A flowering Atacama Desert, the other side of Chile's deadly rainstorms

Undated photograph of northern Chile's Atacama desert, the world's driest desert, which is blooming in the wake of unusual rains earlier this year. EFE/Chilean National Tourism Service / United Photo Press

The heavy rains unleashed by a storm that battered northern Chile in March have nurtured life in the world's driest desert and thousands of tourists are marveling at the thriving plant and animal life in the region during the Southern Hemisphere spring.

The rains caused mudslides and floods, killing 28 people and leaving thousands of others homeless.

But the unusual precipitation also transformed the desert, where more than 200 native species of plants now give the arid lands rare scents and colors.

"The Atacama region was punished, but also blessed by the phenomenon of a flourishing desert, something that happens only after the rains, this time brought about by El Niño and climate change," Daniel Diaz, National Tourism Service director in Atacama, told EFE.

"The intensity of blooms this year has no precedent," Diaz said. "And the fact that it has happened twice in a same year has never been recorded in the country's history. We are surprised."

There are only three places in the world where classic deserts bloom: the United States, Australia and Chile.

"It is a unique experience and we take the opportunity to document the ecosystem's dynamics, to observe how flowers live and to catalog them," tour guide Rodrigo Arcos told EFE.

After the devastating deluges in March and additional rain in August, officials said the Atacama region had been able to recover to a large extent due to tourism.

"Tourism gives us a chance to boost the economy and not be dependent only on mining, as it has happened so far," Atacama Gov. Miguel Vargas said.

Atacama, which made headlines around the world in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped underground and rescued 71 days later, is now listed in the Lonely Planet travel guide as one of the 10 major destinations of 2015.

Atacama's residents are awaiting the arrival of about 20,000 tourists eager to see a blooming desert, and experts say the natural phenomenon will continue until November.