10 Fascinating Facts About the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert stretches from southern Peru to northern Chile and is hailed as one of the top tourist spots in this region. Located west of the Andes Mountain range, it is 1,600km of extraordinary landscape on the Pacific coast. Find out here some of the reasons why the Atacama Desert is so fascinating.

1. The Driest place on Earth

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth besides the polar deserts. The desert is located by the Andes Mountains which subsequently blocks rainfall in the area. The Pacific Ocean to the West of the Atacama Desert also hinders the formation of clouds and consequently rain. As a result, the Atacama Desert is as dry as a bone.

2. Cold Desert

The term ‘cold desert’ seems oxymoronic, however the characteristic of a desert doesn’t necessarily fall on the blistering heat. The average temperature of the site ranges from 0 °C to 30 °C. Whilst it’s normal deserts drop in temperature at the night, the Atacama desert retains its cooler temperature throughout the day due to the influx of cold ocean air.

3. The Purple Desert

Every couple of years, parts of Atacama Desert’s recognisable orange landscape will transform into a vibrant purple hue. Not much life is able to survive in the desert, but these purple flowers sprout during the spring time and depend on the small percentage of rainfall that the region receives. Visitors marvel at the flowers not only for its beauty but for the resilience of life even in driest of places. In addition to purple, the hills will also turn yellow, white and blue from the persisting plant life. Unfortunately, this flower display is threatened by global warming and human disruption.

4. Mummified Birds

In 2021, a study was completed that analysed 27 mummified parrots discovered in the Atacama Desert. The parrots, that included macaws and amazon parrots, were found skeletal and mummified without it’s feathers. Researchers believe that these parrots were made captive and transported from the Amazon Rainforest to the area centuries before.

During pre-Columbian Chile, tropical parrots were a symbol of wealth and prestige. The people of the era would have used the bird’s bright plumage for a range of uses, including headdresses that would’ve been a sign of leadership.

5. Mano del Desierto (The Desert Hand)

The giant hand sits east from the city of Antofagasta, reaching to the heavens under the desert earth. Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrazabal constructed this statue as a symbolic representation of previous human right violation faced by Chileans. On a land as ruthless and devoid of life as the Atacama Desert, it is inspiring to see art incorporated into the landscape. You can find it on Route 5 on the Pan-American Highway.

6. Mars expedition simulations

If you’ve ever wanted to visit space but you’re lacking the net-worth of Jeff Bezos, the Atacama Desert might be the next best thing. The rich, orange sand and seemingly endless mountain range gives an otherworldly experience that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

The Atacama Desert isn’t only used to inspire the imagination. It is also used by scientists as a simulator in preparation for real expeditions to Mars.

7. Human Attraction

Surprisingly, the Atacama Desert attracts business and human activity. A degree of farming has been achieved in proximity to the desert’s sparse oasis’ and across the centuries the desert has been used for trade, farming and mining. Today many people hit the desert for hiking and sports events are held at the dunes such as sand boarding, rallying and foot racing.

8. War of the Pacific

The Atacama Desert is mineral rich and consequently has been the subject of conflict. The War of the Pacific took place between 1879-83 and involved Chile, Peru and Bolivia. It fell in Chile’s favour by its conclusion in 1883 and is now one of Chile’s main sources of wealth.  

9.  Road trips

The Atacama Desert might be barren land, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well connected and full of diverse scenery. As well as being massively useful to locals, the roads mean travellers can experience road trips that rival Route 66. In one trip you can experience The Valley of the Moon, Altiplanic Lagoons and Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos.

10. Astrology Hotspot

Largely considered the one of best spots for astrologers, the lack of human life and rainfall in the area mean the skies are pollution free, cloud free and yours to admire. The Milky Way Galaxy is visible from the desert and attract a number of telescope and observatories. Advanced science is used in the area to spy on stars thousands of light years away. ALMA ( Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) observatories is one of the biggest in the area. Observatories are open for tourists once a week and is an experience you won’t be able to forget.

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