Calama is a city and commune in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It is the capital of El Loa Province, part of the Antofagasta Region. Calama is one of the driest cities in the world with average annual precipitation of just 5 mm (0.2 inches). The River Loa, Chile's longest, flows through the city. Calama has a population of 143,000 (2005 census).
The commune also encompasses the Quechuas communities of Estación San Pedro, Toconce and Cupo; and the Lickan-antay communities of Taira, Conchi Viejo, Lasana, San Francisco de Chiu Chiu, Aiquina-Turi, and Caspana.
At an elevation of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft), Calama is the gateway to the geological and archaeological wonders of Chile’s high central desert. Some of these places of interest include: the town of Chuquicamata, the village of San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), the Licancabur volcano, R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, Los Flamencos National Reserve, the Aguas Calientes salt flat, the Tuyajto lagoon, the El Tatio Geysers, the village of Chiu-Chiu.
In 2003 the nearby town of Chuquicamata, by one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world, was dismantled, partly because of environmental reasons, and partly due to encroachment from the mine's expansion. Residents of Chuquicamata then moved to Calama, away from company-owned residences, to find housing on their own.
Hector Pumarino Soto suggests that "Calama" stems from the Kunza word "Ckara-ama," which means "town in the middle of the water". This affirmation is supported by the fact that, until the middle of the 20th century, the urban site of Calama and the surrounding oasis were flanked by the River Loa (in its south and east borders) and the fertile plain and swamps of the western sector, creating a true island in the middle of the desert surrounded completely by water.
Emilio Vaïsse, meanwhile, says that Calama comes from the Kunza word "Ckolama," which means "place where partridges abound". This is supposed testimony to the abundance of such a bird, living over everything in the middle of the western swamp sector.
At the intersection of the Camino del Inca (the longitudinal one) and the routes that crossed the coast of the Altiplano, Calama became the main shelter of the Despoblado of Atacama. Their extensive lands for growing corn and alfalfa give testimony of the high capacity to supply food to the troops of Chasquis and to give tribute to the Inca. In fact, when Diego de Almagro, returning from Cusco, passed by the Calama shelter, the natives gave him copper horseshoes, which were made using a mysterious Incan technique used by towns conquered by the Incas. The science of such a technique still has yet to be explained, but the presence of such horseshoes further suggests strong Incan influence in Prehispanic times.
The border conflicts between Chile and Bolivia did not reach either Calama or the Province of Atacama. The greater dispute concentrated in the central prairie and in the coast, where they began to discover rich silver deposits, saltpeter, and guano. The ambiguity that led to the frontier conflicts was the possession of the central plain and the Atacama coast. The environment was made tense when Chilean troops, under the command of colonel Emilio Sotomayor Baeza, disembarked and peacefully took the port of Antofagasta on the morning of February 14, 1879. Later, Bolivia declared war on Chile on March 1.