After 37 days trapped underground, Mario Sepúlveda, malnourished and on the brink of madness, believed he had to fight the devil. To do so he descended to level 44 of the San Jose mine, a hotter and muddier depth of the hell in which he and 32 other Chilean miners were trapped. By the time Sepúlveda began fighting his demons, more than 750 metres of rock separated him from the scorched surface of the Atacama Desert above. When he returned to his comrades, victorious — or at least not defeated — he felt renewed, but it would be another month before any of them would breathe free air again.

To the 33 miners of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident, the biting wind of the Atacama eventually felt miraculous, but standing in the northern reaches of the same desert, to me it feels intimidating. “We’re here,” says Micaela Díaz as she opens the door of the Landcruiser in the middle of what looks like nowhere. A warm gust immediately tries to push us back inside the vehicle, squeezing the doors on to our shins. When we finally stumble out, our boots crunch on to salt-baked sand. 

Ahead, the land appears to be smoking, loose dust torn into the sky by persistent winds racing towards the Andes. Clouds move so fast they appear nervous to tarry above the immense desert. The only plants within sight are miserable-looking shrubs that wouldn’t make a satisfactory meal for a fire. At times, the Atacama feels too dry even for flames.

Map of Chile and Bolivia

Micaela, or Mika as she prefers to be called, has brought me to the site of an old mine. The history of mining here in northern Chile is like that in much of South America, which is to say a story of exploitation, rapaciousness, and

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