Living in the middle of one of the world's driest deserts, between a mile-high pile of rubble and a smoke-spewing refinery, is not everybody's idea of bliss.
But the 2,500 residents of Chuquicamata, one of Chile's only remaining old-fashioned mining camps, are deeply attached to their home and sad they will soon have to leave it to make way for the mine's expansion plans.
"My father worked here 48 years. We go back four generations in Chuquicamata, so you think about that a lot and its painful," said Orlando Zamorano, who has spent more than half of his 54 years living and working at the sun-scorched mine.
Zamorano's home will soon be buried beneath the Atacama Desert, which covers much of northern Chile. The brown desert dirt has already swallowed a hospital and will eventually cover the houses, shops, banks, schools and roads that form the 89-year-old settlement, which locals call a "camp" but which actually resembles a sleepy small town.
Chuquicamata, which means "the tip of the spear" in the language of pre-Columbian Indians who first discovered the deposit, is now the world's second-largest copper mine and is owned by Chile's government.
The adjacent camp will slowly become an underground ghost town in another 10 to 15 years because Codelco, the government company that runs the mine, needs the land to dump waste material from the giant open-pit mine. It has run out of space at its current dump site, a towering ridge of barren rock that is slowly encroaching on the camp.
But pollution is the main reason Chuquicamata must close. Codelco, despite spending millions on new technology, is forced by environmental laws to move the population away from the hazardous emissions of arsenic and sulfur dioxide from its processing plants.
"The fact that my birthplace is going to be under the ground, that Chuquicamata is going to disappear, is pretty devastating. But if we don't do this, then the mine can't continue to exist," said Grineldo Acuna, a union leader who moved to the town of Calama, a 15-minute drive away, years ago to protect his three daughters from the toxins in the air.
After four years of bitter negotiations with unions, Codelco is ready to move the first batch of 847 families early this year to new houses in Calama. The remainder are due to leave the camp by September 2005.
The transfer to Calama marks the end of an era of paternalism in Chilean mining, the lifeblood of the domestic economy and supplier of 30 percent of the world's copper. But for the miners it is the painful end of a sheltered existence.
The system began in 1915, when a U.S. mining firm set up the camp on company land and continued after the mine was nationalized in 1971.
Now one of the world's most competitive copper producers, up against multinationals drawn to Chile for its political and economic stability, Codelco aspires to increase its efficiency. That means no longer providing free housing for its employees or other basic needs such as electricity, water, free schooling for children and even garbage pickup.
"It's an enormously protective system," said historian Celia Baros.
"The gringos brought the 'company town' model here and installed it as they knew it, but over time the age of the mine and the rising costs associated with maintaining it and the camp itself obliges Codelco to separate the company from the town," she said.
In its heyday in the 1950s, Chuquicamata's population numbered 24,000 and drew visitors from around the world, including Latin America's revolutionary icon Che Guevara during his 1951 motorcycle tour of South America.
Today, there are about 7,000 workers at the mine but only a third live in the camp, whose quiet streets are lined with drab wooden houses and small stores. Mud-streaked company pickup trucks drive slowly as school children in uniform run carelessly across a street to a playground.
Chuquicamata miners, among the best paid in the country, began gradually moving to Calama in the 1970s to buy their own homes or because the company demanded it.
However, Chuquicamata is still the largest mining camp of its kind remaining in Chile.
The move to Calama is made worse by the fact that for generations the miners have been loath to mingle with the citizens of Calama, a town notorious for crime and prostitution.
Their attitude comes from their status as employees of Codelco, whose copper is fondly called "the wage of Chile" because it provides a steady source of revenue for government social programs.
"They are always making sure others know they are Codelco miners . . . it's like a caste system almost," Baros said.
Even young ones would prefer to stay in Chuquicamata, which has no movie theater or bar, than move to Calama.
"There isn't much to do here but we like the peace and quiet. People are nice to each other and there are never any problems. That's what we're most going to miss the most," said 27-year-old Jethro Elizalde.