Real Men are Made in the Atacama

The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles along the coast of Chile.  It is the driest desert on earth, having no recorded rain for the last 150 years.   Think of Death Valley, and then multiply it by 100X.   There is not ONE plant growing in this place, not a shrub, cactus or weed.

We spent four days riding through its heart, along its western flank on the Pacific Ocean, and criss-crossing its mountain ranges trying to get a glimpse of the racers, rarely successful, except for a few check-points.

The Atacama replaces the Sahara’s role in the Dakar race. The Dakar, long famous for its Saharan dunes, focused much of this year’s race on the Atacama Desert. Many competitors thought the Atacama was harder and longer to get through than the Sahara. During just one day’s stage, about 25% of the bikes couldn’t make it and were forced out of the race. This is a shot of competitors racing off into the mountains.

The Atacama as economic engine. Chile is one of the most prosperous countries in South America, partly because of its substantial natural resources, mainly copper, nitrate (salt), iron and coal. The Atacama was – and is – being mined ruthlessly for its resources. We had lunch one day in a modern ghost town, Pedro de Valdivia, a huge nitrate mine that operated from 1931 to 1996. This is the purest company town I’ve ever seen, on a scale that can’t be explained via pictures or words. Thousands of three room worker houses, supermarket, schools, churches, a hospital and of course a huge factory. It’s all located in the middle of the Atacama, cut out of a mountain that was strip-mined for the salt and then abandoned when nothing was left. This is Jim Hyde, on the main street, and on the right, a dozen doors of different, but exactly alike, apartments.

The Atacama Coast of Chile. Bold, beautiful, endless blue skies and clear water. The coast is dotted with hundreds of small mining camps and fishing villages, each looking pretty worn, but with great views. We had lunch one day in a fishing village in one of these coves and became even more fond of the people of Chile.

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