What Survives in the Atacama Desert?

In Chile, a writer takes a road trip through one of the world’s driest places — a landscape that preserves remnants of the dead.

Article by Maggie Shipstead

atacama desert chile_1The Tara Salt Flat sits at about 4,300 metres in the northern Chilean Andes, at the eastern edge of the Atacama Desert. Some 400 kilometres to the west lies the Pacific Ocean and, in between, a vast, near rainless interior. Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas.

When I returned my rental car at the airport in Calama, I’d driven 2,412 kilometres 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 105,000 to 128,000 square kilometres, depending on how inclusive your definition is, and stretches along 1,100 to 1,600 kilometres 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, 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 New York’s Central Park, is 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 travelling 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 neighbourhoods. 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 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 sand and rock. Look at the same land from an airplane and distance reveals the ghost of water, the branching etchings and furrows of riverbeds and arroyos. The ginkgo leaf shapes of alluvial fans spread at mountains’ feet. So 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 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, but it’s a literal window, too: 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 telescopes here. 

Before setting out for my 10-day road trip, 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.

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The Valley of Mars, also called the Valley of Death. Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas.

Calama was my last kilometre, and Arica was my first. Just south of the Peruvian border, Arica is a port city and a desert city, pressed between the vast wetness of the Pacific and the vast dryness of the Atacama. I landed there after midnight, and from the taxi into town I spotted colourful letters illuminated by floodlights on a beach: “Chinchorro”. Around 1915, a German archaeologist, Max Uhle, discovered mummified human remains on that beach; researchers later gave its name, a Spanish word meaning “fishing net” or “small boat”, to the prehistoric culture to which the relics belonged. 

Residents of Arica undoubtedly knew about the mummies before Uhle came along. The city is like a necropolis, an anthropologist would tell me the next day. Dig anywhere and you might find bones. There are stories about kids playing football with skulls and dogs digging up desiccated human bits. Construction crews unearthing bones is not a shock. Arica has been the site of human habitation for something like 9,000 years and, with little humidity to feed decay, the desert keeps the evidence. In and around Arica there are the modern dead, and there are dead from the 1880 battle in which Chile won the city from Peru during the Saltpeter War, fought over nitrate deposits; there are dead from the 1868 tsunami and from the era two centuries prior, when Arica was the endpoint of a Spanish caravan route bringing silver out of what is now Bolivia; there are Inca-era dead and pre-Incan dead, dating back to when the Chinchorro arrived from no-one quite knows where — similar coastal communities farther north, or the highlands or both — and gradually spread out over 650 kilometres of Chilean shoreline.

While debates persist over which region is the world’s driest — the Atacama or Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys — the former is undeniably the driest nonpolar desert. Mean annual precipitation in its hyperarid core is 0.1 millimetres. In some places, no rain has ever been recorded, but the climate at the desert’s edges is more moderate. Moisture reaches its eastern Andean fringe as rain from the Amazon basin or occasional snow, and its coast in the form of a dense oceanic fog with enough heft to merit a proper name, Camanchaca. The fog supports oases of cactuses and Tillandsia, better known as air plants, and also — though the practice has yet to be implemented on a large scale — human enterprise. In some communities where water must be trucked in, simple contraptions of plastic or steel mesh called fog catchers have enabled agricultural and reforestation projects. In the town of Peña Blanca, just south of the Atacama, fog provides water to a microbrewery.

While temperatures in some parts of the Atacama can fall below freezing in winter, overall the climate is relatively mild, particularly along the coast. For the Chinchorro, who wore only breechcloths or grass skirts and lived in shelters with roofs made of reeds or sea mammal skins, this temperate area with access to abundant marine food sources — fish, shellfish, birds, sea lions — must have seemed as much like paradise as anywhere could for prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

The clerk at my hotel had waited up. He told me when breakfast was served and where to flee in case of a tsunami. (Basically, uphill.) You will hear the sirens,” he said. “They are very loud.” The hotel, a minimalist, lightly corroded sort of place, was on the beach. In the moonlight, from my balcony, I saw a dead seal rolling in the water, but by morning it was gone. Hundreds of chatty gulls and terns crowded on the rocks, a few redheaded turkey vultures standing among them. Offshore, fishing boats promenaded past, noses in the air, and returned heavier the other way. At the city’s southern edge, a plant turned fish oil into omega-3 supplements.

At night, I hadn’t been able to see how the city is hemmed in by sand. A rocky promontory called the Morro de Arica is the city’s towering, unmissable landmark, but the lower encircling hills are veneered with smooth, wind-contoured dunes. I walked along the waterfront and then up a steep residential street to the Museo de Sitio Colón 10 to meet the anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza, a world expert on the Chinchorro. From the outside, the museum still looks like the ordinary flat-roofed private house it once was. Inside, there is a glass floor over sandy dirt from which bones protrude. A developer had bought the house with plans to build a hotel in the early 2000s, but the first soil studies had unearthed a mummy, then another — eventually about 50, some naturally desiccated, others elaborately mummified by human hands. Because the remains were so numerous and so delicate, Arica’s Universidad de Tarapacá bought the building and left them in place.

The first Atacaman generations may have grown accustomed to buried bodies turning to husks, naturally mummified by the desert’s heat, dryness and high salt content. In such an arid world, the dead could linger. Perhaps the Chinchorro concluded that the dead were supposed to linger, that the preservation of bodies would mollify the souls of the dead. In any event, two millenniums before the earliest Egyptian mummies appeared, the Chinchorro started to artificially mummify their dead. “To me,” Arriaza said, “what is most intriguing is that they use the body as a canvas and create this artistic representation of the dead: of the individual and also of the feelings of the living.” Chinchorro mummies resemble sculptures or effigies. If you were a Chinchorro mortuary specialist living around 4000 BCE, this is what you would do when someone died: dismember the corpse. Deflesh the body but preserve the skin. Clean the bones. Reassemble the skeleton and bulk it out with reeds and twigs, forming an armature over which you spread a thick layer of clay, sculpting the lost body. Press the person’s skin (or sea lion skin, in a pinch) back on, and paint it with black manganese or, in later eras, red ochre. Use clay and paint to build up the face until it resembles a stylised mask, flat and oval, and then incise eyes and a mouth. Give the skull a wig of human hair. 

The Chinchorro, unlike the Egyptians, mummified people of all ages and across social classes. About 100 kilometres south of Arica, the Camarones valley is the burial site of the oldest known mummies, all infants and children. There you can stand on soil flecked with shell fragments, refuse of the mollusc-heavy Chinchorro diet, and see bones crumbling out of the ground. Arriaza suspects the initial impetus to mummify here may have had to do with high rates of stillbirths and infant mortality caused by arsenic poisoning — the Chinchorro wouldn’t have known it at the time, but the Camarones River contains dangerously high levels of arsenic, leached from volcanic rock, roughly 100 times the World Health Organization’s recommended amount. He suggests that parents turned to mummification to preserve their children and assuage their grief. “Mothers and fathers painting the little ones, taking care of them — and then the practice starts to spread,” he said. For more than 3,000 years, the Chinchorro mummified their dead. And then, for reasons just as unknowable as why the practice began, it faded away.

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Vallecito, a small valley just outside the desert’s isolated tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama. Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas.

I picked up my rental car and left Arica, turning south onto the Pan-American Highway. This way to Tierra del Fuego, that way to Alaska. A sign warned that the next petrol station was in 266 kilometres. One hour farther south, I reached the Pampa del Tamarugal, the Atacama’s elevated interior plain. Dust devils spun up into the sky. A cemetery bristled with rusting, tilted crosses. At the turn of the 20th century near this 300-kilometre segment of Chile, through the region of Tarapacá, there were more than 100 nitrate processing plants, oficinas, ranging from tiny homespun operations to those with substantial company towns. Synthetic alternatives began to replace mined nitrates in the 1910s and, over the next few decades, the oficinas were abandoned. The natural hostility of the desert sometimes seems almost to invite careless or destructive human behaviour, as though all were permissible (or perhaps invisible) in a place so harsh. The ruins of an oficina, Chacabuco, were repurposed between 1973 and 1975 as one of the largest concentration camps of the dictatorship, holding more than a thousand people. 

On one straight, flat 15-kilometre stretch of the Pan-American Highway, I counted 17 roadside memorials. They’re everywhere in Chile. Some are simple crosses. Others are little roofed structures called animitas. They might be the size of a letterbox or doghouse, or big enough to accommodate plastic chairs for visitors. Some see them as shelters for souls separated violently from their bodies, others as places where the living can pray to the dead for intercession with the divine. In the animitas I saw candles, Virgin Marys, beer bottles, soccer balls, Chilean flags, plastic flowers, bicycles, tinsel, models of tow trucks and tanker trucks, painted murals. Sometimes poster-size photos of the dead were mounted outside, their faces faded to blankness by the sun. I thought if I died on this road, crushed by one of the countless trucks, my soul would not choose to linger.

South of Iquique — a “Star Wars” city of gleaming white waterfront apartment towers and jumbled, humbler neighbourhoods set against a huge red sand dune — the highway nestled into the crease where the coastal range meets the sea, the nothingness of sand and rock punctuated only by fishing villages and immense industrial sites. Occasionally I passed locals parked on the shoulder or the beach to collect kelp, heaving ropy black bundles into their utes. Tankers swarmed around the mining facilities and power plants. Conveyor belts intruded into the ocean along girdered piers, spilling whatever had been dug out of the desert into waiting ships. 

When I drove back inland, the air was hot and so dusty I could taste it. The barrenness of the terrain was interrupted only by mines. Lithium evaporation ponds resembled gigantic eye shadow palettes — jade and aquamarine and cyan bordered with white banks of salt byproduct that rose in plumes with the wind. The Atacama supplies a third of the world’s lithium, and both demand and production are increasing. Lithium is used for electric vehicle batteries, and a massive shift from petrol-powered to electric vehicles is considered crucial in the fight to mitigate climate change. But lithium mining in Chile involves pumping groundwater out from under the desert, potentially damaging ecosystems. The quest for decarbonisation may leave new scars on the Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama, the desert’s tourist hub, is an isolated hot spot of human hustle. Every evening I was there, a wind kicked up before sunset and dropped off as soon as darkness fell. In the stillness, I could hear Andean flute music that segued, closer to midnight, into EDM. San Pedro is chockablock with guesthouses and pizzerias, cheerful but with an edge of competitive commerce. Mud-brick souvenir shops line its unpaved main street, bewildering in their sameness, selling copper jewellery and stacks of colourful knits and ponchos. San Pedro has been a human settlement for 3000 years, bordered by salt flats and sustained by runoff from the Andes. Just outside town, there is a place of spectacularly serrated red rock known as both the Valley of Mars and the Valley of Death. The story goes that a Belgian priest and local archaeologist couldn’t distinguish the pronunciations of “Marte” and muerte. 

In San Pedro, the Atacama’s aridity is an attraction. I looked at Instagram posts of people floating in turquoise salt lagoons and wondered if I wanted a photo of myself doing that. But reviews warned of an hour’s drive on washboard roads, flat tyres and incomplete signage. Instead, curious about the Atacama’s high-elevation borderlands, where moisture from rain and snow brings some semblance of habitability for more plants and animals, I drove up into the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. 

For a while, the landscape was tufted with grass called paja brava, or “rough straw”, but as I passed 4,500 metres, everything became red and rocky. At outlooks, vans disgorged tourists in performance outerwear. Wild vicuñas — camelids with periscope necks and sweet, long-lashed faces that live above 3,500 metres — grazed on dry, spiky vegetation. Vicuñas were sacred to the Inca, and only designated Virgins of the Sun were permitted to weave their soft wool into garments for royal use. Today, vicuña wool is among the most expensive in the world, and associated with fashion houses like Loro Piana. I stopped at a salt lake to watch Andean flamingos pick at algae, the contrast of their black bills and flight feathers against their pale pinkness giving them a charming jauntiness, like gentlemen in spats. The sunlight at this altitude felt distilled. The backs of my hands stung from it. The local flamingo population has recently declined, probably because of the diminishing of groundwater that feeds the saline lagoons where the birds breed and feed. The cause of the groundwater depletion hasn’t been established, though the obvious suspects are lithium mining and climate change. 

In March 2015, severe rainstorms in the Atacama bringing floods and mudflows that killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes made global news. The storms also proved how vulnerable the desert’s tiniest denizens are to precipitation. When lagoons of runoff formed in the hyperarid core, researchers found that microbes in the soil — adapted to an arid environment — perished in the sudden influx of water. Heavy rain arrived again in August that year, and there have been floods most years since. In Los Angeles, where I live, rain can be a saviour. But the Atacama’s extreme dryness is not a temporary problem waiting to be solved. Dryness is its essence. 

After the rains, scientists found that one microbial ecosystem — the interiors of salt rocks — rebounded, albeit gradually. “What this is telling us is that those ecosystems are functionally very resilient,” Alfonso Davila, a NASA astrobiologist and one of the researchers, said. But there are limits. The Atacama’s extreme aridity means that ecosystems there, even the ones too small to see, are existing at the edge of survival.

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The otherworldly terrain attracts visitors to Vallecito, above, and scenic natural sites within the nearby Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas.

By the time I arrived at the European Southern Observatory site at Paranal, I could feel the dryness in my body. A headache nagged. The astronomers there said occasionally their skin itched; they didn’t sleep well. “Sometimes you look like a 100-year-old person,” said Florian Rodler, a staff astronomer in his 40s, originally from Austria. But the observatory, 130 kilometres south of the coastal city of Antofagasta, is one of the best sites in the world for looking into space. Its Very Large Telescope is perched at 2,635 metres atop an explosive-flattened mountaintop, where the atmosphere is relatively stable and incredibly dry. Almost 90 per cent of the nights are clear. I asked about the most distant object the VLT has seen, and Rodler answered in terms of time rather than space: a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, when the first galaxies were beginning to form. Everything we see in space is in the past.“Here we collect the light of the universe,” a Paranal engineer told me. The light from the moon takes 1.3 seconds to reach us. The sun’s light, about eight minutes. The nearest stars’, a little more than four years. From some stars, we are seeing light from when the Chinchorros were making their first mummies. From distant galaxies, the light collected by the VLT was emitted long before the Earth was formed. 

I spent the night in the residencia for scientific staff, a long, low structure built into the mountainside downhill from the VLT that, in the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” (2008), stands in for a Bolivian eco-hotel that gets spectacularly blown up. My room was simple, with a twin bed and a view onto the Mars-like red landscape. The main building has a large, translucent dome that lets in daylight but must be covered at night. For the sake of the telescopes, all light must be contained. 

On my way back to the residencia, I stopped and looked up at the billowing arch of the Milky Way. The air was cold, clear and silent. The darkness was thick and velvety and, overhead, the universe receded and receded. The realm of the dead, the realm of the stars. It seems natural to want to connect the two, to draw a link between two great unknowns. The Atacama, for all its emptiness, is not a void. It is, through quirks of nature and accidents of human ingenuity, a bridge across the greatest void. The desert, in its dryness, keeps the dead and opens the sky.