Peruvian Coastal Deserts - The Sechura and the Atacama by:Gary Sargent
Peru is a country of extremes, extremes in culture, language, history, architecture, flora, fauna and most noticeably, landscapes. Over half the country is Amazon Jungle, you have the spine of the mighty Andes mountains and finally the thin coastal strip of desert running the whole length of the country. Starting at the northern border in the Piura region the desert spreads out from the coast between 20 to 100 kilometers to the Andes mountains. This northern part is known as the Sechura Desert and runs just from the city of Piura to the Tumbes - Piura equatorial dry forests. The desert covers a total area of 188,735 square kilometers.
The Peruvians call only this northwestern portion of the coast the Sechura Desert while other sources, such as the World Wildlife Fund, consider the Sechura Desert to be the entire land mass of coastal desert from the most northwestern part of Peru connecting to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The coastal area of southern Peru below Nazca is considered to be part of the Atacama Desert by the National Geographic Society, so definitions vary, but the sand doesn't!
The Sechura Desert in the North is relatively wet and vegetated compared to the Atacama which is reputed (by NASA) to be the driest place on the planet. In 1998 the climatic phenomenon known as El Nino, which originate along this coast and affects weather patterns around the world periodically, cause unusually heavy rains making rivers bordering the desert to burst their banks and empty into the Sechura desert, forming the second largest body of water in Peru after Lake Titicaca. This freshwater lake was 90 miles long, 20 miles wide and 10 feet deep, with occasional domes of sand and clay appearing above the surface. Shrubs and scrub still continue to cover large portions of the desert as a result.
Due to the environmental effects of the nearby Pacific Ocean, the Sechura Desert has a very low temperature range. However, it is one of the most arid on the Earth because of cold coastal waters and subtropical atmospheric subsidence. During the summer months of December through March, the temperature ranges from 25C to 38C, with the average being over 24C. During the winter months, the weather is cloudy and cool with temperatures ranging from 16C during the night and 24C during the day.
Human settlements have been able to develop in the Sechura Desert due the many short rivers that cross it coming down from the glaciers and rains in the Andes. One early urban culture was the Moche which ate guinea pigs, fish, peanuts and squash and built huge mud brick cities, the largest of which still survives in part, Chan Chan near the city of Trujillo. Around 800 to 1300 A.D the Sicas succeeded the Moche and were known for their lost wax casting of gold which were greatly prized by the Spanish Conquistadors.
More than 1,500 miles of desert continues south until the Sechura Desert reaches the Atacama Desert belonging to Chile and Peru. This land is extremely barren with a few rocky brown hills but was also home to ancient civilizations such as the Nazca with their impressive Nazca Lines, aquaducts and mud cities.
West of the Andes Mountains in the South of Peru and into Chile, covering a 600 mile strip of land on the Pacific coast, is the Atacama Desert. It gets very little rain as it is on the downwind side of the mountains. It is therefore one of the driest deserts in the world and covers an area of over 40,000 square miles made up primarily of sand, salt basins (called Salars) and lava flows. The area is littered with geysers and tourism has built up around 4x4 trips over the desert, with a number of luxury lodges and spas being built and this "otherworldly" landscape is sure to continue to draw visitors from all over the world.
About the author
Gary Sargent is the Managing Director of the tour companies Escaped to Peru and has lived in South America since 1998. Gary is passionate about life here, the people, customs and places. Visit Gary's website http://www.escapedtoperu.com for more Peru travel advice or to book your next Peru vacation.