Atacama Desert – Dry but not Desolate
Alonso de Ercilla was quoted in the 1569 publishing of “La Araucana”, describing the Atacama Desert in Chile: “Towards Atacama, near the desert coast, you see a land without men, where there is not a bird, not a beast, nor a tree, nor any vegetation.” And this description is not far from the truth. It is a desert that puts the Death Valley in California to shame, as it is fifty times drier and approximately twenty million years of age. It is truly the driest place on earth. It is also one of the most beautiful places, and well worth the visit while in Chile.
The Atacama Desert covers an area of just over a hundred and eighty-one thousand square kilometers. The landscape that is made up of lava flows, shifting sands and salt basins, has been said to have the same characteristics as the terrain on Mars. Scientists have estimated the river beds to have been dry for more than a hundred and twenty years, leading them to also believe that this desert has not seen a drop of rain for most of its existence. As the desert runs between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, a small area along the coast does at times get covered by what is referred to as a marine fog. This small amount of moisture only allows for a few cacti and lichens to survive.
A small number of people populate the desert, mostly in the coastal regions, lured here through the mining industry. San Pedro de Atacama, however, is a picturesque oasis located at an elevation of two thousand meters. It has charm and a history that stretches back centuries. Visitors will be overwhelmed by the Father Le Paige Museum that has an unusual exhibition of weapons, mummies, more than four thousand skulls and pottery. The church was constructed in 1577 and guides are available to take their guests on hiking tours of the desert, where they can explore the magnificence of the dunes, get close to the lava fields, learn about the blowholes, volcanoes and steam spurts, and end their day off with a breathtaking sunset.
The Atacama Desert might seem uninhabitable and desolate, but it holds many natural treasures and wonders for visitors to explore. Though scientists find it to be the perfect location for research and observatories, it is most certainly the ideal destination to escape to a world that is rarely seen and appreciated.