Chuquicamata

Mine in Chuquicamata

Chuqui was, until recently, the world's largest single supplier of copper (a title just snatched by Mina Escondida, 170km southeast of Antofagasta), producing a startling 630,000 tonnes annually. It's largely thanks to Chuqui, then, that Chile is the world's greatest copper producer. In total, copper now accounts for around one-third of Chilean exports. And with the price of copper shooting up in recent years (courtesy of huge demand in China and India) its importance to the Chilean economy is hard to overestimate.

The mine, which employs 20,000 workers, spews up a perpetual plume of dust visible for many kilometers in the cloudless desert, but then everything here dwarfs the human scale. The elliptical pit measures an incredible 8 million sq meters and has a depth of up to 1250m. Most of the 'tour' is spent simply gazing into its depths and clambering around an enormous mining truck with tires more than 3m high; information is minimal, although the bilingual guide answers questions.

Chuquicamata was once integrated with a well-ordered company town, but environmental problems and copper reserves beneath the town forced the entire population to relocate to Calama by 2007. The 'city of Chiquicamata' is not much more than a ghost town these days.

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