Chile’s cultural roots are as diverse as its landscape, and have shaped the uniquely Chilean identity. Head into the country’s northern Atacama region, and you’ll find that it’s far from being a desolate, arid wilderness. The Atacama desert is overflowing with life, with fertile oases sustaining an astonishing diversity of life in the world’s driest desert.
On the photogenic high Andean plateau (altiplano), you’ll find small historic villages at up to 4,000m above sea level, where you can spend time with the indigenous Aymara people who mostly still practise their ancient way of life.
Visit San Pedro de Atacama and explore its vast salt flats, active geysers and intense blue lagoons; or drop by one of the many coastal towns – like Arica and Iquique – which are lined with sandy beaches and punctuated with historic sites further inland. Thanks to its clear night skies, the northern half of Chile is also dotted with many astronomical observatories.
With a mixture of coastline, desert and high Andean plateau, Arica is not just famous for its warm water beaches where you can surf and bodyboard. You can trek to Morro de Arica, an Iconic National Monument where you can parasail from its summit, or visit the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum, home to the oldest mummies in the world. You can also explore the altiplano on a visit along ancient roads that reveal more than 30 colonial churches.
At Lauca National Park, the Andean foothills and high plateau landscapes merge in a place of great cultural and historical interest. One of its main attractions is Chungará Lake – one of the highest in the world situated at the foot of the Payachata twin volcanoes – which is steeped in archaeological and historical interest. Camp at the foot of volcanoes and caves, right in front of the reflection of beautiful lagoons; it’s an amazing view that will make you forget it’s one of Chile’s most populated regions.
Visit Parinacota village, a National Monument where you can learn about the local alpaca wool weavers and visit its 17th century stone church. A mystical destination in the heart of Lauca National Park, its adobe buildings hide legends of spirits and superstition dating back to the pre-Columbian past of the Aymara people.
In the month of January or February, Arica holds the Carnaval con La Fuerza del Sol Arica for three days, featuring colourful Bolivian dances.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
The historic town of San Pedro de Atacama is situated in a land of indigenous peoples, and a place where dirt roads and adobe homes are sprinkled across some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet.
While the city has plenty of attractions, like the old plaza and church, it’s what lies outside that make this area famous. From active geysers to lagoons and salt flats, you can end the day in a hot spring and gaze at the stars across the sky of the driest desert in the world.
The enormous Los Flamencos National Reserve is a landscape of lagoons, salt flats and mountains where flamingos take centre stage.
Walk along the trails around the spectacular altiplanic lagoons and visit the most scenic portion of the Atacama Desert: the Moon and Mars valleys – Moon Valley with its peculiar rock formations and dunes, and Mars Valley with its ever-changing colours. At night, they’re ideal stargazing spots, and are easily accessible from town via cycling or trekking trips.
At 4,000m above sea level, the deep blue waters and white shores of the Altiplanic Lagoons are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and welcome a large variety of birds. With its mix of desert, mountains and ice, it’s a photographer’s magnet. Go deeper into the Aguas Calientes salt flat, and you’ll find the desolate Tuyaito Lagoon with its unique pearl-like colour.
Chiu Chiu is an oasis in the middle of the desert inhabited by Atacama communities. While normally tranquil, it livens up during periods of religious festivities when algarrobo drinks (fermented drink made from the algarrobo tree) are drunk. Visit the San Francisco Church, built in the 1600s, which is the oldest church in Chile built using millennial indigenous techniques and made out of mud and cactus wood.
Set along the ocean among palm trees and pastel-coloured colonial buildings, a walk in downtown Iquique transports you back in time to when ladies wore taffeta and men had handlebar mustaches. Its collection of old architecture maintain the glamour of its heyday as a saltpeter mine.
The two saltpeter towns of Santa Laura and Humberstone – both UNESCO sites – became the world’s most important saltpeter mine at the turn of the 20th century. You can visit these ghost towns to relive the glory days of one of Chile’s most prosperous periods in history.
On 16 July, check out the La Tirana Festival, which is basically Chile in a nutshell – an eclectic and unique blend of indigenous culture and Catholic traditions, with late-night dancing and round-the-clock food. It’s held in the town of Tirana, an oasis in the middle of the Pampa del Tamarugal, about 72km inland from Iquique.