They say it’s the driest place on Earth. Some stretches of the Atacama desert have never had rain, or at least not in recorded human history.
The hot wind that blows through Iquique, on the Chilean Pacific coast, sends red dust in my face. I squint and carefully choose my steps, like a blind person, to avoid tripping until I reach cover and gather my thoughts. Charles Darwin reputedly said of Iquique that it is “very much in want of everyday necessities, such as water and firewood”. If the Atacama desert is sterile to plant growth, it is rich in under ground treasures, and Iquique’s development is intimately linked to the discovery of mineral deposits. Saltpeter, a source of immense fortunes in the past, was mined extensively until the mid-twentieth century. The region still possesses one of the largest reserves of sodium nitrate in the world, the “white gold” of yesteryear. Today, copper mining is the dominant industry.
The red soil that makes up the Atacama desert, fashioned in achingly beautiful landscapes, is said to be the closest thing on Earth to the Red Planet. NASA comes here to test out equipment for future Mars missions. The arid atmosphere, absence of cloud cover, and low population makes the Atacama desert an equally ideal location for astronomical studies. I will check out the sky tonight, as soon as I can get that speck of dust out of my eye.