It defies all logic that one of Earth’s most barren and monotone corners could morph into prismatic fields of flowers.
Yet that’s exactly what happens in Chile’s Atacama Desert when rare winter rains awaken the dormant seeds of endemic perennials. Suddenly, the world’s driest (non-polar) desert morphs into a florid pallet of pinks, periwinkles, ambers and golds – almost like a Monet painting come to life.
This sporadic phenomenon is known as the desierto florido (or flowering desert), and it occurs in the austral spring (mid-September to mid-November). Vast carpets of color change gradient by the day as some of the more than 200 species of flowers wither away and others with longer germination periods pop anew.
This “flowering desert” used to be a rare event, occurring, on average, every five to 10 years. Yet, as one of climate change’s few silver linings, rains along the Atacama’s southern fringe are increasingly common, meaning it’s now possible to see at least some flowers in the Llanos and Chañarcillo sectors almost every year.
A new national park
Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced last October that he would create a new national park, Parque Nacional Desierto Florido, to protect the ephemeral biodiversity of this otherwise desiccated landscape. The 141,000-acre reserve will be one of just six in the northern half of Chile, whose 44 national parks lie mostly in remote corners of Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America.
Parque Nacional Desierto Florido should open later this year. It lies about 20 miles south of the city of Copiapó, which is known to tourists as a gateway to both Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces (a flamingo-filled park on the Andean plateau) and Ojos del Salado (the world’s highest volcano).
Details of just what exactly the park will entail remain scarce. Yet it’s hoped that it can lure more year-round visitors to the lesser-visited wonders of the southern Atacama, about 500 miles south of the more popular resort town of San Pedro de Atacama, which draws almost all international tourists. Like San Pedro, Copiapó is a launchpad for adventures to salt flats, volcanoes and high Andean lagoons. The area is also a haven for stargazing and mountaineering, and is close to the Atacama’s most beautiful beaches at Bahía Inglesa, whose sheltered coves offer ideal conditions for a dip in the desert.
Creating the new park was necessary, the government said, because tens of thousands of tourists travel from across Chile to view the short-lived floral spectacle. Before the designation, zero regulations were in effect – which meant that busloads of visitors often drove right over the flower beds, gathered plants as souvenirs and camped directly atop them, damaging the fragile ecosystem.
A lifeline in the desert
The Atacama is sandwiched between the vast Pacific Ocean and towering Andes, both of which shield it from receiving much precipitation. When it does rain, typically in the winter (and almost always in this southerly quadrant), the subsequent blooms act as a lifeline for local fauna.
Each event has a strong impact on the desert’s ecology, with a sharp increase in insects and birds, as well as colocolo wild cats, lizards, foxes and guanacos (feral cousins of the domesticated llama). By creating a national park, the government can ensure that these animals have access to the land and are not deterred by the swarms of visitors.
Kati Muñoz, a Chilean biologist and co-creator of Lugares Bonitos de Chile, toured the most recent super bloom in both September and October of 2022, watching as it morphed from single-colored patches to multihued fields of flowers over the course of several weeks. She says it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – yet it saddened her to see all the trash left behind by visitors, as well as the lack of safeguards for the land.
“A park could help protect this unique natural phenomenon as well as all of the species that depend on it, which include not only the endemic flowers but also the pollinators, the animals and the entire ecosystem,” she says. “My hope is that it can create parameters for visitors and trails for them to walk on so that they can contemplate…nature while at the same time protecting it.”