Background

The Atacama Desert stretches 1255 km north from the Río Copiapó to the Chilean border with Peru. The Cordillera de la Costa, at its highest in this region (the highest peak is Cerro Vicuña (3114 m), runs close to the coast, an inhospitable and spectacular cliff face rising sheer from the waters to a height of up to 900 m. Below this cliff, on the edge of the Pacific, is a ledge on which the city of Antofagasta and some smaller towns are situated. In the eastern branch of the Andes, several peaks rise to around 6000 m: Llullaillaco (6739 m), Socompa (6051 m), Licancábur (5916 m), Ollagüe (5863 m). The western branch of the Andes ends near Calama. In between these two ranges the Andean Depression includes several salt flats, including the Salar de Atacama and the smaller Salar de Ascotán.

Before the Spanish conquest, this part of Chile was populated both on the coast and inland. The Chango people fished in the Pacific out of boats made from the pelts of sea lions. They traded fish with the peoples of the interior, from whom they bought coca leaves and quinoa (the staple grain before the arrival of those from Europe); from around the first century AD, there is evidence of an extensive network of paths and trade routes crossing the desert, linking the coastal areas between Taltal and the estuary of the Río Loa with the altiplano of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.

Until the arrival of the Incas in around 1450, the most important inland civilization was that of the Atacameños, based in the area around San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacameños are believed to have arrived around 9000 BC, and, over the course of the millennia, they managed to adapt to the harsh terrain in which they lived. After the arrival of the Incas, the Atacameños adapted their cultural rituals to suit their new masters.

The first Spanish expedition arrived in 1536, led by Diego de Almagro. Four years later, Pedro de Valdivia took San Pedro de Atacama and the fort at Quitor and, thereafter, the Spanish and the Atacameño peoples enacted the familiar and tragic pattern of subjugation and extinction. San Pedro was the colonial centre but, by the end of the colonial era, the Spanish had established urban settlements only here and in Chiu Chiu. At independence most of the region became part of Bolivia, although the border with Chile was ill-defined. Before the War of the Pacific deprived her of this coastal territory, Bolivia established several towns along the Pacific, notably Cobija (1825), Mejillones (1841), Tocopilla (1843) and Antofagasta (1872). After the war, when the territory passed to Chile, the increased exploitation of nitrates led to the construction of railways and ports and Antofagasta's growth into the north's most important city.

These days, mining is by far the most important economic activity. Fishing is also a major industry, with agriculture limited by the lack of water and poor soils to mainly tropical fruit production on the coast south of Antofagasta. The main towns, Antofagasta and Calama, account for 87% of the population of the area, 97.6% of which is urban. Life in the area is artificial. Water has to be piped for hundreds of kilometres to the cities and the mining towns from the cordillera; all food and even all building materials have to be brought in from elsewhere.

As throughout northern Chile, there are major differences between the climate of the coast and that of the interior. Temperatures on the coast are fairly uniform and the weather is frequently humid and cloudy;
camanchaca
, a heavy sea mist caused by the cold water of the Humboldt current, is common in the morning and, in spite of the fact that this is one of the driest places in the world, it can seem that it is about to rain at any moment, with morning dew a common occurrence in summer. In the interior, the skies are clear day and night, leading to extremes of temperature; winter nights can often be cold as -10°C, and colder in the high altiplano. Strong winds, lasting for up to a week, are common, especially, it is said, around the full moon, while between December and March there are sporadic but often violent storms of rain, snow and hail in the altiplano, a phenomenon known as
invierno altiplánico
(highland winter) or
invierno boliviano
(Bolivian winter).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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