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12 fascinating facts about the biggest desert in South America

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Your heart might be warmed by its arid beauty, but have you ever wondered what secrets lie beneath the golden sands of the biggest desert in South America?

Stretching over 1,000 kilometres and covering an expanse of 105,000 square kilometres, this arid expanse is the largest desert on the continent. 

Its barren landscapes often likened to the surface of Mars, have captivated scientists, adventurers, and travelers for generations.

Let’s get to know the Atacama Desert better, shedding light on its unique geography, rich history, and resilient life that persists in one of the driest places on Earth.

1. Atacama Desert is the Driest Place On Earth

One of the primary reasons for the extreme aridity of the Atacama Desert is the rain shadow effect. The desert is situated on the western side of the Andes Mountains, which act as a formidable barrier to moisture-laden air masses coming in from the Pacific Ocean. 

 fascinating facts about the biggest desert in South America

As a result, these air masses are blocked, and most of the moisture is deposited on the western side of the Andes, leaving very little rainfall for the Atacama Desert.

The Humboldt Current, a cold ocean current flowing northward along the western coast of South America, plays a role in the desert’s dryness. This current cools the coastal air, inhibiting its ability to hold moisture, which further limits rainfall in the region.

Some parts of the Atacama Desert are considered hyperarid, meaning they receive extremely minimal rainfall. In some areas, measurable rainfall might only occur once every few years or even decades.

The desert’s low humidity levels are a result of its geographical features and weather patterns. With little moisture in the air, there is less potential for precipitation.

Due to these combined factors, the Atacama Desert has become a natural laboratory for scientists studying extreme aridity and its impact on the environment. 

2. The Biggest Desert in South America is home to Unique Flora

The unique flora of the Atacama Desert, often referred to as the “Flora of Fog,” has adapted to thrive in one of the driest and most extreme desert environments on Earth. 

One of the most iconic plants of the Atacama is the llareta. This cushion plant can grow to be over 100 years old and can reach up to 10 feet in diameter. The llareta’s dense, tangled branches help to trap moisture and protect it from the harsh desert sun.

Another unique plant of the Atacama is the copiapoa cactus. Copiapoa cacti are known for their beautiful flowers, which bloom in a variety of colors, including pink, yellow, and red.

Some plants in the Atacama Desert are halophytes, which means they can tolerate and even thrive in salty soils. These plants, like Distichlis spicata, have adapted mechanisms to deal with high soil salinity.

The unique flora of the Atacama Desert is a testament to the resilience of life. These plants have adapted to some of the harshest conditions on Earth and continue to thrive in this amazing desert ecosystem.

3. Precious Minerals lie hidden in the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in South America is renowned for its rich mineral resources, and it’s home to some of the world’s most significant mineral deposits. 

Chile, which encompasses a large portion of the Atacama Desert, is the world’s leading producer of copper. The desert’s copper mines are among the largest and most productive in the world. 

While not as prominent as copper, the Atacama Desert does contain gold and silver deposits. Sulfur is found in volcanic areas of the desert.

Some rare earth elements are also present in the desert, although they are not as extensively mined as other minerals. 

The presence of these precious minerals has made the Atacama Desert a major center for mining. The mining industry is a major contributor to the Chilean economy, and it plays an important role in the lives of many people who live in the Atacama Desert.

4. The Desert Boasts Rare Natural Phenomena

The phenomenon of desert blooms in the Atacama Desert in South America is a rare event, where the typically arid landscape bursts into colorful wildflower blooms after periods of sufficient rainfall. 

These desert blooms are irregular and can occur at intervals of several years or even decades. The timing depends on the amount and distribution of rainfall, making it difficult to predict precisely when a bloom will happen.

These periods are relatively short-lived, typically lasting for several weeks to a few months, depending on the duration of the rainy season and the availability of moisture.

The desert comes alive with vibrant colors during bloom, as wildflowers of various hues carpet the otherwise barren landscape. You can expect to see shades of red, orange, yellow, purple, and white, creating a stunning visual spectacle.

5.  Ancient Geoglyphs Are Marked On The Desert Floor 

The desert in South America, particularly in the region of Nazca, Peru, is renowned for its enigmatic and extensive geoglyphs. These geoglyphs are enormous ground drawings created by removing or displacing rocks and soil to reveal the contrasting materials beneath.

The most famous and extensive collection of geoglyphs in South America is the Nazca Lines, located in the arid Nazca Desert of southern Peru. 

Some of the figures stretch across hundreds of meters, and they can only be fully appreciated from the air. This has led to speculation about how the Nazca people were able to create such precise designs without the benefit of an aerial view.

The Nazca Lines were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 to help safeguard their cultural and historical significance.

Another famous geoglyph in the region is the Paracas Candelabra, located on the Paracas Peninsula near the Nazca Lines. This massive trident-shaped design is etched into the desert hillside and is believed to date back to an earlier pre-Nazca civilization.

6. The Desert in South America has a Mars-like Terrain

The Atacama Desert in South America is often compared to the Martian atmosphere due to several striking similarities in their environmental conditions.

Both the Atacama Desert and Mars are characterized by extreme dryness. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, with some areas receiving little to no rainfall for centuries. 

Mars, on the other hand, is known for its arid, desert-like surface, where liquid water is virtually absent.

The Atacama Desert and Mars both feature barren landscapes with minimal vegetation. The lack of moisture and extreme environmental conditions make it challenging for most plant life to survive in these areas.

Both regions have soils rich in minerals. The Atacama Desert is known for its mineral deposits, including copper, lithium, nitrates, and more. Mars’ surface contains various minerals, including iron, magnesium, and silica.

The comparison between the two sites serves as a valuable tool for advancing our understanding of the Martian environment and our search for extraterrestrial life.

7.  Various Tourist Attractions Await in Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in South America is not only a region of natural beauty but also a destination that offers a range of unique tourist attractions and activities.

Located at a high altitude, El Tatio is one of the world’s highest geyser fields. Visitors can witness geysers shooting hot water and steam into the air, creating an impressive display, especially at sunrise.

fascinating facts about the biggest desert in South America

Piedras Rojas are striking red rock formations surrounded by turquoise-colored saltwater lagoons, creating a breathtaking contrast. It’s a favorite spot for photographers and nature enthusiasts.

After exploring the geysers, you can relax in the natural hot springs at Tatio. The thermal waters provide a soothing experience, especially in the chilly morning air.

San Pedro de Atacama is a charming town that serves as a hub for exploring the Atacama Desert. It offers a range of accommodation options, restaurants, and shops. The town’s adobe architecture adds to its appeal.

These tourist attractions in the Atacama Desert offer a wide range of experiences, from exploring otherworldly landscapes to connecting with the region’s rich cultural and historical heritage. 

8. The Desert of South America is A Haven for Stargazers

The desert in South America boasts some of the clearest and darkest skies on Earth, thanks to its high altitude, minimal light pollution, and consistently dry weather. These conditions make it an ideal location for stargazing.

Visitors to the Atacama can witness breathtaking views of the Milky Way, distant galaxies, nebulae, and celestial objects that are often difficult to see in more light-polluted areas.

Several tour operators in the town of San Pedro de Atacama offer guided stargazing tours. These tours typically include the use of telescopes, knowledgeable guides, and the opportunity to observe planets, stars, and other celestial phenomena.

The largest desert in South America is also home to some of the most advanced astronomical observatories. 

This includes the Paranal Observatory which houses several advanced telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, which consists of four optical telescopes with 8.2-meter mirrors. 

Guided tours are available for visitors interested in learning about cutting-edge astronomical research. 

9. Atacama Desert is Set in the Embrace of The Pacific Ocean

The Atacama Desert runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean along the western coast of South America. It stretches for approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from southern Peru through northern Chile.

While the coastal regions of the Atacama Desert are extremely arid, the proximity of the Pacific Ocean has a moderating effect on temperatures. 

Coastal areas experience milder temperature variations compared to the interior of the desert. This is due to the ocean’s thermal inertia, which buffers temperature extremes.

The cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile support diverse marine life. The Humboldt Current brings upwelling of nutrients, making it a productive ecosystem for fisheries and marine wildlife. 

The combination of the stark desert landscapes and the nearby Pacific Ocean has made the Atacama Desert a unique and attractive destination for tourism. Visitors can explore the desert’s otherworldly terrain and then travel to the coast to enjoy ocean views, beaches, and seafood cuisine.

10. Incredible Salt Flats can be Explored in The Desert

The salt flats in the Atacama Desert in South America are among the most iconic and unique features of the region. 

The Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile and one of the most prominent in the world. It covers an area of approximately 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles). The salt crust in this flat can be several meters thick.

The salt flats in the Atacama Desert are known for their high salt concentration, which makes the water in these flats extremely saline. 

Several species of flamingos, including the Chilean flamingo, Andean flamingo, and James’s flamingo, inhabit the salt flats and the saline lagoons within them. 

The salt flats have become a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors who are intrigued by the unique landscapes and the opportunity to witness the stark beauty of the desert. Tours often include visits to saline lagoons and geological formations.

11. The Desert is Home To The Oldest Mummies

The oldest mummies found in the Atacama Desert are attributed to the Chinchorro culture, one of the world’s earliest known complex societies to practice mummification. 

The Chinchorro culture inhabited the coastal areas of northern Chile and southern Peru, with a presence dating from around 7000 BCE to 1500 BCE. They were a maritime culture that relied on fishing and gathering marine resources.

Some of the oldest Chinchorro mummies have been dated to around 5000 BCE, making them approximately 2,000 years older than the earliest Egyptian mummies.

The Atacama Desert’s extreme aridity and dry climate played a crucial role in preserving these ancient mummies. Natural mummies, in particular, were preserved due to the absence of moisture that would typically lead to decomposition.

Some of the Chinchorro mummies are on display in museums in northern Chile, such as the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum in Arica. These museums provide insights into the ancient culture’s mummification practices and way of life.

The Chinchorro mummies of the Atacama Desert in South America offer a glimpse into the beliefs and practices of the ancient coastal culture. 

12. The Valley of the Moon Resides in the Atacama Desert

The Valley of the Moon is one of the most iconic and visually stunning natural attractions in the Atacama Desert in South America. It is renowned for its surreal and moon-like landscapes. 

The valley is located just west of the town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. It is part of the Salt Mountain Range, which is characterized by its salt and mineral deposits.

fascinating facts about the biggest desert in South America

The valley is known for its dramatic salt formations, dunes, rocky outcrops, and deep craters, all set against a backdrop of the desert’s reddish-hued terrain.

One of the notable landmarks in the Valley of the Moon is the “Amphitheater,” a large natural depression that has been sculpted by erosion. It is often used as a gathering point for guided tours and stargazing activities.

Due to its remote location away from urban light pollution, the Valley of the Moon is also an excellent spot for stargazing.

The Valley of the Moon is not only a geological wonder but also a place of unique beauty and inspiration. Its extraordinary landscapes and surreal appearance make it a must-visit destination for travelers exploring the Atacama Desert and its natural wonders.

Conclusion

From its reputation as the driest place on Earth to geological formations, ancient mummies, and prime astronomical observatories, the desert in South America offers a wealth of facts and attractions. 

Visitors to the Atacama Desert are treated to a diverse range of experiences, from exploring the Valley of the Moon to witnessing desert blooms after rare rainfall events. 

The desert’s role as an analog for studying Mars and its contributions to the world’s mineral resources underscore its scientific and economic importance.

Whether you’re captivated by the stark beauty of salt flats or interested in delving into the history of Chinchorro mummies, the desert in South America promises an unforgettable journey of discovery. 

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