When we think of the geography of South America, we often think of the extremely wet environment of the Amazon Rainforest or the Andes Mountains – but what about deserts in South America?
Not many people realize that there are actually six South American deserts found on the continent and many other “pseudo-deserts” that don’t quite fit the scientific definition but have been named a desert.
The 6 South American Deserts
- Surface Area: 613 square miles
This semiarid micro-region is located in the Tocantins state of Brazil and is comprised of golden sand dunes.
The dunes were created over thousands of years due to the erosion of mountains and can reach up to 130 feet in altitude.
Despite its designation as a desert in South America, you’ll actually find plenty of flowing rivers, lakes, and waterfalls that are sources of water in the region.
The scenery of this desert in Brazil is unique and unrivaled and plays host to a variety of interesting animal species. For example, giant anteaters, maned wolves, jaguars, foxes, emus, and macaws all make a home here.
Monte Desert, Argentina
- Surface Area: 1,250 square miles
- Desert Type: Subtropical Desert
Heading south to Argentina, we’ll find the Monte Desert, which borders both the Atacama and Patagonian Desert.
This desert in Argentina stretches about 1,250 miles from north to south, across much of the country. This area receives very little rain due to its location relative to the Andres and Sierra de Cordoba, which act as a rain shadow.
The relatively habitable desert in South America is home to a large number of small mammals plus larger creatures such as screaming hairy armadillos, cougars, guanacos, Chilean flamingos, and various species of reptiles.
Sechura Desert, Peru
- Surface Area: 1,900 square miles
- Desert Type: Coastal Desert
On the Pacific coast of South America, we find the Sechura Desert, one of the most arid deserts on the planet.
This Peruvian coastal desert sits at the foot of the Andes and has a relatively moderate temperature ranging from 60 to 95⁰F, thanks to the cool Pacific waters. In this desert in Peru, you’ll find the famous Nazca Lines, giant geoglyphs made by ancient civilizations.
There is not a massive variety of species living here, but many endangered animals call the Sechura Desert home.
The Peruvian plant cutter, white-winged guan, and russet-bellied spine tail are three endangered birds you may find in the area. There are also several species of lizards, rodents, and butterflies found in the desert in South America.
La Guajira Desert; Colombia and Venezuela
- Surface Area: 4,620 square miles
- Desert Type: Coastal desert
Spanning across the border of Colombia and Venezuela, La Guajira Desert is another South American desert with a surprising amount of water, this time found in the waters of the Caribbean coast.
The area is covered with beautiful beaches, salt flats, massive sand dunes, and oases.
Popular residents of La Guajira Desert are the pink flamingos, as well as the 140 other species of birds you can find in the cloud forest found at Macuira National Park.
There are also wild cats, monkeys, and deer in the area. The La Guajira Desert is also home to the Wayuu, an indigenous tribe from the area.
Atacama Desert, Chile
- Surface Area: 41,000 square miles
- Desert Type: Coastal Desert
Heading south from the Sechura Desert, you’ll hit the Atacama Desert, perhaps one of the most visited on our list.
This South American desert is a continuous strip of around 700 miles long in the north of Chile, on the Pacific coast, and is best known for its out-of-this-world geography and striking resemblance to Mars.
In addition, it is the driest non-polar desert in the world.
Being a mostly barren and extremely arid region, only a few animals and seasonal plants have adapted to live in this desert in Chile.
There are quite a few species of bugs, such as desert wasps and scorpions that live in the Atacama and various amphibians and reptiles.
Shockingly, you’ll find Humbolt penguins and Andean and Chilean flamingos. You may also see guanacos, vincuñas, and gray foxes in this coastal desert.
Patagonian Desert; Argentina and Chile
- Surface Area: 260,000 square miles
- Desert Type: Cold Winter
Our next desert in South America is a massive, winter desert that rarely gets hotter than 50⁰F.
As the sixth largest desert in the world and the largest desert in South America, it stretches 260,000 square miles across Chile and Argentina in the south tip of South America.
A rain shadow created by the Andes prevents the area from receiving much annual rainfall.
Many animals are able to make a home in the outskirts of the desert as well as throughout Patagonia, such as the puma, gray fox, pygmy armadillo, burrowing owl, and guanaco. There are also a few species of eagles and hawks that take to the sky.
5 Pseudo-Deserts in South America
In order to be classified as a desert, a region must get less than an average rainfall of 10 inches per year.
While the deserts in Latin America below technically don’t fall within that range, they have been named deserts thanks to their dry and often hot climate.
Check out these interesting “pseudo-deserts” that don’t quite meet the geological classifications of a desert.
Médanos de Coro, Venezuela
This small national park located in Venezuela is made up of ginormous sand dunes that spread out over 35 square miles. The sand dunes reach up to 130 feet in height.
Médanos de Coro is a desert and coastal habitat that has become a popular tourist destination thanks to the awe-inspiring scenery and plentiful activities.
The small area is home to around 21 bird species plus reptiles, rabbits, anteaters, and foxes. You may even catch sight of a camel while you’re visiting, but these animals have been important to give a more “desert-like” feel for tourists.
Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
Perhaps the most Instagram-worthy “desert” on our list, Lençóis Maranhenses, is a national park on the northern coast of Brazil known for its plentiful freshwater lagoons that fill up during the rainy season between the giant rolling dunes in the area.
This coastal desert is made up of 380,000 acres of huge sand dune fields. This area sure feels like a desert but receives quite a bit of rain at 47 inches per year.
Salvador Dalí Desert, Bolivia
Also known as Dalí Valley, this desert in Bolivia is an extremely barren valley in the region of Potosí, where the Uyuni salt flats are.
In addition, this South American desert is located within the borders of Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and is characterized by landscapes and rock formations that resemble surrealist paintings by Salvador Dalí.
Rosado Dunes, Brazil
This semiarid region in the state of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil receives between 12 and 20 inches of rain per year, which means it falls just outside of “desert” standings.
Then surrounding areas are comprised of dunes, cliffs, wetlands, and beaches. The strong winds found in the area continuously move the dunes thanks to the lack of vegetation to keep them in space.
La Tatacoa Desert, Colombia
La Tatacoa Desert, also called the “Valley of Sadness” in the days of the conquistadors, is actually a tropical dry forest with many plant species, not a desert. Still, temperatures can reach scorching levels in this area of Colombia.
The area does receive a decent amount of rain, making life here possible for insects, snakes, rodents, turtles, eagles, and wildcats. Plus, of course, massive cacti measuring up to five meters high.
FAQ About South American Deserts
What Are the Six Deserts of South America?
From smallest to largest, the deserts are Jalapão Desert, Monte Desert, Sechura Desert, La Guarija Desert, Atacama Desert, and the Patagonian Desert.
What Is South America Biggest Desert?
It is the Patagonian Desert, which stretches 260,000 square miles across Chile and Argentina.
What Is South America Driest Desert?
The Atacama Desert on the Pacific Coast is the driest desert not only in South America but also in the world. Dry subsidence created by the South Pacific high-pressure cell makes the desert one of the driest regions in the world.
What Desert is Colder Atacama or the Patagonian Desert?
The Patagonian Desert is colder than the Atacama Desert. The first is a large cold winter desert, where the temperature rarely exceeds 53.6⁰F and averages just 37.4⁰F. Daily temperatures in the summer reach 87.8⁰F on the northern coast.
The latter is a hot desert, where the temperatures vary depending on the season, altitude, and time of day, with highs of 89⁰F at the height of summer, to 28⁰F on a winter’s night.
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