Calama is not a tourist city despite or because of two superlatives: on the one hand the city is regarded as the driest place on earth, on the other hand it is the seat of the world’s largest copper mine, the legendary Chuquicamata, translated “Land of the Chucos”.
As the capital of the province of El Loa, named after Chile’s longest river, Calama is part of the Antofagasta region and gateway to the central Atacama Desert. Until 1879, Calama was the seat of a Bolivian prefecture and an important stop on the postal route between Cobija and Potosí. Even today, the municipality of Calama extends as far as the Bolivian border. At the outbreak of the so-called ‘saltpetre war’ between Chile on the one hand and Bolivia and Peru on the other, which had previously concluded an assistance agreement, Calama was occupied by Chilean troops on 23 March 1879 and became the scene of the first battle of this conflict. The war finally brought Chile the possession of the rich saltpetre deposits, while Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific and thus to important trade routes. Thus the north of Chile came to considerable wealth in the following time, while Bolivia blames the missing ports for its poor economic situation until today.
With the development of new methods for saltpetre extraction and the discovery of synthetic fertilisers at the beginning of the 20th century (Haber-Bosch method), saltpetre mining lost its importance. But with the territorial gain in the north, Chile had also secured control over the immense copper resources. Today the country is by far the largest copper supplier in the world. The vast majority of Calama’s 143,000 inhabitants are directly or indirectly dependent on the copper mine. The original mining town of Chuquicamata, located approx. 15 km to the north, was abandoned in 2003 due to environmental pollution and its inhabitants were relocated to Calama.
The copper resources were already known during Inca times, but it was not until 1881 that their industrial exploitation began. From 1910 it belonged to the Guggenheim Group, and was sold to the Anaconda Copper Company in 1923. In 1971 Chile’s copper resources were nationalized in the course of a constitutional reform. Since then Codelco – Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile – has been operating the mine. While oxide ore is mined in the small Mina Sur, sulphide ore is mined in the Mina Chuqui, from which 630,000 tons of copper with a purity of 99.99% are extracted annually.
To visit the mine, visitors only need to register a few days in advance by telephone or e-mail. The three-hour tour starts from Monday to Friday at 13:00 at the entrance to the Chuquicamata site (interested visitors should inquire about the current status in advance). Organized tours by local tour operators are also offered (more expensive, as the tour is conducted on site by the mining company, so that the tour price is essentially paid for transport). The actual guided tour is free of charge, but a donation for the benefit of the social projects of the mining company is expected.