On a bridge surrounded by winds, a cold desert, close to the chilean shore of the Pacific, is the driest place on the globe.
Few birds fly above Atacama Desert. Crossing it, on the only road you’ll find, The Pan American Highway, you won’t spot any trace of green. A deserted emptiness of burnt stone and moving dunes, the desert spreads on an area of 1000 km along the shore, in the north of Chile. It continues after that, under a different name for another 2250 km, to the north and to the south. At a distance of almost 96 km inside the continent, the desert leaves place for the naked cliffs of the Anzi Mountains.
Although quiet and empty, the Atacama Desert isn’t an inactive one. Where there is sand, dunes wave the entire landscape, designed and redesigned by winds. In rocky areas, whirlpools of sand and rare rains sculpted the hills, offering them soft shapes. In the light of dawn, rocks rich in minerals shine in various colors – brown, purple, red or green.
Atacama Desert is a cold place for a desert. Temperatures situate around 18 degrees, but can sometimes go up to even more than 50 degrees in the afternoon. At night, they drop to -40 degrees in just one hour time. In Atacama a sound similar to a gunshot, during twilight hours, can come only from a stone that cracks because of the sudden change of temperature.
Having only one permanent river called Loa, that flows through the heart of the Atacama Desert from the Anzi Mountains, its runway is so deep that travelers often spot the river only when they arrive on top of it. It is said that there are areas in the Atacama Desert where it never rains, but no one managed to prove this theory until now. In the Iquique and Antofagasta regions of the Atacama, rain falls only 4 times per century and when this happens, the consequences are devastating. The biggest part of the humidity in Atacama comes from the fog that covers the sun in the southern and northern part of the Atacama Desert, where only a few cactuses survive.
The lack of rain in Atacama Desert is explainable through the nature of the relief. Rain can’t come from Amazon, because eastern winds carry all the rain to the eastern peaks of the Anzi. In the Pacific, the cold air current Humboldt blows from Antarctica. Although usually winds on the shore are warm and moistorous, here their temperature drops because of the Humboldt air current, so, at the transfer on the dried land they take the moisture out of it and form the fog.
The dry air in the Atacama Desert has conserved traces of human activity in the area. 100 year old cart tracks are visible even today in the crust formed from heated rock fragments and salt crystals. Even weirder than the tracks are the geoglyphs, representing geometrical shapes and classy figures. The giant of Atacama Desert, a 120 m long drawing on the coast of a hill near Iquique, is the biggest of them. Even if the geoglyphs seem only recently drawed, they have been there for approximately 1000 years, created by a civilization that doesn’t exist anymore.
The Atacamenos, the first people that lived in the Atacama Desert, were subjugated by Peruan Inca people some time before the 16th century, when the Spaniards arrived. Some time after came the gold and silver diggers, which searched even inside well preserved ancient tombs. Gold diggers said that they were guided by Alicante, a legendary bird that shined in the color of precious metal he fed with. When dizzy, Alicante disappeared, leaving the explorers starving and lost, melting under the heat by day and shivering by night.
During the year 30 of the 19th century, a different type of wealth was discovered in the Atacama Desert: the biggest natural deposits of sodium nitrate were found at Iquique, essential for manufacturing gun powder. This deposits were initially part of Peru, but the industry that developed there led to the war between Chile, on one side, and Bolivia on the other. Chile was victorious! Peru lost its mines in Atacama Desert while Bolivia was forced to give up the coastal territories.
In the next 30 years the entire economy of Chile was based on the sodium nitrate in Atacama Desert, but, after World War I, this industrial branch collapsed once artificial chemicals were discovered. Today, wind whistles through the ruins of old buildings and rail tracks and numerous crosses that can be seen through the clouds of dust and sand mark the funerary graves of the miners that once worked there.
On the low areas of the shore, foxes and skunks with long muzzles survive feeding themselves with aquatic birds and marine animals, like crabs.
Grey seagulls are also attracted to crabs, but during summer they fly to 80 km inside the continent to nest in the desert, in the niches inside the ground of Atacama Desert – probably to avoid predators. During daytime, the wide open wings of their parents, protect the babies from sun light. On the shore, vampire bats found shelter inside the caves. They often feed at night, stinging the skin of their victims – a seal or a bird that sleeps – sucking their blood after that. The victim often doesn’t feel anything.
Unlike the Atacama Desert, waters close to the shore are full of life. Climbing currents bring minerals to surface, which are a great source of food for many fishes; on their turn they are eaten by the gigantic flocks of marine birds. They populate the rocky islands, where they migrate to get warmer under the sun.