The Abandoned Mines of the Atacama Desert

Photos By Karla and Ivan












Text by Ivan Kashinsky

While driving through the driest desert in the world, our tired and thirsty red jeep began to complain, and we halted to a stop just outside the ghost town of Chacabuco.   The colorful walls decaying into the dusty streets held the secrets of the thousands of people who once called this eerie place their home.   As night crept over us, shadows from the past began to emerge from broken doorways and laughter as well as cries of terror began to manifest themselves in the wicked wind. 

The abandoned towns scattered across the Atacama owe their existence to the nitrate that was extracted from the mineral rich desert and sold to Europe to be used as gunpowder and fertilizer.   This part of northern Chile belonged to Bolivia until Chile took it as a result of the Pacific War in 1884.  Bolivia illegally raised the tax on this white gold, which sparked the war resulting in their loss of ocean access, control over the nitrate, and the endless amounts of copper, which drive Chile’s economy today.  It is most definitely a move that Bolivia regrets.

In the late 19th century thousands of workers began to come to the Atacama from the south to make some money off the nitrate boom.  Exploited by the owners they lived like slaves.  Instead of money they were paid with plastic chips, which could only be used in the local stores.  The workers were trapped in a system in which they could never leave.   In December of 1907 they marched to Iquique to confront the owners and protest in hopes of gaining some basic rights.  Blood flowed through the streets as the military ruthlessly gunned down thousands of men and their families in what is known as the “Matanza of Iquique”, one of many shadows which hang over Chile’s dark past. 

A decade or so later the workers began to see some changes improving their human rights.  But the boom was close to an end.   The Germans invented a synthetic nitrate and by 1938 towns like Chacabuco were left completely abandoned.   

Once again in 1973 the small cells in which the miners suffered were filled by a new group of people.  This time they were filled with prisoners.   Pinochet used Chacabuco as a concentration camp.   Ordinary people suspected of being a danger to the dictator were sent to the middle of the Atacama.  Here they suffered psychological torture and were forced to live surrounded by landmines, barbed wire, and armed guards.  Ironically, as Maria, the current caretaker of Chacabuco pointed out, the prisoners brought life back to the ghost town.  They created workshops that taught the people about theater, music, and art.  In 1974 the camp was closed down and Chacabuco remained empty once again.

The cells of Chacabuco are covered with the thoughts of these prisoners who scribbled all over the dark walls.  Unfortunately the military came and scratched out all these feelings in an attempt to erase any evidence that this ex-nitrate mine was ever a concentration camp. 

On the final days of our stay in the Atacama we visited another nearby mine called Puelma.  Walking through the cemetery, I saw coffins that had been dug up.  Bodies that had been perfectly preserved in the dry climate were uncovered.  People had come to steal the skulls and jewelry or just to dig up the ancient miners for kicks.   As I stood next to the skeleton of a baby, exposed, baking in the desert sun, I felt a deep sense of sorrow.  The people who came here suffered and now their bodies are being ripped from the ground and scattered across the desert. 

With some help from our desert friends, we fixed our jeep and headed north towards Peru, passing abandoned mines all the way to the border.   Every ex-nitrate mine we saw was a reminder of the strange past that we stumbled upon in the middle of the Atacama.



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5 responses to “The Abandoned Mines of the Atacama Desert

  1. Ivan,

    Enjoyed your writing especially on this one.


  2. Jonah

    Your vivid description pulled me to the Atacama to wonder among the history and emotion that space holds. Isn’t it interesting how a place can hold so much human drama yet the elements seems to pass unaware of the circumstances within which they once played a role? This is a beautiful piece and very nicely written.

  3. tothetip

    Yes, it is interesting. It’s a challenge to do a photo story about the history of place without shooting a single frame with a person in it (or at least a living person).

  4. Jim Gensheimer

    Looking through all your stories, it seems you are living every photographer’s dream – traveling and making great images. Cheers!

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