The Atacama Desert
A mystical land of ethereal desert, snow-capped volcanoes and endless salt flats, the Atacama Desert is like nowhere else on earth. It is a place where visitors arrive with intrigue, and leave in total awe. Sitting high up in the Altiplano of northern Chile, bordering Bolivia and Argentina, the Atacama Desert is known for its captivating landscapes of sand dunes, hot springs, canyons and geysers. Here, glowing sunrises and mind-blowing sunsets are the norm, while after dusk, the sky is illuminated with a canopy of blinking stars, a sight unmatched anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere. Come morning, noon or night, the Atacama’s natural splendor and enigmatic energy is inescapable.
Geography of the Atacama Desert
Snaking through the desert are the Andes and Domeyko mountain ranges, whose peaks – including that of Licancabur Volcano, standing at an imposing 19,420ft (5,919m) – can be admired from the comfort of Tierra Atacama. In the shadow of these immense formations lie rocky, wind-hewn gorges in shades of burning red, as beautiful as they are arid, these lands feel like landing on the moon. The trickling streams and waterfalls do, however, serve as a reminder that you are still on planet earth, as does the adapted flora and fauna which thrives here, alive and well in the world’s driest desert plains.
Flora and Fauna in the Atacama Desert
Some may be surprised at the incredible array of life to be found in the Atacama Desert, given its extreme climate and unforgiving terrain, but there is plenty here to keep wildlife enthusiasts more than happy. Our guides will lead you to the feeding grounds of multiple animal and bird species, including three different types of Flamingo; Suri, Guayata and Tagua birds; as well as mammals such as Llamas, Vicuñas and Vizcachas, among others. Many of our excursions in the Atacama will get you up close to these endearing creatures.
As for the vegetation, the Atacama shelters a welcome abundance of trees and plants, such as Algarrobos, Chañar and Schinus Molle, not to mention the ever-eye-catching Giant Cactus, which is as impressive as its name may suggest! Atacama shrubbery and bushes also come in all shapes and sizes, with the Rica Rica bush plant being of particular note for the delicious, medicinal herbal tea infusion which the locals make from it.
San Pedro de Atacama
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is, quite literally, an oasis in the desert, fed by two rivers: Grande and Salado. The village – at 7,900ft (2,407m) above sea level and with a population of 5,000 – is encircled by active and inactive volcanoes, deep caves, salt flats and many other extraordinary, natural geological phenomena. The town is also an interesting destination to explore in its own right too. There’s a range of restaurants, a historic church and handicraft market to discover during your time here, as well as streets shaded by gnarled desert trees and lined with delicately hand-hewn fences. San Pedro de Atacama has been the home of Atacameños for millennia, with a rich anthropological history dating back as far as 10,000 years ago.
Culture and Heritage in the Atacama Desert
The people of the High Andean plateau are descendants of the Incas and Aymarás, who have for centuries managed to not only live but prosper in this unyielding landscape, forging a culture, livelihood and set of traditions unique to the region. An inherent respect for nature and sense of inbuilt community is clear to see, with traditional lifestyles reflecting close connections to the earth and the cosmos; you can gain a greater understanding of the lives of Atacameños on one of our excursions to the Ayllus[insert hyperlink to excursion], found nearby, which make up the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
For a real-life history lesson, our guides will be on-hand for trips to ancient archaeological sites in the region, such as the 12th century fortress of Pukara de Quitor [insert hyperlink to excursion], or the ancient petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas [insert hyperlink to excursion]; a truly captivating glimpse back in time. Another fantastic way to explore the Atacama culture is to simply pick the brains of our expert guides, finding out the secrets and day-to-day life of the Lican Antay, Twanaku and Inca peoples who dwelled here.
Today, local customs are alive and well in the Atacama, from religious ceremonies taking place throughout the year, to craftwork and folk art created with the same passion as generations before; demonstrating the endurance of artisanal passion. You can see examples of these regional cultural expressions in our living spaces at Tierra Atacama; find out more here.
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert
In the Atacama Desert, the air is crisp and the light is ever-changing. What’s more, thanks to the dryness of this arid expanse – sprawling as it does for almost 50,000sq m (80,000sq km) with little or no sign of man-made life and at times, zero cloud cover – the light pollution here is incredibly low and skies are clear, making stargazing in the Atacama Desert an unparalleled experience.
Indeed, the Atacama is considered one of, if not the best place in the world for astronomy, which explains why the largest galactic observatory has been built here: ALMA. This project was established by the USA, EU and East Asian states, aimed at studying the inner workings of star constellations and planets throughout the known universe.
You certainly don’t need to be a professional scientist to enjoy the stars above you, though. From the privacy of your own room at Tierra Atacama, or on our specialized stargazing excursion, you can revel in the sight of perfect, star-lit skies, spotting constellations or just sitting back and taking in its illuminated immensity.