Atacama Desert Highlights - Chile
Trumping the Sahara, Gobi and Nevada, one of the grandest spectacles of nature in the South American continent is the magnificent Atacama Desert, stretching itself over Chile, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia. It is thought to be the driest place on earth, with an average rainfall of just 15 millilitres each year, yet one of such staggering beauty, that the normal connotation of the word 'desert' - endless sand dunes - hardly applies here at all; imagine the horizon dotted with snow-capped peaks, and you know what we are talking about.
Touted as one of the greatest highlights of Chile (and considered to be a photographer and astronomer's heaven), don’t expect this desert to be deserted. It may not exactly be the bustling metropolis of Santiago or Lima, but the area has been inhabited for many thousands of years by the nomadic hunters the Atacameños. After settling in one place they founded the towns of San Pedro de Atacama and Calama, which were eventually discovered and developed by the Spanish, and there are an estimated 24,000 descendants of the Atacameño still living there today; just them and the varied wildlife of the region: the Darwin’s leaf-eared mouse, the South American grey fox, the viscacha, a relative of the chinchilla, and larger animals like vicunas and guanacos, both distant cousins of llamas.
Soil samples from the desert match those from Mars, prompting NASA to test out all their Red Planet equipment over here, before rocket-shipping it out to the real thing (the Mars Rover, for instance).
Also, move over Egypt, the world's oldest mummies, the Chinchorro, have been found here, almost perfectly preserved by the near-complete absence of moisture. And we are talking 7000 BC (by comparison, the oldest Egyptian mummy dates back to a paltry 3000 BC)!
Photographers may not be able to keep their fingers off the button by day, but it is when the sun goes down that the real beauty of the Atacama reveals itself: with a complete absence of light pollution, this is a night sky you will never forget!