Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile (with Map & Photos)

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest regions in the world. It starts near Peru's border with Chile and extends south for 1,000 km. In the western part, the desert is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, and in the east by Bolivia and Argentina. The main part of it is at a considerable height. The Atacama area is 105 thousand km² - this territory is approximately equal to the area of ​​​​the state of New York in the USA. It usually receives no more than 10 mm of precipitation per year, in many parts of the desert, it does not rain for years. Due to the peculiarities of the location, the atmosphere is rarefied, which causes a high level of radiation. That is why the desert does not have a rich flora and fauna, some of its places are completely uninhabited.

Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert

Climate specifics

Unlike other deserts, the Atacama is characterized by a rather cool average daily temperature, which varies from 0 to 25°C. In this area, there is the lowest level of humidity on the planet, which is 0%. One of the reasons for the region's minimal rainfall is a natural phenomenon called the rain shadow. An obstacle for them is the Andes mountain system, located in the eastern part of the desert. Bypassing the hill, the moisture cools, condenses, and falls in the form of rain. Most of them settle on the slopes of the mountain and do not reach the desert. The wind that blows from the Pacific Ocean also has a low temperature and cannot pick up the required amount of moisture.

In May 2010, an unusual natural phenomenon occurred in the Atacama - snow fell in the arid desert. Then several settlements suffered from the anomaly. The work of one of the large observatories had to be temporarily suspended, and traffic and electricity supply was disrupted.

Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert

Settlement history

The Atacama is considered one of the oldest deserts in the world. According to the approximate calculations of scientists, it was formed more than 20 million years ago. For comparison, the Dry Valley of Antarctica is about 10 million years old, and the Namib Desert in Africa is 5 million years old. The first settlers appeared on the territory of Atacama about 10 thousand years ago. These were the tribes of South American Indians, their descendants inhabit the desert even now. Archaeologists have discovered many bodies of ancient people here. In a dry climate, they are perfectly preserved, turning into mummies. Some of them are over 9 thousand years old.

Accommodation features

About 1 million people live within the Atacama. They concentrated in mining villages, fishing villages, and oasis cities. In the northern regions, farming is common - crops are grown here. Thanks to the perfect visibility of the sky, the area is excellent for astronomical observations. International teams of space explorers are based in the coastal zone of the desert.

It is known that artesian waters exist in this area, but the high level of boron makes them unsuitable for agricultural use. In the Atacama, the so-called salt marshes are ubiquitous. They are small lakes that take water from mountain rivers. The surface of the reservoirs dries up under the influence of the scorching sun, resulting in a thick layer of salt. From a distance, the lake looks quite ordinary, but upon closer examination, you can see a shining salt surface.

Snow-covered volcanoes that can be seen nearby help to adapt to staying in rather harsh conditions. Meltwater enters the oases, which makes it possible to obtain the minimum amount of liquid for survival in this area. The local population has learned to convert fog into moisture. To do this, they invented a special method, which is to use special high cylinders. The walls of the products are made of nylon threads designed to retain water. The liquid flows into a barrel located below and is then used for various purposes. Thus, during the day you can collect up to 18 liters of water.

Unfavorable conditions for the existence of living organisms do not prevent the germination of cacti and some rare plants in the desert. Here you can meet many reptiles, insects, and mammals. The Atacama has an abundance of national parks and other protected areas.

Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert


A large amount of copper is mined in the region - the largest mines are laid in the cities of Chiquicamata and Paposo. Some rocks are distinguished by the presence of a green tint coating caused by the oxidation of minerals that contain copper. The plaque is known as atacamite. For the first time, this mineral was found in this area, as the name implies.

The desert is known for saltpeter deposits, which previously served as the basis for the production of mineral fertilizers and explosives. This material does not tolerate moisture, so the Atacama is a great place to preserve it. The peak of natural saltpeter production occurred in the 30s of the XX century, then it gradually stopped being supplied. The reason for this was the invention of an analog - synthetic nitrates. Almost all mining villages and cities were abandoned by the inhabitants, and only a few of them saltpeter is mined to this day.

Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert

Moon Valley

To the east of the village of San Pedro de Atacama is a beautiful natural attraction - Moon Valley. The area got its name because of the presence of bizarre formations of salt, sand, and stone, which resemble the surface of the Earth's satellite. While here, you can watch an unusually colorful sunset, striking in a variety of shades. The location has become popular with many filmmakers and has been featured in several sci-fi films.

The Valley looks especially picturesque at night. By the light of the moon, salt figures are visible, which creates an amazing contrast with the dark blue sky. The locals call them guardians of the nearby caves. They argue that the sculptures were a kind of beacon for the astral shell of the ancient shamans during their travels to parallel worlds. Undoubtedly, Moon Valley is the most attractive place in the Atacama Desert; tourists from all over the world come here every year.

Reminder to travelers

The easiest way to get to the Atacama Desert is from the settlements of Iquique, Tocopilla, and Antofagasta by air. If you decide to explore the region, do not forget about sun protection items. Be sure to bring a hat and drinking water with you. It is best to travel within the Atacama on a rented transport, which can be ordered in nearby settlements.

Atacama Desert Map