Overlooked by arid, rippling mountains, the prosperous city of COPIAPÓ sits in the flat basin of the Río Copiapó, some 60km from the coast and 145km north of Vallenar. To the east is the most northerly of Chile’s “transverse valleys” and beyond it the transformation from semi-desert to serious desert is complete, and the bare, barren Atacama stretches a staggering 1000km north towards the Peruvian border. Just to the north of the city, Arabian-style dunes await exploration. There isn’t a great deal to do here, however, and Copiapó’s main use to travellers is as a springboard for excursions into the surrounding region.
When Diego de Almagro made his long trek south from Cuzco in 1536, following the Inca Royal Road down the spine of the Andes, it was into this valley that he descended, recuperating from the gruelling journey at the tambo, or resting place, where Copiapó now stands. The valley had been occupied and cultivated by the Diaguita people starting around 1000 AD and was then inhabited, beginning around 1470, by the Inca, who mined gold and copper here. Although Spanish encomenderos (see Enter the Spanish) occupied the valley from the beginning of the conquest, it wasn’t until 1744 that the city of Copiapó was founded, initially as “San Francisco de la Selva”. A series of random silver strikes in the nineteenth century, most notably at Chañarcillo, threw the region into a frenzied boom.
Following a period of decline at the beginning of the twentieth century, Copiapó is once more at the centre of a rich mining industry, revolving around copper, iron and gold. The city shot to international notoriety in October 2010, when 33 workers from the nearby San José mine were rescued after 69 days trapped underground.Read More
The rescue of Los 33
The rescue of Los 33
On August 5, 2010, a boulder collapsed inside the San José copper and gold mine, 32km north-east of Copiapó, trapping 33 workers some 700m below the desert. That may well have been the end of the story – the miners consigned to statistics in Chile’s notoriously dangerous mining industry – but for a fortuitous combination of determined families, a captivated media and a president in dire need of a ratings boost. In the aftermath of the accident, relatives of the trapped miners set up camp outside the pithead and refused to budge, urging the company to continue their search effort.
Limelight in the darkness
The families kept up the pressure via the national media, compelling the then new right-wing president Sebastián Piñera – perceived to be out of touch with the working class and reeling from a ratings blow following his handling of February’s earthquake and tsunami – to get involved. On day 17 of the search operation, just as hope was fading, rescue workers struck media gold – a handwritten note attached to their drillhead which read: “We are fine in the shelter – the 33.” The miners’ relatives were euphoric, the president triumphant and the international media dispatched to “Camp Hope” to cover the miracle (and soap opera) unfolding in the Chilean desert.
Food, medicine, pornography and video cameras were sent down a narrow communications shaft to the desperate men. What happened next was beamed around the world: one miner proposed a church marriage to his partner; a two-timer was exposed when his wife and mistress turned up at Camp Hope to lend support; a musical miner kept his colleagues entertained with Elvis impersonations; and another lay in the hot, dark tunnel while above ground his wife give birth to his daughter, named, appropriately, “Esperanza” (hope).
Just after midnight on October 13, 69 days after the miners were buried alive (the longest underground entrapment in history), state-of-the-art rescue capsules hauled the first of “Los 33” to freedom, to an estimated global TV audience of 1.5 billion people. In the aftermath of the rescue, the miners enjoyed a flurry of media attention and were flown around the world and paraded as heroes. Most, however, chose to remain tight-lipped about what really went on in that subterranean hell, and as well as struggling with post-traumatic stress, the majority now live quiet, unassuming lives in Copiapó.