It’s already a well-established fact among tourists who’ve visited Chile: the moonscapes, international observatories, snow-capped volcanoes, oases, flamingos and periodic flowering of Chile’s northern deserts have a mystique that is without comparison anywhere in the world.
But hidden among the rock and sand there is an even greater curiosity that manages to go largely undiscovered by international travelers – ancient rock carvings and enormous geoglyphs carved out of the very desert earth.
Llamas, eagles, sharks, lines, designs and strange figures: the art of Chile’s ancient desert inhabitants is every bit as as intriguing as it is varied.
Dating to pre-Columbian cultures as far back as AD 600 and continuing right up to Christian-influenced inhabitants of the 16th century, the geoglyphs can be found in complete isolation on lone desert hills, or in vast panoramas of up to 50 figures stretching across valley floors.
The sheer number of these massive earthworks is staggering; it’s estimated that around 5,000 have been discovered, but with more turning up all the time, the real number can only be guessed at.
As recently as 2010 hundreds of gigantic figures made from stone and only visible from the air were discovered near Calama in Chile’s far north. It is thought that the figures could date back as far as 1500 years.
And while speculation is endless, what has become known about their purpose is just as fascinating. Some were made as sites of mountain worship while others were used in helping vast trade networks traverse some of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth, and link some of the great civilizations of South America.
Below is a list of just a few of the remote wonders to help get you started.
The massive rock carvings of Ofragia can be seen at 6 kilometers from the nearest town of Codpa, 71 miles (114 km) south of Arica.
Dating back to around AD 1000 to 1500, the petroglyphs of Ofragia are a testament to the role this desert oasis played in a trade network that stretched to the Inca capital of Cuzco.
Due to its fresh water springs, unique climate and unusual fertility, the area is still an important center for the cultivation of exotic fruits, such as guavas and white pears, and contains many picturesque villages.
Take the Panamerican Highway south from Arica until you come to Route A35, which runs east to the Codpa Valley.
The Lluta Valley geoglyphs are the highlight of a river valley that formed a vital trade route for the ancient culture of Tiwanaku, which had its capital near Lake Titicaca in Peru.
The geoglyphs are between 100 and 200 feet (30 to 60 meters) wide and include an enormous eagle, a bird figure and various human forms.
The valley can be explored by horseback, mountain bike or on foot, and contains hundreds of other rock carvings, as well as a flourishing and unique eco-system.
It is located 24 miles (38 km) northwest of Arica.
The Atacama Giant
Alone among the rocky deserts north of the town of Huara, 47 miles (75 km) by road northeast of Iquique, the Atacama Giant is one of the most striking figures in Chile’s deserts.
At a height of 390 foot (119 meters), the geoglyph is the largest prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world, and dates somewhere between the years AD 1000 to 1400.
The figure possibly represented an astronomical calendar used to determine dates and crop cycles.
A guide is recommended to help explain the significance of the figure.
A more accessible, but by no means less interesting option is the tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama.
This charming little desert town is considered the archaeological capital of Chile, and is home to the RP Gustavo Le Paige SJ Archaeological Research Institute and Museum, which contains an impressive range of ancient artifacts and cultural items.
Travelers can also sample the living indigenous culture of San Pedro de Atacama with the area’s ethno-tourism travel agencies, run by local families.