A Visit To The World's Largest Open Pit Copper Mine
CALAMA in northern Chile may have little to offer for travellers, as I've written previously, but to be fair every cloud has a silver lining even if in this case the lining is copper.
That's because Calama is home to Chuquicamata, the world's largest open pit copper mine which is definitely worth a visit.
Chuquicamata, meaning tip of the spear, is really home to Calama, the city itself having grown from humble beginnings ever since large scale exploitation began in 1911 by copper company Codelco.
My reasons to stay a few days in Calama were administration related although on one of the long waits to see a public official I spoke to an ex-miner who remembered Calama as no more than a large village surrounded by ranches - now long gone.
In those days many miners were driven the 14km out to the mine in "long, narrow cars", as he put it, six men in each, which would topple over in the fierce crosswinds the desert could whip up!
And so a tour of the mine, organised by Codelco, Monday to Friday (free, but book in advance at the tourist office) was on the cards.
The tour begins with a drive around the town built by the company inside the factory gates. It has become a ghost town to the 20,000 workers and their families since early 2008 when they were moved to Calama for health reasons.
The main square, overlooked by the church, and once the communal focus on a Sunday afternoon, now stands deserted while the schools, shops and bars are likewise earily silent.
Behind the town is a range of tall hills, all artificial, the mineral-stripped rubble piled up after almost a century of excavation. A reminder that not just the miners' homes but their natural environment was created by the company.
Following the dust up the road for about a kilometre and you get to the mines themselves, the largest being an enormous hole in the ground extending to a depth of 1km, stretching 3km wide and almost 5km in length.
As if this wasn't big enough it will be joined up with the "South" pit in 2010 guaranteeing itself a place in the Guinness Book of Records for years to come.
As you can imagine the sides of the pit do not drop vertically but slope inward allowing the 330 tonnes trucks to meander their way up and down. And so it is expected that by 2017, Codelco will have mined and processed the remaining 200 metres left of the open pit at which point they will change gear and start mining underground.