S O U T H E R N L A T I T U D E S
T O U R S
A T A C A M A D E S E R T
The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is a very special place. To start with it contains some of the driest places on earth. There are coastal areas where the residents can’t remember the last time it rained! Most of the cities are situated on the coast including the clean, modern and vibrant Iquique. Deserted beaches stretch for miles and offer great photo opportunities.
Slightly inland as the Andes begin to rise up from the coast small amounts of precipitation do fall and life can be found. There are 120 species of cactus found in the Atacama along with scores of beautiful desert flowers.
The “altiplano” or high plain is a feature unique to the Atacama. These high plains vary in elevation from 10,000 to 16,000 ft. The air at these altitudes is cool and thin. Here we find the majority of fascinating natural and archaeological sites the region is known for. Desert towns such as San Pedro de Atacama and Putre serve as bases to explore the altiplano. This was as far south as the Inca empire reached and signs of their inhabitance are all around. “Pukarįs” or fortresses are exciting to explore and give an insight into the military workings of the Incas.
Wildlife abounds in the altiplano. The salt flats are home to flocks of birdlife including three species of flamingoes. Vicuńas (llama family), rheas, Andean fox and puma are all found here.
Small villages tucked away in desert oases are a wonderful cultural experience. Atacamanian people still live in these seldom visited towns and a peek into their way of life is a special experience. Brilliant blue skies are of course normal throughout the desert but temperatures can vary dramatically. Sunrise at the geysers is usually below freezing while the beaches are almost always warm and dry.
San Pedro de Atacama- This unique desert town is an important jumping off point for several of our destinations. We’ll spend up to four nights here depending on individual itineraries. The town itself is quite touristy but remains largely undiscovered by American tourists. Because of the tourists San Pedro boasts excellent hotels and restaurants. The town is also referred to as “artsie” due to a large number of galleries and street music. There are several sights worth a visit in and around San Pedro. A wonderful museum houses artifacts from various ancient cultures including the Atacamanians and Incas. The Pukarį de Quitor is five minutes from town and is a great example of a hillside fortress. Hiking in Devil’s Gulch is a good way to explore the areas geology.
Valley of the Moon- Bizarre geologic formations and brilliant colors give this valley its name. During the day it’s mostly hot and dry but at sunset the hills spring to life with spectacular colors and shadows. Moonrise in the valley is nothing short of emotional.
The Coast- The largest cities in the desert are on the coast but in between lie hundreds of miles of deserted beaches. Blue waves contrast the parched landscape as we explore a remote white sand beach. Tidepools literally crawl with critters. Starfish, crabs and minnows hide in the rocks as we approach.
The Salt Flats- This trip has a great variety of sights. Several picturesque mountain churches await your photos. Laguna Chaxa is loaded with flamingoes almost everyday. Lovely high mountain lakes and salt flats teem with vicuńa and fox and offer an incredible contrast in colors between the blue waters and red mountains. Snow capped volcanoes up to 20,000 ft. surround us all day.
Chuquicamata Copper Mine- The largest open pit mine in the world, “Chuqui” provides about 40% of Chile’s GNP. Mammoth trucks haul copper ore up out of the open pit mine 365 days a year. An hour long tour gives us a close-up look at the mines inner workings.
Desert Villages- In one day we’ll have the opportunity to see four remote desert villages. Hidden away in the bottoms of valleys or tucked into the trees in an oases time seems to have left these villages behind. Indigenous Atacamanian residents carry heavy loads on their backs and wear brightly colored clothes typical of the region. Photogenic churches sit patiently as time passes them by.
Geysers of Tatio- Prepare for an early morning. The geysers are best viewed at sunrise as the steam condenses against the cold morning air. Terrific photo opportunities abound as the first rays of the sun touch the steam plumes. Don’t run for your photo though, at 16,000 ft. the air is a bit thin!
Flora and Fauna- The far north holds many natural wonders. Exotic cactus species cover steep hillsides and desert wildflowers are too numerous to count. Lauca National Park is home to healthy populations of vicuńa, fox, flamingoes and vizcachas. What’s a vizcacha? Come to the Atacama to find out!
Cities- Iquique is a beautiful coastal city supported by it’s fishing and mining industries. A year round pleasant climate and clean beaches make this one of Chile’s nicest cities. Tasty seafood is popular fare at numerous restaurants and an excellent choice after several days in the mountains. Your five-star hotel Terrado Suites is on the beach and next door to the casino.
Cities: Antofagasta , Arica , Calama , Iquique , La Serena , Putre , San Pedro de Atacama
Description: Northern Chile is a land of extreme contrast, where two uniquely Andean environments, the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert, combine with unpredictable and overwhelmingly beautiful results. The vast and colorful Atacama Desert is said to be the driest desert in the world. In some parts of this desert, no precipitation has ever been recorded.
From north to south, the principal destination cities in northern Chile are Arica, Iquique, Calama, San Pedro de Atacama, and Antofagasta. Of these, all but Calama and San Pedro are coastal cities, with fine beaches where clouds – let alone rain – are never an issue. Accommodations, transportation, and other tourist services are on a par with the capital, and each city provides access to a distinct portion of the desert, sierra foothills, or Altiplano. Trekking, Ethinc and overland tours, mountaineering and archaeological tours are among the most popular activities in Northern Chile
The north of Chile
The region known as the “North of Chile” occupies an area equivalent in size to two thirds of Italy. It stretches from the highlands of the Andean Altiplano over the golden sands of the Atacama Desert as far as the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Diverse, surprising, majestic and untouched… this is the place for those in search of adventure with its breathtaking salt flats, geysers and Andean volcanos, vast expanses of land and here and there, occasional signs of life… llamas, vicunas, flamingos and alpacas, all unperturbed by the presence of man. Here you can find museums which record ma~ns presence over the last 10,000 years, sea and long sandy beaches, relaxation and entertainment in casinos, restaurants and hotels, and above all the friendly hospitality of the Chilean people.
The North of Chile… in fact… has everything!
The desert in the highlands
The Chilean Altiplano, situated in the foothills of the Andean Mountain Range, 4.000 meters above sea level, is a treasure chest of natural phenomena set in surroundings of unspoilt beauty. Here, you simply must visit the Lauca National Park, a natural monument now declared a World Biosphere Reserve. Incredible landscapes, with volcanos, lagoons, salt flats, tiny pre-Hispanic settlements, as well as a wide variety of animal life such as llamas, vicunas, guanacos, alpacas, flamingos and wild duck, create a lasting impression of sheer beauty.
Archeology History and mystery
For over 10,000 years these lands have been inhabited by man and evidence of his presence can be found throughout this area from the Pacific coast to the high Andean Mountain Range 6,000 meters above sea level. In the Azapa Valley 12 kilometers from Arica, the museum of San Miguel de Azapa exhibits especially ‘prepared’ mummies dating from18000 BC, the oldest in the world yet to be discovered. The museum also houses a fine archeological collection of some 20,000 objects discovered in this area.
From the road the huge geoglyphic paintings which adorn the hillsides are still visible through the olive groves and from the air they stand out even more clearly. These gigantic drawings of which the most important are those of Lluta, Azapa, Pintados, Cerro Unitas and Tiliviche remain wrapped in mystery to this day. Another world-famous museum, San Pedro de Atacama, is located 100 kilometers from the city of Calama. The small village from which it takes its name was once the center of the Atacamanian civilization. This museum contains a collection of over 300,000 pieces which include pottery, woven fragments and mummies discovered in this area The ruins of Indian fortresses or ‘pukaras’ such as Quitor, Lasana and Turi remain to this day in the North of Chile, where every step leads to discovery and a new understanding of the history of man.
The desert is life and adventure
…Discover for yourself the many wonders of the Atacama Desert, the most arid desert in the world. Spectacular landscapes and natural phenomena abound wherver you look.
And in all this immensity, tiny villages such as Parinacota, Caspana, Socoroma, Surire or Isluga still maintain the traditions of their Aymara ancestors, and the influence of Spanish colonization is still evident in the architecture of their churches. The city of Calama, 214 kilometers from Antofagasta, is an oasis in the middle of the desert. With its fine selection of hotels, this in an ideal basecamp for sightseeing trips to nearby places of interest such as the El Tatio Geysers 3,550 meters above sea level, where great pillars of water and steam which rise up some 10 meters high and reach temperatures of 85oC. 100 kilometers to the southeastlies the arid wasteland of the Valley of the Moon. Towards the north, the village of Chiu-Chiu has several attractions including the nearby 150 meter deep Chiu-Chiu Lagoon, an astonishing natural phenomenon in the middle of the desert.
From Calama, you can also visit the huge amphitheatre of the biggest open-cast mine in the world-Chuquicamata. As the largest of the twelve salt flats in the Northern Region, the Salt Lake of Atacama is especially interesting. It stretches out like a vast white lake as far as the eye can see and its banks are the habitat of unique species of fauna.
The North is entertainment and relaxation
The main cities of the North, Arica, Iquique, Antofagasta are situated on the coast. They all have airports linking them to the rest of the country, and are connected by road to each other and to the most important sightseeing areas. Comfortable hotels, motels and hostels, usually located on or near the sea in these towns, are available for your enjoyment and relaxation. Ther’es no time for boredom in the North… every day you can choose from the delicious variety of local dishes usually based on fish and seafood. For those who like shopping there are lots of local markets in Arica where yo’ure bound to come across that unexpected treasure, or you can visit the Duty Free Zone in Iquique. The choice is endless! Spend the afternoons sunbathing on one of the numerous beaches lulled by the sea breeze and the feeling of endless space! At night enjoy a game of back gammon, roulette or even the slot machines in the Casinos of Arica or Iquique where you can also dine and dance.
San Pedro de Atacama, Atacama/Northern Chile
Atacama says it all, dry hot and your basic desert. It is at 2,440 meters and has only 900 inhabitants but surprisingly has good accommodations and even taxis for hire. However, near here are some incredible and mysterious monoliths and petroliths and a bunch of other liths, “Chariot of the Gods” type stuff.. Also not to be missed is the Archeological Museum founded by a priest, Father Gustavo Le Paige. The story of how he built it single handed is impressive enough until you actually visit it and see the wonders there, from mummies to pre Inca artifacts it is a real lesson of the distant past of the area.
Great for sight seeing, Calama is close to El Tatio Geysers, the geoliths of the Atacama Desert, and just lots of fun stuff to explore. In the middle of an incredibly beautiful desert, Calama is so dry the locals attach their postage stamps with staples rather than lick them!
Climate Change in the Atacama Desert
by Jay Quade
This summer, Julio Betancourt and I, and PhD students Jason Rech and Claudio Latorre, journeyed to the heart of the Atacama Desert of northern Chile to study geologic records of climate change in the driest region of the world. Our efforts to reconstruct the vegetation and hydrologic history of the Atacama are being funded by National Geographic and the InterAmerican Institute.
It’s an exciting time for Quaternary studies in South America. Paleoclimatic research has accelerated, in part due to mounting interest in El Niño and its conspicuous impacts on key environmental and socioeconomic phenomena. These include flooding on the Peruvian Coast, drought and biomass burning in the Amazon Basin, and glacier and lake level fluctuations throughout the Andes. Questions about the deep history of the Bolivian High, a monsoonal system similar to the Indian and Mexican monsoons, have also fueled a flurry of recent studies in the central Andes. Today, the Atacama lies at the downstream end of this monsoonal flow across the Amazon Basin, where it barely spills over the Andes.
During our outing in July, in the dead of the austral winter, the word “desert” took on a new meaning for us. Actually, a better description for the lower parts of the Atacama is “Absolute Desert”, to distinguish it from the kind of lush tropical desert of our Sonoran Desert here. A closer cousin of the Atacama would be the surface of Mars, devoid not only of plants, animals or insects of any kind, but also of evidence of recent running water. It never rains in Calama (2450 m elevation, 100,000 inhabitants), the bustling mining town where we rented vehicles, bought groceries and eventually celebrated our success.
Like Mars, there is plenty of evidence that things haven’t always been the same in at least some portions of the Atacama. At elevations below where it rains today (2700 m or almost 9000 ft), there are hillslopes carved by channels now buried by shifting sands. A particularly powerful record of climate change might be evidence of exactly when and where there was rain and runoff, as well as plant cover, in the Absolute Desert of the Atacama.
Our mission to reconstruct vegetation and hydrology in the Atacama was assisted by the incredible mummification that occurs in this hyperarid environment. Plant remains, textiles and even human burials (a local museum displays one under the label “Miss Chile”) can persevere for millennia in the open, and even longer under shelter in rocky environments. Around Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, these rocky environments are characterized by Neogene tuffs and ignimbrites intercalated with fluvial sediments. The ignimbrites form cliffs, some of which have wasted down to boulder fields. The cliffs and boulder fields are ideal habitats for rodents, some of which produce plant-rich deposits akin to packrat middens in our own southwestern deserts.
Evidence of major climate switches in the region has been known to Chilean archaeologists for some time. For example, paleoindians appear suddenly in the region about 10,500 carbon-14 years ago (carbon-14 years are about 10% shorter than calendar years for this period), when the region was significantly wetter than today. This event is much in evidence at places like Tuina Cave, where we spent several days.
The bottom layers of the cave are sterile wind-blown dust and rock. Sooty black smudges mixed with thousands of fragments of bone denote the arrival of man and the many meals he made of the local llamas. Mixed with and overlying the human occupation levels are thick masses of fossil grass, so thick that at first they looked like bales of hay (see photos). Today, these grasses grow hundreds of meters higher in elevation, on the edge of the Andean Altiplano, where it is colder and wetter. The area around the cave today, devoid of all but a few desperate-looking shrubs, makes Death Valley look lush.
In fact, we spent much of this trip in pursuit of fossil plant material from the caves. Julio has obtained a suite of carbon-14 dates on a few of the deposits, and most cluster between about 12,000 and 8000 carbon-14 years ago. The fossils invariably included plants now found in wetter, higher elevation settings.
So by Atacaman standards, conditions were good when man first entered the region midway into this “wet” phase. But the good times ended with virtually complete abandonment of the lower areas of the Atacama desert between 8000 and 3200 carbon-14 yars ago. The Chilean archaeologists aptly called this period “El Silencio Archeologico”. Looking at the Atacama now, it is hard to imagine that it was actually once drier than today, but the evidence clearly points to expansion of the Absolute Desert during that time. So far, Julio and Cladio have found no fossil plants from caves in the lower Atacama that date to that period.
The last 3500 years have been highly eventful both archaeologically and climatically. More rainfall began to fall during this period, which nourished springs and streams that flowed far down into the bleak interior of the desert. These stream courses have been the focus of intensive agriculture and village building, which in many ways reminded us of the ruins of the Anasazi here in the Southwest.
Some of these stream courses, or quebradas, are cut deeply into the huge ignimbrite sheets on the flanks of the Andean massif. The quebradas contained some real geological surprises that were to occupy our attention toward the end of the trip. Plastered high on the walls of the quebradas, we noticed patches of green, muddy sediment and hard, yellow travertine. Our first instinct was that these were the remains of irrigation ditches built by natives, which are common in some parts of the valleys. On closer examination we realized these deposits were natural and represented remnants of spring and creek deposits that once filled many of the quebradas.
In effect, the spring deposits are old bathtub rings that mark episodes when the water table stood much higher in all the valleys of the region. At this writing, we still do not have any dates on these strange deposits, but not for lack of datable organic remains. Beautifully preserved plant parts abound, including thick tap roots of mesquite that once shaded the water courses. We placed bets on the expected ages of these deposits, and all the guesses fell between 12,000 and 8000 carbon-14 years ago, the last time the region was much wetter than today. This semester, if you see Jason Rech staring into glass beakers in room 376, he is in search of the biggest and best charcoal fragments for radiocarbon dating. So stay tuned.
Personally, I have had few more productive or enjoyable field seasons than our July stay in Chile. Many bad Peruvian and Clinton jokes, and hours of fireside brainstorming about the geological story unfolding before us compensated for the long, Martian-cold evenings. I actually felt a bit wistful as I unpacked my bags back in the States and was greeted by clouds of Atacaman dust and the scent of burnt saltbush in all my field gear. But there is little time for regrets, as we and Camille Holmgren, a new graduate student in Geosciences, plan to return next summer and push our explorations of the Atacama north toward Peru.