The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is famous for being the driest place on earth. The average annual rainfall is 15mm (0.6in). Some locations, such as Arica and Iquique, average only 1 to 3mm (0.04 to 0.12in) per year. Periods of up to four years have been registered with no rainfall in the central sector, delimited by the cities of Antofagasta, Calama and Copiapó, in Chile. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.
The Atacama may well be the oldest desert on earth. Its aridity is explained by it being situated between two mountain chains (the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range) and being of high enough altitude to prevent moisture entering from either the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans. Atacama has experienced extreme hyperaridity for at least 3 million years, making it the oldest continuously arid region on earth. The landscapes created by these conditions give the impression you are on Mars, which is probably why NASA tested its Martian rovers in the Atacama.
The Atacama covers an expansive area of 105,000 square kilometres (41,000 sq mi). The diverse landscape is made up of mostly salt lakes, sand dunes, and stony terrain. Film locations of particular interest include Death Valley Dunes, Los Flamencos National Reserve, El Tatio geysers, Coyote Lookout, Valley of the Moon, the colourful cliffs of Rainbow Valley, the lithium mines of Salar de Atacama, and the town of San Pedro.
Camanchaca is a dense fog that rolls in from the coast. Fog collection nets are used to produce running water for desert villages.
Photographing the night sky is another draw of Atacama. April through September are the best months for clear skies to see the Milky Way, Jupiter and Saturn. For the darkest of skies aim to shoot during a Lunar Eclipse.
Atacama hosts the largest astronomical project in existence, Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a single telescope composed of 66 high-precision antennas.
The Paranal Observatory located on the mountains of Cerro Paranal is home to the Very Large Telescope (VLT). The location appeared in Quantum of Solace.
The Pan-American Highway that cuts through the Atacama is a stunning and unique location to film car commercials.
The Atacama is sparsely populated. In interior areas, oases and some valleys have been populated for millennia and were the location of the most advanced Pre-Columbian societies found in Chile. Today the Atacama is home to interesting people, such as Mane, a shaman who heals with water.
A week-long foot race called the Atacama Crossing takes place in October.
Some parts of the desert are so arid, no plant or animal life can survive. Outside of these extreme areas you can find a variety of fauna. The once endangered Vicuñas (cousins of the Llama) who’s slow growing coats are spun into some of the most expensive wool in the world, are found in this part of the world. The Atacama is also home to flamingos, viscacha, gray and culpeo foxes, desert wasps, and red scorpions.
A rich variety of over 500 flora species have evolved to live within the border of Atacama.
Getting There & Staying
San Pedro (The main inland village) is located 1670 km north of Santiago de Chile. To get there, first you need to fly to Calama. From there San Pedro (98 km) is connected by an excellent highway.
Lan Chile Airlines and Sky Airlines run five daily flights from Santiago during the weekdays and three on the weekend. The cheapest round trip tickets cost around 90,000 pesos (USD130). To get them you have to buy your ticket at least four days before the flight starts and a Saturday must be included in your stay.
Tierra Atacama is a boutique hotel on the edge of San Pedro.
Chile Production Support & Crew
Contact us if you are looking for production support for your shoot in Atacama, Chile. Our locally based fixers and producers will be able to arrange all of your film location permitting and other production requirements. If you would like to save money and work with locally based shooting crew, we have directors, DoP’s, videographers, cameramen and photographers based in Santiago.