Foundations of Chile: The Atacama Desert

ATACAMA – Chile spans 4,270km from its northern desert to its southern glaciers. It is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna with 30,000 species endemic to the country. From thriving grasslands to the world’s driest desert and thick evergreen forests, Chile’s rich biodiversity has laid down the foundation for its unique culture and traditions.

The Driest Desert on Earth

The north of Chile is dominated by the world’s driest, and possibly the oldest, desert in the world: the Atacama. Stretching 1,600km along the Pacific Coast, the Atacama Desert is known for its incredible star-gazing possibilities and impressive rock structures. The combination of the north-flowing Humboldt current and the Pacific anticyclone result in an intensely arid atmosphere where rainfall averages only between 0.6 and 2.1mm per year, although some areas of the desert have never recorded any precipitation.

Flora and Fauna

Despite the harsh conditions, over 500 plant species have been found in the Atacama as well as a wide range of mammals, birds, and amphibians. About 230 of these species are found in the southern Atacama, where sea fog from the Pacific Ocean accumulates and creates lomas, dense areas of vegetation and life.

Common plant species are predominantly cacti, shrubs, herbs, and some flowers, such as thyme, saltgrass, and llareta. Some cacti have been recorded to grow up to seven meters tall. Many of the flora found in the Atacama are endemic to the area and certain plants have particular cultural importance, such as Salvia tubiflora for medicine or the Oxalis plant for food by the Atacama tribes.

The Atacama has also home to an impressive array of birds, such as the Humboldt Penguin and the Chilean flamingo found on the Pacific Coast. The rare Andean flamingo, the rarest flamingo in the world, can also be found further inland around the salt plains on the Bolivian border, making the Atacama a habitat of global importance. The majority of the desert’s species are found in the lomas which attract several species of hummingbird and six endemic bird species with the hatching of insect pupae.

Atacama Culture

Evidence of human life in the Atacama can be traced as far back as 7,000 BCE when the indigenous Atacameño tribe, recognized as one of Chile’s nine indigenous tribes, first settled in what is today Antofagasta region. They built impressive stone settlements in which to live, called pucarás, and farmed the land and llama herds. Many of these traditional settlements still remain in the San Pedro area and the indigenous festivals of La Tirana and Macahaq Mara are still celebrated. The Atacama is also home to the Tiwanaku tribe whose legacy lives on through the exotic textiles found in the region.

Read more:

Chile’s Top 10 Cultural Festivals

The Atacama region is also famous for its rich natural resources and mining history.  From the 16th to the 18th Century, the Pacific Coast of the Atacama became an important port for transporting silver back to Spain following the conquest of the Spanish Empire. The 19th Century saw the discovery of sodium nitrate and the opening of Chilean “saltpeters” for the mining of copper, gold, silver, and iron. Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world which currently accounts for 30% of Chilean exports. In 1970, copper accounted for over 60% of exports. While the importance of the mining industry diminished in the last few decades, the 170 abandoned saltpeters in the Atacama remain as a legacy, one of the most important eras for Chile’s development in the global market.

The roots of multiple cultural festivals, indigenous traditions, and Chile’s mining history can be found in the arid landscape of the Atacama desert. With its unique ecosystem and rich indigenous history, this region is an important pillar of Chilean heritage and the foundation of many of its cultural traditions.

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