Chile's Garden City

Tourism in the Atacama Desert

Chilean Altiplano
Chilean Altiplano
Image: - Tour Operator
  Northern Chile is unofficially divided into two main territories: the Norte Grande (Big or Far North), bordering Peru to the North, Bolivia and Argentina to the East, Pacific Ocean to the West. This part of Chile includes the regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapaca, Antofagasta and the northern half of Atacama.  Norte Chico (Small or Near North), bordering Argentina to the East and  Pacific Ocean to the West, historically refers to the southern half of Atacama and the region of Coquimbo

The vastness of Northern Chile hides great mineral wealth beneath its surface, including copper, which for its importance to the national economy has traditionally been called "the salary of Chile", lithium, gold, silver, iron, molybdenum, manganese, lead, zinc, etc. Regarding the landscape, this presents a rich variety, where the Atacama Desert, the driest of the world predominates, which in the highlands joins the Altiplano or high plateau, giving rise to great sceneries, adorned by volcanoes, lakes, salt flats and geysers.  On the other hand, the climate of the coast, much more temperate and stable than the rest of the country, offers a guarantee to swimmers and water sports enthusiasts who visit its beaches.  Here is a list of places to visit in Northern Chile:

Humberstone and Santa Laura Abandoned Saltpeter Works   

These "Oficinas Salitreras" were declared Chilean National Monuments and World Heritage Sites by Unesco. Located 47 km. East of Iquique, Region of Tarapaca, they are like two ghost towns in the middle of the Atacama Desert, vestiges of what was a time of splendor between the second half of the 19th century until World War I when the synthetic nitrate began to be produced. The exploitation of Nitrate had in its peak about 200 plants operating simultaneously, these being the two most representative. There are several tourist circuits departing from Iquique, in order to recreate the most important processes of the nitrate industry, as well as to visit the old houses, buildings and facilities of the legendary Mining Camps.

San Pedro de Atacama

Desierto de Atacama, North of Chile.
Atacama Desert sand dunes                                   
One of the top tourist destinations in Chile and one of the major centers of archaeological interest in South America. San Pedro de Atacama is a commune and village into the heartland of the Antofagasta Region, province of El Loa, bordering Argentina and Bolivia. In ten years, the number of visitors to the area has tripled, several major first class hotels have been built and tourism has gradually replaced agriculture. San Pedro is located nearly 2,500 meters above the sea level so, for some people a small period of acclimatization is required, since inland excursions are even at much higher altitudes than 2,500 mts.  

To reach the town itself, we must first get to the mining city of Calama and then follow the 102 km. paved road to arrive to "the archaeological capital of Chile". The town of San Pedro de Atacama of approximately 4,000 inhabitants, is  not only point of departure for excursions to many places of interest of the commune but also has its own great attractions such as the renowned Museo Arqueologico Padre Gustavo Le Paige (Archaeological Museum Father Gustavo Le Paige), founded by the Belgian Jesuit missionary of the same name, who conducted years of research and collected thousands of archaeological remains and objects that summarize the evolution of the peoples who inhabited this territory for eleven thousand years. This renowned museum today is run by the Universidad Catolica del Norte, the  Iglesia de San Pedro, Andean-style building dating from the XVIIth. century, declared a National Monument in 1951, La Casa Incaica (Inca House), the oldest building in the village, built in 1540. Leaving the perimeter of the town but always within the same commune we will find many other interesting places such as:

Geysers de El Tatio (El Tatio Geyser Field)

El Tatio Geothermal Field
Image: Hotel Cumbres San Pedro de Atacama   

Place-name that in the native  Atacameño language means "grandfather crying", the tour takes place amidst the breathtaking spectacle of more than 80 active geysers, underground waters that run near the volcanic magma and are the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Chile is a country of deep geographic faults, which explains its high geothermal activity and the existence of many sources of thermal waters.  El Tatio geothermal field is located 95 km. North of San Pedro de Atacama village, close to the border with Bolivia, at an altitude of 4,320 mts. above the sea level. It is advisable that the tours are made through a local travel agency and are carried out between 06.00 and 09.00 a.m. since it is during the sunrise that fumaroles are seen in full splendor, giving the environment an aspect of another planet. In this remote part of the desert you will also be able to take a comforting thermal bath.

ALMA Radio Telescope  

ALMA Astronomical Observatory
ALMA is the acronym for Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array, the World's largest astronomical facility, nestled in the Chilean Andes 5,000 meters above the sea level, on the Chajnator plateau, one of the driest and highest places on Earth. The ALMA Astronomical Observatory, a 66 high precision Antennas or Radio Telescopes array, belongs to an international association between Europe, North America and East Asia in collaboration with the Republic of Chile.  For security reasons and due to its high altitude, the Array Operations Site in Chajnator is not open to visitors, but you can apply for a free of charge entry pass to visit the Operations Support Facility,  2900 mts. a.s.l.  

Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flat)

Huge salt flat situated 55 km. South of San Pedro, with its 100 km. long, 80 km. wide and featuring a striking geology, Atacama Salt Flat is Chile's largest salt deposit and represents more than 20% of the World's Lithium reserves.  The salt lake is fed by the Rio San Pedro and other sources of water coming from the many Andean ravines. Its surface is covered by the salt crust that in certain points opens to let small ponds emerge generating an environment where a rich birdlife subsists and develops. Another point of great scenic beauty, within the limits of the Salar de Atacama is  Laguna Cejar, of emerald waters and whose main characteristic is its high concentration of salt that allows visitors to enjoy a bath floating on its surface. Not far are situated the Ojos del Salar, two freshwater small lakes from underground aquifers, with reeds and algae growing on its banks. Bathers coming from Laguna Cejar usually plunge here to remove the salt impregnated on their skin. 

The Salar de Atacama forms part of the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, name that derives from the large number of flamingos and other birds that inhabit and nest in the area. Further north, located some 7.5 km. of San Pedro de Atacama, you can visit the Archaeological site of Tulor, whose origin is prior to the Christian era (an estimated antiquity of 2,250- 2,800 years) and its remains, which had been buried beneath the desert sand for long centuries, were discovered in 1956 by the Belgian priest Father Gustavo Le Paige. After the finding, subsequent digs have uncovered the original walls of the village.

 Valle de la Luna  

"Valley of the Moon", as its name suggests is a desert landscape, of strange rock formations and dunes, situated in the middle of the Cordillera de la Sal, a few km. away from San Pedro de Atacama, where the excursion begins. Due to its topographic features, the Valle de la Luna was used as a testing ground by NASA to test its martian vehicle "Nomad Rover" here. "Valley of the Moon" is a must-see destination when visiting this part of Chile, especially to witness the sunset as well as the moonrise in between the volcanoes. 

Other great tourist attractions here are El Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) also known as Valle de Marte (Valley of Mars), geological site of great tourist interest, this site is so arid that here you will not find any trace of plant or animal life, sandboarding down its spectacular dune is one of the most demanded activities by visitors; Las Tres Marias, in the Valley of the Moon, one of many bizarre rock formations eroded by wind and salt; La Quebrada de Ckari, canyon of an ancient water course, nowadays dry, flanked by impressive walls; Ruins of Pukara de Quitor, National Monument since 1982, it is a fortification made of stone dating from the twelfth century, built by the native Atacameños to defend themselves from the attacks of neighboring peoples, especially the Aymara; Laguna Miscanti, a brackish water small lake 4,120 mts. above sea level, corresponding to one of the seven areas of Parque Nacional Los Flamencos; tours also include the neighboring Laguna Miñiques, it is believed that once was part of Miscanti but large lava flows from Miñiques volcano separated them, these high plateau lakes, formed by the thawing of snow and ice of Miscanti and Miñiques volcanoes, are administered by the "Comunidad Atacameña de Socaire", in a partnership with CONAF (National Forest Corporation).

City of Arica  

Morro de Arica (Cape Arica)                                    
With just over 210,000 inhabitants Arica is the capital city of the "Region de Arica y Parinacota". Because of its strategic location near the border with Peru and Bolivia, Arica is called "La Puerta Norte de Chile" (The Northern Gate of Chile), because of its mild climate, it is also known as "La ciudad de la Eterna Primavera" (The city of the Eternal Spring).

Trade with the neighboring countries, Peru and Bolivia, gives great dynamism to Arica, the connectivity of the city is very good because besides being an important seaport there are the Chacalluta International Airport, the Panamerican Highway known as Ruta 5 Norte and the International Railway Arica-La Paz, in Bolivia.
A true symbol and icon of the city is the Morro de Arica (Cape Arica), declared a National Monument in 1971, here in 1880 took place the historic Battle of Arica, in the context of the War of the Pacific. Nowadays the place around the legendary cape is very well urbanized since it is in the central perimeter of the city, making it one of the main attractions of Arica. From the summit of the "Morro" you can appreciate a beautiful panoramic of the city, its beaches and the Pacific Ocean, besides the old forts "Fuerte Ciudadela", "Fuerte del Este", "Fuerte Morro Gordo" and Base Naval Morro Bajo historical monuments, a museum called Museo Historico y de Armas del Morro de Arica, the structure of the Cristo de la Paz or Cristo de La Concordia, today symbol of peace between Chile and Peru. Other interesting places in Arica are the ex-Aduana building and the San Marcos Cathedral, both built by Gustave Eiffel's company.

Among the best known beaches of the city are Playa Chinchorro, located 2 km. of downtown Arica, of gentle waves, suitable for swimming, diving and water sports, Playa La Lisera, recommended for bathing and children swimming since it has very little surf, here waves practically do not reach the coastline; Playa Brava, as its name suggests, the waves are strong and hardly allow swimming, being one of the most popular beaches among surfers, even recognized worldwide, paradoxically Playa Brava is next to La Lisera, with the calmest waters of Arica; Playa El Laucho, close to downtown Arica, preferred by tourists and young people, especially in summer but also the rest of the year, ideal for swimming, fine sand and clear water.

Chinchorro Culture  

Chinchorro Culture, Northern Chile and Southern Peru. This part of the North end of Chile has exceptional importance for archeology and anthropology since the current city of Arica and the neighboring Valle de Camarones were the heart where the ethnic group that formed the Chinchorro Culture was established, roughly between years 7020 and 1500 B.C. This people is notable for the funeral rites that they practiced and as far as it is known they were the first ones to develop not one, but several types of artificial mummification, even before the Egyptians (see Wikipedia's article here). The Museo Arqueologico y Antropologico de San Miguel de Azapa, -another of the great attractions of Arica-, houses mummies of the Chinchorro Culture, the oldest in the World. The museum belonging to the Universidad de Tarapaca is located 12 km. away from Arica. 

Parque Nacional Lauca 

Lauca National Park, this protected area is one of the top tourist destinations in the North of Chile. Covers an area of 137,883 hectares and is located in the east end of the Region of Arica and Parinacota, bordering Bolivia, its height ranges from 3200-6342 meters above sea level. The main places of attraction in this environment of deep peace are Lago Chungara (Chungara Lake), 192 km. East of Arica, from where the tours generally start, area rich in birdlife including Condors and Chilean Flamingos, Rheas, Small Jergon Ducks, Puna Partridges, the Giant Tagua, other birds and the sighting of specimens such as Llamas, Vicuñas, Alpacas, Guanacos, Cougars and many other minor species. 

Also notable for the scenic beauty are the Nevados de Payachatas, composed of two potentially active stratovolcanoes, Parinacota and Pomerape, both with more than 6,000 meters above sea level and located on the border between Chile and Bolivia. These summits are exceptional for the practice of mountaineering and have given international fame to the region. This high plateau region was part of the territory where for many centuries developed the Aymara culture, before being subdued by the Incas in the second half of the fifteenth century. Also within the Lauca National Park we find the Lagunas de Cotacotani, a series of small lakes connected by channels 4 km. Northwest of Chungará, its main characteristic is the large number of islets that are actually small mounds caused by the accumulation of lava from ancient eruptions.

City of Iquique 

Port of Iquique, Chile.
Port of Iquique                                     

Capital of the Tarapaca Region, one of the most important seaports in the North of Chile and of great historical connotation for the Chileans due to the episodes of the Guerra del Pacifico (War of the Pacific) that took place here in the nineteenth century. Nowadays Greater Iquique, including the commune of Alto Hospicio has a population of just over 300,000 inhabitants. 

The city has a strong commercial dynamism since it has a Duty Free Zone known as ZOFRI (Zona Franca de Iquique), created in 1975. The ZOFRI was established to give development to a region which -at that time-, was economically very depressed, objective that has been achieved to a large extent. Today this city has reached a good level of development in many areas, including tourism.

Among the main tourist attractions of Iquique are Playa Cavancha (Cavancha Beach), of clean sands and pleasant temperatures like all the beaches in northern Chile, where you can also see lots of surfers since here there are very favorable conditions for the practice of this sport. Surrounded by a modern architecture and the Waterfront Avenue with its public promenade, adorned with palm trees. Because of these characteristics, this part of Iquique has been called, more than once, "the Chilean Miami". To learn about regional history nothing better than a visit to the Museo Naval de Iquique (Naval Museum of Iquique), run by the Chilean Navy, there are many testimonial objects rescued from the Combate Naval de Iquique (Naval Battle of Iquique) occurred on May 21, 1879, major battle that marked a milestone in the Chilean History. There are also many other valuable relics of warships that participated in the Guerra del Pacifico. Located in the old Customs Building, dating from 1871, when the city belonged to Peru, today declared a National Monument. Address: 250 Esmeralda St. This historic building was affected by a serious fire on February 26, 2015, but without affecting the Museum facilities.

Museo Corbeta Esmeralda (Corbeta Esmeralda Ship- Museum)

Museo Naval Corbeta Esmeralda, Iquique, Chile
A must in the city of Iquique, a full-scale replica in great detail of the Chilean warship protagonist of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), located at Paseo Almirante Lynch (Almirante Lynch Promenade), the structure rests on a pool that works as a mirror of water, giving the feeling that the corvette was floating on the sea, it was funded by Doña Ines de Collahuasi Mining Co., as a gift to the city to commemorate the Bicentennial of Chile. Other interesting places in Iquique are the Cathedral, in the central perimeter of the city, built in 1885 and declared a National Historic Monument in 1989, it replaced the original church destroyed by fire in 1883.

Antofagasta: Mining, History, and Tourism  

One of the main cities of the Norte Grande (Big or Far North), in the middle of the Atacama Desert, also called "La Perla del Norte" (The Pearl of the North), surrounded by mineral wealth and with its own tourist attractions. Learn more about Antofagasta, Chile.

Playa Bahia Inglesa (Bahia Inglesa Beach)

The Atacama Region, often called by its former name of Third Region of Chile, has lovely beaches the most outstanding being Playa Bahia Inglesa, which is like a small coastal paradise encircled by the vastness of the Atacama Desert. Bahia Inglesa is located 80 kms. of Copiapo, the regional capital and 6 kms. of Caldera, the nearest town. In spite of being still in a stage of development as a tourist center, over the last years it has become one of the most important seaside destinations throughout northern Chile since its beaches are considered among the best in the country. In Bahia Inglesa you can visit several beaches, highlighting Playa Las Piscinas, surrounded by rocks that form small coves ideal to go with children, Playa Rocas Negras, 4 km. South of Bahia Inglesa, Playa Las Machas, one of the largest in the area, etc. The place has all the facilities and accommodation to receive tourists.

City of La Serena 

It is the capital of the Coquimbo Region, founded in 1544 is the second oldest city in Chile after the capital Santiago. The population is just over 200,000 according to the census of 2012, but the Greater La Serena, including the neighboring city of Coquimbo is 400,000. In the recent years it has become one of the most important travel destinations in Chile. La Serena has its own architectural style which differentiates it from other Chilean cities, with a significant quantity of colonial buildings, many of them being important National Monuments.
Street of La Serena
Among the main attractions of La Serena are its beautiful beaches along the Avenida del Mar, oceanfront promenade located in the most important tourist area of the city, it begins in the Faro Monumental de La Serena (La Serena Lighthouse) icon of the region, and spans 2.5 miles to the neighboring area of Peñuelas in Coquimbo, where the Avenida Costanera begins. Faro Monumental de La Serena (La Serena Lighthouse) its construction was completed in 1951 and declared a National Monument in 2010, the 30 mts. high structure is one of the most visited and representative places of La Serena, included in all city tours, located by the sea at the beginning of Av. Francisco de Aguirre, today only fulfills ornamental functions. La Recova (La Recova Municipal Market), 370 Cienfuegos St., 4 blocks from the Main Square, a typical and unmissable place in La Serena. Of colonial style, it is one of the most attractive and comfortable municipal markets in Chile, with many local crafts and good prices, a wide range of typical products like Papaya fruit in different presentations, you can also have lunch at the restaurants located on the second level of the building.

La Serena is known as "La Ciudad de los Campanarios" (The City of the Bell Towers) due to the large number of temples which holds, many of them declared National Monuments, highlighting the Cathedral, the largest church in La Serena whose current building dates from 1844 but the first construction attempts were in 1633, right next to the temple is the Museo de Arte Religioso (Museum of Religious Art) where you can see sacred art oil paintings belonging to the eighteenth century, ornaments used in Masses of the eighteenth century and old garments of Bishops. There is also the Iglesia de San Agustin, its original construction dates from 1672, built by the Jesuits, during the early years suffered the destruction at the hands of pirate Bartholomew Sharp, its most recent restoration was made in 1994 on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the city. 

Other churches that have history in La Serena include Iglesia San Francisco, the only temple saved from the fire of 1680 caused by pirate Bartholomew Sharp, it is highly representative of the Spanish architecture of the late sixteenth century and one of the oldest religious buildings of that era, dating from 1563 as a Chapel, keeps inside the image of an articulated Christ; Iglesia La Merced, in 1555 arrives in La Serena the Orden Mercedaria (Order of Mercy) and in 1558 founded their first church, but because of pirate attacks, arson and looting, it was necessary rebuild it several times, the final edification corresponds to the year 1709. The current Gothic style tower is of 1830. You can also visit many other churches and interesting heritage buildings especially in the historical center of La Serena such as Iglesia Santo Domingo, beautiful ancient church in the colonial part of La Serena, very well preserved with its stone walls, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Home - Museum, belonging to ex-President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, a native of this city, declared a National Monument in 1981, history and art museum whose purpose is to pay a permanent tribute to the former President of Chile, his life and work, Matta Street just across the Plaza de Armas, Gabriela Mistral Building, property today occupied by the Secretariat of Education, in La Serena you can also visit two houses that belonged to the Chilean poet, diplomat and Nobel Prize for Literature Gabriela Mistral as "La Casa de la Palmera" (The House of the Palm) of the nineteenth century located at Avenida Francisco de Aguirre heading towards the Faro Monumental (La Serena Lighthouse), where she lived with his mother and sister, and the house of the Compañia Baja next to the cultural center of the same name, occupied by the distinguished writer and diplomat in her first years of practice as a teacher. 

Another interesting place to visit is the Museo Arqueologico de La Serena (Archaeological Museum of La Serena), created in 1943 which contains an important archaeological exhibition of the ancient ethnic groups of northern Chile in addition to objects belonging to the Polynesian culture and an original Moai of Easter Island (Rapa Nui), address: at the corner of Cienfuegos St. and Cordovez St. 

Valle del Elqui (Elqui Valley)

Valle de Elqui (Elqui Valley) - Chile
Valle de Elqui (Elqui Valley)                      
This hydrographic basin is one of the most visited sites in the Norte Chico (Small or Near North) because of its climatic features, natural surroundings, deep spirituality perceived in the environment and the ties that bind it to the poet and Nobel Prize for Literature Gabriela Mistral. Elqui Valley lies roughly 500 km. north of Santiago and 90 km. southwest of La Serena, the nearest point of access.

In Elqui there are many things you can do. Since ancient times the Elqui Valley is known as a generous land which produces the finest grapes of the country, what has led it to become the cradle of the Chilean Pisco, a grape liquor typical of the region. One of the activities is to tour the processing and bottling plants of Pisco, sightseeing tour called "La Ruta del Pisco". In the village of Vicuña, known as the capital of Valle del Elqui you can also visit the Gabriela Mistral Museum, dedicated to rescue and spread the life and work of the Nobel Prize for Literature born here in 1889. See more about Elqui Valley.....

The Elqui Valley also attracts many visitors, as it is said this is a place full of healing and energy sources, specifically in the area of Cochiguaz, where several communities congregate to perform esoteric activities. They offer spiritual services to visitors such as meditation, harmonization of personal energy, techniques for the use of cosmic energy to ease physical and psychological stress and cure of certain diseases. Moreover, from Elqui have been often reported UFO sightings. From Ovalle, another important city of the Region of Coquimbo you can tour the Parque Nacional Fray Jorge and the Termas de Socos (Socos Hot Springs) the latter located on km. 370 of the Panamerican Highway north of Santiago. Fray Jorge National Park is located in the coastal region of the Pacific Ocean, its peculiarity lies in that you can see lush forests in a desert-like zone near Atacama.

Astronomy Tours in Northern Chile

Because of the clean skies of this part of the world, here are located here several astronomical obsevatories, many of them included in the so-called Astronomical Tours or Tours to the Stars. The facilities range from smaller to the most sophisticated, such as the Observatorio Municipal Cerro Mamalluca, located 9 kms. northwest of Vicuña, Observatorio Pangue 17 Km. South of Vicuña, Observatorio Turistico Cruz del Sur in Combarbalá, the Observatorio SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research) in Cerro Pachon, Observatorio Gemini South, also situated on Cerro Pachon, whose twin facility is Gemini North in Hawaii, the two together cover the entire sky in both hemispheres, Observatorio Inter-Americano Cerro Tololo, near the town of Vicuña and 87 km. East of La Serena, one of the most important Universe study centers in the Southern Hemisphere. 

In addition, the new Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is in installation phase. It will be located at 2,700 meters above sea level on Cerro Pachon, able to examine the entire visible sky, a major project that will start a new era in world astronomy, Observatorio Astronomico Cancana located in the town of Cochiguaz, 11 km. from Montegrande, taking advantage of the high quality of its skies for observing the universe, there are tours organized by the Observatory itself. Observatorio Collowara, located near the town of Andacollo, Further north, but also in the region of Coquimbo is Observatorio Astronomico La Silla (La Silla Observatory), with its 18 telescopes is one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.