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How to Survive the Driest Place on Earth

June 8, 2016

ISEP student Jason S. is a part of ISEP Voices Spring 2016. He is a digital video production major from Ball State University, and is currently studying abroad at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile.

Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert on Earth. With a landscape so similar to that of Mars, NASA and other space exploration organizations have used Atacama as a testing site for new Mars rovers. This region averages .6 inches of rainfall per year. Though a wildly popular tourist destination, the radical climate and landscape is not an ideal place for those that are used to places with regular humidity and a lower altitude. To survive a visit to a place such as Atacama, you’re going to need to take a few things into consideration.

Sunscreen

As with most deserts, the sun is intense. In a place with so little precipitation and moisture in the air, clouds are not typically present to block out the sun. Sunscreen and sunglasses will make your visit a little bit more enjoyable!

Clothes for both warm and cold weather

I had a visitor here in Chile, whom I had take a bunch of my clothes and belongings home to avoid lugging it around on my travels afterward. I may have acted slightly too fast on this decision, as you can expect to experience both winter and summer temperatures in one day. While we were there, the temperatures averaged in the high 70s during peak daylight and upper 40s at night. While this in itself is a drastic difference, it becomes more of an issue when you do some of Atacama’s excursions, one of which included leaving at 5 a.m. to ascend a mountain to El Tatio Geyser, 4,320 meters above sea level. Up on top of the mountains when the temperature was in the lower 30s was when I really regretted not bringing a heavy winter coat, hat and gloves.

Lotion

All of my friends asked me to use some of my lotion because of how dry the desert had made their skin on this trip of only four days. While my skin is extremely sensitive and my eczema can breakout at any moment, these were people without sensitive skin talking. Nothing could have prepared me for how fast my skin would go downhill here. Within two days, I had several cracks on my hands; I had a red rash all over my neck, chest, shoulders, arms and face; my eyelids crusting over in my sleep and I was forced to carry lotion with me everywhere I went. Let’s just say I was actually eager to get home, where my skin didn’t even have a trace of these things within two days.

Water

With the Atacama Desert being at an already high altitude, and many excursions climbing to much higher altitudes, plenty of water is an absolute must, especially in the driest place on Earth. The key to avoiding sickness is making sure you are drinking enough water (coca leaves help, as well). One person from our group was bound to the hostel for two days from altitude sickness. Water is readily available in three-liter jugs in most stores in town. Stay hydrated!

What to Expect

The desert has a million diverse and gorgeous landscapes to look at. From looking like you are on Mars, to exploring their lagoons, salt flats, geysers, places void of plant life, to ones littered in shrubbery, Atacama does not disappoint. Any stargazer would dream of visiting Atacama, as it has one of the most unpolluted and clearest night skies in the world! It is also home to the Giant Magellan Telescope, ten times stronger than NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

The desert in Chile.
The desert in Chile.

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