Last Updated on August 17, 2022
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the most unique deserts in the world.
First of all, it is considered to be the driest place on Earth, with virtually no precipitation occurring year round except for when the phenomenon of El Niño brings it every 2 to 7 years, during which the desert temporarily turns into a flower meadow (the so-called “desert bloom“).
Secondly, the soil of the Atacama desert has been compared to that of Mars. Filled with red dunes, craters, canyons and otherwordly rock formations, exploring this desert really feels like stepping onto the surface of another planet.
Facts about the Atacama Desert
It’s The Driest Place on Earth
On regular years, annual rainfall in the Atacama Desert does not exceed 2.1 mm, which is even less than the precipitation received by polar deserts.
This characteristic is due to the particular geographic location of the Atacama region, which, although it faces the Pacific Ocean to the west, is completely narrowed to the east by the Andes Mountain Range: this intercepts moisture from the Amazon basin, while the cold Humboldt current flowing deep into those ocean waters contributes to making cloud formation almost impossible, creating a constant state of high pressure that prevents precipitation.
Its soil has been compared to that of Mars
Scientists have found that the soil in the Atacama Desert is very similar to that of Mars, and are studying this desert to find out more about the Red planet. Because life forms have been found in the Atacama desert, and even flowers can grow there during rare periods of rain, there is some evidence that it may be possible to grow crops on Mars one day.
It becomes a flower garden when it rains
The Atacama Desert can go years without any precipitation. So when it does rain, it’s a big deal. As the sky begins to darken and raindrops start to fall, a surprising sight arises: the parched landscape starts blooming with wild desert flowers whose seeds had been dormant in the soil waiting for the right opportunity to come to life.
From all directions, different colors of petals spread outwards like waves on a calm shoreline, highlighting both their beauty and fragility amidst this harsh environment
Five Places to visit in the Atacama Desert
1# San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is located on an arid plateau in the Andes, nestled in scenic landscapes made up of deserts, hot springs and volcanoes. The town offers an ideal starting point for exploring the Atacama Desert and a first taste of the driest place on earth. The Padre Le Paige Museum is a must-see, housing numerous remains of pre-Columbian civilizations and prehistoric archaeological artifacts.
2# Moon Valley
The desolate and silent landscape of Moon Valley is reminiscent of the surface of Earth’s only natural satellite it is named after. Walking among the dunes and rock walls that make up the scenery offers the feeling of being in an otherworldly dimension, where man is merely a guest. Walking through the Valley of the Moon at sunset when the landscape is colored in warm hues is the best time of day.
3# Reserva Nacional de Los Flamencos
In the heart of the Chilean plateau, the most famous nature reserve in the Atacama Desert is home to numerous flamingos. Highlights include Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques, whose turquoise waters contrast with the ochre-colored rocks and yellow desert grasses, as the colors blend like a painter’s palette. The best view is at the top of Miñiques volcano, which should be climbed with caution.
4# Miniera Chuquicamata
Chuquicamata is the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, forming a huge chasm that is more than 1,000 meters deep. In addition to the mine, you can visit the nearby town that was home to the miners’ families during the “golden years” of its operation. Today, Chuquicamata has almost run out of capacity as an open-pit mine, so much so that construction of underground tunnels began in 2012.
5# Geyser of El Tatio.
The largest active geyser site in all of Latin America, El Tatio, is located in the Atacama Desert. Every morning the 80 geysers that make up the site spray boiling water vapors (85°) into the air, leaving visitors speechless. The eruptions reach up to six meters in height: a spectacle of nature that cannot be missed.
Why is the Atacama desert so dry?
The Atacama desert is a coastal desert surrounded on one side by the Atlantic ocean, and on the other by the Andes. This peculiar position makes it so that a state of high pressures gets “trapped” in the area making it impossible for clouds to be generated, and for rain to occur almost exclusively on the ocean itself rather than on land.
What event occurred in the Atacama desert in 2011 for the first time in almost 50 years?
In Julu 2011, the Atacama region witnessed an unusual snowfall with up to 80cm of snow, an event which had not been recorded for decades beforehand. In 2013, another snowfall occurred. These events are more becoming increasingly common due to climate change and they are cause of worry for the residents who are not used to see nor prepared to deal with snow. A sudden, heavy snowfall with large amounts of snow melting could easily lead to flooding.
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