The Chuquicamata copper mine near Calama, Chile, makes for an odd tourist attraction. Measuring 4.3 kilometres by 3 kilometres and over 900 metres deep, Chuquicamata is the world’s largest open pit copper mine and Chile’s largest producer of copper.
Copper has been mined in this area for hundreds for years, but modern large scale exploitation did not start until the early 1910s when European prospectors started buying and consolidating smaller and less productive local mines. In the 1960s the Chilean government bought up foreign-owned copper mines in the country, effectively natioanlizing copper production. Such was its contribution to the Chilean economy that president Salvador Allende nicknamed the raw copper “Chile’s bread”.
The Chuquicamata tour starts at the Codelco office in downtown Calama, where participants are registered and sign a liability waiver (this is, of course, still a fully active industry site, with all associated risks). After receiving a high-visibility vest, a hard hat, and strict instructions to follow the guide, we were taken in a coach to the mine.
Chuquicamata Ghost Town
The first stop of the tour bus was the most surprising for me: the Chuquicamata office where the guide provides an introduction to the mine is in the middle of a ghost town. The original Chuquicamata town, which housed all mine workers and their families from early in the mine’s development, was abandoned in 2007. Health and safety concerns over the high levels of dust from the mine and gasses from the smelting plant caused Codelco to relocate all families. Today the entire town stands abandoned, with boarded up buildings, fading signs, and wind blowing through the empty streets. As the town was only relatively recently abandoned, and because it is still on mining company property, it has suffered very little decay and vandalism. Although it is not possible to enter any of the buildings, even wandering the streets offers an evocative insight into the harsh realities of life here.
Abandoned places are one of my favourite photographic subjects (see Pripyat), so the opportunity to wander around the town, no matter how brief, was definitely a welcome surprise – I had seen no information about this on the Internet. A tip: our guide gave a long, long introduction to the mine in Spanish and then repeated it in English. While she was giving the translated version the Spanish speakers were free to wander around outside – so I took the opportunity to slip out with them. Those who stayed for the English translation only seemed to get a few minutes to look around the town.
The next stop on the tour involved a bus trip up to the edge of the mining pit, and then slightly down into it to the mirador (viewpoint). This is a good opportunity to get close (or as close as you would want!) to the massive CAEX mining vehicles which plow up and down the pit road all day long. Towering way over our tour coach, each tyre alone is over 3 metres high, costs US $40,000, and must be replaced every eight months.
At the viewpoint on the edge of the mining put, it is virtually impossible to comprehend Chuquicamata’s true scale: the huge CAEX trucks look tiny as they carry ore up the mining roads some 800 metres below us. In fact, the mine is so deep that it was not possible to see the bottom. Looking across what is without doubt a huge and ugly scar on the landscape, the guide explained some statistics relating to Codelco’s contribution to the national economy, employment, and local community projects. With free tours such as this Codelco put a lot of emphasis on their commitment to healthy, safe, and fair conditions for their workers (as evidenced by their abandonment of the original town for health reasons), and their involvement in local community projects.
Tours of Chuquicamata are run by the state mining company Codelco every week day and are conducted in English and Spanish. They run from approximately 1pm to 4.30pm and are free. However a donation, which goes to a charity for local children, is appreciated at the end of the tour. You can arrange a tour by emailing Codelco at firstname.lastname@example.org.