked into a slope near a thousand-foot-tall (304.8 meters), three-mile-long (5 kilometers) bluff of ore tailings. The expanse of the mine is beginning to overwhelm the town; discarded tailings are slowly burying the now abandoned Roy H. Glover Hospital, once one of the finest in South America.

In a radical move, Codelco-Chile is relocating the entire town—3,500 workers plus their families—to new housing projects in Calama. Miners living near the processing plants have experienced severe health problems. But the official reason for the move is Codelco-Chile's desire to secure certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). According to the ISO, conditions at the mine are safe for working, but laborers and their families live too close to the mine's production areas.

To find out how miners are faring, we drive from Calama to the union headquarters in Chuqui. The union president, Mirta Moreno Moreno, sits behind an overstacked desk, wearing a brown suit, looking tired. Foreigners have seldom benefited her or her workers, so at first she fends off our questions with banalities. "There's arsenic and many other chemicals in the air," she says. "Every breath here can be hazardous. We have to be constantly monitoring the work conditions."

"But I've heard that the wages are the highest in Chile," I tell her.

She stiffens up, eyes flashing: "They may pay us with cash, but we pay with our lives. Practically none of our retirees have reached retirement age. They all leave after an accident or because of poor health. They don't get old; they go home to die. My father worked all his life here. He was only 54 and suffering from pulmonary silicosis. After watching him die, I decided to focus my energies where my heart took me—the health issues of workers."

Before leaving, we tour the mine and processing plants. From the rim of the pit it's hard to fathom distance: The copper mine is a series of terraces three miles (5 kilometers) across and a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep. But my eyes insist otherwise until I see the speck of a 50-foot-tall (15.2 meters) dump truck—looking like a lost roach—crawl across one of the levels, hauling 360 tons (327 metric tons)of ore to the edge of the pit.

The road from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, the tourist center of northern Chile, slants through the desert haze, with snowcapped volcanoes floating behind the lower hills like stage drapery. Here are the rock-strewn badlands where Nomad, a semi-autonomous rover vehicle designed by U.S. scientists for Mars, trained in 1997 for its upcoming mission. And just last spring scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Tennessee, Chile, and NASA visited the Salar Grande—a region of the Atacama with a startling resemblance to the red planet—to begin developing a robot that will search for signs of life elsewhere in our solar system.

The Atacama's extraterrestrial likeness is helping to attract an increasing number of tourists, Europeans in the Chilean summer season, urbanites from Santiago in winter. We cross the sere basin known as the Plain of Patience, where the desert shimmers with pastel layers of gypsum, clay, and minerals, and the geologic weirdness of salt-rock called the Valley of the Moon. We slip between iron-red pinnacles with spines like the backs of prehistoric reptiles. Surely a misplaced landscape, intended for some other world, it lacks the topography and soft edges of erosion that limn most of Mother Earth.

Beneath the shadow of the Licancábur Volcano, San Pedro has become an oasis village of sunbaked adobe houses and red dirt streets set between the desert and the altiplano. Some of the planet's most provocative landscapes ring San Pedro, enticing 36,000 visitors and ecotourists a year to its dusty little heart.

On most mornings, in the darkness before dawn, up to 30 vans and jeeps trundle along disastrously pitted roads, past herds of wild vicuñas, to the 14,000-foot-high (4267 meters) Tatío geyser field. This is the time to catch the spectacle of dozens of geysers erupting in unison. Other groups motor south to spy flamingos in the crunchy salt flats, or gather on a sand dune to wait for the blazing theater of sundown in the Valley of the Moon.

In San Pedro there are steak houses with cozy fireplaces and live Andean music. We stop for a cappuccino in a corner bar that advertises 15 types of coffee. But the town has become a shell of its former self: The native Atacama Indians who once lived here have now moved far from town. They're mostly farmers who grow fruits and vegetables using ancient irrigation techniques. They collect easy rent money from the newcomers living in San Pedro but gripe about the price of change. "The big hotels are not buying our local products," claims Juan Caerez, a round-faced farmer. "It's cheaper for them to bring produce in from Santiago."

I'm the sole guest on a guided trip from a pricey tourist hotel in San Pedro. My guide, Rosa Ramos, a beauty whose bronze skin stretches smooth and tight across high cheekbones and a classic Inca nose, cheerfully runs through her routine as we explore a canyon filled with water-falls from rivers that flow from the Andes. She points out a desert pharmacy—rica-rica, a sage-colored bush used to cure stomach ailments, chanar trees good for coughs, algaroba trees for making chicha, an Andean liquor.

I ask Ramos what life was like here when she was younger, before the tourist rush. "When I was a small child, we ate mostly what we grew and raised—llama meat, milk from cows, cheese, tomatoes, corn, potatoes," she says. "In the summer our whole family would go high in the mountains where there are good pastures. Now our traditional way of life is almost gone. My mother has sold the sheep to pay for our education. Young people like to have nice clothes, and so we find jobs in Calama, or in the mines, or in tourism. So here I am."

The Inca used to climb volcanoes to make offerings to their gods and ask for blessings, Ramos adds. "Now we climb for tourism." But a few months ago she and her husband hiked to the top of Licancábur and slept on the summit. "It was very emotional," says Ramos. "We made offerings of coca leaf, corn, and chicha to Mamacocha, the mother of water."

After hearing Ramos's story, I want to make my own homage to the desert by spending a night where life does not exist—in the driest, most desolate region of the central Atacama. My guide, Sergio, takes us down an old nitrate road to a place where rain has never been recorded, where the possibilities of life are nil, where there are no survivors of the 10,000-year-old Atacama drought: no chiggers or scorpions, no moss or algae, no predators, no prey. Sterility.

As we stretch out our sleeping bags, there are no distant yaps of dogs or growls from diesel engines—only the soft buzz of wind. A sudden cold bores in, as if there were no atmosphere. We lean our heads back to find that the surrounding hills form an immense aperture to infinity. The stars emerge. Orion the Hunter rises and stalks across the sky. A satellite, cheery and brisk, rushes through like a commuter late for work. The desert sky is not a curtain, but a deep, unutterably thick continuum of starlight that spirals off and fades to dust.

I lie awake, glad to feel a part of the desert, thinking about the stubborn resilience of life. Above, planets gleam coldly in the void. Like the Atacama, they too are hostile to life. Yet here, in the desert, as long as snowmelt fills the aquifers with fresh water, humans can endure.

But will they thrive? Probably not. After they have exploited the land and sea with their industrial prowess and technological savvy, the desert will eventually spit them out. Copper may last another 50 years, but there are no new economic booms in sight. Soon life may be too costly, too arduous, or too brutish, and most of the current inhabitants will sound retreat, leaving their ancestors in the dust, perfectly preserved.