The Atacama Desert is the archeological jewel of Chile. The rainless plateau stretches 960 kilometers (600 miles) south from the border of Peru and its average width is less than 160 kilometers (100 miles) wide between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, and its centre is recognized as the driest place on earth.
This desiccated environment is the perfect preserver of ancient relics, with the world’s oldest mummies (of the Paleolithic Chinchorro tribe), having been discovered in the Atacama, thought to date back to 7000BC. Huge geoglyphic paintings adorn hillsides and ruins of Indian fortresses and sacred Inca sites dot the landscape.
Research shows that people began to settle in the desert away from the coastal areas around 1500BC. The Atacameño, who were noted for their fortified towns known as pucarás, were originally hunters in search of water, but soon began to domesticate llamas, and grow maize eventually settling the oases of Calama, San Pedro de Atacama between 100BC and 400AD.
By 1000AD, the area came under the control of the Tiwanaku of Bolivia, and then in 1450 the Inca Empire swept in briefly before the desert came under the power of the Spanish.
During the 19th century, the desert became the setting for border disputes, as Chile, Bolivia and Peru fought for control of the land and its rich deposits of sodium nitrate. Copper mines began to proliferate in the 1950s, and can still be seen today as in the rescue of the miners of the San José copper-gold mine in August 2010.
Today, the desert’s population is approximately one million, with most people living in the coastal cities but some in the small oasis communities and mining camps. The Altiplano is still the home to descendants of the region’s pre-Columbian natives, the Aymara and Atacama Indians, who live the age-old lifestyles of herding llamas and alpacas and growing crops.
The Atacama Desert is an area of extraordinary beauty and astounding natural wonders, from the Atacama Salt Flats, which are home to colonies of nesting pink flamingos and the sacred Incan sites, to the many volcanoes, including the Licancabur Volcano which was a ceremonial center during the Incan period and lies within 40 kilometers / 25 miles of San Pedro. The alien feel of the desert continues to this day. In recent years, NASA has been testing instruments and vehicles for Mars missions in the Atacama’s dry and rugged landscapes.