Desierto florido

Rains bring promise of “desert in bloom” in northern Chile

The natural phenomenon converts rocks, sand and cacti of the Atacama Desert into a blossoming cornucopia of wildflowers. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 Category: Tourism
The “desert in bloom” is expected to occur in 2011, beginning in August. (Photo by Adiction [Camila The “desert in bloom” is expected to occur in 2011, beginning in August. (Photo by Adiction [Camila Gallo G.]/Flickr)

The unusual showers and snow flurries in northern Chile are priming the conditions for a spectacular “desert in bloom,” a legendary phenomenon in the world’s driest desert that occurs when precipitation levels exceed the region’s normal rainfall.

The desert does not bloom every year, which is part of the reason for the phenomenon’s sensational popularity with flora-minded tourists throughout Chile and the world. In light of this year’s storms, however, the phenomenon is indeed expected, and tourist agencies are already readying their services for the expected influx of visitors to the Atacama Desert.

The desert flowers when an especially rainy year brings to life an explosion of dormant seeds and bulbs. But “especially rainy” is a relative term: this year, the northern desert city of Arica received about ten times the average yearly rainfall - 0.13 inches (3.4 mm) of rain.

The phenomenon usually occurs between August and September, and may extend into November (mid-Spring). There are an estimated 200 varieties of flowers that grow in the Atacama sands, including añañucas - the mythical explanation of the flowering desert - as well as lilies, and a host of yellow, purple, and pink wildflowers, transforming hundreds of miles of desert into a carpet of flowers.

Environmentalists are eager to see if the desert was affected by the recent Dakar Rally that raced through the Atacama Desert in January. Some were worried that the off-road race may have damaged the bulbs and seeds lying underground, although event organizers took extra steps to make the race the “greenest in history.”

When to go: Travel north during late September or early October to witness the full majesty of this natural phenomenon.

Where to go: Take advantage of the trip by visiting some of the area’s major tourist attractions like San Pedro de Atacama, the Tara Salt Flat, the Los Flamencos Natural Reserve near Calama, or the lovely seaside city of La Serena.

What to do: The best way to take in the beauty of the flowering desert is on the trails around the Valle de la Luna, near San Pedro de Atacama. Don’t forget your camera, but leave the bike at home; bicycling is restricted to protect the delicate soil while the desert is in bloom.

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