Interesting facts about the Atacama Desert

atacama desert

The Atacama Desert is a desert in South America.

According to estimates, it occupies about 105,000 square kilometers (41,000 sqare miles).

The Atacama Desert stretches the northern third of Chile and straddles the southern border of Peru.

It covers a 1,600 kilometers (990 miles) strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes Mountains.

atacama desert map

Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes (salares), sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.

At an average elevation of about 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) it is not only the highest desert in the world, but also one of the coldest, with temperatures averaging between 0°C and 25°C (32°F and 77°F).

The remote interior of the Atacama Desert is essentially tied for the driest desert in the world with the other equally driest region being some very specific spots within the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

It is also the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts.


Despite extremes and desolation there is stunning beauty. With the Andes as a backdrop the desert contains five snow topped volcanoes, which are the highest volcanoes in the world and the highest elevations in South America.

The plant and animal life in the Atacama survive under perhaps the earth‘s most demanding conditions. However a rich variety of flora has evolved there. Over 500 species have been gathered within the border of this desert.

atacama desert flowers

Most common species are the herbs and flowers such as thyme, llareta, and saltgrass, and where humidity is sufficient, trees such as the chañar, the pimiento tree, and the leafy algarrobo. There are cacti, succulents, and other plants that thrive in a dry climate.

The Atacama Desert flowering can be seen from September to November in years with sufficient precipitation.

Animal life is very rare in this desert, though there are a few insects and lizards to be found. Mice and fox are also present, but in small number.

atacama desert lizard

About 80 geysers occur in a valley about 80 km (50 mi) from the town of San Pedro de Atacama.

The Baños de Puritama are rock pools which are 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the geysers.

In a region about 100 km (60 mi) south of Antofagasta, which averages 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) in elevation, the soil has been compared to that of Mars. Owing to its otherworldly appearance, the Atacama has been used as a location for filming Mars scenes, most notably in the television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.


Because of its high altitude, nearly nonexistent cloud cover, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference from widely populated cities and towns, this desert is one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is an astronomical interferometer of 66 radio telescopes in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, which observe electromagnetic radiation at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. It is the largest and most expensive astronomical telescope project in the world.

atacama large millimetersubmill meter array

The Atacama is sparsely populated, with most towns located along the Pacific coast. In interior areas, oases and some valleys have been populated for millennia and were the location of the most advanced pre-Columbian societies found in Chile.

The Atacama Giant is an anthropomorphic geoglyph on Cerro Unitas in the Atacama Desert. It is the largest eeprehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world with a length of 119 metres (390 ft), and represented a deity for the local inhabitants from AD 1000 to 1400.

atacama giant

The Alicanto is a mythological nocturnal bird of the desert of Atacama, pertaining to Chilean mythology. Legend says that the alicanto’s wings shine at night with beautiful, metallic colors, and their eyes emit strange lights. The color of the wings may indicate the type of ore it eats, golden if from a gold mine and silvery if from a silver mine. Some descriptions also portray the color of the wings as copper-green.

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