Finding meaning in the mountains: the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs

The barren wastes of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile are scattered with hidden surprises. We’d already had our eyes opened at Humberstone and Pica, but there is no greater wonder to be found in the Atacama than the hauntingly mysterious geoglyphs at Cerro Pintados – the largest single collection of geoglyphs anywhere in Latin America.

Driving through the post-apocolyptic landscape en route to Cerro Pintados it seems improbable that there is anything of interest at the end of the dirt road. Perhaps the desiccated corpses of other foolish travellers who made the mistake of wandering off the beaten track, but giant pre-Hispanic artworks wouldn’t top the list of possibilities.

The landscape of the Atacama Desert surrounding the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs, Chile

The landscape of the Atacama Desert surrounding the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs, Chile

The geoglyphs are both pre-Hispanic and pre-Inca, testimony to the fact that there were cultures thriving in these harsh desert conditions long before any form of written history could record their civilisation. Like the culture behind the more famous Nascar lines in southern Peru, very little is known about the peoples who made the geoglyphs, making it hard to interpret what they represent or when they were made.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

The geoglyphs are spread out over several hills, and as you walk down the track dozens more geoglyphs reveal themselves. Its like being in a vast open-air art gallery – albeit one where comfortable seats from which to muse over the artworks are replaced by a searingly hot sun without a single scrap of shade to protect you. The geoglyphs depict a wide range of different images: some, like llamas, birds, people and lizards, are easy to identify; others are fairly abstract ‘creatures’ or geometric designs of squares, circles and lines dotted into the hillside.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

The purpose of the geoglyphs is open to interpretation. Some have speculated that they are ‘signposts’ pointing weary herders of llama trains from across the Andes to human settlements or to the ocean; others believe they have religious or ritualistic meaning and may be instructive ‘stories’, literally writ large; others have argued that because you can only see them in their full glory from a distance or from above that they are messages for the gods or aliens. No one seems willing to acknowledge that they could be graffiti.

The dates of the geoglyphs are equally murky, with a timeframe running from 1450 BC to 500 AD. Whatever their origins and purpose, this is public art on a grand scale and it is believed that they form some of the only surviving evidence of agriculture-based civilisations that colonised this region several thousand years ago.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

While the Cerro Pintados geoglyphs are better know than most, the Atacama Desert is home to numerous other geoglyph sites. We passed two others a short distance off the Ruta 5 highway, but the best known of all geoglyphs is the ‘Atacama Giant’, literally a giant geoglyph representing a human form.

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs at the Cerro Pintados, Atacama Desert, Chile

As we often found in Chile there was nobody at the entrance to the Cerro Pintados from the Reserva Nacional to speak to about the geoglyphs or to give our entrance fee to. There wasn’t even a box where we might have left the entrance fee and, deciding against leaving it under a rock near the entrance gate, we entered the site for free (still feel a bit bad about that).

These last two photos come from different geoglyph sites. I’m pretty sure the doner kebab was invented somewhere between Turkey and Greece, but there is a very suspicious looking geoglyph in the final photo that looks like an early doner kebab prototype.

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile

Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert, Chile