Epic Dispatches

A journey through God’s country.

Sites unseen: Atacama Desert

2024-03-27 | Atacama, Chile, Pentecostals, driest desert

We were halfway through a two-day crossing of the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, and the hood on our pickup was rattling and shaking so fiercely I feared it might fly off and come through the windshield at us. Barbara and I agreed that we must get help, and urgently. But where, in the midst of this desolation? We prayed, as we customarily do when no other options are available.

The rattling had been a recurring nuisance ever since a front-end collision that our truck had suffered more than a year earlier. (I won’t mention who was driving, in the interests of marital harmony.) The pickup came back from the body shop in reasonably good shape, except for the jiggly hood. It steadily worsened, so we had the shop repair it again, and again.

When it came time to leave on a three-week family road trip to the south of Chile, we decided that a jiggly hood was not a reasonable cause for canceling the long-anticipated adventure. So, early one morning before Christmas, we sallied forth with our four kids and some cautious optimism.

The first 3,000 miles were smooth enough and we enjoyed uninterrupted travel all the way down to the phenomenally beautiful Lake District. (Just how beautiful is the Lake District? Go to my earlier blog, Sites Unseen: Patagonia.) However, the noxious rattle returned as we neared Santiago on the back haul. With 1,500 miles to go and the Atacama lying between us and home, I bit the bullet and took the truck in once again for therapy. Next morning, the repair shop pronounced it fixed, so with cautious optimism we pointed the hood north toward Bolivia.

Perhaps it was the Atacama wind that undid the repair shop’s patch job, but by day two the hood was rattling and jiggling as never before. It was just after the “amen” to our desperate prayer that Barbara spotted a lonely gas station on the horizon. We did not pass it, as I customarily do. (But I won’t go into that, again in the interests of marital harmony.)

“Well, we can’t fix your hood here,” the lean, sunburned attendant said. “But I know a couple fellas in town who can.”

The “town” he pointed us to was a mining settlement at the bottom of a bowl-shaped canyon below the desert surface. As we descended from the rim into the depths below, I had sudden flashbacks from Star Wars movies. We were not in South America anymore. This was the planet Tatooine. I half expected Luke Skywalker to zip by in his land speeder.

We located the two fellas, who were even leaner and more sunburned than the guy at the gas station. They seemed gently amused by my description of the hood shake. “Let’s have a look,” said one, with an elfish twinkle in his eye.

His first move was to sprawl spread-eagle across the hood and wiggle around a bit. Then he jumped off, sprung the latch and gazed at the hood’s insides.

“Yeah, I think we can fix you up,” he said with a nod. “But it’s gonna take a while. Why don’t you go down the street and get some ice cream while you wait.”

I confess I had serious qualms about walking away from our truck, especially after watching this stranger wallow around on its ailing bonnet. But then ice cream with Barbara and the kids in the middle of the world’s driest desert sounded like a good idea. Surprisingly, the ice cream was very good. And in a surprisingly short time the man came by to say the truck was ready to go.

Of course, I looked over the entire hood carefully. It did seem, let's say, more settled than before. “What do I owe you?” I asked the two fellows.

“Not a thing,” the twinkly eyes said. “Didn’t need any parts, and it hardly took any time at all.”

“Oh, but sir,” I protested. “This is a serious problem. Please, let me pay you.”

The two exchanged amused glances. “Nah, we don’t need anything,” the man said with an elfish grin. “Just have a nice trip home.”

And you know what? We did. That hood never jiggled once, all the way across the Atacama. In fact, the noxious shake never returned as long as we owned the truck. The Tatooine mechanics had worked a miracle.

I would like to go back someday and thank them for saving our vacation, and probably our lives. But it’s a long way down there and I wonder if I could even find that bowl-shaped canyon again. And if I did, I doubt the two fellows would still be there. I have even begun to suspect that they were really angels, the kind that disappear after working miracles for desperate travelers.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if the whole incident was just a mirage. After all, we were smack in the middle of the Atacama, and stranger things have happened in the world’s driest desert.

Just how dry is the Atacama? Well, since 1570 when humans began measuring its rainfall, about 0.04 of an inch has fallen per year. That makes the Atacama roughly 50 times drier than Death Valley and even more parched than the great Sahara Desert, which averages a whopping three inches of annual precipitation.

There is one disclaimer to World’s Driest Desert status that should be mentioned. Geographers have discovered that certain parts of Antarctica actually receive less precipitation than the Atacama. I say, okay, but that doesn’t really count, because Antarctica has two great advantages going for it: ice and penguins.

What cannot be denied is that the Atacama ranks as one of the planet’s longest deserts, and certainly the skinniest. According to official geographers, it stretches 1,354 miles from Copiapó, Chile, up to Ica, Peru. According to unofficial road trippers like myself, the Atacama runs another 900 miles further north, nearly to the border of Ecuador. Supposedly, the barren reaches of Peru’s coastline comprise another desert called the Pampas de la Joya, but you couldn’t tell it by me. It’s all just miles and miles and miles of dry sand punctuated by drier rocks and ridges. Geographers have nicknamed it “Mars on Earth”.

Whatever its true length, the desert’s span is comparatively teeny. The Atacama occupies a narrow strip between the blue Pacific Ocean and the towering Andes mountains. Its widest west-to-east point, between Antofagasta and San Pedro de Atacama, covers a mere 140 miles.

Perhaps you are imagining the Atacama as a blistering inferno under a merciless sun. Well, sometimes, and in some places. But fog and clouds often cover stretches of the desert for months at a time. Daytime temperatures average a comfortable 66 degrees Fahrenheit. This is due to the Pacific Ocean’s Humbolt Current, an icy stream that flows north from Antarctica and acts as a natural air conditioner for the west coast of South America.

If you have never heard of the Atacama before now, I bet you have heard of the Nazca Lines. Mammoth works of art known as geoglyphs, the Lines are named for the ancient Nazca people who created them between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. The geoglyphs consist of shallow incisions in the desert floor that form precise geometric shapes hundreds of yards long. Most are simple rectangles, circles or spirals. But many form cleverly stylized figures of people, plants and animals, including a huge hummingbird, spider, fish, condor, heron, monkey, lizard, dog and cat.

The fact that the majority of these creatures do not naturally exist within hundreds of miles of the Atacama is just one of the mysteries surrounding the Nazca Lines. Another has to do with viewing them. The Lines are best seen from an airplane, which has led some observers to speculate that extra-terrestrials carved them with laser beams from hovering spacecraft.

It should be mentioned that the Nazca Lines are also clearly visible from the surrounding foothills and other high spots, including a three-story observation tower on the side of the Pan-American highway where road trippers can stop and get a peek. And with all due respect to the extra-terrestrial theorists, these are not the only prehistoric geoglyphs in the world. Comparable mammoth art works are found in Australia, England and newly cleared areas of the Amazon rainforest, with no indication of laser beams or hovering spacecraft.

Surprising as it may seem, Atacama’s Martian landscape attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, including us. Our family has most frequently visited Iquique, Chile, which is only a day’s drive from our home in Cochabamba. We go to enjoy time on its spacious beach, to shop in its immense duty-free zone, or catch a bus or plane south to Santiago.

We happened to be there once on a Sunday and decided to attend services at a Pentecostal church, primarily because we had discovered that, in the 1940s, Pentecostal Christians from Iquique had visited Bolivia. Thanks to their preaching, a handful of families in Oruro came to faith in Christ. Some years later, these same families founded the Bolivian church movement that we serve as missionaries. I was curious to see if some sort of similarity existed between our two faith communities.

Surprisingly, it did. The auditorium in Iquique was packed with several hundred serious but ardent worshippers, who sang every verse of every hymn at full volume. Prayers were offered by the entire assembly, all together and also at full volume. We heard not one, but three sermons, each delivered by a volunteer preacher from the congregation. When it came time for the offering, no collection plates circulated. Instead, everybody lined up to file past two large baskets down front and drop in their money, while singing yet another hymn at full volume. We felt right at home.

I should mention that neither Barbara nor I are Pentecostal Christians. Like millions of non-Roman Catholics living in Latin America, we refer to ourselves as evangélicos (“evangelicals” in English). But on our very first trip to Chile, we learned that the country is a standout exception to this rule. The term evangélicos elicited blank stares and timid questions from the Christians we encountered. Once we clarified our basic beliefs and relationship to Jesus, the Chileans would explain that they were, in fact, the same kind of believers as us. But in Chile, they had always called themselves pentecostales.

This peculiarity harks back to 1902 and a Methodist missionary named Willis C. Hoover. Soon after students at a Methodist Bible college in Kansas, U.S.A., experienced a spiritual revival they considered to be a modern Pentecost (See Acts, Chapter 2), Hoover began encouraging his fellow Methodists in Valparaíso and Santiago to seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit. A similar revival broke out and soon Methodist congregations in Chile were singing at full volume, praying out loud, shouting and speaking in tongues, in church no less.

This kind of behavior, as well as the theological views underlying it, were uncharacteristic of Methodism. In 1910, matters reached a head and the Chileans broke from their mother denomination to form the Methodist Pentecostal Church.

Unlike the vast majority of church splits, this one opened the door to unbridled growth. The Methodist Pentecostals grew so quickly, in fact, that they soon became the largest non-Catholic church in Chile. They kept growing and eventually spawned Latin America’s original megachurch.

The Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal Church on Alameda Avenue in Santiago is considered the granddaddy of megachurches in the Americas. So, years ago when I found myself in Santiago on a free-lance reporting trip, I made sure to visit a Sunday evening service there. The experience was so mind-boggling I wrote about it the next day in a FAX to the family back home. (Yes, a FAX. Email was still a novelty at the time.)

19 April, 1993
Dear Barbara, Sarah, Benjo, Molly and Carmen,

How are you all doing? I have had a good trip so far. Weather is the pits, though. Rain, gray skies, cool temps. Just what you hate, Sweetheart.

Visited Chile’s largest church last night, the Methodist Pentecostal Church in Jotabeche. 15,000 in attendance, about one-fifth of the total membership, they told me. Could not speak with the bishop, Javier Vasquez, but had a nice chat with his press secretary–-imagine! He let me take pictures from the choir loft during the service.

I miss all of you lots. Keep me in your prayers, as I will you. Hugs and kisses all around, Dave/Daddy.

Lest you suspect my FAX of containing typos or exaggerated stats, let me give some context. At the time of my visit, the 16,000-seat Jotabeche auditorium was larger than any church building in the United States. Its choir loft was roomy enough to accommodate the congregation’s 2,000-voice choir and the several hundred guitarists, accordionists and mandolin players who assembled every service to accompany the hymns.

Despite its size, Jotabeche’s building could not accommodate the congregation’s 80,000 members all at once, so the church instituted an attendance rotation system. Worshippers had permission to come to an Alameda Avenue service once a month. Otherwise, they met in smaller “class meetings” led by Bishop Vazquez’s many assistants. Class meetings typically drew from 500 to 3,000 participants. A few class meetings had built their own auditoriums. At this writing, 30 years after my visit to Jotabeche, the church is thought to be the second largest congregation in the world after the Yoido Full Gospel in Seoul, South Korea.

Jotabeche is not the only Pentecostal church in Chile that has experienced exponential growth. The movement has so captivated the country that two-thirds of all non-Catholic Christians there identify themselves as pentecostales. The Pew Research Center calls Chile the most “pentecostalized” society in Latin America. Congregations have sprung up from Punta Arenas to the Lake District to the immense Central Valley and as far north as, well, Iquique and beyond.

Which leads me to believe that if I ever do come across those two fellows who repaired the jiggly hood on our pickup truck years ago in the middle of the world’s driest desert, it would turn out that they are not angels after all. More likely, they are pentecostales.

Next time, Sites unseen: Inca homeland.

Nazca Line Photo by Diego Delso, courtesy of wikimedia.org.