Explorers in the Driest Region on Earth
The Atacama Desert is a special and unique region of the planet. It looks unlike any other place on the globe. Those who visit it are usually surprised by its uniqueness.
Although there are archaeological remains that show that there were civilizations in the Atacama Desert since the Paleolithic, the first western explorers were the Spanish conquistadores of the 16th century.
Don Alonso de Ercilla, a Spanish nobleman who visited the Desert, described it in this way in his La Araucana:
Towards Atacama, near the deserted coast, you see a land without men, where there is not a bird, not a beast, nor a tree, nor any vegetation.
Similar to Mars
The Atacama Desert has been compared many times with the surface of Mars. In fact, the terrain has been used for movies and television series in place of the red planet. Series like Space Odyssey and Voyage to the Planets were filmed in the Atacama Desert due to its similarity with Mars. NASA has run research programs in the Atacama Desert for simulations on this planet.
The First Explorers of the Atacama Desert
In 1777, Hipólito Ruiz López, a Spanish botanist, visited the Atacama Desert during the botanical expedition to the Viceroyalty of Peru. He was accompanied by French physician Joseph Dombey and pharmacist José Antonio Pavón y Jiménez. The expedition lasted 11 years, during which they visited Peru and Chile. Between 1794 and 1802, they published a series of scientific works on the region.
During that expedition, they discovered more than 80 species of plants, which until then were totally unknown in Europe.
First Mineral Discoveries
Between 1840 and 1870, Ignacio Domeyko, a geologist of Polish origin, made numerous expeditions to the Atacama Desert. At that time, it was an almost unexplored and unknown area. Domeyko discovered deposits of various minerals such as copper, gold, barite, aragonite, gypsum, anhydrite, apatite and fluorine spar. In Chile, his discoveries were published sometime later, in 1909. In his honor, one of the long mountain ranges of the region was named the Domeyko mountain range.
Rodulfo Amando Philippi was born in 1808, near Berlin. With a medical background, he went on expeditions to remote places, focusing on botany and zoology. In 1848, he arrived in Chile to take charge of the national museum and the zoology and botany chairs at the University of Chile. In addition to teaching, his contribution to the progress of science in Chile consisted of conducting numerous scientific expeditions throughout the country that allowed him to document part of the natural heritage of our territory.
Observations of Natural Beauty
Philippi traveled to the Atacama Desert for the first time in 1854 as part of an expedition of scientific reconnaissance commissioned by the Government of Chile. Regarding the observation of nature, he maintained:
With just pride, he will rejoice to be endowed with reason and intelligence, capable of learning so much. On the other hand, the awareness of his inability to know the cause of so much wonder, the awareness of his diminutive size with respect to the whole world, will teach him humility.
First Expert Explorers in Atacama
After Philippi, Chilean explorers such as Francisco J. San Román, Diego de Almeyda and Alejandro Chadwick, as well as those of other nationalities –such as the Norwegian Lorenzo Sundt– would visit the Atacama Desert. By the mid and late 19th century, the main interest in the region had become the discovery of minerals and mining veins for the flourishing Chilean mining industry.
Passion for the Atacama Desert
In the search for minerals, Diego de Almeyda explored the Atacama desert in depth from 1824 onward and labeled many places that still keep the name: “Las Ánimas”, “Tránsito de las lechuzas”, “Loma Seca”, among others. This man came to know every valley and mountain of the desert.
He knew the desert like nobody at the time and was nicknamed by his friends as “El loco Almeyda” for his special passion for the Atacama Desert. On each exploration he took seeds of different trees and planted them in small humid zones so that years later they would produce shade for other explorers.
Great fortunes were made at that time with the extraction of minerals such as saltpeter, copper, gold, iron and silver in the area of Chañarcillo.
It was not until the 20th century that the area began to be explored for tourism purposes due to its unique beauty.