High and dry in the Atacama Desert

It hasn’t rained in Chile’s Atacama Desert for over 400 years, and it is so dry that it is 50 times drier than the world’s biggest desert, the Sahara.

Not only that, because life needs water to survive, and there is very little available in the Atacama bacteria, which seems to thrive in just about every other hostile environment in the world, has trouble surviving in most parts of the Atacama.  This means that the rocks have no bacteria on them, so they are actually more sterile than conditions in an operating theatre.

Although much of the Atacama is without water, there are places where water can be found, and where some life exists.  The desert can be found in parts of the high Andes, and in some of those places there are salt lakes with water that is the remnant of the last ice age.  Because most of the water has evaporated, the water that is left is extremely salty.  Likewise, the high Andes do get some snow, which can melt, but this snow remains in small pockets of the desert.

Underground water can be found in the Atacama, but most of the moisture is deposited on the desert in the form of fog, which melts into dew, and this due is harvested by using a series of pipes which channel the waters to some of the communities which survive in the Atacama Desert.

Although it is a desert, the Atacama is surprisingly cold.  The best place to base yourself for visits to the desert is at San Pedro de Atacama, a town of about 2,000 inhabitants that is located in an oasis on the Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama was the principal centre of the atacameños or likanantani culture     

It was here that they cultivated community lands which were shared by families; they also developed many techniques in weaving, basketwork, ceramics and irrigated land. They defended themselves from other tribes by picking strategic elevated points on which to build fortresses known as Pucaras. Many traditions of this culture still linger in the town, one of which is the spiritual passage through hallucinogenic drugs and legends which relate to the nearby Licancabur Volcano.

San Pedro has a good museum which highlights 11,000 years of human history in the region.  Here you can see displays of more than 380,000 archaeological pieces and learn about the mummies that have been found – a result of bodies simply drying out instead of rotting, thanks to the lack of water in the soil.

Close by the town is Moon Valley, so called because of its remarkable similarity to the moonscape.

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