Messages on the Mountains: the Incredible Geoglyphs of Chile’s Cerros Pintados

Cerros Pintados (Painted Mountains) contains an ancient-art museum, with nearly 400 intricate figures carved by pre-Columbian Atacama natives into rocky hillside surfaces.

The archaeological term for this type of large rock carving is “geoglyph,” and in the case of Cerros Pintados, the ancient artists used this method of communication to depict images of strange symbols, people, and animals over a span of four kilometers of undulating desert landscape.

The cryptic figures were created between 500 A.D. and 1450 B.C., with distinct characteristics that seem to indicate frequent interactions between the indigenous cultures residing in areas throughout Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

Visitors to Cerros Pintados can speculate about the original purpose of the geoglyphs: Do they represent an inter-tribal newspaper? Or an annotated map guiding centuries of travelers through the area? Perhaps a message for extraterrestrials or deities, designed to be read from the sky?

Archaeologists theorize that the animal-shaped geoglyphs served as indicators for farmers, while others may have been ritualistic. Perhaps the true intentions of the creators of Cerros Pintados’ intriguing geoglyphs will continue to remain a mystery.

Another attraction nearby

While Cerros Pintados holds South America’s largest concentration of geoglyphs, the broad Atacama desert contains thousands more in various other locations. The Atacama Giant, one of Chile’s most well-known and enigmatic geoglyphs, is located just 34 km northeast of Cerros Pintados.

At 86 meters long, the Atacama Giant’s impressive presence on the sprawling slope of Cerro Unita is impossible to overlook. The massive geoglyph depicts a humanoid creature, which may have been related to agriculture. Like Cerros Pintados, the Giant is best viewed from above.

Cerros Pintados is located within Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal (Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve), 43 km east of the city of Iquique. Pampa del Tamarugal is an exquisite desert forest of tamarugo trees, which can grow as high as 15 meters and survive in arid climates. The reserve contains 24,000 hectares of protected wilderness

How to arrive

The geoglyphs of Cerros Pintados can be found 45 km south of Pozo Almonte and 5 km west of the Panamerican Highway (Ruta 5), on a gravel road that branches off from the main road. A checkpoint is located several kilometers down the gravel road, collecting a small entrance fee.

The site is open to the public daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm. A picnic area is also provided near the geoglyphs.

By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Chile.Travel

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