The first European explorers to reach what is now known as the Atacama Desert were drawn by tales of a land rich in gold located somewhere south of the Inca Empire. It was due to this quest that the Spanish conquistador, Diego de Almagro, after a perilous journey across the Andes Mountains, became the first European adventurer to arrive in Chile and set foot in Atacama’s arid expanse. To this day, Atacama continues to offer a singular experience – a stunning encounter with mesmerizing traditions, forms and colors in a remote corner of the planet.
Opinions vary as to how Atacama received its name. Some attribute it to the Tacama duck – mainly black with a white breast – that inhabits northern Chile and the Peruvian Coast. Others trace its etymology to Kunza, one of the indigenous languages of the region, claiming that it came from the word Atchcamar, which is how the ancient Atacameños referred to their land. The English translation is “head of the country,” and the pronunciation in Spanish eventually caused it to be written as Atacama.
The Licán Antai, or Atacameña culture, as the early Spaniards called it, is thought to have emerged around 1,000 BC, when the first agricultural-livestock settlements began developing around the Atacama oasis.
By redirecting river water through channels into an ingenious system of terraced fields, the Atacameños were able to artificially irrigate their crops. In addition to farming, they were highly skilled in metalwork, ceramics and textiles, producing distinctive creations that became extremely important in their cultural and religious worlds.
After a brief rule by the Inca Empire during the middle of the 15th century, beginning in 1536, Atacama underwent the Spanish Conquest, which initiated the progressive decline of the Atacameño communities, starting mainly with the loss of their language and original religion.