Atacama the Driest Place on Earth

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Laguna Miscanti – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

1/320s @ f/11 ISO 100 @ 24mm

If Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, then the Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth (or so say the scientists). It’s reported that Atacama receives less than 4-inches of rain every 1,000 years (and that’s pretty damn dry). I photographed the above scene yesterday morning, at an altitude approaching 14,000 feet (oxygen deprived), and it was colder than a witch’s tit at -2°C (28°F) with a brisk Moderate Gale force (32 to 38 mph) wind of 35 mph blowing.

Unlike many other deserts where scorching heat is the norm – like California’s Mojave Desert and the Sahara Desert of northern Africa – average daytime temperatures in the Atacama range between 32 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and can fall to as low as 10 to 15 degrees below zero at night.

We’re staying for at least a week in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama (less than 5,000 residents according to the last census in 2002) while we explore the surrounding sights. The entire town is built of adobe brick, and looks exactly like the dusty little Mexican border towns featured in the old Hollywood western movies (I almost expect Marty Robbins to start singing El Paso at any moment). We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and once the sun goes town it’s very quiet and cold (photos in later posts).

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Salar de Aguas Calientes – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

1/160s @ f/16 ISO 100 @ 24mm

As small, rustic, and out-of-the-way as this town (village) is, it is not inexpensive. The resident population swells with the many backpackers and trekkers who come from around the world to visit the driest place on Earth. Our hostel is very basic (private room with shared bath) and is costing us $21 usd pp per night (where we usually try to budget $5 to $10 usd pp per night). Breakfast (not included) cost us 6,500 Chilean pesos pp ($9.50 usd) this morning, and dinner will be at least that much.

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Laguna Miscanti – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

1/100s @ f/16 ISO 100 @ 24mm

So far the food in Chile has been excellent (and rivals the food in Peru in my opinion), but here in San Pedro the prices are running 3x what we paid on the coast in Arica. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the number of foreign tourists visiting and the remoteness of the town. Be that as it may, when visiting Chile you would be remiss if you bypassed northern Chile and San Pedro de Atacama. The natural beauty of the area is absolutely stunning.

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, World Traveller

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile


8 responses to “Atacama the Driest Place on Earth

  1. You travel some very interesting places. I love the dry lake bed shot the best but they are all beautiful. Hope you share some images of the village with us.

    • I do indeed Jim. I liked the dry lake bed the best too, but non-photographers seem to like the mountain shot (#1 photo) by a large margin (it’s all subjective isn’t it?). I took a few shots around town (San Pedro de Atacama) this morning, and will try to post them soon. Just record shots, nothing artistic, but it will give folks a sense of where we’re staying.

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