Located along South Americas Pacific coast lies the worlds driest desert, the Atacama Desert, bordered to the east by the mighty Andes Mountains and to the west the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific. Hemmed in by the Andes Mountains and Chilean Coast Range, the Atacama Desert sits on a high Plateau averaging 8,000 feet. The Atacama Desert extends from just south of the Peruvian and Chilean border 600 miles south into Chile, never exceeding 100 miles in width.
Said to be in the neighborhood of 20 million years old, the Atacama Desert is the second driest place on earth, only drier is the McMurdo Dog Valley in Antarctica. Void of moisture, the Atacama Desert often referred to as moonlike, is 50 times drier than Death Valley located in California's Mojave Desert in the United States. The Atacama terrain is mainly composed of extinct lava flows, sand and salt basins or the Spanish name “salars”. The region surrounding the Atacama Desert is so dry that to the east the Andes Mountains reach heights upward of 22,000 feet with no snow or glaciers on the slopes.
It is believed that areas of the Atacama Desert have never seen rain, with the weather station in Calama never recording any moisture, it is said that the city of Antofagasta located on the southern end of the Atacama Desert receives only 1mm of rain a year. Other areas of the Atacama Desert receive a fog, flowing from the Pacific Ocean to the west, known as Camache by the locals, the fog gives life to cactus, lichens and algae. Every few years, the weather phenomenon El Nino and its warming effect on the Pacific Ocean will change weather patterns worldwide and will send rain to regions of the Atacama Desert. Temperatures in the Atacama Desert will range on average from a cold of 32 deg F. to a high of 80 deg F.
Lack of rain, moisture and animal life has not kept humans from settling in the Atacama Desert. Oasis of human life can be found in the driest reaches of the Atacama Desert. Calama, a city of 143,000 people located in the east central region of the Atacama Desert, grew around an oasis. Today Calama, at an elevation of 7900 feet, is the gateway to Chile’s high central desert and the many geological and archaeological wonders of the Atacama Desert. Several places to visit leaving Calama are: Chuguicamata, with the world's largest open pit mines.
San Pedro De Atacama, located in the shadow of Licancabar Volcano and 60 miles southeast of Calama is known for its native ruins and collection of artifacts and relics from surrounding areas. Travelers will also seek out stargazing opportunities with unobstructed views from clouds and pollution when viewing the stars. Sandboarding on the sand slopes of the region have become a favorite with adventure seekers.
Valle De La Luna, located in the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, is 8 miles outside the town of San Pedro De Atacama. Valle De La Luna is an area composed of stone and sand formations with unbelievable textures and colors that have been worked through the centuries of wind and ancient floods. Dry salt lakes, having all the colors of the rainbow, change as the sun travels through the day. NASA used the Valle De La Luna in testing the Mars Rover.
Atacama Giant, located 52 miles from the town of Iquique, is one of the most impressive geoglyph and the world’s largest prehistorically anthropomorphic figures. Composed of soil and stones, the Atacama Giant stands at 282 feet and is believed to be constructed between 1000 and 1400 AD.