Why the Atacama Salt Flats are like nowhere else on Earth

By Jill Krasny
January 02, 2018, 5:33:02 PM EST

salt desert

(Photo/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In northern Chile, a short drive south from the local capital of San Pedro, you'll find one of the world’s most alluring treasures: the Atacama Salt Flats. One of the driest areas in the world — so dry it hardly sees more than 1 mm of rainfall in an entire year — it’s also one of the most conflicted, due its history and unforgiving environment.

The Andes mountains borders it on the east while to the west lies a secondary mountain range, Cordillera de Domeyko. There are also volcanoes, including the Aguas Calientes, Acamarachi and the Lincancabur. The salt flats were the site (and much of the cause) of the War of the Pacific, also called the Saltpeter War. During this time, Chile obtained most of the valuable mineral-rich territory desired by Bolivia and Peru, which went on to shape much of Bolivia’s economic identity and wedged Chile between the borders of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.

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Still, there is astounding beauty in this remote desert. The Valle de Luna, or Moon Valley, lives up to its name with an extraterrestrial appearance that has inspired onlookers for centuries. And while you may be tempted to look downward, the night skies are as wondrous as the sand thanks to the absence of light pollution, arid climate and high altitude. No wonder the European Southern Observatory maintains two astronomical bases here: Paranal Observatory and La Silla Observatory.

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