Right between Chile and Peru rests a relatively unknown desert known as the Atacama. Although it’s not exactly what you would call tiny (its area is over 41,000 square miles), it is not as well known as the Mojave or the Sahara. Even so, the Atacama has a certain claim to fame which often gets mistakenly attributed to the Sahara – it is the driest desert in the world.
Actually, that’s not true. If we are going to be specific about this, it is the driest non-polar desert in the world. This does actually need to be specified. Even though some people might see it as a cheat, the poles are technically deserts. Really, the definition of a desert simply states that it is a barren region that sees very little precipitation. That’s why the poles are referred to as “cold deserts”. It doesn’t say anywhere that a desert must be scorching hot and full of sand dunes, although this is the image most of us conjure up whenever we think of one. Therefore, the driest place on Earth actually is Antarctica. It has a region called the Dry Valleys which hasn’t seen rain in millions of years.
Getting back to the Atacama, it is still an incredibly dry place which can see fewer than 0.04 inches of rainfall in a year in certain areas. Unlike the poles, this desert lacks access to glacial waters. So in that respect, the Atacama is a more arid place than the poles, and one which cannot support life throughout most of area. This is in spite of the fact that the Atacama is situated next to the Pacific Ocean, the biggest body of water on the planet. The main reason why this desert is so dry is its placement – it is located between two mountain chains which prevent moisture from collecting over the desert.
The Atacama Desert challenges a lot of misconceptions that people have about deserts. For starters, it can get pretty cold. We all have this image of the hot Sun scorching the desert, but at night these places lose their heat very fast. Temperatures can get as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
Atacama packs another surprise: snow. Since it’s situated way above sea level, Atacama features snow-dusted peaks that climb way above 20,000 feet. This is made all the more dramatic during altiplano winter, a relatively rare phenomenon where cold fronts from the Antarctic bring inches of snow with them.