The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is so dry that there are places where rain has NEVER been recorded. Other parts of the desert may go for decades without feeling a single drop of rain. The desert averages about 100 miles wide and stretches up the Chilean coast for 600 miles. It is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Cordillera Domeyko, a range of foothills of the Andes Mountains. The location is the reason that no rain falls on the Atacama. The Andes block any moisture containing clouds from the east, and the cold waters of the offshore Humboldt current cause any rain on the west side of the Andes to fall at sea. Clouds do form over the area, and a cover of fog, known locally as the camanchaca, often flows inland from offshore. However, the camanchaca and the stratocumulus clouds lack enough moisture to produce rainfall. The small fishing village of Caleta Chungungo has developed an innovative way of harvesting the moisture from the camanchaca. . The system consists of large nets arrayed across the slopes perpendicular to the landward flow of the camanchaca. The fog condenses on the mesh and the water drips into a trough. The collected water flows from the trough down through a pipe to a reservoir.
The region is a harsh, forbidding landscape, reminding some of the surface of the moon. Indeed this is where testing has been done on vehicles destined to drive on the moon. It was in the Atacama Desert that NASA chose to test its planetary exploration vehicle Nomad, for in no other place on earth does the environment more closely resemble that of Mars. There is little vegetation and the landscape is covered with colorful Salars (salt flats) which are the mineral rich deposits covering the site of extinct lakes. They often look like they are filled with water even when they are dry because of the colors of the minerals. Geysers and hot ponds also dot the flats, along with strange mineral formations.
The area has been inhabited by Indians almost continuously, mainly in a narrow strip along the coast, but also in a few isolated oases. Chiu-Chiu is the site of an ancient fortress with rock carvings and Indian burials. Inside small openings in the surrounding desert floor, Kunza Indians were buried in fetal positions. Dried corpses found here date back 1200 years, possibly more. But those pale into insignificance compared to the accidental recovery in November, 1983 of 96 mummies at an Arica construction site that set the archeological world upside down, bringing hundreds of experts (and many more tourists) here. For these perfectly preserved remains had been mummified by man, not by nature and carbon tests dated them around 6,000 BC, making them the most ancient ever discovered and some 3,000 years older than Egypt's mummies. They have been re-assembled at the Archeology Museum of the University of Taracapa in Arica.
The first European to cross the forbidding waste was Diego de Almagro, the Spanish conquistador, in 1537. From then until the middle of the 19th century the desert was largely ignored, but with the discovery of the use of sodium nitrate as a fertilizer and later with the invention of smokeless powder requiring saltpeter, the desert had a mining boom. Although the southern half of Atacama belonged to Bolivia, the companies exploiting the deposits were Chilean. Differences arose, and in the ensuing war, The War of the Pacific, Chile won the entire area. When synthetic nitrates were developed after World War I, the boom collapsed. Some mining still exists on the Atacama however. Mineral rich waters are pumped to the surface and left to dry on the natural lake beds. The minerals can then be scraped up with heavy equipment. Copper is also mined on the eastern edge of the desert, in huge open pit mines.