In the Norte Grande

Chile’s book of the month: Ariel Dorfman’s Desert Memories

In the third edition of our series on what to read before, after or during your trip to Chile, we take a look at one Chilean author’s journey into the Atacama. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012  
Dorfman’s book follows his journey through the Atacama Desert. Photo by Pirindao/Flickr. Dorfman’s book follows his journey through the Atacama Desert. Photo by Pirindao/Flickr.


Chile’s Atacama Desert may be the driest desert on the planet, but this barren part of Northern Chile is also full of history.


It’s this history that Chilean author Ariel Dorfman seeks to revisit in his memoir, Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North. The book follows Dorfman on a three-week road trip to explore the roots of his wife Angelica’s ancestors - and to delve deeper into the origins of modern Chile.


About the author


Dorfman is a Chilean-American novelist and playwright who has written extensively about modern Chile. Born in 1942, Dorfman’s family moved to the United States shortly after his birth, but they returned to Chile in 1954, and the author attended Universidad de Chile. Exiled during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Dorfman now balances his time between the U.S., where he is a professor at Duke University, and Santiago.


For Dorfman, the Atacama is a fascinating place because of the way its emptiness demands self-reflection and introspection. The place is unique because it has attracted people in search of something - whether it be minerals or distant stars - for hundreds of years.


Mining in the Atacama


Dorfman explores mining communities - both the old and the new - through interviews over multiple generations in Desert Journeys. Cities in the Atacama grew rapidly in the 19th century due to the discovery of nitrate, a popular fertilizer. The nitrate boom sparked Chile’s transition into a modern state and brought thousands of migrants from throughout Chile and the world to new communities in the desert.


While the discovery of synthetic nitrate put an end to nitrate extraction, copper mining from the Atacama Desert is now Chile’s largest export. Desert Journeys provides an indepth look into these fascinating communities in Northern Chile.


Planning your trip


Desert Journeys is a great book for anyone planning a trip to the Atacama. You can also check out many of the locations in Dorfman’s book for yourself, including the former towns of the nitrate boom and the region’s world-class astronomy facilities.