Atacama Desert Facts

Michael Bryan

Michael Bryan

Modified: 03 Feb 2022

Atacama Desert

Finally, some interesting Atacama Desert facts to quench your curiosity about one of the most undeniably interesting and odd-looking places on earth that most travelers often include in their high-priority list of places to visit. Imagine going somewhere that has been known for its extreme temperature and almost lack of precipitation? It would probably lead you to some empty water bottles, but seeing it personally would also strike you with awe in an instant due to its magnificent landscapes, history, culture, and ecosystem.

Who wouldn’t want to be in a place that looks like Mars? In addition, the Atacama Desert displays clear skies from day until night, so stars are fully visible for travelers to gaze at. With an array of accommodations to choose from, tourists can fully enjoy their stay not only in some parts of the desert but also in Chile in general.

  1. The Atacama Desert is a desert plateau in South America covering a 1,600 km strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes Mountains.
  2. The Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world.
  3. It is the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts.
  4. It is the largest fog desert in the world.
  5. The desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.
  1. The desert owes its extreme aridity to a constant temperature inversion. It is due to the cool north-flowing Humboldt ocean current and the presence of the strong Pacific anticyclone.
  2. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Atacama Desert ecoregion occupies a continuous strip for nearly 1,600 km.
  3. The National Geographic Society considers the coastal area of southern Peru to be part of the Atacama Desert.
  4. The Atacama Desert has a large woodland area known as Pampa del Tamarugal but demand for firewood and silver mining in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in widespread deforestation.
  5. The desert has an almost total lack of precipitation.
  6. The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world.
  7. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.
  8. The Atacama Desert may be the oldest desert on earth.
  9. It has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years, making it the oldest continuously arid region on earth.
  10. The Atacama is so arid that many mountains higher than 6,000 m (20,000 ft) are completely free of glaciers.
  1. In June 1991 Antofagasta and Taltal, and inland regions as far as Calama, received unusual rainfall leading to the formation of a series of mudflows that killed 91 people.
  2. The Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets has used the Atacama Desert to film its Mars scene.
  3. NASA is using the desert to test instruments for future space missions because of its uniqueness.
  4. Within the border of this desert exist over 500 species of plants.
  5. The climate of the Atacama Desert limits the number of animals living permanently in this extreme ecosystem.
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It has the largest supply of sodium nitrate in the world.

The region has a lot of abandoned mining towns reminiscing the boom of sodium nitrate mining in the 1940s. Manufacturers use this chemical in producing fertilizers and explosives amongst other things.

Two countries went to war to claim this region.

War has occurred between Bolivia and Chile in the late 1800s to achieve complete dominance in this region. Both countries claimed to be the rightful owners of this region due to its huge mining potential, and at the end of the war, Chile took control of the entire region.

The desert has extreme temperatures.

During the day, temperatures in the desert can reach around 40°C (104°F). At night, these temperatures can fall to 5°C (41°F). The climate is magnificent throughout the year, with more than 90% of the days being radiant. For 10 to 12 nights each month, there is an astonishing moon and you can enjoy the darkness of the night with its fresh air and lack of clouds, which makes the stars shine like no other place on earth.

It has preserved thousand-year-old mummies.

These mummies predate the Egyptian mummies by thousands of years, and the extreme lack of moisture helps in the preservation of these samples. The early mummies in Egypt dated at 3000 BC pale to compare with Atacama Desert’s artificially mummified human remains dated around 7020 BC.

The desert is a great place to study astronomy.

The Atacama Desert has become the home of the largest ground telescope in the world. Many would study the formation of stars with the help of the images captured by the 66 radio telescopes. Truly, the Atacama Desert is one of the few locations on the globe with 300+ days of clear skies in a year, along with no light pollution and its high altitude, making it perhaps the best place in the world for observatories.

stars, astrology, night sky, Atacama desert
Image from Pixabay

Around one million people call the Atacama Desert home.

Surprisingly, the driest desert in the world is home to a lot of people. They live in coastal fishing villages, mining areas, and oasis towns growing dry-weather produce such as olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and herding alpacas for a living.

The Atacama Desert gets almost no rain.

The Andes and the Chilean Coast Range have sufficient height preventing moisture advection from either the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean. This has caused the aridity of the Atacama Desert to almost not receiving any rainfall.

The extreme ecosystem of the Atacama makes survival difficult for animals.

Despite this extreme situation, in a couple of areas, several animals can thrive such as red scorpions, grey foxes, desert wasps, and butterflies, since these species can cope with the dry environment. Some parts of the desert have never recorded precipitation and are so arid that no plants or animals can survive. However, in some places, the ocean provides enough moisture for seasonal plants and a few animal species to live on.

desert, dry, hot weather
Image from Pixabay

The Atacama Desert was at the center of the world’s attention in 2010.

An accident trapped 33 miners for 69 days long in a 120-year-old copper-gold mine. Miraculously, they were successfully rescued on 13th October 2010 without any casualties.

The Atacama Desert is one of the top three destinations to visit in Chile.

The Atacama Desert with its otherworldly appearance has gained a lot of attention from all tourists in all walks of life. If you are planning to visit Chile, then the Atacama Desert is one of the top three destinations that you should stop by. There are several archeological sites in the Atacama Desert, including Tulor, which features the remains of circular adobe buildings in the Valley of the Moon.

tourist, dry land, sand, Atacama desert
Image from Pixabay

Humans have inhabited the desert since the Stone Age.

Since the Paleolithic or the Stone Age, humans have inhabited the Atacama Desert, which ended around 8,000 years ago. San Pedro de Atacama was likely the center of an ancient civilization then. However, the Atacameños are now extinct.

The Chinchorro culture developed between 7000 BCE and 1500 BCE.

The Chinchorro are great fishermen and great weavers. They have led a sedentary lifestyle predominantly supported by fish, shellfish, and sea mammals. After receiving influences from the Andean Plateau around 4000 BC, their culture adopted agriculture. Much later, it came under the influence of the Tiwanaku Empire.

The southern part of the Atacama is home to the indigenous Diaguita culture.

The southern part of the Atacama is home to the indigenous Diaguita culture, as it was their cultural precursors, the Las Ánimas and El Molle peoples. Additionally, the Aymara people populate the Altiplano regions of the Andes, most of which are in Bolivia, but some of which spreads into the Atacama Desert.

Abandoned mines have become famous tourist spots.

Technological advancement has left a lot of saltpeter mines and in return, became a popular site for tourism. In fact, UNESCO has named Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter as a world heritage site last 2005. The people that worked the mines came from Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.

Humberstone and santa Laura saltpeter works, abandoned, tourist attraction
Image from Flickr

The Atacama Desert still supplies metal and non-metal resources.

After the collapse of the nitrate business, mining did not stop for the people who want to earn more from the Atacama Desert.  The desert still supplies about one-third of the world’s copper and is a source of other metals, including gold, silver, and iron. People also mine boron, lithium, and salts from the desert.

The observatories in the desert are home to some special telescopes.

The Very Large Telescope consists of four separate units that can work together to provide extremely high-resolution shots of space. Meanwhile, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array uses a compilation of 66 radio telescopes to observe electromagnetic radiation at sub-millimeter wavelengths.

Ecotourism has become a big business in the Atacama region.

The Atacama region is rich in wonderful natural sceneries that would make travelers respect nature even more. Ecotourism prospers particularly in the area around San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Those who visit the Andean town will find lots of intriguing attractions nearby.

The El Tatio Geyser Field sits at around 14,000 feet above sea level.

El Tatio is a geyser field located in the Andes Mountains of northern Chile at 14,170 feet above sea level. It is the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. El Tatio is a geothermal field with many geysers, hot springs, and associated sinter deposits. These hot springs eventually form the Rio Salado, a major tributary of the Rio Loa, and a major source of arsenic pollution in the river.

You can find flamingos in the Atacama Desert.

Although Chile’s extreme environment poses distinct challenges for all inhabitants, the resilient Atacama Desert flamingo is one creature that can adapt to even the harshest of them all. They are Chile’s hardiest avian denizen in the desolate Atacama Desert. The diminutive James’, the sizable and brilliantly pink Chilean, and the yellow-legged Andean are the three species of flamingos that developed unique adaptations to thrive side by side in the driest non-polar desert on the planet.

The Atacama Desert is near La Serena, one of the fastest-growing cities in Chile.

La Serena is one of the fastest-growing cities with a population of roughly 200,000. The city is an important tourist destination, especially during the summer, where people go to visit the beaches. It is in the headquarters of the University of La Serena and is also home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of La Serena, one of five Catholic Archdioceses of the Catholic Church in Chile.

The Uyuni Salt Flats is one of the most popular attractions in the Atacama region.

Locally known as Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat spans some 4,000 square miles. It has a layer of salt a few meters thick that covers the entire space and contains over half of the world’s known lithium reserves. There is very little vegetation or flamingos feeding on pink algae here. Unsurprisingly, salt mining is big business in the Uyuni Salt Flats.

uyuna salt flats, Chile
Image from Pixabay

Arica is a city of eternal spring.

Arica is a port town in Chile, with a very mild climate located on the northern side of the Atacama Desert. A lot of Bolivians are frequent goers to its beaches. Arica has long been an important area since it has some national parks nearby, a nice shopping center, and an old battlefield called El Morro.

Antofagasta is Chile’s second largest city.

Antofagasta is a jumble of busy streets, with an overworked population that seems more interested in modern malls than touristy markets. It’s a spot most people tend to skip when exploring the Atacama Desert. However, it may appeal to those who are into urban sprawl and commerce.

Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile.

The salt flat encompasses 3,000 km (1,200 sq mi). It is about 100 km (62 mi) long, and 80 km (50 mi) wide, which makes it the third-largest in the world. Located 55 km (34 mi) south of San Pedro de Atacama, it is surrounded by mountains and has no drainage outlets.

It is possible to fly directly into the Atacama Desert.

The closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is in Calama, which is roughly an hour’s drive away. To get to Calama, international flights will go through Santiago and then puddle-jump to the desert.

Travel across the desert in a 4WD vehicle.

The northern tip of Chile, the Atacama Desert, and its surroundings offer a fantastic setting for a road trip, particularly off-road. Using a 4WD vehicle, travelers will get to see miles of the expansive desert.

Guided tours are the most popular way to reach the sites in the Atacama Desert.

This rugged, remote region isn’t a place for easy-access public transportation. So, embarking upon a thorough visit requires availing of planned tours.

guided tours, vehicle, Atacama desert

A tiny humanoid skeleton was discovered in the Atacama Desert.

It was only 15 cm long and its ribs and head were elongated and narrow which gave it a very strange appearance, leading plenty of people to speculate that it had to be an alien. However, DNA and x-ray analysis showed it to be human. Some scientists believed it to be the remains of a six to eight-year-old child with an unidentified medical condition due to the density of its teeth and other skeletal features.

Despite the heat, some animals thrive in the Atacama Desert.

The lack of precipitation and the high mineral content of the soil means that there is a total absence of vegetation in the interior. Most plants and animals of the region cling to the shoreline and coastal river valleys. These include llamas, vicunas, alpacas, huemul deer, mice, grey fox, and viscacha.

There are penguins in this desert.

The Humboldt penguin is a top predator endemic to the west coast of South America. Their breeding distribution ranges from southern Chile along the arid coastal regions of the Atacama Desert to subtropical Isla Foca in north Peru. To escape the heat, they swim in the Humboldt currents created in the coastal waters of Chile.