South America > Chile > Northern Chile
Northern Chile is among the driest parts of the world. It includes the regions of Arica-Parinacota, Tarapacá, Antofagasta, Atacama and Coquimbo.
- 1 Antofagasta — a relaxed mining city with lots of leisure activities and a large car industry
- 2 Arica — the "city of the eternal spring" offers beautiful beaches, and a very dry, mild climate
- 3 Calama — "copper capital" of the country with the giant mine of Chuquicamata nearby
- 4 Caldera – gateway to Bahía Inglesa, a picturesque and lovely beach to just enjoy the sun
- 5 Copiapó — gateway to Bahía Inglesa and Desierto Florido
- 6 Coquimbo — includes the Union Flag of the UK in its coat of arms
- 7 Iquique — a seaside city with long beaches and a picturesque city centre
- 8 La Serena — gateway to the Pisco Valley
- 9 Pisco Elqui — famous for the national schnapps produced here, Pisco
- 10 Punta de Choros — gateway to the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve to see Humboldt penguins, bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, and many types of seabirds
- 11 Putre — gateway to Lauca National Park
- 12 San Pedro de Atacama — gateway to popular attractions such as Salar de Atacama, El Tatio Geysers and Valle de la Luna
- 13 Vicuña — supposed to be best star gazing in the world, but nowadays just a regular town on the way to Pisco Eqlui
- 1 Lauca National Park – in the Andes with large volcanic mountains
- 2 Valle de la Luna – an impressive dry desert landscape
Northern Chile has been thriving on the mining industry since the middle of the 19th century. It started with saltpetre which came to an abrupt end at the beginning of the 20th century when the synthetic production of nitrates was invented. The remains of the old production sites are still impressive and provide an insight into the hard life of the workers. Nowadays copper has taken over the role of Chile's main export good and is mined in giant open pits. Furthermore some minerals like lithium are produced in the salt lakes.
Many visitors come to see the spectacular landscape of the Andean Highlands. Snow-covered mountains more than 6,000 m high contrasting with blue lakes, mountains showing all shades of red and brown due to their volcanic origin, and a number of geothermal areas with hot springs and geysers are among the natural attractions of the region.
On the more relaxing side, Arica and Iquique offer long sandy beaches at the Pacific coast.
Airports in this area are Antofagasta, Arica, Calama, Iquique (IQQ IATA) and La Serena which all have several flights daily from Santiago. Arica and Iquique have connections from Bolivia, Antofagasta from Peru.
The national highway #5 (Panamericana) is the main artery of the region connecting central Chile with Antofagasta, Iquique, Arica and Peru. Access from Bolivia (La Paz and Oruro) is via highway #11 passing Lauca National Park and Putre towards Arica. The alternate route from Oruro via Colchane and highway #15 towards Iquique is less used and thus in better condition (at least on the Chilean side). Access from northwestern Argentina (Salta) goes along Chilean highways #23 or #27 to San Pedro de Atacama and Calama.
The highways outside of the highlands are generally in good condition as are the main highways through the highlands to the neighbouring countries. Other roads in the highlands can be very rough. Before moving along such roads individually it is best to enquire locally about road and weather conditions.
Buses connect all cities and also provide connections to neighbouring countries. There are no longer any passenger trains in Northern Chile.
- 1 Atacama Desert. The driest place in the world.
- 2 Bahía Inglesa (about 20 minutes away by collectivo (1,000 pesos) or hitchhiking away from Caldera). A picturesque and lovely yet windy beach if you just want to enjoy the view, sun and maybe a beer at one of the bars facing the sea.
- 3 Desierto Florido (Flowering desert). A desert area and nature reserve that becomes a beautiful and impressive field of flowers once a year when the rain has fallen.
- 4 Gigante de Atacama (The Tarapacá Giant) (15 km east of national highway #5 (Panamericana) along national highway #15 towards Colchane; the intersection of the dirt road is signposted). The largest geoglyph in the region. A remarkable planning effort considering that it is hundreds of years old. You get the best overall picture when looking on Google Earth though; therefore you could stop there if you are driving along these roads any way but it's doubtful whether it really pays to come here from a long distance. Free.
- 5 La Portada (15 km north of Antofagasta, use your bus when coming into Antofagasta to get off at the junction towards the sight, after or before Antofagasta depending on where you come from; otherwise, local bus 103 goes closest to the sight from Antofagasta center). The yellowish rock gate stands in the sea at along a picturesque and wild cliff coast. If you bring a mattress and sleeping bag, there are many dry places to camp and stay over night.
- 6 Nevado Ojos del Salado. With an altitude of 6,893 m, it's the highest point in Chile, and second highest outside Asia. Sitting at the Argentinian border, the mountain has a second, almost exactly as high summit on the Argentinian side. Some 500 m below the summit you can see a lake, which is believed to be the highest lake in the world. Ojos del Salado has remarkably gradual slopes and the surrounding dry Atcama desert means that there's usually very little snow and ice. This has made the mountain a popular place for setting world altitude records for cars, indeed cars and even a truck have been driven up to altitudes above 6,000 m. Maybe more importantly, it's possibly the highest place in the world you can reach by just hiking (30 km from the nearby road, plus 2,400 m ascend; only the very last part to the summit is a somewhat challenging scramble). This high, altitude sickness is most certainly a risk — don't ascend too fast! Because of the general extremeness of the high-altitude-low-humidity environment, it's quite problematic to undertake the 8-15 days long adventure solo. Various travel agencies offer support services (such as the catering and transportation), prices per person seem to start at around 2000-2500 pesos.
- 7 Oficina Humberstone (50 km east of Iquique along highway A-16 at the intersection with national highway 5 (Panamericana)). 09:00-19:00. An old residential and production site from the days of the saltpetre era. Few residential houses are furnished, but most of the site is still in remarkable condition due to the dry atmosphere. Allow 1-2 hr to stroll around the huge area. 3,000 pesos.
- 8 Parque Paleontológico Los Dedos (beyond Rocas Negras), ☏ . Tu-Su 11:00-19:00. In the hot middle of nowhere about 1 km from the beach, an outdoor museum for fossils of penquins, sharks, crocodiles, whales and much more.
- 9 Rocas Negras (3 km south from Bahía Inglesa along the beach). A set of pitch black rocks in between sand of shells along the beach, where you can find many pecten shells of up to 10 cm in diameter.
Be aware that you can easily get up to more than 4,000 m of altitude on normal roads. Get accustomed to this by getting higher in reasonable steps. If you join one of those one-day excursions from Arica to Lauca National Park then you are very likely to suffer from mountain sickness which must be taken seriously.
In the mountainous areas mobile phone coverage is usually limited to the vicinity of towns. If you set out on a track road other than one which connects towns or popular tourist attractions then it might be a good idea to take a satellite phone with you. Filling stations are rare so make sure you know your options.