Travel feature: Chile

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Chile: Great potential, great conflict
Thermal springs spout up from under the desert.

From any slight vista, the Atacama Desert unfolds as an enormous dune-filled sand box where the colors are distinct, the textures palpable. As it is untouched, one gets a real sense of the curvature of the planet, while also feeling somewhat removed to another plane.

The late Bruce Chatwin, in In Patagonia, concludes that desert wanderers "discover in themselves a primeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the peace of God." Charles Darwin made reference to the Northern Atacama as a wasteland. Like Darwin, I found myself more captivated by the mountains' majesty than the desert's emptiness. And so I headed south.

Santiago is a town that, like Los Angeles, sits in a bowl with high mountains on three sides. Like a pack of lies, the tourism photographs I had seen before arriving showcased magnificent snowcapped Andean peaks looming over the skyscrapers. But from my vantage point downtown I could scarcely see buildings in the distance, let alone mountains, for the smog lay thick and heavy. Local papers told of increased pollution levels--typical for an industrial country in this day and age.

Hoping to get out of the smog and into the mountains, I caught a bus heading southeast of Santiago. The bus ride gained in elevation as it headed south into the Andes--though it was hard to tell. As the miles ticked by, the smog slipped away and views came into focus.

Cajon de Maipo is a lengthy canyon leading eastward toward the Argentine border. The road is a dusty affair well used by the rock-bearing trucks that descend from the head of the canyon. Limestone is plentiful in the hills and some 25 truckers make the four-hour trip to Santiago and back twice daily.

Each newly constructed bridge, each quarry we passed--and ore removal itself--stood for much-needed progress.
After several days of hiking in the nearby mountains, I caught a ride back into Santiago with Manuel, the owner and operator of a mining truck. The 14 tons of limestone in back propelled us swiftly down the valley, with squeaky air breaks our only reins. The lime would be pulverized and used for plasterboard and blended into concrete mix. I later caught a ride with a trucker carrying 100-pound bags of concrete made from that limestone.

Manuel spoke from the heart, as only a true Chilean worker could, while we barreled down the newly smoothed, almost dustless roads.

On the political situation that had transformed Chile's economy, Manuel heaped only praise. Each newly constructed bridge, each quarry we passed--and ore removal itself--stood for much-needed progress. Manuel heralded deposed leader Gen. Augusto Pinochet as a brilliant economist, not the ruthless dictator of whom one often reads. No, he did not think environmental degradation and a booming economy were deeply intertwined.

Like two sides of a tossed coin, Chile's dilemma hangs in the air. Pristine the country is not, yet there is enormous potential to preserve and protect existing stands of old-growth forests and ocean wildlife. Reminiscent of America's own Western frontier, Chile will either burn through all its resources or stop and evaluate the situation. In short, it will either expand attractions for mine-hungry tourists (Tours of clear-cuts, perhaps? Or even factory farming exhibits?) or the country will choose to protect its land, leaving its valuable resources intact.

Alex Frankel is a freelance writer living in San Francisco

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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