La Quebradilla (Photograph by Fernando Perucci)

This Is Where Your Old Clothes Go

A landscape of discarded textile rises in Chile’s Atacama Desert

WE GOT A FLAT TIRE on Mars. While my travel companions fiddled with the broken tire jack, I ambled down the center of the road we had been tracing. There was no oncoming traffic, no destination in sight, just the swell of rolling reddish hills. We’d left the planet.

In an era on the cusp of commercial space travel, this is the image that draws tourists to Chile’s Atacama Desert. For decades, scientists have staged it to mimic Martian terrain. But despite its otherworldly allure, the landscape is closely tied to some of Earth’s most pressing challenges.

In late 2021, the Atacama Desert circulated through the global news cycle thanks to a few viral drone photographs: dunes of discarded clothing spilled across a sea of sand. Since then, questions have swirled about who should take responsibility for the peculiar and staggering monument of waste. No comprehensive solutions have been reached, but one thing is clear: though this story was told from the desert, it didn’t begin there.

Shipments arrive in Iquique’s port.
(Photograph by Ignacio Muñoz)

SKIRTING ALONGSIDE the Chilean Atacama Desert is Iquique, a Pacific port city with a rich naval and economic history that cemented it as an industrial hub for the region. In the 1970s, the Chilean government embraced the city’s coastal access and declared it a tax-free zone, amplifying its potential as a trade hub for global producers. Today, products from Europe, Asia, and North America arrive in Lego-like containers that line local docks.

In 2022, the United States exported more than 150 million pounds of apparel and textiles to Chile: some is deemed ropa americana, mostly unsold merchandise from used clothing stores and charity consignment organizations. On arrival, the clothes and fabric are sorted according to quality so importers can resell it to local retailers. The excess is deemed ropa basura, garbage clothes. Local vendors make weekly trips to the port, where they buy lotes of product from importers and then start their ascent out of the city behind a sand dune known locally as The Dragon.

Arched above Iquique’s sea line, the crest of Cerro Dragón lies guard in front of Alto Hospicio, a sprawling 2004 settlement founded by an influx of migrants who, a decade prior, descended on the plateau in search of mining jobs and a place to call home. Interspersed throughout Alto Hospicio are houses built of plywood and tin scraps that lean precariously close to each other. In Iquique, high-rise buildings jut from the urban coastline, penciled squarely by city planners.

In Chile, decades of steady growth of “informal” settlements like those in Alto Hospicio has recently exploded as immigration from Colombia and Venezuela boomed. These neighborhoods in Alto Hospicio are now some of the largest settlements of their kind in the country, with close to thirty thousand residents (and counting). Locally, they go by many names: Callampa, Campamento, Toma.

People sort through ropa americana for sale.
(Photograph by Fernando Perucci)

These informal neighborhoods are often described in terms of what they lack, like electricity and plumbing, or for how they’ve been forged, through occupation of the land without formal documentation.

Jenniffer Quiroz Bravo is an architect who grew up in Iquique and now specializes in heritage projects in Tarapacá, the region that encompasses Iquique and Alto Hospicio. “Housing is where the whole world of the heritage of the peoples intersects,” she says. Most of her projects are in centuries-old towns bearing marks from the region’s historic earthquakes. It can be difficult to talk about the meaning of heritage in a place whose formal history goes back only twenty years. But its memory grows every day.

Six days a week, visitors to Alto Hospicio find a bustling open-air market called La Quebradilla, a lively shared community space where thousands of vendors sell items taken from the port city below. Each morning, blue and red tents flood a causeway splitting a sector of the comuna and disrupting the sepia tone that otherwise blankets the neighborhood. From above, they look like arteries running through the desert, offering a lifeline of commerce. Throughout this stream, vendors unload their bales of used clothing, some displayed neatly on hangers, some left in piles for rummaging.

While browsing the market stalls, the feeling of transience is impossible to escape. It’s a space created by visitors, built with scraps around a market of international scraps. Passing through, you’re situated by the transitory.

Rows of tents unfold in front of the desert.
(Photograph by Fernando Perucci)

SOME OF THE MARKET’S vendors immigrated from other countries or professions. Each has a different idea of how they intend to stay in Alto Hospicio. Some thought of it as a temporary stop and then made it home.

Marcio Savaris (Brazil) moved to the city with his wife after traveling through other countries like Argentina and Bolivia, and thought used clothing sales provided a more promising life.

“The way it should be is that people work and companies produce and, from that, what’s left over is divided, because there are always going to be poor people living this kind of life.

“There’s no way to divide it all, there’s no way, unless we were perfect human beings. But there’s something that’s being done here, more like a popular economy.

“Alto Hospicio is a land—I don’t know if it’s of opportunity, but you can grow here, showing that people like to fight, they like to work, they like to be orderly.”

(Photographs by Fernando Perucci)

MUCH OF THE FOCUS on the clothing the past few years has been on the waste that ultimately lands in the desert. Vendors at the market try to showcase new product every week, so they often resort to auctioning their leftovers at the end of each selling cycle, or giving them away. But some still ends up in the dump.

Fabiola Cruces has been selling ropa americana here for more than twenty years and expresses disappointment in others’ disposal practices: “It’s contamination that they’re doing to the earth. Look over there towards the mountains, there’s a place where they throw it away and every fifteen days they burn it. There’s a huge contamination, there’s big plumes of black smoke.”

Polyester clothing can take up to two hundred years to decompose in the ground. When burned, it releases toxins like carbon monoxide and benzene into the air. A few burn sites have been shut down in light of media attention, but one private landfill still operates.

Elsewhere, discarded clothes dot roads running through the desert.

Some of La Quebradilla’s vendors live in Alto Hospicio’s official neighborhoods while others reside in the informal tomas. In one of the driest deserts on the planet, water is an increasingly rare resource and is especially difficult to access.

“The rent here is expensive,” says Samuel Santos (Bolivia), “so they told us to go to the toma. We went there to ask and, thanks to God, they always open the door for us. Wherever we went, they always opened the door for us.”

A man takes a break behind La Quebradilla, looking over Cerro Dragón with Iquique in the distance.
(Photograph by Fernando Perucci)

He says that residents have to ask the municipality for shipments of water, and they’re given a thousand liters for the week. “I have my family and we’re five, and my mother lives there too, so we’re six. A thousand liters for the house for the week.”

Three hundred to four hundred of those are used in processing the unwashed ropa americana Santos receives from importers. That leaves each person in the Santos household about fifteen liters a day for drinking, bathing, and cleaning their own clothes.

By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the average U.S. resident uses 590 liters of water a day. And each shirt Santos sells has already consumed about 2,700 liters of water even before its arrival in Chile.

As we began our descent from La Quebradilla, I pointed to another peculiar site that caught my eye: a purple-and-white-striped tent splayed against the background of housing developments under construction.

“What’s that?” I asked my colleague, gesturing out the window.

“The circus is in town.”

“When will it leave?”

“It’ll probably stay longer.”

In Alto Hospicio, the division between the permanent and impermanent is hazy, and space is continuously negotiated between people and resources. Its stories may not begin in the desert, but they stay and then they’re told there.

Discarded debris burns alongside a road outside Alto Hospicio.
(Photograph by Ignacio Muñoz)

Cassandra Sagness is a documentary filmmaker from Ohio. Her work focuses on stories at the intersection of investigative journalism and memory through the use of archival materials.