Unique flowering desert now in bloom


By Marc Killinger

All signs point to an extravagant display of northern Chile’s unique flowering desert phenomenon this year, thanks to higher than average winter rainfall in the extremely dry Atacama Desert. Travelers to Chile’s Region III and IV between now and mid-October will get to experience the peace and silence of a carpet of green, flecked with multi-colored flowers spreading away to the normally sandy, rocky horizon.

The phenomenon, which in the last two decades has been seen in 1983, ’87, ’91 and ’97, takes place when usually dormant flower bulbs, seeds and roots are soaked over a sufficiently long period of time with enough water to stir them from slumber.

«The important thing is that it rained this year in such a well spaced manner,» said Roberto Alegria, a teacher and guide, «so the bulbs were better able to absorb the water. Now most are emerging, and there are incredible colors on the hills.»

The colorful carpet of vegetation covers hundred of kilometers of the area known in Chile as Norte Chico, an area of transition from the rainier Mediterranean climate further south to the super dry Atacama Desert north of Copiapo in Region II. Norte Chico received some 80-mm of rain this season, versus average rainfall of 20 mm in Copiapo, 133 mm in La Serena and 400 mm in Valparaiso, which is on the coast roughly in line with Santiago, 775 km south of Copiapo. This area generally boasts cactus, low bushes and some flower and herb growth in the spring.

The flowering desert spreads along the Pacific Ocean, where the modest coast range reaches 1,214 m (4,000 feet) at Infiernillo (Little Hell) Hill near Vallenar. It starts around Caldera and Bahia Inglesa (English Bay) near the Region III capital of Copiapo and goes south through Vallenar all the way to sub-desert La Serena and Elqui Valley area.

One of the best areas to see it is to take a circle drive west from Vallenar to the coast at Huasco and then north to Carrizal Bajo. From Vallenar take Rt. C-46 west down the Huasco River Valley, where about halfway, or at km 28, olive tree orchards will accompany you to the sea. Huasco, with a population of about 6,000, is a fishing port and beach resort that, while it has been a port since colonial times, was largely destroyed in a 1922 earthquake. It is reachable by bus and has modest lodgings (US$9 to US$24, higher in summer) and seafood restaurants.

From Huasco take the paved and then sand road north to the tiny fishing town of Carrizal Bajo, whose nearby beaches are excellent for summertime camping. This was the most important mining port in the area in the 19th century. The area’s highlight is the new (since 1994) Llanos de Challe National Park. This as yet undeveloped park, which has a coastal section just south of Carrizal and an inland section southeast of town, and is a refuge for the glorious and nearly extinct «Garra de Leon» flower, a member of the alstroemeria family.

Head east from here back to the Pan-American Highway and Vallenar, a town of 45,000 inhabitants founded in 178 by Spanish governor Ambrosio O’Higgins midway between the ocean and the Andes mountain range. The town hosts a small Huasco (traditional, rural cowboy) museum open all year. The best restaurant in town is thought to be the Hostal de Vallenar, just seven blocks from the plaza at Alonso de Ercilla 848, phone 52-614538, also a three-star hotel.