Thursday, October 14, 2010

Outside the Mine

Until today, I have refrained from writing anything about the miners rescued yesterday from Mina San José, on the outskirts of the northern Chilean city of Copiapó. That’s partly because the 24/7 international coverage of their plight and rescue has been so overwhelming but, on the other hand, much of that coverage hasn’t told us much about the region.
Coastal fog in the otherwise arid "Norte Chico" can support clusters of dense vegetation.
In reality, the “Norte Chico” (Lesser North), as the southern sector of the Atacama Desert is known, may be the least appreciated part of the entire country - in fact, it probably gets fewer foreign visitors than any other region. Actually, it probably gets fewer than the popular “Norte Grande” (Greater North) village of San Pedro de Atacama alone. That’s because the traditional description of “the Land of 10,000 Mines” - probably a quantitative understatement - isn’t exactly a slogan that pulls in tourists.

Nevertheless, it’s had its share of celebrity visitors, including Charles Darwin who, in the 1830s, remarked that “its produce is sufficient for only three months of the year,’ and that transportation problems raised the price of food to astonishing levels. To some degree, that’s still true, and one reason - along with risk of injury or death - why wages are often higher here than elsewhere in Chile.
The barren coastline at Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar
Copiapó is the capital of the Third Region of Atacama, which comprises the northern half of the Norte Chico (the Fourth Region of Coquimbo, capital La Serena, gets many more visitors for its broad sandy beaches and greater proximity to Santiago). Its most appealing sight, in my opinion, is Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar (pictured above), a seaside reserve near the mining port of Chañaral, which has abundant sandy beaches at the base of barren headlands, backed by impressive coastal mountains, but also surprisingly lush vegetations in areas where coastal fog condenses on their western slopes. It also features abundant bird life, including Humboldt penguins and brown pelicans.
Brown pelicans at Caleta Pan de Azúcar
Still, it’s the mines that have put the region on the global map, and it’s worth noting that Chile’s mines are divided between a large-scale sector with ample capital, partly but not exclusively state-run through the Codelco corporation, and a smaller sector that often cuts corners - as was the case with Mina San José. Still, it’s also a sector that pays higher wages to compensate for the dangers that working there involves. In an excellent GQ magazine article, Sean Flynn details those dangers, as well as the media frenzy that has surrounded the miners’ drama.

While there may be some quarrels with the media management of the miners’ story by the Chilean government - limiting direct access to the state-run TV Nacional and official photographers, for instance - at the end of the day, with the whole world watching, the Chileans did everything right. That’s whether or not, when the clamor dies down, the ephemeral “Campo Esperanza” (Camp Hope), which housed the miners’ families and friends just outside the mine, becomes a tourist attraction in its own right. According to the online Santiago Times, it's under consideration as a national monument.

Moon Handbooks Argentina on the Road, Again
This is a busy for digital slide presentations on the new edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina, with four events in five days. The fun starts Saturday afternoon October 16 at 5 p.m. at Travel Bug Books in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and continues Monday evening October 18 at 7 p.m. at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. We then cross the border to Travel Bug Books (no relation) in Vancouver BC, Tuesday evening October 19 at 7 p.m., and return to Seattle, Washington for an event at Wide World Books, Wednesday October 20 at 7 p.m.

1 comment:

chuck goolsbee said...

My son spent ~6 months in Copiapó in 2007 as an exchange student his junior year of High School. This is what brought me to this website as I was seeking an understanding of the region from afar.

Keep up the good work.

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