Beautiful Monturaqui Crater in Chile's Atacama Desert. The crater is about 1,200 feet (365 meters) across and over 100 feet (30 meters) deep. Few asteroid impact craters on Earth are so well-preserved.
The best asteroid impact crater in South America
Impact craters, caused by meteors or asteroids, are a favorite subject of mine. Some may view this as blasphemy, although my favorite thing in Arizona isn’t the Grand Canyon, it’s Meteor Crater (also called Barringer Crater), which is often regarded as the best impact crater on Earth.
Each continent has them. And of course, some are better or more visible than others. Some are tens or hundreds of millions of years old. Some are much younger, such as the one in Arizona.
From what I’ve studied, the best in South America is Monturaqui Crater, which has been well-preserved for hundreds of thousands of years in Chile's Atacama Desert.
The Atacama Desert
Large portions of the Atacama Desert are so dry that they appear barren and devoid of life. This photo almost looks like it could have been taken on Mars.
The driest hot desert in the world (as opposed to the driest cold desert, which is Antarctica) is located along the western coast of South America, with a small part in Southern Peru, and most of it in Northern Chile. This desert is so dry that much of it is devoid of life. It’s just dirt, sand, and rocks, and you might as well be standing on Mars. There’s nothing.
Average rainfall in many places is a few millimeters per year. Some locations have never recorded rain over many decades.
The reason this is all significant to what’s being discussed is because it makes a perfect place for an impact crater to be very well preserved. Craters ordinarily wear away due to weather, or due to volcanic or plate tectonic activity.
Worldwide the best impact craters, which have lasted tens of thousands of years, or in some cases much longer, are in deserts (such as Arizona, the Sahara, the middle of Australia, or the Atacama) or a hard rocky surface that doesn’t wear away easily (such as the Canadian Shield).
Meteorite pieces recovered from Monturaqui Crater, which are from the actual object that crashed into the Earth and caused the crater to form about 660,000 years ago.
Reason number one for why this is such a good crater is that it’s located in a desert, as explained above.
Reason number two is that it’s relatively young. The asteroid impact occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch, estimated at 660,000 years ago.
Reason number three is that it’s fairly large. The crater is about 1,200 feet (365 meters) in diameter, and 112 feet (34 meters) deep.
Of course there are much larger craters on Earth, although more important than the size is that this one looks really nice due to the first two reasons listed.
Location of Monturaqui Crater
Monturaqui Crater pinpointed on Google Maps, clearly showing the extremely arid Atacama Desert. East of the Andes Mountains, the tropical regions of Bolivia,Paraguay, and Northern Argentina can clearly be seen.
A town of a few thousand residents, San Pedro de Atacama, is located 7o miles (113 km) to the north. To actually get to the crater requires four-wheel drive. It’s in a very remote and difficult-to-reach location.
Most of the area in between the town and the crater is the large Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is inhabited by pink flamingos and other wildlife.
The area is inland far enough that the elevation is starting to get very high, although not as high as the Andes Mountains get. It is considered a plateau at the edge of the Atacama Desert, and the bottom of the crater is actually at an elevation of 9,788 feet (2,983 meters). Further east the Andes get much higher still.
The high elevation causes San Pedro de Atacama to have a cool climate, compared with much of the Atacama Desert's lower elevation areas.
To see exactly where Monturaqui Crater is, you can find it on Google Earth (an amazing program free to download, and highly recommended if you don't have it). The geographical coordinates for the crater are: 23 degrees 55′ 41″ South, 68 degrees 15′ 42″ West.