Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Heading South (2): Chile's Norte Grande

The northern third of rail thin Chile is about three things, and three things only: desert, mining, and mining.

45km east of Iquique is the ghost town of Humberstone. This company town, based on nitrate mining, was abandoned in 1960. Due to the dry climate and lack of human intervention, it is now exactly as it was decades ago, with the exception of more dust. It has even been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. To describe the place as surreal is an understatement. A large cast iron swimming pool idly sits, empty. Classrooms are filled with neatly aligned desks and chairs, pupil-less. It is a manifestation of the boom-and-bust economies of Latin America, addictively reliant on just one or two volatile commodities.

Further down the Pan-Americana Highway, near the town of Calama, is the Chuquicamata copper pit. For almost a century, it has made money for the likes of the Guggenheims, and now, for Codelco, a state-owned concern. Until recently, it was the world's largest open mining pit. In 2000, it produced 650,000 tons of copper a year, about 5% of the total world's output. It measures approximately 4 km x 3 km and almost 1 km deep. From a distance, ant-like trucks can be seen lazily climbing up from the bottom of the pit, carrying hundreds of tons dirt and ore at a time.

Che Guevara stopped by the pit on his famous motorcycle trek through South America. Back then, he witnessed the exploitation of workers by large multi-national behemoths. Today, the exploitation continues. Despite the skyrocketing value of copper in the world market and record profits, workers' wages have barely kept up with inflation.

Continuing south, towards Santiago, the Valle de la Luna is a destination for those seeking inner peace. The grandeur, the alien environment, and the desolation combine to make an experience that will be forever seered into one's mind and soul. With each deep breath, the valley's mana (to borrow a Hawaiian term) enters the body, courses through the veins, and revitalizes.


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