Picture driving down the Pan-American Highway through the Atacama Desert in Chile: a dry, vast landscape, unbroken in all directions. Out of nowhere, a giant hand appears, stretching towards the heavens and seeming to grow out of the earth itself.
That's the setting for Mano del Desierto or "Hand of the Desert," an unnervingly lifelike, yet massively proportioned, sculpture outside of Antofagasta.
Read on to discover more about the sculpture and its desert home.
The oldest desert in the world
The Atacama Desert is an arid coastal plateau stretching more than 1,600 kilometers, from the Andes mountains in the north to the Chilean Coast Range in the south. The landscape is marked by stony terrain, salt flats rich with geysers and rare birds, active volcanoes, dramatic rock formations, and hundreds of species of flowering plants.
At less than one inch of rainfall per year, the Atacama is the driest non-polar place in the world. The dryness makes the desert an excellent place for stargazing. Clean air, clear skies and lack of light pollution mean an unobstructed view of the brightest stars of the southern hemisphere.
The Atacama is thought to be the most ancient desert in the world, experiencing extreme hyperaridity for at least 3 million years. Some weather stations have never recorded a drop of rain.
The area is so dry, in fact, that NASA compares its soil to Mars. The arid plateau of the Atacama has played backdrop for both real science and science fiction, most notably as the site for Mars in the television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.
How fitting then, that the otherworldly landscape should be the framing for this larger-than-life art form, rising out of the emptiness of the desert as if part of a dream.
La Mano del Desierto
About 75 kilometers southeast of Antofagasta, Mano del Desierto is a giant sculpture of a human hand - a left hand, to be specific.
The piece was created by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, acclaimed for figurative expressionism through sculpture. Irarrázabal frequently addresses human themes in his work: life and death, hatred and suffering, love and surrender.
"A good sculpture has primitive, magical strength. What I am looking for is the magical dimension of reality, not the esoteric." - Mario Irarrázabal
The exaggerated size of the hand is intended to emphasize human vulnerability and helplessness.
The sculpture stands 11 meters (36 feet) tall, and is made of concrete poured over an iron frame. The base of the hand extends into the sand, as if the rest of the enormous figure is somehow buried right beneath our feet, waiting to emerge through the very ground on which we stand.
In fact, some refer to Irarrázabal's work as a giant holding South America in his hands, due to the surprising fact that this hand has a counterpart - half a continent away! A decade earlier, the sculptor built a giant hand statue rising from the beaches of Uruguay. And as you've probably already guessed, that location has the right hand to Antofagasta's left.
Almost 30 years ago, the citizens of Antofagasta asked the Santiago-born artist to create a monument to the emptiness of the Atacama Desert. Antofagasta, a port city in coastal Chile, is the center of the region's copper production industry. Surrounding the city are beaches, desolate stretches of desert, and abandoned mining ghost towns.
La Corporación Pro Antofagasta (PROA), formed in 1992 to celebrate and preserve the culture legacy of the region, and commissioned Mano del Desierto as one of their first works.
Since its inception, PROA have acted as caretakers of the site. Sadly, due to its relative isolation, the hand is a frequent victim of graffiti. PROA organizes twice-yearly efforts to scrub clean any unwanted additions to the artwork.
Getting to Mano del Desierto requires a road trip through the desert. Drive east on Route 28 from Antofagasta, then south on Route 5 for another 63 kilometers. The hand will appear like a mirage from several kilometers away, growing larger as you approach. As you near mile marker 1309, keep an eye out for the pull off point. Pack water, fill up your gas, and stay alert - the extreme environment and monotony of the desert can be unforgiving if you haven't been before.
As a fun side note, if the desert looks familiar to you, you might have seen it on the big screen. The Atacama serves as the setting for Che Guevara's soul-seeking journey chronicled in The Motorcycle Diaries, and neighboring Cerro Paranal observatory (home to South America's largest telescopes) was featured in Quantum of Solace as a hotel that James Bond burns to the ground.
Hands around the world
This isn't the first giant hand made by Irarrázabal, although he cites it as his favorite. The other hands include:
La Mano aka Monumento al Ahogado (Monument to the Drowned),1982, Uruguay
La Mano, the second sculpture, created in 1987, located in Parque Juan Carlos I in Madrid
La Mano, the fourth sculpture, installed at the Riva Ca' Di Dio, Castello, for the Venice Biennale in 1995 - Check out this photo on Flickr