on-line contest

What's New

Most Popular


Story and photos by

For years, we've known about the Nazca lines etched into the ground in Peru. But it wasn't until we visited the Atacama Desert that we discovered the equally intriguing pictograms in northern Chile.

Viewing Atacama Giant on Cerro Unita
Viewing Atacama Giant on Cerro Unita
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Atacama Giant is the world's largest prehistoric representation of a human figure. How big is it? El Gigante de Atacama is 282 feet long (86 meters long).

How to get to the Atacama Giant

The geoglyph sprawls on the side of Cerro Unita, a hill that sits like an island in a vast sea of stony wasteland. The closest town to the Atacama Giant is Pozo Almonte, which is 32 miles (52 kilometers) east of Iquique in the Tamarugal Province of Tarapaca, Chile.

If you are staying at a hotel in Iquique, you can rent a car or book a tour to the Atacama Giant. Its location is about 497 miles (800 kilometers) south of the Nazca lines in Peru.

Definition of geoglyph

The Atacama geoglyph is neither painted nor carved. Dark stones that pepper the desert floor outline the figure, which was created by removing top soil to reveal lighter soil below. Geoglyphs are different from petroglyphs, which are engraved rock carvings.

The body of the Giant of the Atacama is long and narrow. Its eyes and mouth are square, and its feet appear to be wearing boots. Each arm is bent. The right hand holds a bowl; the left grasps a dagger-like tool.

Giant geoglyph in Atacama Desert, Chile
Giant geoglyph in Atacama Desert, Chile
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Best view of Cerro Unita Giant

At its side, we could barely make out the figure of a small animal with a tail, perhaps a monkey. A reptile would seem more appropriate in the Atacama Desert.

Curious rays protrude from the giant's head over the crest of the hill—four from the top, and four from each side. It was difficult to see them from the ground. Like the figures on the Nazca Plains, the Atacama stone figure can only be thoroughly appreciated from above.

Who created the Atacama Giant?

Rather than risk damaging the geoglyph by climbing the hill and disturbing the stones, we walked several hundred feet away from its base. From there, we had the best ground-level view of the giant.

The origin of the gigantic figure is shrouded in mystery. Archeologists believe that the Cerro Unita geoglyph was built between 100 BC and AD 700 as an astronomical calendar to guide crop planting.

How to get to Cerros Pintados

No one knows if the indigenous people who created the Atacama Giant are the same people who fashioned the "Painted Hills," located 34 miles (55 kilometers) southwest of El Gigante and 28 miles (45 kilometers) south of Pozo Almonte.

The washboard road from Cerro Unita joins Highway 5, which brought us to the Pan-American Highway. We followed the well-paved motorway and turned off at the sign for Geoglifos Pintados in the Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve.

Car below Cerros Pintados (Geoglifos Pintados)
Car below Cerros Pintados (Geoglifos Pintados)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

World's largest group of geoglyphs

A bumpy track cut its way through the salty nitrate crust of the desert toward a row of hills. More than 400 figures blanket 50,000 square metres (59,800 square yards) of the hillside.

As we drove along the two-mile (three-kilometer) gravel road that skirted the base of the hill, images scrolled by like scenes in a movie—fish, dogs, rectangular windows, colossal crosses and circles enclosing geometric symbols.

An enormous arrow pointed down at two humanoid figures. A man carried a fish, or perhaps a weapon. Another paddled a boat.

Suddenly, we saw the llamas. Some, like the Atacama Giant, were fashioned from dark stones artistically placed on the sloped ground. Others were created by brushing aside the black surface stones to form a light design against the charcoal background.

Who made the Geoglifos Pintados?

Some archeologists speculate that the Atacama pictograms had ritual purposes. A more popular explanation is that the markings were traffic signs.

The giant road map guided llama caravans that traversed the desert toward the sea, from AD 500 to 1500. The Pacific Ocean is about 30 miles (49 kilometers) due west. Symbols on the Atacama map may have directed early travelers to water, salt flats and sources of food.

Giant arrow, llama and humanoid pintados
Giant arrow, llama and humanoid pintados
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Extraterrestrial origins?

Still others propose extraterrestrial connections to the Pintados. It wasn't difficult to consider this as a plausible option, as we gazed at the beings with rays (or were they antennae?) emanating from their heads.

And what are those plane-like shapes beside them? Alien spaceships? If they are birds, why are the heads missing and the wings far too long? And what are the geoglyphs that resemble a mother spaceship with smaller vehicles next to it?

Who created these images on the Cerros Pintados? Why? What do the abstract symbols and checkerboard patterns mean?

Comparison of Atacama and Nazca geoglyphs

All that archeologists know for sure is that the Atacama geoglyphs are spread out over much larger areas than the figures in Nazca, Peru. They are also more varied and plentiful. An article published in Antiquity noted that the Atacama Desert has more than 5,000 geoglyphs.

Mother spaceship pintado in the Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve, Atacama Desert
Mother spaceship pintado in the Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve, Atacama Desert
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Like the Nazca lines in Peru, Chile's Atacama Desert Giant and Pintados raise more questions than they answer.


Chile Tourist Office: www.chile.travel/en

More things to see and do in Chile:

Atacama Desert UNESCO Site - Humberstone Tour

El Tatio Geysers Chile

Puerto Natales - Giant Milodon Cave

Punta Arenas Chile - City at the End of the World

Chilean Food