The Atacama Desert spreads over Chile’s three northern regions. Its liveliest and best known zone in terms of its economy and tourism is the region between Antofagasta and San Pedro de Atacama, which also includes the copper town of Calama.
Huge sand plateaus in front of a landscape of volcanoes rising up to 6000m/19,686ft high characterise the picture of the desert here, interspersed by oases and regular salt formations, be they the extraordinary Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountains) or the snow-white salt pans that can spread over hundreds of square miles. The presence of copper and other treasures in the ground beneath the Atacama Desert provide the foundation of Chile’s economy.
With barely 1mm of rainfall per year, the Atacama is the earth’s driest desert. On the one hand, it lies in the rain shadow of the mighty Andes and, on the other hand, the cold Humboldt Current in the Pacific prevents precipitation coming from the coast, as rain clouds are unable to form above the cold water. The extreme aridity of this region makes it a paradise for astronomers. Nowhere else in the world is the sky so regularly clear and the atmosphere as transparent.
The area around San Pedro was colonised very early on (believed to be from AD 11,000) because, despite its desert location, there is a river there (today known as the Rio San Pedro). For this reason, the trade routes also passed this way: from the Andes to the coast, and from north to south. This was the central base of the Atacama Culture (also known as the Lickan-antay people). The Atacama tribes were sedentary agriculturalists, who cultivated corn, potatoes, beans and pumpkins in family units using a system of terraces. Their craftsmen worked clay and metal and also kept llamas that served as a mode of transport and also to supply wool and meat. The oasis was conquered by the Incas in around 1450, who established an administrative centre with a regional government at Catarpe. From then onwards, they demanded tribute payments from the Atacameños. The Spanish arrived in San Pedro in the mid 16th century, when they conquered the Indians and erected the first mission.
San Pedro de Atacama is the Atacama’s tourism capital and the base for visits to all additional desert attractions. This small oasis town lies at an altitude of 2438m / 8,000ft and has barely 2000 inhabitants. Happily, San Pedro de Atacama seems to be impervious to substantial change, despite the heavy flow of tourists. With its tranquil sandy streets and low clay-tiled houses, the town has kept its original charm. Especially worth seeing are the church of San Pedro which is virtually the emblem for northern Chile, and the very interesting Archaeological Museum Padre La Paige. It exhibits an impressive archaeological collection based on Atacama Culture that provides a vivid illustration of the history of the Atacameños, their conquest by the Incas, and later subjugation by the Spanish. The fortress of Pukará de Quitor lies just 3km / 2mi from San Pedro. It was built by the Atacameños in the 12th century, and later extended and fortified by the Incas. The Spanish took the fortress in 1540. There is a beautiful view towards San Pedro with the Andes mountain chain and its volcanoes in the background.
The Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is probably San Pedro’s best-known excursion destination. It lies in the salt mountains to the west of town and can easily be reached by car and also by bicycle. Salt formations in the middle of a sand environment devoid of plants make the valley very similar to a lunar landscape. Sunsets are particularly beautiful here, setting the Valley of the Moon aglow in all its different colours. It is a spectacle best viewed from the large sand dune, though as a tourist you will never be alone here.
Those who want to experience the Tatio Geysers in action must get up early: for once the morning sun melts the nightly ice caps over the hot springs, jets up to 10m/33ft high shoot up. The rising sun then forms a strong contrast with the rising columns of steam and the surrounding summits. The geyser field lies at an altitude of 4321m/14,177ft and it is therefore the highest in the world. It is advisable to bring very warm clothing and headache pills for potential problems resulting from altitude.
The Salar de Atacama is a salt pan of giant proportions: 3000 sq km/1,158 sq mi! As far as the eye can see, there is a thick surface of snow-white salt crystals formed by the evaporation of the water. The world’s most extensive lithium deposits lie here, but the salt pan is also home to the species of the Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo and James flamingo that feed on the micro organisms in its lagoons. The beautiful flamingoes and other bird species can be observed in their natural habitat at the Laguna Chaxa by the Salar de Atacama.
During an excursion to the Lagunas Altiplanicas, visitors first pass the tiny village of Socaire at an altitude of 3218m/10,558ft, which distinguishes itself by a very idiosyncratic architecture of rough stones. Like San Pedro, Socaire has also been inhabited for thousands of years and terraced farming is still practiced here. Around 30km/19mi further on, and 1000m/3,281ft higher up, the highland lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques are encountered with the almost 6000m/19,686ft high volcanoes of the same name in the background. The lagoons are a deep blue, surrounded by a white crust and by yellow highland grass that forms a memorable contrast. There is complete silence here, and the breeding ducks, foxes and grazing vicuñas barely break the majestic tranquillity.
The San Pedro de Atacama Observatory is virtually on the Tropic of Capricorn and is the largest space observatory open to tourists in Chile. It provides an unforgettable journey to the galaxy.
Chile’s economic heart beats in Chuquicamata. The largest open-cast copper mine in the world is a giant hole in the desert landscape near Calama. Copper was already being mined here prior to the Inca era, though on a much more basic level. The first modern mining installation was built in 1910, and today the mine produces over 600,000 tons of copper per year. The main pit is over 4km/3mi long, 3km/2mi wide and 850m/2,789ft deep and expanding.
The desert city of Antofagasta is the capital of Chile’s Region II and home to almost 300,000 inhabitants. It spreads along the coast and therefore has several beaches to offer. Antofagasta quickly rose to significance after its foundation in the 19th century, due to its development as a port for nitrate and copper shipments. Today, copper from Chuquicamata is shipped all over the world from here.
At the northern end of the city, off the coast, Antofagasta’s emblem is in the sea: the Portada (Gate) is a giant sandstone rock shaped like an arch. Its base is of volcanic rock from the Jurassic Period (200-150 million years ago), on which layers of sediment settled on the sea bed over millions of years, when sea levels were still much higher than today. When the level of the sea sank dramatically, about 3 million years ago, these sediments were exposed and eroded into the arch by waves.