For 121 years, the San José mine 45km north of Copiapó went about its business of digging for gold and copper deep in the Atacama Desert. Then in the afternoon of August 5, 2010, a major cave-in trapped 33 of its workers 700m underground. Suddenly, San José was in the spotlight and Los 33, as the buried miners became known, became unlikely superstars of one of the most televised rescue efforts in human history.
Less than six months before this incident, Chile had gone through the 2010 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. With sympathy levels running high, the eyes of the nation were on the plight of the miners and their families. Under immense pressure, the government took over the rescue from the mine owners. The venture, at an estimated cost of US$20 million, involved international drilling rig teams, experts from NASA and several multinationals. On October 13, 2010, in a televised finale that lasted nearly 24 hours and drew an estimated viewing audience of one billion from around the world, the last of the 33 men was hoisted up to freedom through a narrow shaft, and a sign was held up for the TV cameras reading: 'Misión cumplida Chile' (Mission accomplished Chile).
While they were trapped, the ordeal of Los 33 became a round-the-clock soap opera. At one point, a buried man had a wife and a lover waiting for him above. After 69 days in the pitch-dark depths of the earth, the 33 men resurfaced to find themselves in the spotlight. Next they were cheered on by football fans at Wembley stadium, jetted off on all-expenses-paid trips to Disneyland, showered with gifts and money and flown to New York to be interviewed by David Letterman.
But the dark side of fame caught up with the miners. With the public drama over, the men faced a set of medical and psychological issues. A few years after the event, most were struggling to find work; some returned to work in the mines. And for all their short-lived fame, the men earned little financial gain for their suffering. This despite their story eventually making it to Hollywood: The 33, starring Antonio Banderas, was released in 2015.
Today, you can visit the Mina San José – above ground – where the men were trapped. One of the miners, Jorge Galleguillos, leads tours (in Spanish only). In Copiapó, it's also worth visiting the Museu Regional de Atacama, which has artifacts from the 33, including the original rescue capsule.