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Visiting the Hand of the Desert in Chile

Hand of the Desert

The remarkable thing about driving through the Atacama Desert is how often there’s little to see. Miles and miles and miles of nothing changing. Just low bare hills, grey brown rocks, and sand. It can be an isolating feeling road tripping through the driest non-polar desert in the world. There’s little traffic so it’s easy to feel very alone.

So imagine driving along such a desolate highway and then spotting something dark on the horizon. It’s too solid to be a tree. Too big to be a human. Too small to be a building. As you get closer you realize it’s a hand. A really big stone hand. The Hand of the Desert in fact.

It looks as if a giant has been buried alive and is stretching his way to the surface with only his left hand having broken ground. You prepare for the earth to rumble and break open as the rest of him emerges. If the hand was in proportion, there would be about 400 feet of emerging giant, which is about two Kyle Lowry’s taller than the Swissmill Tower in Zurich (the tallest operating grain elevator in the world). No Burj Khalifa but still mighty impressive.

Hand of the Desert

Impressive as it is, why is there a 36’ stone hand on the side of the highway (and by side I mean 450m from the road but easily visible) in the middle of a desert in northern Chile?

To boost tourism. Mano del Desierto was instagrammable before Instagram even existed.

Its creation was set in motion by a group located in Antofagasta, a city that sits on the coast, 75km to the sculpture’s northwest – the isolated center of Chile’s copper mining industry. It was funded by Corporación PROA, a local non-profit group that seeks to promote and develop initiatives that benefit the Antofagasta community, and built by the Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal. The finished sculpture was unveiled to the public in March 1992 and has since become a popular attraction and a welcome rest stop against the monotony of this stretch of the PanAmerican Highway.

Hand of the Desert | Mano del Desierto

From Antofagasta, take either Route 26 or Route 28, both connect to Route 5. The sculpture can be found between mile markers 1309 and 1310. You’ll see a road sign pointing to Escultura (‘sculpture’ in Spanish) and you can turn off there, although it doesn’t really resemble a road, but most roads in the Atacama don’t resemble roads as we’re accustomed to thinking of them. There’s another well-trod path further down the highway as well. But if you’re in a 4×4 you can go ahead and make your own roads. There’s nothing standing in your way except some sand.

Hand of the DesertAs you approach you’ll notice that there’s no fences, gates, or ticket booth. In fact, you can drive your vehicle right up to the hand. I was happy to see that this unique piece of public art is free for all to see. While it’s certainly advisable to visit during daylight hours, it would make quite a decent spot to park your campervan if you’re free-camping in the Atacama.

There was a family there taking photos as we approached but we didn’t have to wait long before we had the place to ourselves. That’s the beauty about being in the middle of nowhere – no crowds to contend with. Walking up close I found it almost ironic that such a towering, solid piece was meant to represent vulnerability. It’s all about perspective. In the vastness of the Atacama Desert this 36’ tall hand was a mere speck but up close it was imposing.

Hand of the Desert

You’ll likely spend less than 30 minutes visiting The Hand of the Desert, taking your photos, and giving it a high five. After all, there’s no tour guide, no elaborate history, no multimedia presentation. But it’s absolutely worth going out of your way to visit. Give it a high five for me.

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