A trip to the Atacama Desert is like making a trip to Mars, but on the cheap. Trust us.
Right between Chile and Peru rests a relatively unknown desert known as the Atacama. Although it’s not exactly what you would call tiny (its area is over 41,000 square miles), it is not as well known as the Mojave or the Sahara. Even so, Atacama Desert has a certain claim to fame which often gets mistakenly attributed to the Sahara: it is the driest desert in the world.
Actually, that’s not true. If we are going to be specific about this, it is the driest non-polar desert in the world. This does actually need to be specified. Even though some people might see it as a cheat, the poles are technically deserts. Really, the definition of a desert simply states that it is a barren region that sees very little precipitation. That’s why the poles are referred to as “cold deserts”.
It doesn’t say anywhere that a desert must be scorching hot and full of sand dunes, although this is the image most of us conjure up whenever we think of one. Therefore, the driest place on Earth actually is Antarctica. It has a region called the Dry Valleys which hasn’t seen rain in millions of years.
Getting back to the Atacama Desert, it is still an incredibly dry place which can see fewer than 0.04 inches of rainfall in a year in certain areas. Unlike the poles, this desert lacks access to glacial waters. So in that respect, the Atacama is a more arid place than the poles, and one which cannot support life throughout most of area.
This is in spite of the fact that the Atacama is situated next to the Pacific Ocean, the biggest body of water on the planet. The main reason why this desert is so dry is its placement – it is located between two mountain chains which prevent moisture from collecting over the desert.
The Atacama Desert challenges a lot of misconceptions that people have about deserts. For starters, it can get pretty cold. We all have this image of the hot Sun scorching the desert, but at night these places lose their heat very fast. Temperatures can get as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
Atacama packs another surprise: snow. Since it’s situated way above sea level, Atacama features snow-dusted peaks that climb way above 20,000 feet. This is made all the more dramatic during altiplano winter, a relatively rare phenomenon where cold fronts from the Antarctic bring inches of snow with them.
The Atacama Desert truly is a land of very bizarre weather patterns, rendering it unlike just about anywhere else on the planet. In fact, on more than one occasion, it has been compared to the surface of Mars. We are talking about a specific region of the Atacama which reaches a height of 10,000 feet and where the soil is considered to be Martian—so much so that the desert has actually been used as a filming location for several Mars scenes for movies and TV shows.
More recently, NASA has begun to perform tests at Altiplano, like the ones their landers did on Mars. One of them was performed in order to see if any form of life can be detected in the Atacama and according to that test, the desert was lifeless.
Oftentimes, the Atacama is mistakenly declared as being void of any kind of life, even bacterial. However, even if this is the case, it’s only valid in certain regions. Despite how inhospitable it might be, there are actually over one million people living in the Atacama Desert today.
Most of them live in cities like Iquique and Arica, but these are still located in the Atacama. It just goes to show that even the harshest environments can have lush areas full of natural resources, food and water and the Atacama is no exception.