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Atacama & The North
Atacama & The North
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The far northern sector of the country is defined as the area between Arica, at 18.5? South of the equator (S) and La Serena 30?S. is 2,062 km north of? ? Santiago and La Serena is 474 km north. Within this area the main cities are Iquique, Antofagasta (where the Tropic of Capricorn passes), Calama, San Pedro de Atacama, Copiapo and Vallenar. Arica is very close to the border with Peru and the area that runs southwards to La Serena at is one of the driest regions in the world within which is the Atacama Desert. There is a small difference of temperature from summer to winter and the weather is remarkably constant from one day to another. The zone is a typical \\\'cold-water coast to hot-dry desert\\\' combination where, in spite of being virtually rainless, the coast is often cloudy and relatively cool for the latitude. The coastal strip has much fog and frequent light drizzle with rather low amounts of sunshine, however in the summer the coastal cloud usually breaks up by midday and inland temperatures reach very high figures during the day and the clear skies allow for plenty of sun. However, close to and in the mountains it is common to get rain and snow during summer months! A typical phenomenon is the ?Bolivian Winter?, which is the name given to the build up of summer storms on the Bolivian side of the border that then drift over to Chile, dropping heavy showers of rain that fall as snow in the mountains. These storms also contain much electricity and lightening strikes are a serious hazard to people and livestock. The aftermath of a ?Bolivian Winter? storm is very picturesque, with fresh, white snow covering the Andes and contrasting in a stunning way with the warm orange and reds of the Atacama Desert.


Within the Atacama Desert are fascinating archaeological sites where artefacts and well-preserved mummified bodies of ancient indigenous cultures have been found. There are also petroglyphs and geoglyphs, amazing rock formations, hot springs and an environment like no other on Earth.




Arica(2,062 km north from Santiagoby road) is a costal city located close to the borders with Peru and Bolivia. It has a casino and is a base from where you can go to La Paz in Bolivia and/or drive up to one of the highest lakes in the world: Lake Chungara, located at the uncomfortable altitude of 4,570 m, where breathing can be difficult and altitude sickness is a potential hazard.? Lake Chungara is set within the beautiful Lauca National Park, declared a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve, which is home to wildlife such as vicunas, vizcachas, foxes, rheas, condors, giant coots and flamingos among others as well as containing some stunning geographic sites such as the snow-covered cone of Parinacota Volcano. The route from Arica to Lake Chungara, which is scenically poor apart from the welcome sight of historic Andean villages, passes by the excellent San Miguel de Azapa archaeological museum (14 km from Arica) containing artefacts and mummified bodies dating back thousands of years. The museum is open in January and February, from Monday to Friday 09:00hrs to 20:00hrs and the rest of the year 10:00hrs to 18:00hrs.

Located a further 131 km form Arica, also en route to Lake Chungara is the Andean village of Putre, set at an altitude of 3,500 m, a tidy village from where there are bird-spotting excursions and prehispanic hiking trails.

A further 44 km past Putre is the tiny village of Parinacota (population 25), altitude 4,392 m, with its simple white-coloured church (1789).

In a robust off-road 4 x 4 vehicle you can drive from Arica, up to and through the Lauca National Park and then south along the Andes but this should not be attempted without a guide and back-up emergency equipment.

NOTE: Excursions to the high altitude \\\"Alti Plano\\\" (Putre, Parinacota and Lake Chungara)

should not be attempted by those with weak hearts and, ideally should be done in stages i.e. not in one day.



Iquique(1,853 km north fromSantiagoby road, and 316 km south from Arica by road), is a costal city that grew into an important port and base for miners during the nitrate mining boom between 1880 - 1920. Until the War of the Pacific (Chile - Peru Naval War in 1879), which Chile won, the city was under Peruvian control. Many of the houses were built by the English who came to work the mines and one or two buildings reflect the opulence of the nitrate good times. Unfortunately for the citizens of Iquique demand for nitrate fell when artificial fertilisers replaced nitrate and the city turned to fishing as a means to generate income. Today it is positioning itself as a tourist spot offering sandy beaches, tours to old mining \\\"ghost\\\" towns such as Humberstone (47 km east from the city), trips to La Tirana (66 km south east from the city) where each year there is an impressive religious festival during July/August; to Mamina (125 km east of the city) a hot spring village; to Pica (108 km south east from the city, known for the plentiful plantations of Pica Lemons - used in Pisco Sour as well as other citrus fruits and hot springs in which to bathe.


San Pedro de AtacamaNearest Airport: Calama

This is the place to visit in northern Chile. Located in the heart of the Atacama Desert is San Pedro de Atacama, 1,667 km north of Santiago and 2,438mts above sea level. It is a tiny, dusty, oasis village with unpaved streets that serves as a base from where to explore the outstanding natural geographic beauty of the area. It is impossible to describe the mind-blowing spectacle of a desert plain dwarfed by a conical, snow-covered volcanoes; the beauty of shades of red and orange; the heat that rises from the vast white expanse of the salt plains - home to pink flamingos; the moon-like landscape of the Valley of the Moon or the amazing blue and green colours of the high-altitude lakes, the silence of which is only broken by the chirping of birds; so please make the journey to see it all for yourself.

The village is a simple place with buildings constructed from adobe and other natural materials but at night it comes alive as the many bohemian-style bars and innovative restaurants open up. It attracts the ?hippy? crowd and back-packers, but these days a number of older, more wealthy visitors are coming to get the ?Atacama? experience.

If you rent a car and do your own thing beware, take extra water, warm clothes and check that the car does have a spare wheel, jack and that you know how to use it BEFORE setting off. People do break down, run out of water and get cold. We personally know of an Englishman who almost lost his life when he became stuck in a dried out river. You are in a desert a long way from help.

The main areas to explore from San Pedro are:

El Tatio Geysers
Located at 4,321 m above sea level, in the heart of the Andes Mountains 210 km from San Pedro. The drive from San Pedro takes about three hours because the route is along narrow, unpaved, steep roads at altitude and for this reason departure from San Pedro is usually at 04:00 hrs, in order to arrive for the dawn spectacle of the geysers bubbling into the air. The incredibly clear night sky, the natural phenomena of hot water from the ground boiling an egg and the opportunity to bathe in natural thermal springs is what coming to the geysers is all about. WARNING: people have fallen through the hard crust that surrounds the geysers and consequently been scalded. In some cases people have died. Although most people wander all over the site, you would be well advised to not get too close to even the smallest pools of water.


A truly remarkable Andean village known for its simplicity, Inca architecture and terraced farming methods. Located in a vertical-sided, narrow canyon, the people and way of life appear to be the same as it was thousands of years ago. For some, a visit to this village feels intrusive and in many respects our view is that ?Westerners? should stay away. Great care should be taken to respect the inhabitants and their way of life.


Miscanti and Menique Lagoons ?
Located 290 km from San Pedro and at 4,500 m above sea level in the heart of the Andes Mountains. These two lagoons are adjacent to each other and radiate a vivid blue colour. Dwarfed by two volcanoes, the lagoons offer a haven for birds.

Tocanao Village and Salt Flat
Tocanao village is located 45 km south of San Pedro and sits on the edge of a vast salt flat which is home to pink flamingos. The geographic landscape that surrounds the village is formidable. The village itself has a charming central plaza but not much else. The salt flat is impressive in terms of its size and the heat which constantly evaporates any moisture in the ground.

ArchaeologicalTours and Museum
San Pedro is home to a fine museum that houses artefacts and mummies dating back thousands of years and is well worth a visit. If you are interested in the archaeology of the area the villages of Quitor and Tulor should also be of interest. There is an entrance fee to pay.

Valley of the Moon
A popular tour for practically all visitors to San Pedro is the \\\"Valle de La Luna\\\", called so because of its resemblance to the surface of the moon. It is about 15 km from San Pedro.

Other Activities
There are many other places to see and things to do such as horse riding and a visit to the world\\\'s largest open-cast copper mine \\\"Chuquicamata\\\" just outside Calama.

The immediate northern zone above Santiago is an area that runs roughly 500 km north of Santiago (the capital city) and known as \\\"Small North\\\" (Norte Chico) because although north it is not all of the north. Readers looking for information on places like San Pedro de Atacama should look at our menu for Chile Far North.

In this, \\\"Small North\\\" zone the climate is Mediterranean with long (5 months Nov - Mar), hot and dry summers with little rain; short, cool and changeable winter weather with snow on the mountains. Santiago enjoys spectacularly good summers due, also, to its altitude (543m - 800m) whereby the costal-range mountains prevent the clouds from encroaching up to the city.

La Serena and Elqui Valley

La Serena

Is 474 km north from Santiago by road. It is a popular summer destination for Chileans and Argentineans. It boasts an impressively long sandy beach offering excellent bathing and attractions that include a gambling casino. The city itself is not noted for any charm but it does offer a mock colonial flavour in some quarters. It is a good place to relax and use as either a stopping point to go further north or when coming from the north to the south. It is also a good place from where you can get to Vicuna (66 km) or explore the other beach towns, such as Tongoy, that are 30 to 40 km further south.


Located about an hour north, by road, of La Serena is a place called \\\"Punta de Los Choros\\\" where you can hire a simple fishing boat, with captain, and see dolphins, sea lions, penguins and birds that live on and around the nearby islands (\\\"Isla Margarita\\\"). The sea tour takes about two to three hours but CAN be quite hairy in a choppy sea! Hat and sun cream essential and we recommend that you take your own beverages and sandwiches as well as warm clothing as it can be chilly out at sea. We also suggest that YOU consider the conditions and NOT go if you are slightly concerned about safety.?

Observatory La Silla

Located about 150 km north-east of La Serena at 2,240 m above sea level. Open the first Saturday of the month 14:30hrs. - 17:30hrs. Advance registration ESSENTIAL. Tel: SANTIAGO 228 5006 or 698 8757. Observatory El Tololo (Professional Astronomical Observatory) Located at a high point of 2,200mts. South west of Vicuna (approx 45kms) is the El Tololo (Radio Telescope i.e. you do not see through an optical lens) Observatory. Visits are permitted but ONLY with prior notification and with a permit. Open: 09:00hrs - 12.00hrs and 13:00hrs - 16:00hrs. Tel: (51) 225 415?

The Elqui Valley / Vicuna

A fertile valley running inland from La Serena. The vivid green of the valley contrasts starkly against the barren, brown sides of the mountains. In the heart of the Elqui Valley is Vicuna, the birth place of Chile is Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral. The most interesting place to visit is the tiny village of Pisco Elqui, located deep in the mountains about an hour south-east of Vicuna. Pisco Elqui is a tiny Andean village offering general peace and a slow way of life and is popular with hippies and travellers. An ideal place to relax, see the stunningly clear night sky and visit the old pisco distillery. Within our itineraries we offer trips to the local astronomical observatory called Mamalluca, run by local astronomical hobbyists.