10 Steps to a Chinchorro Mummy

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest-known artificially preserved bodies in the world, predating their Egyptian counterparts by more than two millennia. They were created by small groups that fished and hunted along the coast of southern Peru and northern Chile from around 7000 BC. The mummification process was remarkably elaborate for such a simple culture. While the order and methods evolved over the millennia, the earliest mummies were made more or less by doing the following.

  • Dismembering the corpse's head, limbs and skin.
  • Removing the brain by splitting the skull or drawing it through the base.
  • Taking out other internal organs.
  • Drying the body with hot stones or flames.
  • Repacking the body with sticks, reeds, clay and camelid fur.
  • Reassembling parts, perhaps sewing them together with cactus spines.
  • Slathering the body with thick paste made from ash.
  • Replacing the skin, patched with sea-lion hide.
  • Attaching a wig of human hair and clay mask.
  • Painting the mummy with black manganese (or, in later years, red ocher).

Several hundred Chinchorro mummies have now been discovered; all ages are represented and there's no evidence to suggest that mummification was reserved for a special few. Interestingly, some mummies were repeatedly repainted, suggesting that the Chinchorro kept and possibly displayed them for long periods before eventual burial. Millennia later, the conquistadores were appalled by a similar Inka practice, in which mummified ancestors were dressed up and paraded in religious celebrations.

Vicuña Resurgence: An Environmental Success Story

Back in Inka times, vast herds of vicuña, numbering in the millions, roamed the altiplano from here all the way to southern Ecuador. But overpredation and habitat loss have sorely depleted the herds over the years, and in the 1970s barely a thousand vicuña were left in northern Chile. Today, there are more than 25,000 in the region and several hundred thousand throughout the Andes: an environmental success story that seems to only be getting better.

Unlike the alpaca or llama, the vicuña has never been domesticated. These shy creatures just don't seem to want to mate in captivity. So conservationists had to figure out a way to protect them, while still providing an economically viable trade for local Aymara who for centuries have relied on vicuña for their valuable meat and fur. Initially, species-protection measures were put in place, but even its endangered status could not save the vicuña, whose buttery wool is used to make shawls that cost hundreds (if not thousands) of US dollars. In the 1990s the local Aymara started to catch the vicuña live, shear them on the spot, and then release them back in the wild. This innovative program has allowed for continued cultivation of vicuña wool, while providing a deterrent to poachers: a shorn vicuña is essentially worthless. These measures, combined with larger national parks and greater protection, mean that herds of these beautiful, elegant creatures may again trundle across the vast expanses of the high Andes.

The Dakar Does South America

Traveling around northern Chile, you'll probably notice a fair bit of Dakar merchandise on offer, bumper stickers on display and even the odd 'Dakar route' trip on offer from travel agents. It’s not just that Chileans love motorsports (but they do!) – it’s also because the world’s most famous off-road race passes right through their own backyard.

Originally called the Paris-Dakar, the race started in 1979 as an all-amateur affair – a three-week ordeal from France to Senegal. It captured the world’s imagination, stretched to include 27 countries and began to attract professional racers, more for the thrill and challenge than the modest prize money.

In 2008, terrorist threats in Mauritania put the rally’s future in doubt, but the decision was made to move it to South America and the 2009 race was held in Argentina and Chile. In the few years since, the historic event has taken firm root in South America, traversing the continent annually from Buenos Aires through Chile and now popping into the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia before returning to Argentina's capital. The 2015 route stretched around 9000km (distances vary for the car, motorcycle and truck routes), with stops in Copiapó, Antofagasta, Calama and Iquique.

For more info, check out the official website: www.dakar.com.