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Calama, Chile

Calama is a city and commune in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It is the capital of El Loa Province, part of the Antofagasta Region. Calama is one of the driest cities in the world with average annual precipitation of just 5 mm (0.2 inches). The River Loa, Chile's longest, flows through the city. Calama has a population of 143,000 (2005 census).

The commune also encompasses the Quechuas communities of Estacion San Pedro, Toconce and Cupo; and the Lickan-antay communities of Taira, Conchi Viejo, Lasana, San Francisco de Chiu Chiu, Aiquina-Turi, and Caspana.

At an elevation of 2,400 metres , Calama is the gateway to the geological and archaeological wonders of Chiles high central desert. Some of these places of interest include: the town of Chuquicamata, the village of San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), the Licancabur volcano, R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, Los Flamencos National Reserve, the Aguas Calientes salt flat, the Tuyajto lagoon, the El Tatio Geysers, the village of Chiu-Chiu.

In 2003 the nearby town of Chuquicamata, by one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world, was dismantled, partly because of environmental reasons, and partly due to encroachment from the mine's expansion. Residents of Chuquicamata then moved to Calama, away from company-owned residences, to find housing on their own.

Name's Origin

There are a variety of hypothesis with respect to the origin of the name "Calama," but the two main accounts maintain that its origin comes from the language Kunza, spoken in the past by the Lickan-antay, an ethnic group that to this day resides in the El Loa Province.

Hector Pumarino Soto suggests that "Calama" stems from the Kunza word "Ckara-ama," which means "town in the middle of the water". This affirmation is supported by the fact that, until the middle of the 20th century, the urban site of Calama and the surrounding oasis were flanked by the River Loa (in its south and east borders) and the fertile plain and swamps of the western sector, creating a true island in the middle of the desert surrounded completely by water.

Emilio Vaisse, meanwhile, says that Calama comes from the Kunza word "Ckolama," which means "place where partridges abound". This is supposed testimony to the abundance of such a bird, living over everything in the middle of the western swamp sector.


Prehispanic Era

The exact evidence related to the history of Calama does exist, including petroglyphs and the caves of Yalquincha (NE of the city), the chullpas of Topater (pre-Columbian cemeteries to the east of the city), the Copper Mummy, and other remains in Chuquicamata.

At the intersection of the Camino del Inca (the longitudinal one) and the routes that crossed the coast of the Altiplano, Calama became the main shelter of the Despoblado of Atacama. Their extensive lands for growing corn and alfalfa give testimony of the high capacity to supply food to the troops of Chasquis and to give tribute to the Inca. In fact, when Diego de Almagro, returning from Cusco, passed by the Calama shelter, the natives gave him copper horseshoes, which were made using a mysterious Incan technique used by towns conquered by the Incas. The science of such a technique still has yet to be explained, but the presence of such horseshoes further suggests strong Incan influence in Prehispanic times.

Colonial Era

Spanish colonization obviously caused some changes; however, the hostile climate impeded establishment of greater control. These changes influenced the control of trade routes that crossed the desert and communication to the port of Cobija with the deposits of Potosi silver and the cattle farms of Salta and Tucuman. In this sense, Calama continued as a main point of provision for commercial routes. In the 18th century, with the Bourbon Reforms, Calama depended directly of the Intendencia de Potosi.

Bolivian Republic Era

After Bolivia's Declaration of Independence (6 August 1825), and with gradual changes in the administration of the territory, Calama remained constituted under the Departamento de Litoral (1829), subdivided in the Provincia de Lamar y la Provincia de Atacama (Cobija being the departmental capital). Calama was an important town in the Provincia de Atacama, through which traveled the weekly mail between Cobija and Salta-Potosi, since 1832. In 1840, the provincial capital transferred from Chiuchiu to Calama, increasing the communication boom.

The border conflicts between Chile and Bolivia did not reach either Calama or the Province of Atacama. The greater dispute concentrated in the central prairie and in the coast, where they began to discover rich silver deposits, saltpeter, and guano. The ambiguity that led to the frontier conflicts was the possession of the central plain and the Atacama coast. The environment was made tense when Chilean troops, under the command of colonel Emilio Sotomayor Baeza, disembarked and peacefully took the port of Antofagasta on the morning of February 14, 1879. Later, Bolivia declared war on Chile on March 1.

Chilean Republic Era

Since that day, the changes in the administration have been very deep. It being part of the administrative center of 2 order in Bolivia, returned as one of 4 order under the Chilean administration (subdelegation). Recently in 1888, under the government of Jose Manuel Balmaceda, Calama returned as an administrative center of 3 order, inaugurated as the municipality on the 13th of October. Prior to that, in 1886, Calama was chosen for a railway station of the Antofagasta-Bolivia Railway, which further expedited shipments through Calama.


Calama contains two distinct entities: the desert and the Andes Mountain Range. Between and , the cold desert climate is characterized by annual precipitation that does not surpass . The average temperature is throughout the year (with drastic changes between daily highs of over and daily lows below zero in winter and maximums of over in summer.

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Calama, Chile

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