DixPix Photographs

     

SOUTHERN CORDILLERA

 
     
  Terrain - THE ATACAMA DESERT  

 

As loosely defined, the Atacama Desert lies between the Pacific Coast and the Andes through northwestern Chile and southwestern Peru.  The figure of 180,000 square kilometers is sometimes used, but its border can be defined in many ways.  It is said to be the driest desert in the world, with less than a millimeter of rain a year on average, and some weather stations never having received any.  This dryness is related to being in the rain-shadow of the Andes, as the winds mainly come from the Amazon Basin to the east.  The cold waters of the Pacific here also fail to yield much moisture to the atmosphere.  The coast and the adjacent altiplano will be considered separately.

 

So, welcome to the Atacama Desert. Click to see big picture (625x440 pixels; 91 KB)
Many people picture deserts as endless sand, caressed into ripples and heaped in dunes.  There are a few such areas in the Atacama. Click to see big picture (632x420 pixels; 104 KB)
And here are some sand dunes from north of Lima, but these features are most pronounced near the coast, where the ocean can first wash and clean the sand. Click to see big picture (640x387 pixels; 82 KB)
In fact one of the biggest sand dunes stands right behind the city of  Iquique in Chile.  Let's hope that the wind direction doesn't change. Click to see big picture (640x395 pixels; 69 KB)
Where not rock or salt pans, the Atacama is more into dust and nondescript detritus. Click to see big picture (640x439 pixels; 78 KB)
In fact it is one of the most desolate places on earth, and much of it can be described as the ultimate barrens, albeit often with warm colors. Click to see big picture (640x415 pixels; 62 KB)
And it doesn't look any more hospitable from the air Click to see big picture (640x417 pixels; 89 KB)
Traveling off-road may be dull and gritty, but at least the route finding keeps one awake. Click to see big picture (640x413 pixels; 42 KB)
But droning along the paved Pan American Highway, it can be difficult to keep from falling asleep.  This truck driver failed. Click to see big picture (640x429 pixels; 128 KB)
There are many areas where one must leave the 4x4 behind, and it is back to the good old fashioned mule train. Click to see big picture (640x428 pixels; 116 KB)
The sign reads "Danger (land) mines".  During the 1970's the Chileans mined much of their frontier area with Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina due to a time of increasing hostilities between the military dictatorships.  Most of the signs have gone, but many of the mines remain, and there have been fatalities. Click to see big picture (503x415 pixels; 62 KB)
On the positive side, when parts of the Atacama are treated to that rare shower of rain, the barren landscape suddenly (and briefly) springs to life with a variety of flowers. Click to see big picture (609x445 pixels; 93 KB)
Alas, what few trees manage to survive on the fringes of the Atacama, tend to be used for firewood, this is known as a "lunch-fire bush". Click to see big picture (640x430 pixels; 135 KB)
And there are a few rivers which cut through the Atacama with water from the mountains. Towns spring up along these, this one being Vallenar on the Rio Huasco.   Click to see big picture (343x458 pixels; 72 KB)
Most drainages, however, are trapped by basins, forming oasis and salt pans.  This is the best known of the former, San Pedro de Atacama, a tourist-oriented town of about 2000 people at the feet of the Andes.  Click to see big picture (615x442 pixels; 82 KB)
The town is adjacent to the Salar de Atacama, at 300,000 hectares, Chile's largest. (There are bigger ones in the Altiplanos of adjacent countries).  The blue and white areas are extraction plants, evaporating brines for lithium and other ingredients. Click to see big picture (610x445 pixels; 70 KB)
Most of this vast salt plain is actually quite dark and rough Click to see big picture (543x347 pixels; 83 KB)
But where it is smooth, it tends to form remarkable salt polygons. Click to see big picture (640x423 pixels; 140 KB)
There is also the Atacama coast, where in both Chile and Peru the world's driest desert meets one of the most prolific parts of the ocean, but this is treated in detail under Coastlines. Click to see big picture (640x412 pixels; 51 KB)
The scouring action of the dusty Atacama winds have eroded many strange rock formations.  This one is known as the Calavera, or skull.   Click to see big picture (334x448 pixels; 46 KB)
And if natural sculptures aren't striking enough, how about this 11 m. high statue by Mario Irarrazabal called the "Mano del Desierto"..  On the highway about 75 km. south of Antofagasta.   Click to see big picture (389x455 pixels; 44 KB)
And the clear air of the Atacama has attracted some of the largest, and most successful telescopes; by far the best known for studying the stars of the southern hemisphere. Click to see big picture (640x422 pixels; 94 KB)

 

THE SALITRE YEARS

The destiny of the Atacama Desert changed abruptly with the discovery of horizons of a mixture of sodium and potassium nitrates, in widely distributed areas of desert soils.  This is known as salitre, or in English saltpeter, the principal component of gun powder.  The bonanza was exploited by Peru from about 1830 until the area was captured by Chile in the War of the Pacific, circa. 1884.  After this, private companies from England, Germany, the U.S., etc. extracted and exported the material from shallow mines known as salitreras, controlled by "oficinas".  Most of these came to treat their workers as virtual slaves, paying them in "fichas" which could only be used at controlled prices at company stores.  Eventually (1907) there was general strike, resulting in a massacre of peacefully striking workers in the Santa Maria school yard in Iquique. The Chilean military used machine guns to kill some thousands of men, women and children.

Following the First World War, it was discovered that saltpeter could be made using the nitrogen in the air, and the importance of Atacaman salitre dropped off.  Today it is still mined in small quantities and used more locally as a nitrate fertilizer.  Some of the deposits are also used to concentrate iodine.

 

 
The Atacama is sprinkled with ruins from the Salitre Era. Click to see big picture (602x244 pixels; 62 KB)
This salitre oficina was refurbished to use as a suitably remote prison and torture center by the Chilean military after the 1973 coup. Click to see big picture (640x433 pixels; 112 KB)
Perhaps more informative than the old ruins are the massive cemeteries adjacent to many of the old "oficinas saltireras". Click to see big picture (640x396 pixels; 127 KB)
And in some areas such as this (above the port of Pisagua), broken glass sparkles to the horizon , in effect a vast garbage area from an epoch in which liquids came in glass bottles. Click to see big picture (640x411 pixels; 95 KB)
And as a result of the desiccation and salts, many other things are preserved in these remote sites. Click to see big picture (640x402 pixels; 80 KB)