Exploring the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is a surreal and otherworldly landscape that has captured the imagination of intrepid travelers and adventure seekers alike. This arid expanse in northern Chile boasts an array of unique natural wonders, from the vast salt flats and ethereal lagoons to the towering geysers and peculiar rock formations. It holds the title of the driest non-polar desert in the world, creating a celestial stage for unparalleled stargazing experiences.

  • The Atacama is the World's Driest Desert

    The Atacama is the World's Driest Desert

    Research carried out by NASA has established that the Atacama Desert is the planet's driest non-polar desert. Astonishingly, certain weather stations within the Atacama have never recorded any precipitation. Instances of zero rainfall have been documented for up to four years in the central region. Situated between the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range mountains, clouds carrying moisture are diverted away from the desert.

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  • How plants survive

    How plants survive

    Despite the lack of moisture, there are plant species that have developed specialized adaptations that enable them to survive in the extreme conditions of the Atacama Desert. Various species of cacti can be found in the Atacama Desert. These plants are adapted to store water in their thick stems and can survive long periods of drought. Tree species such as Tamarugo and Algarrobo and some grasses have deep root systems to tolerate drought. Bromeliads and air plants find a home here as well.

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  • The White Gold

    The White Gold

    The largest deposits of sodium nitrate are found in the Atacama Desert, where nitrate salts are bound within mineral deposits called caliche ore. During World War I these deposits were heavily mined for use in bombs and wartime explosives.

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  • NASA Trains for Mars

    NASA Trains for Mars

    NASA uses the Atacama desert to train the equipment for lunar and Mars exploration, such as the rovers, because the conditions in the desert are similar to the Martian terrain and texture.

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  • Temperature Extremes

    Temperature Extremes

    During the daylight hours, temperatures in the Atacama Desert can reach as high as 104º F only to plummet at night when temperatures can fall to 41º F. The highest mountain can have snow on them.

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  • The Chinchorro Mummies

    The Chinchorro Mummies

    The Chinchorro people, inhabited the coastal regions of present-day northern Peru approximately 7,000 years ago. Remarkably, these mummies predate their Egyptian counterparts by several millennia. The Chinchorro mummification and preservation has been greatly aided by the lack of moisture in the air.

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  • Stargazing


    Both the lack of clouds and the remote setting of the Atacama Desert, as well as its altitude. In addition, the Atacama Desert lies at a high elevation, with some parts reaching above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). The thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes reduces the amount of air, water vapor, and other particles that can scatter or absorb light, thereby providing clearer and sharper views of the night sky.

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  • Astronomical facilities

    Astronomical facilities

    The Atacama Desert is home to several world-class astronomical observatories, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Paranal Observatory, which houses the Very Large Telescope (VLT). These facilities, combined with favorable environmental conditions, attract professional and amateur astronomers alike.

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  • Mirroring


    The Atacama Desert is home to expansive salt flats. Over time, vast crystalline salt deposits create an exceptionally flat and reflective surface. During the rare occasions when the Atacama Desert experiences rain, a thin layer of water accumulates on the salt flats. This shallow water layer transforms the already reflective surface of the salt flats into a natural mirror, perfectly reflecting the sky above. The unique reflective properties of the salt flats have been studied and utilized by scientists for calibrating satellite-based remote sensing instruments.

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