>>>Atacama bursts into bloom
Foto: ©Turismo Chile

Atacama bursts into bloom

After the storm, come the flowers. Once every five years, one of the driest parts of the planet is totally transformed by a rare climatic phenomenon.
“Heard is the brittle sound of living salt, only salt marshes: the sun is broken glass in the vacant expanse and the dying earth has a dry and muffled sound of salt that moans.” Pablo Neruda’s verses about the Atacama Desert define one of the most arid places on Earth. Occasionally, the empty salt marsh depicted by the Chilean poet turns into a carpet of flowers thanks to a climatic phenomenon that only occurs in the wake of a perfect storm. Perfect because a series of factors need to come together and this doesn’t happen every year.
Atacama is a region with intense mining activity.
Foto: Guillermo Andre via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Apart from the flowers

Even if it is a dry year, there are many other marvels to enjoy in Atacama. Next to the coast you can visit Totoral, Travesía, Carrizal Bajo and the area surrounding the Port of Huasco. A good option for a year when the flowers are feeling shy.

The temperature needs to be low, but not freezing, and the rainfall needs to have been heavy. This happens when El Niño alters the usual rainfall patterns, giving the seeds and bulbs buried in the ground the moisture they need to bloom. They can lie dormant for years and years, waiting for their moment to bloom, survivors adapted to a hostile environment.
The Atacama region covers a surface area of 75,000 km2 and the flowering desert phenomenon takes place in the coastal area, about 800km from Santiago, the capital of Chile. What makes this natural carpet really special is that it only appears every five or six years. One of the first times the phenomena was recorded was back in 1840, when the naturalist Claudio Gay travelled north to see the spectacle. He was repeating the trip he had made in 1831, though on this first occasion he wasn’t as lucky.
Very occasionally, the flowering occurs twice in the same year. Apart from the burst of flower in September-November, it repeats in April and May.
Foto: ©Turismo Chile

Look after the seeds

Follow only marked paths, Do not touch the plants, throw litter and drive your car over the meadows. All rules aimed at reducing the footprint visitors leave on this, under which lie its great treasure, the seeds.

So far this century, the five-year trend has been reduced to two or three dormant years, but the 2015 flowering was one of the most breathtaking ever recorded, especially in the areas near Route 5, next to Llanos de Castilla and Pajaritos. Between the months of September and November, the yellow sand gave way to pink, purple and yellow flowers. In all, more than 200 plant species bloomed, among them Rhodophiala rhodolirion, Hedge bindweed, Glory of the sun, Bomarea ovallei, Cristaria glaucophylla. And they all manage to attract a high amount of fauna that at other times would have no chance of surviving. Reptiles, birds and insects all come to share the habitat with the temporary flowers of the desert.
During the hottest months, the temperature in Atacama can reach 45 ºC.
Away from this coastal –and occasionally flowering– part of Atacama, throughout the rest of the year the Chilean desert also gives off a different type of colour, but without long seasons of natural lethargy. The contrast between the different hues of the minerals to be found here has earned Atacama the nickname ‘the desert of colours’. Green copper oxide, white calcium carbonate and red clay all combined to create a palette that is completed with the phenomenon of the flowering desert –even if it does only happen every five years.

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