If you’ve ever seen a sci-fi movie set on Mars, odds are the landscape in Chile will seem familiar. The Atacama Desert is one of the most popular locations for movies that need to evoke a remote, desolate planet.
Why is this region so barren? Along its eastern border, the peaks of Andes Mountains, reaching as high as 20,000 feet, prevent clouds from dropping precipitation. Although the Pacific Ocean is just to the west, another mountain chain keeps moisture at bay. In fact, some areas have never received any rainfall at all.
Adding to its unworldly scenery is the third largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Atacama. Once covered by water thousands of years ago, evaporation left behind an expanse of stark whiteness covering approximately 1200 square miles. The small lake at its center has a salinity of as much as 28 percent, compared to the 3.5 percent found in the ocean. Courageous swimmers report that you can float as easily in this lake as you can on the Dead Sea, which has a salinity of 34 percent.
You may be surprised to know that people make their livelihood in this extraterrestrial landscape that averages 12 millimeters of rainfall per year. In fact, evidence of human settlement has proven that over 7,000 years ago, hardy travelers followed water sources inland from coastal fishing villages and supported themselves with llama herding and subsistence agriculture. Archaeologists have found mummified remains dating back to approximately 5050 BCE. That’s over 2,000 years before the oldest Egyptian mummies.
Now, the desert is home to closely knit communities whose capital city is San Pedro de Atacama. With a population of approximately 5,000, this town was formed centuries ago around an oasis and now warmly welcomes tourists.
Natives in the community have a deep, spiritual connection to this remarkable terrain. They follow the religious traditions of their ancestors, believing that supernatural beings animate every element of the landscape. They pray to the divine Pachamama, translated as Mother Earth, whom they hope will bless their herds of llamas and honor their families with prosperity.
Because of the extreme difficulty living in the desert, residents rely heavily on one another. They have developed traditions that strengthen community bonds, such as the annual enfloramiento (flowering) ceremony. Families gather together to sing songs in the ancient language, share the fruits of the recent harvest and earn good luck by piercing their llamas’ ears. They then attach a colorful wool pom-pom through the perforation to identify the owner of each animal.
So, the Atacama Desert is a place where llamas get to wear jewelry, the landscape looks like another planet and the oldest mummies in the world grin behind glass? Sign me up for a visit!
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