The driest place in the world

Spending time looking for rain in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

alpacas 88 (photo credit: )
alpacas 88
(photo credit: )
The first time I felt snow in my hands I was 18 years old. But imagine experiencing rain for the first time when you are 15! This is the standard experience of the nearly one million people living in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. If you thought the Negev and Judean deserts were dry, imagine this: 1,000 km. long and more than 150 km. wide, the Atacama is the driest place on earth. Wedged between the Pacific Ocean on the west - with its cold water surging up from Antarctica - and the high Andes Mountains in the east, these two phenomena ensure that little or no rain falls in the Atacama Desert. Most of the area has an average rainfall of less than one millimeter a year. Of the three coastal cities of Antofagasta, Iquique and Arica, only the first has a higher average - 1.7 millimeters a year. When I asked the locals how often it rains, the answer invariably was "Never." In actual fact, they get a "good" rainfall of a few millimeters maybe once in 15 years. We visited the driest town in the world, Quillagua, inland from Antofagasta, where we saw its little-used rain gauge. Quillagua has an average of only 0.4 millimeters of rain a year. With two exceptions the area is absolutely barren, not a blade of grass, not a hint of green. After driving for hundreds of kilometers without seeing any vegetation at all, we suddenly came across a forest of tamarugo trees. This tree is superbly adapted to saline soils, the result of water moving underground from the Andes and reaching the surface in a saline state. The other phenomenon is the candelabrum cactus, which grows high up on a few hills. About two meters tall with a thin stem that spreads out like a candelabrum, it gets its moisture from the sea mist, but only grows about six millimeters a year. There is, however, another source of moisture in this desert; namely, the rivers that flow from the Andes to the coast. There are four of these rivers, with near perpendicular rock faces on either side of a wide green riverbed. These riverbeds are extensively farmed, supplying fruit and vegetables for the desert population. The Azapa valley near Arica has been famous for its olives and wine for hundreds of years. In this valley, we also visited the San Miguel archeological museum, where there are exhibits of centuries-old Indian artifacts, including cloth and wooden utensils and mummies. Everything is well preserved because it is so dry. NITRATES were discovered in the Atacama Desert in the middle of the 19th century, in an area that at the time belonged to Bolivia. This led to the War of the Pacific in 1879, when Chile declared war on Bolivia and Peru. The Esmeralda, a Chilean wooden warship captained by Arturo Prat, blockaded the then Peruvian port of Iquique. His bravery when challenged by a superior Peruvian warship was such an inspiration to the rest of his crew and the whole country that Chile went on to win the war. To honor this national hero, every town in Chile has one of its main streets named Arturo Prat, while his statue can be seen in many town squares all over the country. At the end of the war, Chile had conquered the Atacama Desert, leaving Bolivia landlocked without its port of Antofagasta and Peru without the ports of Iquique and Arica. As a result of the war, saltpeter became the most important export for Chile, as it is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Mines sprang up all over the desert and in 1917, Chile exported three million tons of saltpeter to the allies in Europe. In the years after WWI, most of the many mines were closed and today can be visited as ghost towns, each with its cemetery nearby. The best preserved and one of the largest of these is Humberstone, near Iquique, which was producing nitrates until 1960. One can still see the workers' tenement houses, a clubhouse, theater and church and of course, the industrial installations of the mine. Nearby is the town of Huara, which served as a regional entertainment and service center for many of the mines and still functions, probably due to its situation on the north-south Pan American highway. Fewer than five hundred people live there today, compared to 7,000 in its heyday. A drive through the town is very depressing, as most of the houses are deserted and dilapidated. When driving in the Atacama, we were always on the lookout for geoglyphs, or the large human or animal figures that were created hundreds of years ago by the local Indians. Made by placing stones of different colors on the mountainsides, no one knows the reason they were built, but the reason they are still there today is, of course, the lack of rain. ARICA IS the northernmost city in Chile, just a few kilometers from the Peruvian border and like all other Chilean cities, it has a Mercado, a building in the center of town which consists of fish shops, vegetable stands and small restaurants where the locals eat. Most of them specialize in fresh fish dishes, which we found to be tasty and very reasonably priced. Arica also boasts a beautiful church and the old customs house, both of which were manufactured in France by Alexandre Eiffel - of Eiffel Tower fame - and shipped to Arica. Apart from its wooden doors, the entire church of San Marcos was made of cast iron in Eiffel's workshop. From Arica, a two-and-a-half-hour car ride will take you to the Lauca National Park, at an altitude of 4,500 meters, or 14,000 feet. It is a different world, and the lack of oxygen at that height literally takes your breath away, where even walking becomes a big effort. For this reason we broke our journey at Putre, a village which stands at an altitude of 3,500 meters, where we spent two nights in a "Hostal" while getting accustomed to the altitude. In spite of it being midsummer, Park Lauca is cold and the puddles have a thin layer of ice until late morning. There are snow-covered volcanoes - some dormant, one active - all around. Lying at the foot of a volcano on the Bolivian border, Lake Chungara is the highest lake in the world and supports an abundant bird life. The lake water seeps out to form marshes with crystal clear water trickling through the bright green marsh grasses. This is the only food that the alpacas will eat, and wherever the marshes are, the alpacas can be seen grazing. The llama, the slightly bigger brother of the alpaca, usually grazes nearby. The llama and alpaca are mostly owned by the indigenous farmers, while the smaller camelid, the vicuna, cannot be domesticated. They graze on the hillsides and were hunted to near extinction, but due to a successful preservation program, are once more plentiful. Further south, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, we made our way to the picturesque village of San Pedro de Atacama. Its dusty gravel roads are overrun with tourists, which, together with its location, contribute to it being the most expensive town in Chile. It is the jump-off point for, among others, tours to the Tatio geysers and southern Bolivia. The Tatio geysers are only active before sunrise, so we were picked up at four in the morning and by 6:30 were at an altitude of 4,500 meters. These are the highest geysers in the world, shooting up fountains of boiling water and steam. There are about 80 active geysers, making it a spectacular sight, especially if one does not get a serious bout of altitude sickness, which afflicts a fair number of people. A one-and-a-half-hour drive from San Pedro took us to Calama, a city which owes its existence to the huge Chuquicamata copper mine nearby. Calama is also famous for another reason - Santiago, the capital of Chile, is known for its coffee houses with waitresses dressed in tiny skirts, also known as "Coffee with legs" - the mining town of Calama has its own version, pubs where only men are welcome, called "Beer with legs." Spanish is the language used throughout Chile and I strongly recommend having a dictionary handy. The locals are, however, very helpful, even though their English is virtually nonexistent. My only disappointment on this trip was that I did not experience rain in the Atacama. Maybe we weren't there long enough.