The Valley of Mars in the Atacama Desert, with the Andes in the distance.Credit…By Anthony Cotsifas
By Maggie Shipstead
Photographs and Video by Anthony Cotsifas
- May 10, 2023
WHEN I RETURNED my rental car at the airport in Calama, I’d driven 1,499 miles through the Atacama Desert, drawing a zigzag through Chile’s far north. The driest place on earth — vying with parts of Antarctica — the Atacama covers an area of 40,000 to 49,000 square miles, depending on how inclusive your definition is, and stretches along 700 to 1,000 miles of Pacific coastline. It’s a place defined by absence, or at least extreme sparseness. Of water, of life. Whatever is determined enough to exist there — people, plants, animals, even microbes — must be hardy, resilient and well adapted. From the road, I’d seen life hanging on. I’d ventured into the desert and also seen what dryness preserves (bones, ruins) and what it exposes (mineral riches, the stars).
In the Calama departures hall, a dog slept stretched out on a bench while a group of men sat on their luggage rather than disturb him. Almost everyone lined up at check-in was a man. Chuquicamata, the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, a hole big enough to swallow Central Park, is nine miles north of the city. Miners flow in and out of the area, some working a week on, a week off. “The whole landscape seems to concentrate, giving a feeling of suffocation across the plain,” writes Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries” (1993), his posthumously published account of traveling through South America in the early 1950s. Underground mining at Chuquicamata began in 2019, chasing deposits depleted by more than a century of extraction. From the highway, I’d passed terraced slag mountains, visible through a dusty haze, a full-scale topography of used-up earth. There used to be a company town just outside the pit with over 20,000 residents but, in the aughts, mainly to comply with pollution regulations, the state-run firm that operates the mine built 3,000 houses in Calama and relocated everyone. I’d driven through one of these neighborhoods. The streets were almost eerily quiet, a dream of suburban tidiness dropped into a landscape of stark and immaculate harshness.
There is a long history of habitation and abandonment in the Atacama, of boomtowns and ghost towns. In places so barren that human survival seemed preposterous, I drove past rambling derelict buildings, remnants of the once-thriving 19th-century nitrate mining industry. The desert highways had a feeling of hauntedness, of something missing or hidden. Not far from Calama, I’d driven past a memorial to 26 people murdered in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s killing squad known as the Caravan of Death, their bodies buried in a mass grave, then dug up and dispersed. Crushed bone fragments were discovered on the site in 1990 by family members who’d combed the desert for years. I’d passed a field of revolving turbines and a lonely black sea of solar panels. Wind and sun are abundant in the Atacama; water is noteworthy.
Look between your shoes while standing here and you will see parched sand and rock. Look at the same land from an airplane and distance reveals the ghost of water, the branching etchings and furrows of desiccated riverbeds and arroyos. The ginkgo leaf shapes of alluvial fans spread at mountains’ feet. So arid and scoured by UV radiation are the driest regions of the Atacama that NASA engineers and astrobiologists use parts of its near rainless interior, known as the hyperarid core, as analogues for Mars, places to test rovers and instruments and to study its hardiest bacteria and fungi for clues as to where Martian microbial life might exist or have existed. The Atacama is a figurative window into space, a metaphor for another planet, but it’s a literal window, too: The combination of its extreme dryness, relative emptiness and areas of high elevation give the Atacama the clearest, darkest night sky anyone can reliably find on earth. For that reason, other nations have spent billions of dollars building large, advanced telescopes here, with more under construction.
Before setting out for my 10-day road trip this past January, I planned a meandering itinerary to explore the desert’s gamut, from the ocean to the mountains and through its forbidding heart. For thousands of years, people have confronted this inhospitable place and taken what they could from it. I wanted to know what happens when human beings are determined to make something out of nothingness.