“We are not alone.” – Fox Mulder, The X Files. That’s always been a favorite quote of mine, for many reasons. Mostly because aliens are cool and I’d like to imagine they exist somewhere in the universe. So, imagine being out on a road trip through northern Chile and stumbling upon this massive sculpture of a hand reaching out of the ground. Would it inspire dread or excitement? Who or what built it? Why? What does it mean? And does it come in peace?

The Truth is Out There

The truth in this case is not as strange as fiction. The Hand of the Desert has served as a source of inspiration for many a daydreaming, yarn-spinning, fantasy-obsessed traveler over the years. Located in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the entire planet, the sculpture “La Mano del Desert” (i.e. “the Hand of the Desert”) is situated along Route 5. Right off the Pan-American Highway, you’ll find it at kilometer marker 1309. Just exit the highway and drive a few minutes on a gravel road til you see the massive concrete hand.

Panorámica de la Mano del Desierto

The sculpture was built in 1992, by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal, from a grant by the Corporación Pro Antofagasta. It rises an impressive 36 feet into the sky, and is a major roadside attraction for travelers roadtripping the Pan-American Highway. So, why build a really big concrete hand in the middle of the desert? Well, according to the Santiago-based sculptor it was meant to showcase the vulnerability and helplessness of the human condition.


The city of Antofagasta, known for its copper mining, requested a monument to capture the isolation and emptiness of the Atacama Desert. Sculptor Irarrázabal responded with his interpretation of that by way of the “Hand.” Built over an iron frame, the concrete hand is just an hour from Antofagasta. Sadly, it’s the victim of relatively frequent vandalism. But the good people of Antofagasta get together twice a year to clean the hand they’ve grown to love so much.

Photo by Mr. Hicks46 via Flickr

The First “La Mano”

The Hand in the Atacama Desert also has a brother…

The left hand that’s garnered so much worldwide attention is a follow-up to Irarrázabal’s right hand. Sculpted in 1982, the first La Mano was built ten years before the Atacama Hand. Located in Punta del Este, a pretty popular tourist beach town in Uruguay, La Mano shows five fingers that are partially underground. Built directly on Brava Beach, nearly 1,200 miles from Atofagasta. The sculptor named it “Man Emerging to Life,” but the locals here say their hand is a “Monument to the Drowned.” The inspiration came from the strong current at Brava Beach, which was better suited for surfing. So, the sculpture was to serve as a warning to swimmers.

The Hand sculpture at Punta Del Este via Wikipedia CC

Irarrázabal won a local competition for the beach sculpture and was allowed the entire summer of 1982 to finish it. It only took him six days to complete. He built this first hand with concrete and plastic. Then, reinforced with a metal mesh, steel bars, and a “degradation-resistant solvent covering the plastic on the outside.”

That’s not all…

Irarrázabal loved the hand motif so much as a sculpture that he built another hand five years after his first one in Madrid. This was followed by the Atacama Hand, and then in 1995 he even built a hand in Venice!

Wanna explore even more mysteries from the Atacama Desert? Then enjoy this video “Riddle of the Atacama” by Aerospace Engineering.


SOURCES: Conde Nast Traveler, Wikipedia

Featured Image via Wikipedia CC




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here