Torres del Paine National Park

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), which borders Peru to the north, Bolivia and Argentina to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. This part of Chile includes the regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapaca, Antofagasta, and the northern half of Atacama. The Norte Chico (Small or Near North), which borders Argentina to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, historically refers to the southern half of Atacama and the region of Coquimbo.

The vast expanse of Northern Chile hides substantial mineral wealth beneath its surface, including copper, often hailed as 'the lifeblood of Chile' due to its crucial role in the national economy. Moreover, the region is rich in deposits of lithium, gold, silver, iron, molybdenum, manganese, lead, zinc, and other minerals.

Northern Chile presents a diverse landscape, featuring the Atacama Desert, renowned as the driest in the world, as its dominant feature. In the highlands, it converges with the Altiplano, creating awe-inspiring scenery embellished with volcanoes, lakes, salt flats, and geysers.

On the coastal side, the climate is much more temperate and stable compared to the rest of the country, making it an ideal destination for swimmers and water sports enthusiasts. Here is a list of must-visit places 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 get to 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 Arqueológico 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 the 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.

Puchuldiza Geysers in Isluga Volcano National Park

The Puchuldiza geothermal field, at 4200 meters altitude in the Tarapaca altiplano, is another fascinating tourist destination that offers visitors the opportunity to witness unique geothermal phenomena. This place is characterized by fumaroles, geysers and hot springs, creating an impressive landscape full of natural energy. Tourists can enjoy relaxing thermal baths, watch the fumaroles spewing steam and feel the force of the earth in constant activity.

In addition to the geothermal experience, visitors can marvel at the natural beauty of the area, which includes desert landscapes, highland lagoons and the presence of wildlife. This place offers a unique combination of adventure, relaxation and contact with nature, making it a must-see tourist destination for those seeking authentic and enriching experiences. There are tours to the geysers that usually depart from the Isluga Volcano National Park and from the closest city to this tourist destination which is Iquique, approximately 232 km away. 

ALMA Radio Telescope  

ALMA Astronomical Observatory
ALMA is the acronym for Atacama Large Millimeter/ sub Millimeter 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.

Astronomy Tours in Northern Chile

Discover the magic of the cosmos under pristine skies and delve into the world of astronomy in one of the most captivating regions on Earth. 

The northern region of Chile stands out as a premier destination for astronomical tourism, boasting some of the clearest skies in the world and a landscape dotted with cutting-edge observatories. From the Atacama Desert to the Elqui Valley, visitors can immerse themselves in a stargazing experience like no other, witnessing the wonders of the universe against a backdrop of unparalleled natural beauty. With minimal light pollution and high-altitude locations, Northern Chile offers optimal conditions for observing celestial phenomena, making it a haven for both amateur and professional astronomers alike. For a more in-depth exploration of why Northern Chile is a mecca for astronomical enthusiasts, click on the following link:

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 away are the Ojos del Salar, two small freshwater lakes fed by underground aquifers, surrounded by reeds and algae along their banks. Visitors from Laguna Cejar often come here to rinse off the salt that clings to 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  

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). 
Learn more about the city of Arica, Chile.

Morro de Arica
Morro de Arica (Cape Arica)                                    
The Morro de Arica, situated in the city of the same name, is a coastal hill standing at 139 meters above sea level. This historic site played a pivotal role during the War of the Pacific and was seized by Chilean troops on June 7, 1880. Today, it stands as a significant tourist attraction and has been designated a National Historic Monument since 1971.

At its peak, a large Chilean flag waves proudly. Visitors are treated to breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the sea, and have the opportunity to explore the Morro de Arica Historical Museum, established in 1974, which chronicles the history of the conflict and Arica's integration into Chilean territory. Additionally, notable monuments such as the Cristo de la Concordia and the Mirador de la Virgen del Carmen, containing the ashes of soldiers fallen during the War of the Pacific, can be admired. Access to the Morro is available both by vehicle and on foot, offering visitors a unique and secure experience to relish this emblematic tourist destination in Chile.

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 in Arica-, houses mummies of the Chinchorro Culture, the oldest in the World. The museum belonging to the Universidad de Tarapacá 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                                     

Iquique, nestled in the northern reaches of Chile, stands as a captivating blend of historical significance and tourist allure. Explore its rich history and unique charm by clicking the link below to discover all the attractions it has to offer.

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. 
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 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. 

Valle del Huasco (Huasco Valley)

The Huasco Valley is a charming destination in northern Chile, irrigated by the river of the same name. It is located in the Atacama region, 192 km south of Copiapó, the regional capital.

With a temperate climate throughout the year, this little known but charming valley is known as the "Garden of Atacama", an oasis of vegetation in the middle of the desert that offers a unique combination of scenic beauty, outdoor adventure and a rich winemaking tradition. 

The entire area is home to picturesque villages with traditions rooted in the Diaguita culture and offers visitors the opportunity to explore unique geological formations such as La Mota, El Mapa and La Torre, known as "el arcoiris de Atacama" (the rainbow of Atacama). In addition, the place is especially famous for its clear skies, making it a popular destination for astronomical observations. Tourists can enjoy unique gastronomic experiences, such as olive tasting and olive oil tasting in the midst of centuries-old olive trees.
Moreover, its proximity to the Pacific Ocean allows visitors to enjoy the coast and explore the Llanos de Challe National Park, home to a variety of endemic flora and fauna and one of the areas where the phenomenon known as "el desierto florido" (the flowering desert) is most intensely observed, an impressive natural spectacle that attracts tourists and scientists from all over the world.

Valle del Elqui (Elqui Valley)

Valle de Elqui (Elqui Valley) - Chile
Valle de Elqui (Elqui Valley)                      
At this point in the north of Chile, we are already leaving the desert and entering the "Norte Chico", a natural area with climatic and geographical differences that borders the desert zone.

The hydrographic basin that gives life to the Elqui Valley is one of the most visited places in the Norte Chico region due to its climatic features, natural environment, profound spiritual atmosphere and its association with the poet and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Gabriela Mistral. The Elqui Valley is located about 500 km north of Santiago and 90 km east of La Serena, the nearest city. 

In Elqui there are many things you can do. Since ancient times, the Elqui Valley has been known as a generous land that produces the finest grapes in 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 draws many visitors due to its reputation as a place abundant in healing and energy sources, particularly in the area of Cochiguaz, where various communities gather to engage in esoteric activities. These communities offer spiritual services to visitors, including meditation, personal energy harmonization, techniques for utilizing cosmic energy to alleviate physical and psychological stress, and even the treatment of certain illnesses. Additionally, the Elqui Valley is often associated with reported UFO sightings.

From Ovalle, another important city in the Coquimbo Region, visitors can explore Fray Jorge National Park and Socos Hot Springs, located on kilometer 370 of the Pan-American Highway north of Santiago. Fray Jorge National Park, situated along the Pacific coast, is notable for its unique juxtaposition of lush forests within a desert-like environment, near the Atacama region.