Atacama Desert. History, Geography, Flora,  Fauna & Travel

Atacama, Chile

About Atacama

The Oasis of San Pedro de Atacama is located 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) above sea level in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which rises from the Pacific Ocean up to the Altiplano, the foothills of the Andes. Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth.


While evidence of human existence in Atacama desert dates back over 10,000 years, the first signs of an organized society belong to a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers, who lived approximately 7,000 years ago.

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.

Atacama Desert Church

Recovering Kunza: Atacama’s original language

The Atacameños spoke Kunza, which means “our”, and is described by specialists as a harsh-sounding language that is difficult to pronounce.

During Chile’s Colonial Period, the use of Spanish in Atacama was imposed by force. Initially, Atacameños who spoke Kunza were subject to fines, but later, to physical punishment.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Kunza had become extinct. Only a few words are still used today as place names and in certain regional rites and ceremonies.

Because Kunza is an agrapha (non-written) language, its reconstruction has been difficult. Nevertheless, in 2005, the first Spanish-Kunza/Kunza-Spanish dictionary was published, rescuing 900 words that had survived through songs, rites, legends and in the region’s place names.

Renowned Atacama explorations

  • 1536: Diego de Almagro, Spanish conquistador.
  • 1843: Ignacio Domeyko, Polish/Chilean scientist.
  • 1854: Rodulfo Philippi, German naturalist.


The Oasis of San Pedro de Atacama is located 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) above sea level in Chile’s Region of Antofagasta, in the middle of the Atacama Desert. The oasis is irrigated with the waters of the San Pedro and Vilama rivers, which have their tributaries in the area mountains.

To the east, San Pedro is bordered by a volcanic branch of the Andes Mountains. The volcanoes vary in shape and height, rising between 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) and 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) above sea level. The most striking are Licancabur, Lascar and Sairecabur. This area encompasses part of the Altiplano, a vast high plateau at the base of the volcanoes, extending into Argentina, Bolivia and Perú.

Towering on the west side of the oasis are the Cordillera Domeyko and Cordillera de la Sal, mountain ranges with an average height of 3,300 meters (10,827 feet) and 2,550 meters (8,366 feet) above sea level, respectively. In the latter chain is Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), an otherworldly terrain fashioned from the wind and water erosion of layers of sediment and vertical salt, gypsum and clay rocks.

Atacama Desert Oasis, San Pedro de Atacama

This region has endorheic drainage: the watercourses and bodies of water evaporate and never flow to the sea. And with this evaporation, the salts and minerals dissolved from the soil become increasingly concentrated, as can be seen in the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile – 90 kilometers (56 miles) long and 35 kilometers (22 miles) wide – located just a few kilometers south of San Pedro.

Above the salt flat and the oasis, in the Andes, between 4,000 (13,123 feet) and 4,400 meters (14,436) feet above sea level is the Altiplano, or Puna. This vast plateau of gentle, open plains was formed by the erosion of mountains and volcanoes, and is studded with wetlands, lakes, salt lakes and flats, and geysers.

Atacama desert geyser

El Tatio Geyser Field

Latin America’s largest geothermic area – El Tatio – is located 95 kilometers (59 miles) from San Pedro, at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level, in the Altiplano. El Tatio covers 10 kilometers2 (3.9 miles2 ) and features around 80 geysers.

The eruptions can exceed 10 meters (33 feet), with the water reaching an average temperature of 86º C (187º F), while underground, it has been recorded as high as 240º C (464º F).


Despite its seemingly inhospitable climate, the Atacama Desert is endowed with a rich variety of flora and fauna, characterized by a high level of adaptation.

In Atacama, life can be found in even the most unlikely places, such as in the Altiplano lakes, some of which are 10 times saltier than the sea and have little oxygen. A hostile place for most aquatic species, here, the Artemia salina (a species of brine shrimp) thrives. This primitive, 1-cm-long micro invertebrate represents an extraordinary example of adaptation to extreme environmental conditions.

The crustacean’s predator is the flamingo, a wading bird that congregates in large flocks in the shallow Andean lagoons. Flamingos, which average 1 meter (3.28 feet) in height, are easily recognized by their mostly pale-pink plumage and their graceful flight.

The mountain peaks are the home of the condor, the most awe-inspiring bird of the Andes. Other birds native to Atacama are the Andean Tinamou (Nothoprocta pentlandii) and the ñandú (Darwin’s rhea, or Rhea pennata). Download the birdwatcher’s checklist available for our travelers or ask for it when you get to your destination so you can check the birds you see during your explorations.

Among the area’s larger mammals are 4 members of the Camelidae family: the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuña – all native to the Andes. Smaller mammals include the Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) and rodents, such as the vizcacha and the chinchilla – both of the Chinchillidae family.

Atacama is home to a wide variety of herbs and flowers, such as the llareta, saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and thyme. Native trees include the chañar (Geoffroea decorticans), the pepper, and the leafy algarrobo (Prosopis chilensis; similar to the European carob tree) – known for the refreshing coolness of its shade.

There are also different kinds of cactus, a family of plants that, in adapting to arid climates, developed spines, essentially highly modified leaves, which help in different ways to prevent water loss. Notable cacti include the candelabra (Browningia candelaris) and the cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) – which can reach 7 meters (23 feet) in height and 70 centimeters (28 inches) in diameter.

Atacama desert flora

Llareta (Laretia acaulis): Extraordinary Adaptation to High Altitude

This characteristic Altiplano plant represents another excellent example of adaptation. One particularly unusual feature is its hardness, similar to that of the rocks where it grows.

The llareta is found at elevations ranging between 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) and 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) above sea level. An evergreen perennial cushion plant, it concentrates and conserves the daytime heat to be able to endure the low nighttime temperatures.

Llareta are long-living organisms, growing slowly to finally attain a thickness of up to 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet). To reach just half a meter (one and a half feet), they need 100 to 150 years. To date, some have been found that are over 500 years old.

The llareta is among those wood species growing at the highest elevations in the world. It produces a very sought-after, extremely flammable resin that once caused it to be indiscriminately harvested by the mining industry for use as fuel, leading to its endangerment.

Download the birdwatcher’s checklist

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