In 1831 the French naturalist Claudio Gay headed north to see the flowering desert himself. Nevertheless, it was impossible due to the drought that took place that year. Only in 1840 was he capable to do so, when the desert awoke from its long lethargy and bloomed with all its splendour.
By Raúl Céspedes Valenzuela, museologist at Museo Regional de Atacama.
Words like “desert” and flower” in the same phrase may sound like and oxymoron. And they are, for the flowering desert is a completely unusual phenomenon for the Atacama Desert. The arid landscape turns into a unique scenario covered with stunning colors. It starts in July and August, manifesting itself like a green blanket, and it reaches a multicolor range in September, when flowers, insects, and other animals occupy large extensions of the region of Atacama.
The Flowering Desert occurs when occasional rain causes many latent seeds and bulbs to bloom, giving birth to a variety of plants and multicolored flowers. With them, a number of insects, birds, and lizards proliferate and create a special ecosystem, where all the elements of nature coexist as long as the weather conditions allow it. After this, the seeds go back to a latent stage until the next rain season.
This natural phenomenon allows visitors to witness a unique outlook, with numerous species that otherwise would remain invisible. The flowering desert does not occur every year, having taken place so far in 1983, 1987, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and fortunately, this year.
Currently, the flowering desert extends from the south of the region of Antofagasta until the north of the region of Coquimbo, with special prominence in places like Chañaral Cove (Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve) and Chunchungo Cove. It features flowers like pata de guanaco (guanaco paw), suspiro de campo (country sigh), and mountain añañuca, along with other species that form a real vegetational carpet.
The most spectacular sights are located north of Vallenar, both in the central and coastal areas like Huasco, Carrizal Bajo, Totoral, and Caldera. Other amazing spots are Llanos de Challe National Park and the northwest of Vallenar, both of which are natural habitats of great biological diversity. There are several endemic species like Garra de León (Leontochir Ovallei) and multiple cacti.
The beautiful Garra de León, belonging to the genus of Peruvian Lylies, can be found in coastal areas, along with cacti like Copiapoa cactus, a grayish species that forms vegetal cushions. Not all flowers bloom at the same time, they develop in different stages (September or October), changing the general shade of the desert accordingly.