Journeying north from the Chilean capital of Santiago, there is a point, perhaps passing the town of Copiapó, around 27° S, when the vegetation stops and the desert begins in earnest; arid, parched, the land strewn with rocks and rubble. It is an unworldly landscape, one that at first sight would appear to deny the very possibility of human life, but that nonetheless has been inhabited by humans for many thousands of years. Passing the Tropic of Cancer, now around 22° S, as the plane begins its descent into the oasis of Calama, the mining capital of Chile’s Norte Grande, I have a bird’s-eye view of the land, of its terracottas and arenaceous yellows, of the whites of the salt flats, the die-straight roads that cut across the land, the tops of distant volcanoes shimmering in the heat; a mirage, a landscape suspended in time. Touching down on the tarmac, the contrast between the solid black and the buff land from which the runway is carved sticks in my mind.

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