of Chile's Atacama Desert haven't seen a drop of rain since
record keeping began. Somehow, more than a million people squeeze life
from this parched land.
Stretching 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from
Peru's southern border into northern Chile, the Atacama Desert rises
from a thin coastal shelf to the
plains that dip down to river gorges layered with mineral sediments
from the Andes. The pampas bevel up to the altiplano, the foothills of
the Andes, where alluvial salt pans give way to lofty white-capped
volcanoes that march along the continental divide, reaching 20,000 feet
At its center, a
place climatologists call absolute desert, the Atacama is known as the
driest place on Earth. There are sterile, intimidating stretches where
rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured
it. You won't see a blade of grass or cactus stump, not a lizard, not a
gnat. But you will see the remains of most everything left behind. The
desert may be a heartless killer, but it's a sympathetic conservator.
Without moisture, nothing rots. Everything turns into artifacts. Even
It is a shock
then to learn that more than a million people live in the Atacama
today. They crowd into coastal cities, mining compounds, fishing
villages, and oasis towns.
flies as shepherds herd goats above an irrigated valley near the
Atacama Desert, a 600-mile (1,000-kilometer) stretch of northern Chile
squeezed between the Pacific and the Andes. Irrigation soaks up about
15 percent of available water in the Atacama.
An Aymara woman rounds up her llamas in a blur
of color and motion. The Aymara—Andean herders and farmers whose
culture predates the Inca—raise llamas for meat and wool on the
Atacama's high plateau (here at about 16,000 feet [4,900 meters]). At
night they pen their animals in stone corrals to shelter them from
marauding mountain lions.
Strong enough for a man to stand on, the
of the Atacama—a rare native plant—grows one centimeter a year in dense
mounds that spread along the ground. Llareta is nearly extinct in parts
of the desert, where local people dry it to use as firewood.
Pan de Azúcar National Park
in the coast of Atacama
Scene from Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) near San Pedro de Atacama.
Solar Evaporation Ponds in the Atacama Desert.