I was seated with nine other artists in the middle of the Chilean desert, with volcanic Andean peaks ahead of me and the Cordillera de la Sal, or Salt Mountains, behind me. I squinted toward the early morning sun reaching over the peaks, feeling small as it began to light up the desert in every direction. Carlos, our host, had laid out a blanket on the warm sand and was now setting down a bottle of red wine, a bowl of coca leaves and four cups.
As a group we made plates of organic offerings — edible fruit pods from an algarrobo, or carob, tree; chañar seeds; a few slices of apple and orange — before taking turns kneeling in the dirt, filling the cups with coca leaves and wine in a particular order. The cups on the right represented women, life, while those on the left represented men, death — always a duality. We then moved over a small hole dug in the ground representing the boca de Madre Tierra, the mouth of Mother Earth, to leave our offerings and speak with her as we wished.
Here, among the Lickanantay, the area’s Indigenous people, we were participating in a reciprocity ceremony called Ayni, a customary offering made to Mother Earth to ask for her invitation and protection upon our arrival. Carlos, a Lickanantay yatiri, or spiritual and medicinal healer, led us through the ritual, which was too sacred to be photographed.
I had arrived the day before in the tiny community of Coyo, in a dusty corner of the Atacama Desert, in northern Chile, after having been accepted into a three-week artist-in-residency program with La Wayaka Current, an organization that focuses on the environment, community and contemporary art. I was there to learn from and participate in the Lickanantay culture and photograph my experience. Burned out from life in New York City, I was looking to understand how ancient wisdom thrives in this part of the world, and how I could honor these values in my own existence.
Coyo isn’t quite a town; it’s more a collection of winding dirt roads with houses made of clay, rocks and branches that have been pulled from the surrounding landscape. To get there, I’d flown from New York to the northern Chilean city of Calama, where nine strangers and I boarded a bus and headed out into the desert.
As we approached Coyo, Dago, a geologist who served as our driver and guide, told us that the air here would “limpiar tus pulmones” — clean our lungs.
I took time after the Ayni ceremony to walk the streets of the community, feeling the temperature begin to rise as the sun burned away the morning clouds. At first glance, the houses might have looked worn and neglected, with cracks and crevices that exposed their inhabitants to the outside world. But I saw them more tenderly: Each was made with hands that were deeply rooted in the earth. The ceilings were supported with rocks and sticks, the fences tied together with plastic rope. Dogs kept the dwellings secure.
My mind roamed to my home in New York, to my apartment full of trinkets and furniture collected over the years, photographs collecting dust. I live in a Brooklyn brownstone, where the skyline of Lower Manhattan is reflected in my bedroom mirror. I have no idea whose hands built that city.
Pulled back to Coyo by the sounds of barking dogs, I found it hard to reconcile the fact that, somewhere else in the world, a city was thriving with skyscrapers and lights that never dim. In New York, I realized, I move through life in a way that’s alien to this community. And while that life exists, this community — in the driest desert in the world — asks Mother Earth if we may go on. May we come to you for answers, Madre Tierra?
Time was hazy in the desert. Days swirled from one to the next. I measured its passage in sunsets and sunrises, in the walks I’d taken, in the people I’d met. Sandra, Carlos’s wife, wove in and out of my days. Her energy was contagious, and everything about her was vibrant: her clothes, her laughter, her strength.
Sandra comes from a long line of shepherds. We spent an afternoon shepherding with her, talking about life as we walked llamas and sheep across the desert. Each day, she and Carlos walk under the blistering sun for hours to feed their animals, trekking on either side of the pack, whistling to keep them in line. Sandra carried Gaspar, her grandson, wrapped tightly on her back.
One day, we paused under the shade of trees, brushing the ground free of thorns and thistles to sit while the animals grazed. Sandra told us that our base in Coyo used to be their home. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, however, she and Carlos had decided to move to where they lived now, a 15-minute drive from Coyo, a place reserved for shepherding families with miles of open land and trees that drop seeds for the animals to eat. With no electricity, hot water and little to no cellular service, the community of families there pools its money together to have potable water regularly delivered.
Although Coyo is a humble desert community, it was a comfort to Sandra and Carlos. I, too, had come to understand this comfort. Sandra told us that adjusting to a new way of life was difficult at first, but that they now felt more connected to nature. As Sandra spoke, Gaspar rolled around in the dirt, bringing rocks to his mouth to taste them.
Again, I thought about my life in New York, with its comparable comforts and conveniences — a place where we’ve traded connection and respect for other beings for a particular form of bounty. But this life is bountiful, too. Sandra and Carlos walk through the desert each day by choice, feeling connected to the ground beneath and the sky above. In Brooklyn I’d seen a mother reprimand her son for stopping to pick up sticks off the ground. I thought of Gaspar, of how lucky he was to play with the earth so freely.
According to the Lickanantay, yatiris like Carlos are chosen beings who have been struck by lightning, awakening their spiritual abilities that the rest of us can gain access to only with the use of hallucinogens. Carlos was stillborn, he told us, until his mother felt lightning strike through the hospital walls in San Pedro, which brought forth his earthly cry.
In Lickanantay culture, the term “pachakuti” refers to a period of societal upheaval and transformation. The solar eclipse in 2017 welcomed us into the fifth pachakuti, Carlos told us. For centuries, the dominant social order had been that of the Western conqueror, to hide and shame the wisdom of Indigenous communities. This new pachakuti rids us of that energy, he said, and renews us with Indigenous knowledge to bring back into existence a harmony with Mother Earth and all her beings.
The Atacama Desert, abundant in minerals, is also filled with mines — for lithium, copper, magnesium, potassium. In particular, the extraction of lithium, which is used for electric-vehicle batteries and is essential to the world’s transition to renewable energy, has been at the center of ongoing debates about mining interests, climate change and Indigenous rights.
We drove for miles down bumpy roads to marvel at the landscape — the desert, the lithium-rich salt flats, the mines themselves. Nothing, nothing, until suddenly the landscape opened up and you could see salt for miles, dusting the desert like fresh snow. We parked the van, and I climbed up a craggy ledge to sit with this landscape, watching as the sun dipped behind the Cordillera de la Sal, turning the desert and the snow-capped mountains pink.
One morning the skies opened up. At first it was just a few raindrops — but then the winds grew stronger and the skies grayer, and the rain began falling relentlessly. A group of us threw on our raincoats and ran back out into the streets, arms outstretched, to let the rain patter off our sleeves.
I inhaled deeply, allowing the sweet-smelling air to fill my lungs — to clean them, as Dago had told us it would. This, I finally understood, was what he’d meant.
Irjaliina Paavonpera is a photographer who now lives between Sydney, Australia, and Paxos, Greece. You can follow her work on Instagram.