The Atacama area has a desert-like climate, with big differences of temperature between day and night, and summer rains which do not surpass 100 millimeters per year. The main water sources are the San Pedro and Vilama rivers. The area's chief geographic element is the Solar de Atacama, occupying a surface 100 kilometers long by 80 km. wide. The salt mine is a result of the surfacing of underground waters saturated with mineral salts which, on evaporating, leave a crust rich in salts and minerals. The rivers, fed by the Andean snows, irrigate the area allowing the configuration of numerous oasis. This is the scenario where the Atacama culture developed.
The first people to inhabit the Atacama area arrived at the place by the year 10,000 B.C., at a time when the area had large lakes and mighty rivers on account of the end of the glacial era. Evidences from the first archaic hunters in the region show that they hunted wild camelidae and rodents, that they used stone artifacts and lived a nomadic life in natural eaves and caves. Later on, high concentrations of wild camelidae and the exploitation of vegetable products made possible for these people the adoption of a semi-sedentary and migrating way of life. During autumn and winter, these groups collected the fruits of the alparrobos and chadares growing in the oasis, while in early summer, they climbed up to the high plateau for hunting camalidae and picking obsidian. Culture prospered during this stage: the first tombs found are circular cavities demarcated with stones which date back to 4,000 years BC; they contained bent bodies laying on their sides, sometimes accompanied with grinding mortars.
The Atacama people turned definitively sedentary during the second millennium BC, when they began growing food -particularly maize- and domesticating camelidae. The breeding of the llama was their main activity; this animal provided them with wool, meat and excrement for fuei and for fertilizing their fields. Textiles and ceramics appeared at this stage; the latter consist in cylindrical containers of red polished clay, decorated with anthropomorphic motifs. Later on, a new style of pottery resulted in a black ceramic engraved with geometrical motifs. Mining, particularly of copper, was important for providing a product of exchange with far-away regions.
During this stage, power was held by some prominent Atacama men who displayed their status by means of their axes, necklaces of semi-precious stones, hats with feathers, and fine textiles. Different landmarks of daily life, such as demises, crops, the arrival of llamas caravans, the mating of cattle, etc., gave occasion to festivities during which maize or carob liquor was drank and tobacco from the northeast of Argentina was smoked in pipes. Special importance within religious life -dominated by the figure of the chaman-, had the use of hallucinating drugs, for which several sorts of tablets and tubes, richly adorned, were used. The deceased were buried in funeral bales: the bodies were shrouded with their clothing, wrapped up like a parcel.
The first Atacama farmers built villages like that of Tulor. Located 10 kilometers to the southeast of San Pedro, it has circular adobe houses crowded together, with conical roofs supported by poles.
The Atacama culture, developing the aforementioned features, reaches its classical phase during the first seven centuries of the Christian era. Part of this phase developed under the influx of the Tiwanaku culture, influx that lasted between the years 400 to 1200 AD. This important ceremonial center, through the direct contact establisted by caravans transporting exchange products, strongly transmitted its conception of the worid to the Atacama people, giving origin to changes in the most diverse spheres. The main symbolic figures of the Tiwanahu cult, the feline and the condor, appear on objects of social significance, as the many-colored tunics worn by prominent men, the ceremonial containers of llama bones, and the tablets for hallucinating drugs. The use of ceremonial vases and gold adornments is another symbol of status.
By the year 1450, the Atacama culture passed into the dominion of the Inca empire. Thus, the cult to the sun and the high summits is enforced upon the people of the area. Ceramics registers the new political reality, and expresses itself in the typical Inca aribalos. The Inca influx improved metallurgy among the Atacama people, and also architecture. From this epoch are defensive construction like the Pukara de Quitor, and the village of Catarpe, administrative center built in stone and mud, from which the taxation on behalf of the empire was organized.
In 1540, the Atacama people make contact with the Spanish conquistadores who, after defeating them in the military order, settle in the area and establish Encomiendes de Indios (land and native inhabitants granted to a conquistador), parish and civil administration. The evangelization of the Atacama people succeeded in tu rni ng Ch ristian ity into a value of their own , thus giving rise to an Andean Catholicism lasting to the present day. The Hispanic urban pattern and architecture, combining the Spanish contribution and native techniques, have also survived.
The main landmark is the local church, built at the beginning of the XVIII century, after the destruction of the older one. Of a cross-like ground plan, its nave is 41 meters long by 7.50 wide. It is of stone and adobe. The roof framework is of local woods: chahar and alpanrobo, and the ceiling is made of small cactus boards, covered with mud and straw. The characteristic element of the indoors ornamentation is the reredos behind the high altar, of carved stone, displaying beautiful sacred images. The bell tower, of adobe, was recently rebuilt due to the destruction of the former ones. It is built on top of a stoutly volume attached to the building, and has an outdoors staircase.
Around the town of San Pedro, there are 12 ayllus, territoriai, productive and social units, typical of the traditional organizing way of the Atacama people. On the whole, the town comprises approximately 1,700 hectares. Its inhabitants live on agriculture -alfalfa, maize and fruit trees- and on shepherding -camelidae, goats and sheep.