Disaster an unexpected boon for once-sleepy Chilean mining town

Copiapo's mayor calls the mine rescue a "blessing from heaven" for improving the formerly little known town's tourism prospects.

COPIAPO, CHILE—For 33 rescued miners, what was a subterranean ordeal now holds out the promise of personal fortune. Hoping to cash in, too, is this previously unknown gritty mining town, where 24 of the men are from.

“Copiapo is not the same place it was on Aug. 5,” said Mayor Maglio Cicardini, alluding to the day a 700,000-tonne rock shifted inside a gold and copper mine, trapping the 33 men for more than two months. “This has been an exceptional situation.”

“It’s a blessing from heaven that due to the accident of the 33 miners we have had an opportunity of improving Copiapo’s tourism,” said Cicardini on Saturday.

Tourism has historically been the last thing to draw people to Chile’s oldest city, nestled in a valley in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest.

In this desolate world of beiges and browns, like the inside of a woman’s powder compact, stray dogs prowl narrow streets lined mostly with adobe and concrete one-storey homes capped with corrugated steel roofs.

According to the last census in 2002, there are roughly 156,000 people in the area — and about 80 per cent work directly or indirectly for the mining industry.

Copiapo literally sits on a gold mine. The surrounding, dusty mountains contain untold troves of gold, silver and copper, Chile’s most important export.

In the past, most people came to this town of transients for one reason: to get rich. Any foreigners, Canadians among them, were usually investors hoping to get in on mineral exploitation.

But in the past two weeks the entire world has come to know this town’s name, as journalists swarmed in to bear witness to one of the most spectacular rescues in mining history, unfolding at the San Jose mine 45 minutes away.

The disaster has been an unexpected boon for sleepy Copiapo, which, according to the mayor, has had about $20 million (U.S.) injected into the local economy since Aug. 5.

As nearly 2,000 journalists descended upon Copiapo and the surrounding towns, rental cars became scarce and the city’s 25 hotels were fully booked.

“Everyone wants to go on vacation now,” said Irene Araya Geraldo, supervisor at the Chagall Hotel, an executive hotel. “From Aug. 7 onwards, it has been crazy.”

Sunscreen-lathered foreigners and camera crews have become everyday sights in the main plaza and outside the Copiapo hospital, where the 33 miners were examined after surfacing from the escape shaft drilled down to their dark refuge.

There are rumours of journalists paying nurses to tip them off when miners are released. News agencies and broadcasters have built platforms nearby for their cameras and work stations.

Lucy Romero, who owns a five-bedroom house directly across from the hospital, has rented part of her front yard to the Associated Press for $200 a day.

Her family runs a convenience store attached to the house, and Romero has been scrambling to keep her shelves stocked with drinks and sandwiches for hungry reporters. Business has doubled since the media circus came to town, she said.

Her daughter, Mariela Oviedo, has been thrilled by it all, the likes of which she has never seen before.

“When I saw all the media, I got excited because the news is happening here and I’m part of it,” Oviedo said. “A lot of the press who’ve been here never knew Copiapo existed. Copiapo should be way more well known. This is where so much of the world’s wealth is found and exported everywhere.”

The town’s tourism board is talking of creating a museum about local miners, with a focus on “los 33.” It has started a petition to hang onto the history-making rescue capsule, dubbed Phoenix 2, which Chile’s government wants to bring back to the capital Santiago, said Yuvitza Osorio Munoz, regional consultant for the board.

“This is like the Berlin Wall,” she said. “Everyone wants a piece.”

As for Oviedo, she is certain Copiapo has gained lasting worldwide recognition. On a wooden table in her store, various reporters have signed notes in black felt pen. One message from a Hispanic U.S. correspondent reads:

“For the special people of Copiapo, that now is an unforgettable place in the map of the world.”

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