15 Incredible Facts About The Atacama Desert

One of the driest places in the world can be found in the western part of South America.

In this post, you’ll discover the ultimate list of facts about the Atacama Desert!

1. The desert is located in 2 South American countries

The Atacama Desert is a desert plateau located in the western part of South America. it covers areas in the northern part of Chile and the southern part of Peru.

Most of the desert appears as a desolate and somewhat out of this world landscape which consists of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand, and lava fields.

The desert is squeezed in between one of the most famous mountain ranges in the world, the Andes Mountain Range, to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Atacama Desert landscape

2. It covers a huge area along the Pacific Coast

The desert runs across the Pacific Ocean and covers a strip of land from the city of Arica in the north to the city of La Serena in the south.

The desert has a total length of 1,600 kilometers (990 miles), a total width of 180 kilometers (49 miles), and covers a total area of 104,741 square kilometers (40,441 square miles).

Atacama desert facts
Desert landscape / Wescottm / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en

3. It’s bordered by an enormous coastal cliff

The desert isn’t bordered directly by the ocean as for example the Namib Desert in Africa is. It’s bordered by an enormous 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) long cliff referred to as the “Coastal Cliff of northern Chile.”

This magnificent natural feature makes up most of the border between the desert and the Pacific Ocean.

Coastal Cliff of northern Chile

4. It’s one of the most unique deserts for a couple of reasons

Some areas of the Atacama Desert are considered to be the driest nonpolar desert regions in the world. These areas are situated around the Antofagasta region of Chile in the central part of the desert.

It’s also one of the most unique deserts because:

  • It’s the only true desert in the world to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts.
  • It’s the largest fog desert in the world.
Atacama desert dry landscape
Dry landscape / ESO / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en

5. The driest area of the desert hardly sees any rainfall at all

The Atacama Desert is a place of extremes. Some areas hardly receive any sort of precipitation at all, especially the areas in the Antofagasta region which record an average yearly rainfall of just 15 millimeters (0.6 inches).

On the other hand, some parts of the desert can be affected by heavy rainfall which subsequently causes flooding. This happened in both 2012 and 2015 with multiple casualties because of mudslides as a result.

Most parts of the desert aren’t affected by this at all as they receive an average of between 1 to 3 millimeters (0.04 and 0.12 inches) of precipitation in a year.

Atacama desert fun facts
Some parts receive rain / Diego Delso / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

6. There are two main reasons for the extreme aridity of the desert

So why is the Atacama Desert such an arid region? The reason for this is two-fold:

A temperature inversion occurs, which means that the temperature of the desert air increases instead of decreases at a higher altitude. This is caused by both the Humboldt ocean current, a cold ocean wind, and the Pacific anticyclone, a much warmer wind.

Most parts of the desert are surrounded by The Andes and the Chilean Coast Range mountain ranges. This results in a unique two-sided rain shadow as both mountain ranges block precipitation from passing through.

Both these conditions result in parts of the Atacama Desert being the driest spots on the planet!

Atacama desert dry
The driest desert in the world / Pixabay

7. It’s one of the oldest deserts in the world as well

Apart from being the driest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert is considered to be one of the oldest deserts in the world as well. It’s estimated that the region has experienced an arid period of about 3 million years, making it the oldest continuously arid region in the world!

One NASA study concluded that hyper aridity might have been present in the area for over 200 million years, as early as the Late Triassic Period!

Atacama desert hyper aridity for over 200 million years
The ancient desert / Smcmurtrey / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

8. No glaciers and rivers can be found in the area

From the coast, the desert gradually rises in elevation from the coastline with some peaks in the eastern part reaching a height of over 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) above sea level.

One of the most fascinating facts about the Atacama Desert is that many of these peaks are completely free of glaciers!

There are also no rivers in the area, with one study concluding that the riverbeds located within the desert have been dry for at least 120,000 years.

In the southern part of the desert, a marine flog can form cloud banks hanging over it referred to as the “camanchaca.” This fog provides enough moisture for certain plants to grow here as well including algae and cacti.

Atacama desert plants
The glacier-free mountains and some vegetation / Pixabay

9. Some parts of the desert are similar to the conditions on Mars

One of the most incredible facts about the Atacama Desert is that an area about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Antofagasta has been actively used to simulate Mars explorations. This is for the simple reason that the conditions here are as close to the conditions on Mars as they get on Earth!

In 2003, both the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers were used to try and detect life in the Atacama Desert just as the real landers did back in the 1970s and 1980s. The results were astounding because they couldn’t find any trace of life!

Atacama Desert looks like mars
Parts of the desert look similar to Mars / Pixabay

10. Over 500 plant species grow in the Atacama Desert

Despite the hyper-arid conditions in some parts of the desert, it’s still inhabited by over 500 species of plants that thrive in these conditions.

These include a wide variety of herbs such as thyme, llareta, and saltgrass, and various types of cacti, such as the Candelabro and Cardon.

The cardon (Echinopsis atacamensis) is especially well-adapted to these conditions. Similar to the cacti in the Sonoran Desert they can grow very tall with a height of up to 7 meters (23 feet) and a diameter of 70 centimeters (28 inches).

Atacama Desert cactus
Cactus in the desert / Pixabay

11. A particular phenomenon makes the desert extremely colorful

One of the most astounding facts about the Atacama Desert is that a sudden rainfall, particularly between September and November, can turn the desert into an extremely colorful place.

This natural phenomenon is referred to as the “Atacama Desert flowering” (Desierto Florido in Spanish). This doesn’t happen every year as rarely enough precipitation falls for the flowers to pop up in the southern part of the desert.

But if happens, it’s an amazing sight, that’s for sure!

Atacama desert flowering
Desert flowering / Javier Rubilar / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

12. Most animals living in the Atacama Desert are birds

Even though over 500 plant species have managed to find a way to survive the harsh conditions in the desert, this can’t be said about too many animals. Apart from some beetles, grasshoppers, and lizards, not many animals can survive here.

The best-represented group of animals in the desert are birds such as Humboldt penguins, which live near the coasts, and two species of flamingos, the Andean Flamingo, and the Chilean flamingo.

Atacama desert flamingos

13. People lived in the area as early as 7000 B.C.

Even though the desert is only sparsely populated today, it has been inhabited for over 9,000 years. Evidence has been found that the Chinchorro people lived here between 7000 and 1500 B.C. These were mostly fishermen living in the coastal area of the desert.

This ancient culture was followed by the Atacameño tribe who lived in the area before the Incas and Spanish arrived. All of the towns near the coast were founded during the Spanish are in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

One of the largest copper and gold mines called “Chuquicamata” was established in the year 1888 in the desert, about 215 kilometers (134 miles) northeast of Antofagasta. With a depth of 850 meters (2,790 feet), it’s one of the deepest mines in the world as well.

the mine in atacama desert
The mine / Tennen-Gas / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

14. It’s one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations

The desert is located at a high altitude, doesn’t have any clouds, and hardly suffers from light pollution. This makes it the perfect location for astronomical observations and multiple have been built in the area.

The European Southern Observatory currently operates 4 large facilities in the desert, including:

  • La Silla Observatory
  • Paranal Observatory
  • Llano de Chajnantor Observatory
  • Cerro Armazones Observatory

The latter is currently under construction and will feature the Extremely Large Telescope (ELP), the largest telescope in the world!

Space observatory in Atacama desert
Milky Way / ESO / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0

15. The Atacama Desert has become a popular tourist attraction

Because of its many unique features, the Atacama Desert has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chile. Most tourists stay in San Pedro de Atacama as it’s located near the most fascinating natural landmarks that the desert has to offer, about 106 kilometers (60 miles) east of Antofagasta.

One of these amazing natural features is the “Tatio Geyser,” a field containing about 80 geysers, as well as the “Termas Baños de Puritama,” a field of remarkable rock pools.

El Tatio geyser
El Tatio Geysers / Diego Delso / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/