Highest, lowest, wettest, driest: South American extremes
South America has the second highest mountain range in the world, the driest desert on earth and the world’s biggest rainforest. It goes without saying, then, that it’s home to some astonishing geographical and climatological records. Some of the places that made it onto this list are bona fide tourist destinations but others are the kind of place you’d prefer to read about than actually visit.
Highest point: Aconcagua, Argentina
At 22,841 ft above sea level, Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. It’s conveniently located close to the Trans-Andean highway which connects the Argentine city of Mendoza with the Chilean capital Santiago, which is great for the non-Alpinists among us, as a trip to its base comes standard as part of the ‘Alta Montaña’ daytrip which departs from Mendoza.
Interestingly Aconcagua is several hundred kilometres south of the second, third, fourth and fifth highest peaks on the continent, all of which are in the altogether more remote province of La Rioja (two of these peaks actually straddle the Chilean border). If you are the mountaineering type, Aconcagua is one of the easier 22 000 ft peaks around, but actually reaching the summit is still very dependent on the ever-changing weather conditions at this altitude.
Lowest point: Laguna del Carbon, Argentina
Far less dramatic or picturesque than Aconcagua, the Laguna del Carbon is nevertheless a record breaker: it’s 344 ft below sea level! Located about 30 miles from the southern Patagonian town of Puerto San Julian, this desolate ‘Coal Lake’ is the lowest point in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres and it’s the seventh-lowest spot on the globe.
Driest place: Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on the planet and although average annual precipitation is 0,6 inches per year, some Atacama weather stations have never recorded rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may have received no significant rainfall for over 400 years between 1570 and 1971! The Atacama is so dry because it’s in a ‘double rain shadow’ – the Chilean Coastal Range to the West and the Andes to the East prevent just about all moisture from reaching this part of the world.
The relatively wet (1.4 inches per year) town of San Pedro de Atacama is by far the biggest tourist attraction in the Atacama, with fantastic scenery and some truly amazing hotels. If you’ve always dreamed of going to the moon, but can’t quite afford a ticket this is a close second. San Pedro is a place of extreme adjectives: otherworldly, surreal, desolate, rugged…you name it, they’ve been flung in its direction.
On a personal note, when I passed through Arica on my way to Peru I asked the owner of my hotel to store a box of books for me: he happily agreed to leave it in his yard, and when I returned a few months later it was still in perfect condition!
Wettest place: Tutunendo, Colombia
According to who you believe Tutunendo is the first, second or third wettest place in the world. Unfortunately meteorological records in both Colombia and India (the other country with towns which lay claim to this title) aren’t that great. An unverified source claims that Tutunendo received a staggering 1,036.34” of rainfall in 1974 and its average annual precipitation is around 448.58”. Tutunendo is located in that part of Colombia which has two rainy seasons, hence all the records! I haven’t been to Tutunendo itself but I’ve experienced enough Amazonian rainstorms to know that ‘bucketloads’ is an understatement if ever there was one!
South America is also home to the town with the most rainy days per annum. Bahia Felix in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego has an average of 325 rainy days every year: the most in the world for a permanently inhabited location. This is certainly not something I’d shout from the rooftops if I was from Bahia Felix, but if you’ve ever been to Tierra del Fuego it’s not exactly hard to believe.
Coldest place: Sarmiento, Argentina
This is one category in which South America can’t compete on a global stage, but the interesting immigrant town of Sarmiento in the Chubut Province of Argentina recorded a chilly -27°F on June 17 1907. It is worth noting that this is the lowest low altitude temperature recorded in South America: it has almost certainly got colder in the High Andes at some point.
Hottest place: Rivadavia, Argentina
Of the six record-breaking places listed in this blog, four of them are in Argentina, which certainly says a lot for the amazing diversity this enormous country has to offer. Way back in 1905 the town of Rivadavia in Northern Argentina recorded high of 120.0 °F – in the shade. This doesn’t come close to Death Valley or some spots in Australia and Africa, but it’s still not the kind of place you want to lose your hat. Add this to the dry-as-a-bone Zonda wind and you have the perfect conditions for doing laundry…and making the super-fruity Torrontes wines Salta is so famous for.