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The Atacama desert, which occupies 181,300 square kilometers (70,000 mi²) in northern Chile, is one of the driest places on Earth. A high plateau covering a 966 km (600 mi) strip of land on the Pacific coast of South America, it is blocked from moisture on both sides, by the Andes mountains on the East and by the Chilean Coast Range on the West and is composed mostly of salt flats, sand, and volcanic peaks and lava flows.

It is sparsely populated. In an oasis, in the middle of the desert, at about 2000 meters elevation, lies the village of San Pedro de Atacama. Its church was built by the Spanish in 1577. In pre-Hispanic times, before the Inca empire, the extremely arid interior was inhabited mainly by the Atacameño tribe. The tribe is noted for the construction of fortified towns called pucara(s), some of them continue to exist today just a few kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama.

The volcanoes that crown the Atacama Desert are among the tallest on earth and their summits used to be sacred sanctuaries for the ancient Incas. Symmetrical Licancabur, at 5916m, is one of the most conspicuous and is a constant presence on the horizon.

The desert is so dramatic that, at first sight, it appears never to have sustained any life. However, pink Flamingos together with Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos and many other species of fauna and flora live in the many oases and lakes of the area.

The desert has rich deposits of copper and other minerals, and the world's largest natural supply of sodium nitrate, which was mined on a large scale until the early 1940s. The Atacama border dispute over these resources between Chile and Bolivia began in the 1800s. Now the desert is littered with approximately 170 abandoned nitrate (or "saltpeter") mining towns, almost all of which were shut down decades after the invention of synthetic nitrate.

A number of Chilean national parks are contained within the Atacama desert and the Pan American Highway (from Prudhoe Bay, United States, to Ushuaia, Argentina) runs through it.

0-calama
1-san pedro
2-valle de la muerte
3-valle del luna
4-salar de atacama
5-altiplano
6-el tatio
7-pueblos andinos

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