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Atacama

Atacama

Atacama Desert
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By Priit J. VesilindPhotographs by Joel Sartore



Parts of Chile's Atacama Desert haven't seen a drop of rain since recordkeeping began. Somehow, more than a million people squeeze life from this parched land.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Stretching 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Peru's southern border into northern Chile, the Atacama Desert rises from a thin coastal shelf to the pampas—virtually lifeless plains that dip down to river gorges layered with mineral sediments from the Andes. The pampas bevel up to the altiplano, the foothills of the Andes, where alluvial salt pans give way to lofty white-capped volcanoes that march along the continental divide, reaching 20,000 feet (6,000 meters).

At its center, a place climatologists call absolute desert, the Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. There are sterile, intimidating stretches where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. You won't see a blade of grass or cactus stump, not a lizard, not a gnat. But you will see the remains of most everything left behind. The desert may be a heartless killer, but it's a sympathetic conservator. Without moisture, nothing rots. Everything turns into artifacts. Even little children.

It is a shock then to learn that more than a million people live in the Atacama today. They crowd into coastal cities, mining compounds, fishing villages, and oasis towns. International teams of astronomers—perched in observatories on the Atacama's coastal range—probe the cosmos through perfectly clear skies. Determined farmers in the far north grow olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers with drip-irrigation systems, culling scarce water from aquifers. In the altiplano, the descendants of the region's pre-Columbian natives (mostly Aymara and Atacama Indians) herd llamas and alpacas and grow crops with water from snowmelt streams.

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Final

Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of a baby viscacha stretching from tail to toes.




More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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Along much of the coast of northern Chile, rainfall is so scarce that remote communities long had to import water by truck—an expensive and inefficient process—in order to survive. Finally, however, some coastal residents discovered how to make use of the one form of precipitation they get plenty of: fog.

Although rain rarely falls on the Atacama's coastline, a dense fog known as camanchaca is abundant. The fog nourishes plant communities called lomas, isolated islands of vegetation that can contain a wide variety of species, from cactuses to ferns.

In the village of Chungungo, human residents now take advantage of the same camanchaca that their botanical neighbors have so successfully exploited. Thanks to Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Canadian Embassy in Santiago, a decade ago the villagers began to gather water using an ingenious system of nets that catch the fog as it rolls over the mountains above their homes. Constructed from a very fine mesh, the nets hang vertically above a series of troughs. As the fog condenses on the nets' surfaces, moisture drips into troughs; pipes then carry the water down to the village. Residents of Chungungo can now take pride in their gardens; they can shower daily. The fog-catchers supply the village with an average of 2,600 gallons  (10,000 liters) of water every day.

The success of the Chilean fog-catchers has inspired people in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, South Africa, and Namibia to develop similar systems for their arid-land homes. For more information on the innovative art of fog-catching, go to www.idrc.ca/nayudamma/fogcatc_72e.html.

—Robin A. Palmer

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Related
Atacama Desert Trek, Carnegie Mellon University
www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/atacama
In April 2003 an international team of scientists—mostly from NASA and Carnegie Mellon University—traveled to the Atacama Desert to begin field research for a new rover vehicle that will eventually search for signs of life on other planets. Read day-by-day accounts of the expedition and learn more about the emerging science of astrobiology.

Tourism Promotion Corporation of Chile: Atacama and Altiplano
www.visit-chile.org/norte/norte.phtml
From geyser fields to religious festivals, this tourism-oriented site will give you an idea of what to see on a visit to the Atacama Desert. Included are links to agencies that offer guided tours of the region.

San Pedro de Atacama
www.sanpedroatacama.cl/ingles/contenido.htm
If you're planning to travel to the Atacama Desert, visit the town of San Pedro de Atacama, where a museum houses thousand-year-old mummies. This site provides information about hotels, tours, the history of the region, and much more.

Andean Botanical Information System
www.sacha.org
Despite its aridity, the Atacama Desert hosts an impressive variety of plant life. The Andean Botanical Information System gives you the chance to learn about the flowering plants of the entire Andean region, including those found in the Atacama. Of special interest is a section about the remarkable lomas formations, plant communities that thrive in the desert's coastal fog.

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Bibliography
Arrieta, R. T. From the Atacama to Makalu. Coquí Press, 1997.

Bernhardson, Wayne. Chile & Easter Island. Lonely Planet, 2000.

Graham, Melissa, Christopher Sainsbury, and Richard Danbury. Chile: The Rough Guide. Rough Guides, 1999.

Minnis, Natalie, ed. Insight Guide: Chile. Insight Guides, 1999

Rudolph, William E. Vanishing Trails of Atacama. American Geographical Society, 1963.

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NGS
Morell, Virginia. "Empires Across the Andes," National Geographic (June 2002), 106-29.

Davis, Nicole. "Atacama Desert, Chile," National Geographic Adventure (January/February 2002), 108.

Arriaza, Bernardo, "Chile's Chinchorro Mummies," National Geographic (March 1995), 68-88.

Boraiko, Allen A. "Chile: Acts of Faith," National Geographic (July 1988), 54-85.

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