Atacama Desert - At the foot of the Andes, a landscape where rain barely falls (31 May)
Interesting Facts about Atacama Desert
SAVE FOR THE WINTRY deserts at Earth’s poles, this stretch of northern Chile is the driest place on the planet. Hemmed between the snowcapped Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama has been sculpted by wind and baked in sun for more than 10 million years. The vast desert stretches over 40,000 square miles (103,600 km2), an expanse larger than the country of Greece. In the heart of this arid landscape, you won’t find even a single blade of grass. In the centuries that humans have been measuring it, some parts have never even seen rain.
The Atacama is deeply inhospitable to life. Creatures that wander through and lose their way back to water are preserved for eons. The lack of rain and cool temperatures (even in summer it rarely tops 80°F/26.5°C) have helped preserve ancient artifacts and even the remains of the pre-Columbian Chinchorro people who eked out an existence in the desert’s margins. Their oldest mummies predate those in the Nile Valley by 2,000 years.
But not everything in the Atacama is blasted and dead. Birds have the advantage of being able to wing it to safety, and species like coastal oystercatchers, Peruvian pelicans, terns, and gulls as well as burrowing owls and turkey vultures are sometimes spotted in the skies. On the periphery of the desert, especially where Chile abuts neighboring Bolivia, snowmelt from the Andes creates oases and feeds vast salt flats, and life thrives. In Los Flamencos National Reserve, a series of several flats not far from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, species such as the vicuña (an alpaca relative), rabbitlike viscacha, and Andean fox are common. Blue lagoons attract three different species of flamingos, creating an electric spectacle of pink and blue set against a dusty red backdrop.
In places, the landscape itself feels alive. In the foothills of the Andes 50 miles (80 km) north of San Pedro de Atacama, more than 80 geysers shoot jets of water as high as 20 feet (6 m) into the crisp morning air. El Tatio is among the largest active geyser fields in the Southern Hemisphere.
At night, hundreds of thousands of stars light up the skies over the Atacama Desert. The air is crisp and evening clouds are virtually nonexistent. Some of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes train their lenses on the vast expanses of night sky over the central Atacama. Though visitor access to the telescopes atop high hills is largely restricted, many trek to the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) or Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte), within view of the triangular Licancabur Volcano, for spectacular stargazing.