Chuquicamata copper mine
This is a truly extreme attraction in northern Chile
: the gigantic open-pit copper mine and adjacent smelter plant at Chuquicamata, in the Atacama desert.
It is possible to go on a special tour for visitors (it's the only way of seeing the mine). The tour offered by the same company that runs the mine (called CODELCO) should include at least some good views of the enormous otherworldly pit.
This is, after all, one of the largest man-made holes: half a mile deep and ca. two to three miles across, in reddish Martian-like rocky soil. Hairpin roads go down the terraced sides of the pit. Blasting of more rock is done every day. Hundreds of thousands of tons of copper ore are extracted here – it's one of Chile's most significant sources of income. These are the biggest copper ore deposits in the whole world (not just at this mine, there are others in the Atacama as well as further south, such as El Teniente, the largest underground copper mine – cf. Chile
You can also still see the fleet of humungous yellow trucks at work that cart away up to 300 tons of rubble at a time each and dump their load onto the mine's gigantic slag heaps.
If you ever wanted to get a feel for a "Total Recall"-like industrial hell on red dusty Mars – this is it. In the past you were even allowed a close-up look at the smelting process inside the adjacent plant, a hot, noisy, dirty, and almost apocalyptic spectacle to behold. But unfortunately, the inclusion of this as part of the tour has currently been discontinued, at least for the time being. Shame – I've seen footage of it in a documentary and would have loved to see it for real.
In the end I couldn't even get on one of the regular tours at all. I had one booked for when I passed through the region in December 2011, but on the day the tour was cancelled, at the last minute, due to some staff induction day or something like that. That is the risk: the company explicitly reserves the right to cancel tours like this without prior notification. And since the tours are free of charge you can't complain. Bad luck. Well, it gives me another reason to return to Chile
one day …
However, I did already get a glimpse of the pollution problems caused by this and other copper mine complexes. This is a particularly dark aspect of the mining industry: apart from copper, the plant also produces over a million litres of sulphuric acid annually as a toxic by-product. More recent regulations regarding pollution and health concerns necessitated the move of the workers' settlement of Chuquicamata from right next to the mine to new housing further away in Calama This provincial service town has thus grown by several brand-new suburbs, while the old town has become another one of the Atacama's numerous ghost towns
I've seen some of the pollution and the gigantic slag heaps from the road en route to Chacabuco
. And from the air, when flying over the Atacama (en route to Calama, but also elsewhere) one can, depending on the exact flight path, make out the gigantic detention reservoirs with their evil-coloured toxic brew, as well as the huge open-cast mine pits themselves. Even that is already impressive – though of course not as good as seeing all this up close …
Practical information about Chuquicamata tours:
Tours usually take place daily Mondays to Fridays in the early afternoon. Make sure to check in advance and in any case be there well ahead of time (for registration etc.) at the office in Calama from where the tour bus departs ('Oficina visitas Codelco Norte', at the corner of Avenida Granaderos and Avenida Central Sur, in the northern part of Calama).
Remarkably, the tour is nominally free of charge – but a donation to the company's children's charity is requested.
In the north of Chile
, 800 miles north of the capital Santiago
, but only ca. 12 miles (20 km) north of the mining service town of Calama and about, only a short distance off the Transamericana road.
Google maps locators: