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Northern Desert

This region claims the world’s driest desert, a pastel-colored “wasteland” set below a chain of volcanoes and high-altitude salt flats. The sun-baked region is flecked with oases such as San Pedro de Atacama, an adobe-built pueblo typical of the region, as well as plentiful and well-preserved Indian ruin sites. The arid climate and the geological forces at work in this region have produced far-out land formations and superlatives such as the highest geyser field in the world.

POINTS OF INTEREST

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

Quaint, unhurried, and built of adobe brick, San Pedro de Atacama sits in the driest desert in the world north of Santiago, a region replete with bizarre land formations including giant sand dunes, jagged canyons, salt pillars, boiling geysers, and a smoking volcano. Better to call it a moonscape than a landscape. For adventure seekers, a wealth of activities is available to participate in, including hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding—or you can just sightsee with a tour van. This region was the principal center of the Atacamanian Indian culture, and relics such as Tulor, an ancient village estimated to have been built in 800 B.C., still survive. There’s also a superb archaeology museum that boasts hundreds of artifacts that have been well preserved by the desert’s arid climate. This is one of the top stargazing areas in the world; once you leave the village and are enveloped by a thick blanket of twinkling lights, you’d be forgiven for feeling that the galaxy was not so far, far away after all. The town has fomented somewhat of a bohemian ambiance, but with the variety of activities and lodging options, the region appeals to just about everyone. To visit the major sites here, you’ll need 3 or 4 days, a few more to see everything including the outlying villages or the Chuquicamata mine. Outside of the May to July season, rooms can book up as far as 6 months ahead of time, so plan ahead.

CHUQUICAMATA COPPER MINE

Ghost towns dot the northern desert from Chile’s nitrate-mining days, but the copper-mining industry is alive and well, as is evident by Calama’s Chuquicamata mine. This is the largest open-pit mine in the world at 4km (2-1⁄2 miles) across and more than half a kilometer deep—everything at its bottom looks Lilliputian. The mine is owned by Codelco and yields more than 600,000 tons of copper per year or 25% of Chile’s export income. Few man-made wonders in the world provoke the visual awe of Chuquicamata. The mine tour is free, but donations to a foundation for underprivileged kids are encouraged. For safety reasons, wear trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and closed shoes.

CHIU CHIU

Chiu Chiu was founded by the Spanish in the early 17th century as part of an extensive trading route that included Brazil. This speck of a village is known for the Iglesia San Francisco, the most picturesque church in the north. The whitewashed adobe walls of this weather-beaten structure are 47-in thick, and its doors are made of cedar and bordered with cactus, displaying a singular, Atacamanian style.

NATIONAL MONUMENT PUKARÁ DE LASANA

It is fascinating to explore the ruins of the National Monument Pukará de Lasana, a 12th-century Atacama Indian fort influenced by the Incas, abandoned after the Spanish occupation and restored in 1951. You’ll want to spend at least a half-hour wandering the labyrinthine streets that wind around the remains of 110 two- to five-story buildings.

CASPANA

North of Chiu Chiu is the engaging village of Caspana, surrounded by a fertile valley cultivated in a terraced formation like a sunken amphitheater. The village is characterized by its rock-wall and thatched-roof architecture. In the center, a tiny museum is dedicated to the culture of the area and there’s an artisan shop selling textiles made from alpaca. Caspana also boasts a colonial-era church, the Iglesia de San Lucas, built in 1641 of stone, cactus, and mortar and covered in adobe.

PUKARÁ DE TURI

Near Caspana is another National Monument, the Pukará de Turi, the largest fortified city of the Atacama culture, built in the 12th century, and widely believed to be an Inca administrative center. The size of these ruins, with their circular towers and wide streets, is impressive, and you’ll need about a half-hour to soak it all in.

MUSEO ARQUEOLÓGICO PADRE LE PAIGE

This museum near the plaza displays one of South America’s most fascinating collections of pre-Columbian artifacts, gathered by Padre le Paige, a Belgian missionary. The Atacama Desert is so arid that most artifacts are notably well preserved, including hundreds of ceramics, textiles, tablets used for the inhalation of hallucinogens, tools, and more, all displayed according to the time period. The museum’s famous mummies and deformed craniums have been taken out in respect of the indigenous community, which was, for many, the highlight of a visit here, so plan on just 30 minutes to see everything.

THE ATACAMA SALT FLAT

A gigantic mineralized lake that is covered in many parts by a weird, putty-colored crust, the flat is also home to a flamingo reserve. There’s also an interpretive center (no phone); it’s open September through May daily. A local favorite here is Laguna Sejar, 12 miles from San Pedro. This emerald lagoon is encircled by white salt encrustations that resemble and feel like a coral reef—so bring flip-flops. Sejar affords a remarkable swimming experience, floating in the water so saline it renders you virtually unsinkable.

GEYSERS DEL TATIO

A highlight in the Atacama Desert is the Geysers del Tatio; this excursion is not the easiest, as tours leave at 4 or 5 am (the geysers are most active around 6–8 am). These are the highest geysers in the world, and it is a marvelous spectacle to watch thick plumes of steam blow from holes in such a windswept, arid land. Interspersed between the geysers, bubbling pools encrusted with colorful minerals splash and splutter— but exercise extreme caution when walking near thin crust; careless visitors burn themselves frequently. It is not recommended to drive here—even habitual drivers to the geysers can get lost in the dark morning.