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Ecology

The Soul of the Desert

The American deserts are just another of the many alluring features of the continent; from the very arid Atacama and the scenic Yuyni salt flats to La Guajira and the Chihuahua Desert, these rugged landscapes offer visitors a chance to experience extreme habitats and encounter the unique beings and communities that survive in them.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Alexander Arosemena

It seems that, in this world of microchips and fiberglass, solitude is more present than ever. A few afternoons ago, for example, I stopped at a cafe to kill some time and watched as three people came in, asked for the menu, giggled, and then, as if suddenly uninterested in each other, pulled out their cell phones and began chatting—each with their own agenda.

I remember discovering that cemeteries, like libraries, are the best places to be. It’s not a morbid love of death or an unhealthy longing for isolation; it’s simply the fact that among tombs and books you can hear your soul speak.

Something similar happens to people who visit deserts. Seemingly uninhabited and under some circumstances inhospitable, deserts have an almost mystical effect on people who are unafraid of solitude, able to listen patiently, and drawn to stargazing; these people know the rewards of the desert far exceed those of the compulsive act of pulling out a phone and chatting.

The Driest Desert of All Atacama: Chile

Precipitation: 0 – 0.08 inches annually.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest desert in the world. Those in the know claim there are regions where it rains every fifteen years and others that have never seen a drop.

Larger than Portugal and 10,000 feet above sea level, the Atacama Desert covers 65,000 square miles and temperatures can climb as high as 113° F during the day and drop to a frigid -14° F at night.

Atacama is vast and rich in biodiversity, landscapes, and experiences. At the place where the desert meets the coast, a phenomenon worthy of a storybook occurs: the flowering desert. Every few years, depending on the amount of precipitation, more than two hundred species of native flowers emerge from the sand, creating spectacular colors and shapes.

Another place of interest is the Chacabuco Prison Camp in Antofagasta, one of Chile’s oldest nitrate producing regions. Originally a mining camp and then a military camp, from November 1973 to April 1975, the former Chacabuco Nitrate Office buildings were used as a political prison camp through which some 1,800 men passed. Today, only the buildings and the memory of those imprisoned there remain.

The most famous of the Atacama Desert attractions, however, is its astronomy circuit: a series of observatories take advantage of a vast, clear sky, where tourists interested in stars and other heavenly bodies can gaze into space or enjoy guided tours and lectures. Among the most important of these observatories are Paranal, Cerro Tololo, Mamalluca, and Cruz del Sur in Combarbala.

For more information, visit  www.chile.travel

A Desert Teeming with Life Chihuahua, between México and the United States

Precipitation: 10 inches annually.

Covering 320,000 square miles, the Chihuahua is the largest desert in North America. In fact, it is so vast that it accounts for 36% of the subcontinent’s desert area and passes through six Mexican states (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Durango, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosi) and two US states: New Mexico and Texas.

Although subject to extreme weather, the Chihuahua Desert is nevertheless one of the richest in biodiversity: over a hundred species of mammals and three hundred bird species live in the scorching daytime heat and freezing cold nights, and fish cichlids populate the wells. As though that weren’t enough, approximately four hundred of the world’s 1,500 known species of cactus reproduce there, along with more than seventy species of reptiles and amphibians.

The Mexican part of the desert in the state of Chihuahua is home to attractions such as the Nombre de Dios and Coyame grottoes, Copper Canyon, Pegüis Canyon, and the 800-foot Basaseachi Falls, the highest waterfall in México. If you decide to venture into this solitary area, remember that the best way to visit these paths, caves, and ravines is with a guide who knows the region well.

South American Dunes Coro Dunes, Venezuela

Precipitation: 8 – 10 inches annually.

If Chihuahua is the largest desert, then Venezuela’s Coro sand dunes are the smallest in the region. These desert, then dunes, which are constantly changing due to the wind, are located in Santa Ana de Coro, one of Venezuela’s oldest communities.

This desert’s main attraction is its proximity to Coro, a city founded in 1527 with a beautifully preserved historic center that was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993. You can stroll through the streets of Coro and visit its monuments and soon afterwards explore the desert landscape, which is popular with sandboarders.

The Coro sand dunes are part of a national park that is open to visitors from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and no permit is needed to enter.

Land of Seasoning Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

Precipitation: 7.5 inches annually.

Located in the department of Potosi in southern Bolivia, the Uyuni salt flats are an impressive 7,500-square mile plateau that formed when the ancient seas evaporated, leaving behind layers of salt up to thirty-two feet deep.

Photography enthusiasts love it for its blue and white light; the Uyuni flats are estimated to hold approximately 64,000 million tons of salt. The village of Colchani is located on the edge of the flats and the town’s inhabitants earn a living by mining the salt and demonstrating the process to the 60,000 tourists who visit each year.

The Salt Hotel located in the center of the Uyuni flats is one of its biggest attractions. Built from salt blocks, the hotel now serves as a museum. The Train Cemetery close to town features remnants of “industrial archeology” from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, objects that were once the protagonists of an industrial boom and now nothing more than curiosities for the nostalgic.

Among Spiders and Crickets Sarigua, Panama

Precipitation: 0.04 inches annually.

Sarigua, in central Panama, is the driest place in the country. It’s not really a desert, but rather an area undergoing desertification due primarily to human intervention, and also climatic factors.

Until a few years ago, the 5,000 square miles were covered in coastal forests. Through deforestation begun by settlers in the second half of the twentieth century, who needed the land for grazing, the land gradually transformed into a rocky landscape, except for the mangroves and an artificial lake created for shrimp farming.

Visitors to this desert say it’s wonderful. “The landscape at times seems like something painted in my imagination,” says a frequent visitor, who comes for the cool nights and the early morning light perfect for snapping pictures in Sarigua National Park. Because of the extreme erosion and strong winds, you’re more than likely to take a cricket or spider in the face, but even so, it’s a wonderful place to enjoy the silence, the lights, and what seems like infinite space.

Eleven thousand years ago, Sarigua was an important pre-Columbian settlement and ceramic objects and stone artifacts of great scientific interest are often found there.

All you’ll need for a visit is an adventurous spirit.

Dreamy Oasis Coastal desert, Perú

Precipitation: 6 inches annually.

Perú’s coastal desert is part of the larger Pacific desert, which includes territories in both Perú and Chile. The Peruvian part stretches from Piura in the north to Tacna and the Chilean border in the south.

The vast territory features a succession of mountains, plains, and dunes, and a coastline of sandy beaches and vertiginous cliffs. One of this desert’s greatest attractions is located in Ica: Huacachina Lagoon, an oasis surrounded by palm and carob trees that sprang up in the middle of sand dunes.

This emerald lagoon was once famous for its purportedly medicinal waters and Huacachina experienced another golden age in the 1940s. Although it’s not as glorious as it once was, the boardwalk facing the lagoon and the picturesque, colorful houses have retained their charm.

Aside from Huacachina, Ica boasts a number of other attractions, including the Ballestas Islands and the enigmatic Nazca Lines.

The Wayúu Desert La Guajira, Colombia

Precipitation: 15 inches annually.

La Guajira is one of the thirty-two departments of Colombia. Located on the country’s northern coast, the region is dry with an arid to semi-arid climate. It suffered a severe drought last year when the rains that normally fall between September and November never came. Luckily, the rains returned in early August this year.

Much of the population is indigenous, including the Wayúu people, who are the ancestral inhabitants of the Guajira Desert. Rain means life and renewal to them and the word Wayúu means “children of the rain.”

The Wayuu are known for their beautifully complex and brightly colored woven fabrics featuring representations of their entire cosmos: animals, plants, and stars.

In addition to the beautiful Wayúu handicrafts, La Guajira offers unrivaled attractions like the Cabo de la Vela beaches, the pyramidal La Teta and Pilón de Azúcar hills, the Los Flamencos Nature Reserve, Macuira National Park and a portion of the Sierra Nevada Santa Marta, as well as the Manaure salt flats, where salt extraction is an exciting attraction.