The Absolute Desert

Chile, by nature of its length, has an astounding variety of extreme terrain and temperatures. To the north, it is home to the 2nd driest stretch of land in the world – the Atacama Desert. There are parts of this desert where rain has never been recorded….well at least that’s what the Accountants say.

The other weekend, Linda and I took our first out-of-Santiago adventure to this rugged terrain for a truly unforgettable experience.

Some background about the Atacama and what makes it so remarkable:

  • Atacama is made up of salt basins, sand and lava flows. The terrain includes lagoons and salt crust (technically speaking) where water has evaporated leaving behind concentrated nitrates and sodium. The pressure and heat from underground magma creates spectacular geyser-filled plains and hot springs. As uninhabitable as this region is, flocks of flamingos come here to feed on the red algae that grow in these salt lakes.
  • The sky in Atacama is unparalleled in clarity making it one of the World’s foremost astronomical research hubs. In 2013, the Desert will be home to ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array or Soul in Spanish). ALMA is the largest land-based observatory ever built and will have telescopic capability more powerful than even the Hubble telescope. Seeing this sky and taking an observatory tour with a professional Astronomer was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. Any X-Files fan would agree.
  • The Atacama landscape is so desolate that people often equate it to lunar terrain. Scientists have found that the soil quality in the Desert is similar to that on Mars and equally unlikely of producing life (so we better be nicer to the planet we’ve got).
  • Atacama is so dry that nothing rots there – not even human remains. The oldest examples of artificially mummified human remains – the Chinchorro mummies – were found here and date back to ~7020 BC. To provide some perspective, the oldest mummy found in Egypt dates ~3000 BC. ¡Increíble!

Here are some of my favorite pictures from the trip but don’t be fooled. These photos make it seem like the desert is very wet and much warmer than it actually was. Temperatures fluctuated from +/- 70°F in the day to +/- 20°F at night so, if you go, be prepared!

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