ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE, 2000

Valle de la Luna at sunset, with the Licancabur volcano in the background

Hoepker

© Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

 

“I knew Chile through her before ever setting foot here. She told me about steep snow-capped mountains, dormant volcanoes that sometimes wake up with an apocalyptic shudder, the long Pacific coast with its choppy waves and foamy collar, the desert in the north, dry like the moon, which very occasionally flowers into a Monet painting, the cold forests, clear lakes, bountiful rivers, and blue glaciers.”
These are the words the Chilean author Isabel Allende used to describe “her” Chile. The Atacama desert, indeed as dry as the moon, is one of the most arid places on the planet. It lies trapped between the mountain chain of the Andes, which intercepts humidity from the Amazon basin, and the coastal cordillera which, aided by the cold Humboldt current, prevents rain from reaching the hinterland. For kilometres around, the rocky terrain appears dead, but every 5 or 6 years, a miracle happens. Seeds in the ground that have survived dramatic temperature excursions and drought, suddenly revive with the arrival of water and the rocks burst into flower like a painting by Monet. Water has always been scarce in the Atacama, but people have survived here for thousands of years thanks to small underground water reserves and a strong spirit of adaptability. Today, the desert is better known for its copper and lithium deposits and for tourism, two phenomena that seriously endanger its fragile water supply. We should be learning from this land: how to adapt, a bit at a time, so that we too might be able to live in a hotter, dryer and more arid world.

Lucia Zaccaria