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Atacama: Survival in Chile's high desert

Geysers in Atacama. Photo: Bill Roberson

Geysers in Atacama. Photo: Bill Roberson

In a region known as the driest place on earth, flora and fauna fight for survival against a backdrop of barren slopes, rocky flats and steaming geysers.  

Andean flamingos. Photo: Bill Roberson

The Atacama Desert is a land of stunning contrasts.  While parts of the desert see less than one sixth of an inch of rain per year, there are also surprising bodies of water—thermal pools, geysers and salt marshes—that support a rich and diverse ecosystem.  

Snow melt from the Andes feed vast grasslands that support grazing herds of vicuña and guanaco. Andean flamingos and a variety of birds inhabit the salt marshes and lakes.

Patagonia's dramatic terrain. Photo: Bill Roberson

Patagonia's dramatic terrain. Photo: Bill Roberson

The Atacama Desert sits atop the Central Volcanic Subduction Zone where the eastward moving Nazca plate slips under the South American Plate, pushing up the Andes and creating immense pressure that gives rise to both seismic and volcanic activity. 

This activity has made the region rich in copper, silver and other non-metallic ore such as sodium nitrate.  It was the nitrates that attracted miners in a population boom of the late 1800s.  Now, many of these mining towns lie abandoned, when less expensive synthetic nitrates emerged at the turn of the 20th century. 

Awasi Atacama Lodge. Photo: Bill Roberson

A visit to the Atacama is a rich and rewarding experience.  There are several flights a day between Chile's capital Santiago and the northern town of Calama. It is only an hour's drive to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, where you have a choice of three spectacular all-inclusive luxury lodges, as part of a custom private INCA journey.  We recommend a minimum of three full days in Atacama to take advantage of the exciting activities and excursions provided by each of the lodges.  A visit to Atacama is a perfect extension to any of our Patagonia adventures.


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