How to avoid overtourism and uncover the real Atacama

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A short, stubby man with a white plaited beard, round belly and serious expression, Galleguillos reminds me of an angry garden gnome. Gruffly moving us around the site, he reveals he’s only in touch with a few of the 33 miners. Following the initial elation of being released, many turned to drink and drugs. “Some got fat,” he jokes, reaching around his waist. Nightmares keep all of them awake at night.

Leading tours has been Galleguillos’s therapy, a way to remain relevant. “The people who come here and ask to hear my story, that gives me strength,” he says, tears temporarily diluting his stern temper as we climb a platform where 2,000 international journalists and photographers eagerly waited a decade ago. Once filled with flashes and camera clicks, it’s now silent. In that emptiness, I understand the gnawing depression of being forgotten as yesterday’s news. 

Although most are off-limits, a handful of mines in Copiapo can be safely explored at ground level. Pura Aventura has arranged special access, allowing its guests to appreciate how this industry has shaped Atacama’s people. After only two minutes inside a shaft, I’m plunged into darkness. I wait for my eyes to adjust, but they never do. Very soon, the roof of my mouth is covered in dust. The experience demonstrates how many sacrifices have been made in the pursuit of wealth.

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