Natural Wonders – the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is a virtually rainless plateau in Chile, covering a 600-mile strip of land (40,600 square miles) on the Pacific coast of South America, west of the Andes mountains. The rain shadow on the leeward side of the Chilean Coast Range, as well as a coastal inversion layer created by the cold offshore Humboldt Current, keep this over 20 million-year-old desert 50 times drier than California’s Death Valley. It is the second-driest desert in the world, after the McMurdo Dog Valley in Antarctica.

It is believed that areas of the Atacama Desert have never seen rain, with the weather station in Calama never recording any moisture. Other areas of the Atacama Desert receive a fog, flowing from the Pacific Ocean to the west, known as Camanchaca by the locals, the fog gives life to cactus, lichens and algae. Every few years, the weather phenomenon El Nino and its warming effect on the Pacific Ocean will change weather patterns worldwide and will send rain to regions of the Atacama Desert. There are 120 species of cactus found in the Atacama along with scores of beautiful desert flowers.

Void of moisture, the Atacama Desert is often referred to as moonlike and otherworldly. Lunar-like landscapes of crystallized salt flats, freeze-dried peaks, spewing geysers and purple-shaded volcanoes contrast with green oases and turquoise lakes for a breathtakingly beautiful destination.

Any visit to the Atacama Desert usually starts from and revolves around San Pedro de Atacama – the hub of the Atacama Desert. San Pedro de Atacama is located east of Antofagasta, some 60 miles southeast of Calama and the Chuquicamata copper mine, overlooking the Licancabur volcano. It is known for its native ruins and collection of artefacts and relics from surrounding areas. Travellers also seek out stargazing opportunities with unobstructed views from clouds and pollution when viewing the stars – unrivalled across the continent. Sandboarding on the sand slopes of the region have become a favourite with adventure seekers.

There is also a plethora of breathtaking scenery and rich cultural heritage around San Pedro de Atacama just waiting to be explored. Most attractions are part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, perhaps Chile’s most varied and amazing national park.

Salar de Atacama, the third largest salt lake in the world, is undoubtedly one of the major attractions of this area. The surface area surpasses 3000 square kilometres and underneath the crust of the Salar lie the greatest lithium reserves in the world. The Salar de Atacama offers visitors a wealth of good photo opportunities including the volcanoes Licancabur and Lascar. The Chaxa Lagoon located at the heart of the Atacama salt pan is inhabited by three species of beautiful pink flamingos. Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons are also home to a variety of local fauna. Laguna Cejar, located in the northern tip of the Salar offers a splendid panorama of the Andes, and the possibility to bathe in waters as salty as those of the Dead Sea. The landscape’s also remarkable.

Valle De La Luna is another interesting attraction where one can find a landscape pretty similar to (yes, you’ve guessed it) the moon. It is located 8 miles outside the town of San Pedro De Atacama. Valle De La Luna is an area composed of stone and sand formations with unbelievable textures and colours that have been worked through the centuries of wind and ancient floods. Dry salt lakes, having all the colours of the rainbow, change as the sun travels through the day. NASA used the Valle De La Luna in testing the Mars Rover. Moonrise and sunset in the valley are unforgettable.

El Tatio Geysers are the largest in the Southern hemisphere, with over eighty active geysers and fumaroles. Set in the Martian-like landscape of the Atacama desert this natural wonder is one of the more bizarre sights to be seen in Chile. El Tatio Geysers are spectacular at dawn as the steam condenses against the cold morning air. Terrific photo opportunities abound as the first rays of the sun touch the steam plumes. Don’t run for your photo though, at an altitude of 4200m the air is a bit thin! You should be able to spot wild vicuñas and vizcachas on the way back from the geysers.

The Atacama Giant, located 52 miles from the town of Iquique, is one of the most impressive geoglyph and the world’s largest prehistorically anthropomorphic figures. Composed of soil and stones, the Atacama Giant stands at 282 feet and is believed to be constructed between 1000 and 1400 AD.

The largest cities in the desert are on the coast but in between lie hundreds of miles of deserted beaches. Blue waves contrast the parched landscape and remote white sand beaches. Tide pools literally crawl with wildlife including different species of starfish.

The Chuquicamata Copper Mine is the largest open pit mine in the world. “Chuqui” provides about 40% of Chile’s GNP. Mammoth trucks haul copper ore up out of the open pit mine 365 days a year. An hour long tour gives us a close-up look at the mines inner workings.

The far north holds many natural wonders. Exotic cactus species cover steep hillsides and desert wildflowers are too numerous to count. Lauca National Park is home to healthy populations of vicuña, fox, flamingos and vizcachas.

Small villages tucked away in desert oases are a wonderful cultural experience. Atacamanian people still live in these seldom visited towns and a peek into their way of life is a special experience. Brilliant blue skies are of course normal throughout the desert but temperatures can vary dramatically.

The Atacama desert can be visited year-round, although summer days are very hot and nights are very cold throughout the year. The average daily temperatures in Atacama range between 0°C and 25°C.

Stephen Knight is the webmaster of Volunteer Latin America and the main contributor to the Latin Lounge

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