The History of the Atacama Desert


In so vacant a landscape as the Atacama, visitors on Chile tours to this desert will be surprised to learn that the region has a tumultuous history dating back thousands of years. As a species, humans have been making their imprint on the Atacama Desert since ancient times. Visitors may view pre-Columbian rock drawings if they travel to the Atacama during their Chile tours, some dating back over 2,000 years.


Saline minerals are found throughout the Atacama Desert, the dry air and lack of vegetation allowing them to collect on the surface of the land. Though the region also contains precious metals including copper, silver and gold, it made its name in potassium nitrate. The boom in nitrate mining brought the railroads and development, turning the region into a center of culture and commerce by the second half of the nineteenth century. The Atacama’s wealthy past is visible today to visitors on Chile tours to the coastal city of Iquique. Here on the Plaza Aturo Plat stands the lavish Casino Espanol, a social club built in 1904, and the elegant Teatro Municipal where opera legends such as Enrico Caruso used to perform on tour.  

Where there is an abundance of natural resources, there is usually a clash over territory. The four-year War of the Pacific, lasting from 1879 to 1883, pitted Chile against Peru and Bolivia. It was primarily a border skirmish, precipitated by the Bolivian government’s takeover of a Chilean-operated nitrate mining operation. The move proved a disastrous policy for Bolivia. In losing the war, borders were shifted. It lost more or less all of its territory north of Antofogasta, and most importantly, its access to the sea.

From the middle of the 19th century until Germany developed a synthetic substitute, nitrates had represented a significant source of revenue, at one time totaling half of Chile’s exports and a major source of materials for munitions during World War I. Out of the industry’s bust came political change fomented by the laying off of thousands of Atacama miners as the industry dwindled to practically nothing by the 1930s. It was here that the Chilean workers’ rights movement was born, seeking better wages and working conditions. When the jobs dried up and workers moved on to seek jobs elsewhere, they took their new philosophy with them, spreading unrest.

Abandoned by the mining companies, some of the facilities took on a new use after the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973. It was to the Atacama that Allende’s successor, dictator Augusto Pinochet, sent political prisoners for interrogation and detention. Visitors on Chile tours will see memorials erected to the victims as well as other remnants of this violent period in the Atacama, including the cemetery of the coastal town of Pisagua where relatives still dig in the sand for the remains of loved ones.

Famed Argentine/Chilean writer, Ariel Dorman, wrote a collection of essays, Desert Memories, Journeys through the Chilean North (1994) about the history of the Atacama that would make fascinating reading during your Chile tours to the Atacama.