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).
An ochre-coloured moonscape stretches towards the horizon. A smooth asphalt ribbon snakes defiantly through the driest place on earth. Of ravishing beauty, Atacama desert is an area with unique geological diversity that attracts tourists and researchers all year round, making it also the most ideal location for Astronomical research as well. Its landscapes include a fantastic variety of moon-like scenery, turquoise-blue high altitude lakes, massive salt flats, geysers, volcanoes and sand dunes. 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.
One attraction found in its dunes is the Cordillera de la Sal or Salt Mountains. it is found 70 km from Calama and just before the entrance to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, they can be seen with unusual forms and mineral brights. But there is a story behind these tower of boulders. It was formed million of years ago. It was an old lake, which bottom went raising by the same movements of the terrestrial coast which gave origin to the Andes Mountains. Moulded through time by rain, wind and the sun of the Atacama Desert, its final form that we know nowadays counts with a great variety of natural sculptures, different types of stratifications and varied colorations by the mineral diversity of the place.
To the south of San Pedro is the access to the center of the impressive Atacama Salt. During the route is possible to photograph and appreciate the view of Licancabur and Lascar volcanoes among other attractiveness with singular beauty, following by the same route is the town of Toconao and continuous until the salt, it finishes in the Chaxa lagoon which is inhabited by three kinds of flamingoes and a great number of migratory birds.
The Atacama salt, that occupies an extension of 100 kilometers length by 80 of wide. The salt is product of the underground water outcrop that, saturated of salts, evaporates leaving to rich scabs in salt and minerals. The rivers fed by the Andean snows, attend the area allowing the configuration of multiple oasis. This it is the scene where the atacameñan culture was developed. The air is extraordinarily dry here, which gives it a perfect transparency. That at first is easy to see the other extreme of the salt, about 70 kilometers. This same clarity, nevertheless, makes difficult to judge the distances. Under the salt there is a lake, hidden by a thick and rough scab of "tiznada" salt with the dust of the desert, that contains one of the greater lithium reserves in the world, a mineral used in some high technology industries and that operated in the South sector of the salt.
For the nature lover, one can go to the Las Vicuñas National Reserve. It is located in Putre. It has different topographic attractions like plains, valleys, and heights like Puquintica and Arintica Hills, both over the 5500 meters. The animal protected in this reserve is the vicuna. Vicunas are a species of a wild South American camelid. They are relatives of the llama and are raised for their coat. When Chile began its preservation program in 1970, the country was down to its last 500 vicunas. The government’s efforts to re-populate its Andean region with both sub-species of vicuna has been a big success in some areas and others not. The vicuna sub-species that inhabits the northern region of Chile is no long endangered, but the southern sub-species still faces extinction.
A rare set of factors in this arid lunar landscape – very little rainfall, crystal-clear skies, high altitudes of 2410 to 4270m and low-to-zero light pollution – have created an unparalleled stargazing haven. It is no coincidence that the Atacama is a major hub for astronomical research and home to a clutch of cutting-edge observatories. While many are off-limits to visitors, a handful of observatories offer guided tours, and many of the area’s hotels feature star-gazing as part of their program. Just make sure you check the lunar calendar before heading out, and for the best viewing, avoid full moon nights .
There is the Cerro Paranal, where you can tour the futuristic facilities of this ground-breaking complex, is ran by the European Southern Observatory. In the world of high-powered telescopes — where rival institutes compete to claim ‘most powerful’ specimens — Paranal’s is one of the best. The three-hour tour (make sure you book ahead) stops by the centre’s literally-named Very Large Telescope — made up of four 8.2m diameter telescopes — which allows astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with an individual telescope.
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