It is often said that the Atacama Desert is "the most arid desert in the world". In fact, in some parts it has never rained and in others the percentage of humidity is nil, but its wealth is based on mining. In the early 20th century it was the scenario of one of the planet's most prosperous industries, saltpeter, and today it is the source of other fundamental natural resources such as copper, lithium, borax and iodine.
The desert's aridity is explained by global and local climate aspects, as well as geography and oceanography factors, the high mountains in the Andes and the flowing of the Humboldt current The result is large zones where literally nothing is seen but mountain reliefs and different colors according to the position of the sun and the type of geological formation.
Further south, due to the increase in humidity, some species of endemic cacti can be seen.
Together with the beauty of the landscape, the Chilean desert holds enormous archaeological riches. Vestiges of ancient indigenous cultures such as the Aymara can be seen. Also, Chile's foremost archaeological museums: the San Miguel Museum in the Azapa Valley in Arica and the Padre Le Paige Museum in San Pedro de Atacama can be visited, with the added attraction of the possibility of getting to know valuable and impacting examples of rupestrian art from the pre-Columbian Period. The human figure ever drawn can be found in this area.
The natural aridity of the Atacama Desert produces optimal conditions for the preservation of archaeological artifacts, over 380,000 of which are on display at San Pedro de Atacama's acclaimed museum, the Arqueológico Padre Le Paige Museum. Intact ruins also abound in the Atacama oasis, such as the circular dwellings at Tulor (dating from 800 BC to 500 AD), the defensive fortresses (known as pukaras) at Quitor and Lasana, the Inca administrative center at Catarpe, and well-preserved sections of the Inca Trail. Furthermore, the area boasts an astounding concentration of rock art, including paintings, petroglyphs, and enormous geoglyphs, including the world's largest human image. For those interested in more recent manifestations, the Atacama also preserves dozens of eerie ghost towns dating from the turn of the century nitrate boom.
Due to its important location at a crossroads of ancient trade routes, the San Pedro de Atacama oasis has long been influenced by neighboring cultures, especially the great empires of the central Andes, Tiwanaku and the Incas. Today, the Atacameño Indians live in agricultural sectors known as ayllos, each one linked to a specific kinship group. The smaller villages around the Salar de Atacama salt flat, such as Toconao, Peine, and Socaire, are even more traditional, living from irrigated agriculture and herds of domesticated llamas and alpacas. Visitors should look out for arrope, a sweet liquor made from the fruit of chañar, a drought-resistant tree that flourishes in these desert oases.
In the mountains limiting the desert to the east, the regions high volcanic activity comes to the spectacular geysers, steam vents (fumaroles), and hotsprings. In a canyon high above Pedro de Atacama, the natural pools of Baños de Puritama make for the Atacama's most spectacular stargazing - not to mention the most comfortable.
The geology of the Atacama Desert is a feast for the eye, with volcanic and erosive forces combining to create an otherworldly landscape. A row of volcanos dominates the eastern skyline, indicating the proximity of the altiplano, with its immense salt flats, multicolored lakes and hotsprings. In the extreme aridity of the desert, mineral deposits - remember, this area contains the world's greatest reserves of copper, lithium and other elements - create multicolored rows of wind-eroded hills and rock formations such as those of the Valle de la Luna. Another top attraction is El Tatio Geysers, the world's highest geyser field, which erupts each day at dawn, creating strange mineral formations and spouting clouds of steam up to 10 meters high.
Mystical and spiritual
With its long history of interaction between native and European religions, the Atacama Desert is the site of some truly unique religious festivities. The most notable of these is the festival of Virgen del Carmen (July 15-16) in La Tirana, a tiny village outside of Iquique, which attracts nearly 80,000 of the devout for an extravaganza of color and movement, involving dozens of elaborately costumed dance troupes. Another periodic attraction in Altiplano and desert villages is Carnaval, celebrated the last week before lent (near the end of February).
Traveling in a four wheel drive vehicle is unquestionably the best way to experience the diverse attractions of the Atacama Desert, permitting you to grasp the geographical complexities of the landscape and visit destinations inaccessible to most visitors. Most overland, tours in the desert center around San Pedro de Atacama and Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, and include spectacular wildlife sightings, visits to salt flats and hotsprings, geysers and archeological sites. Especially worth while are trips linking San Pedro with Lauca National Park, the Bolivian Altiplano, and Cuzco, Peru.
Trekking in the Atacama Desert is at much a cultural experience as it is a physical one, as the trails leading through the serpentine canyons above the oasis have long formed the basis of trade between the desert and the Altiplano. Rock art, traditional villages, and delightful swimming holes abound in these hidden valleys, such as the Grande River valley north of San Pedro, the Quebrada de Jerez and the remote, beautiful Loa river watershed.
On the summits of 5,916m Licancabur volcano and 6,052m Copiapó volcano, there are lnca shrines to Inti, the sun. Further south is Ojos del Salado, at 6,893m the world's highest volcano and the second-highest peak anywhere outside the Himalayas.