During the day the sun beats down mercilessly, the nights however are cold and come with star-filled skies. The saltpetre beds of this region dazzle with the reflected sun and, as the viewer approaches reveal emerald-coloured lagoons and Chilean pink flamingos. Enclosing the landscape are blue, red and purple hills and beneath the landscape mineral riches lie hidden. Saltpetre, a source of immense fortunes in the past, was extracted from these regions and Chile's greatest treasures; its copper mines are here. Despite its aridity, this is no dead land. Along with its superb landscape, the north harbours a rich archaeological heritage that makes it Chile's archaeological capital. The Chilean north bore witness to the greatness of the Inca Empire and experienced the fearless charge of the Spanish conquistadors. Spectacular archaeological findings have been made here not least of which are the world's oldest mummies. These mummies, known as the Chinchorro mummies, have been unearthed in Arica. They are unique in Latin America and at over 7000 years old, they pre-date the Egyptian mummies. Additionally, on hill slopes in this region can be seen giant geoglyphs that a thousand years ago were used to guide caravans through the desert. These huge drawings of animals, birds, men and symbolic figures were made by grouping stones together or by razing the ground.
At intervals rivers flowing in green valleys from the mountains to the sea break the aridity of this area. More than ten thousand years ago, these valley oases attracted nomad tribes and centuries later they became the homes of farmers and fishermen whose pottery and textiles survive to this day. These valley oasis also served as stops for Pre-Inca caravans using the trade routes that connected the Amazon forest and the Pacific Ocean. Venturing inside the valley ravines you can still admire today the beautiful hieroglyphic and rupestrian paintings of llama herds and scenes of daily life left by those moving through and living in this region.
The highland plains located between 3500 and 4500 meters above sea level receive summer rains in January and February. They comprise a unique, ferocious landscape with their perfectly coned volcanoes and snowy peaks (reaching to over 6000 meters) which are surround by white saltpetre beds, blue lagoons and golden pastures where guanacos and vicuñas, the Andean camels, freely roam. Occasionally, a ñandu will break the quiet of these plains with the smack of its feathers. The highlands are the common lands of all the Andean people of Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Since time immemorial the Aymara communities have roamed them with their herds of alpacas and llamas, pausing only occasionally to gather in some ceremonial town to honour a patron saint.
The highland plains experienced the splendour of the Tiwanako culture (300-1100 BC), which originated in Lake Titicaca and that of the Inca Empire which expanded to covered over half of Chile until it was cut down by the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. The highland plains were covered by a network of Inca trails, where the chasquis (messengers) ran to take news to all four corners of the Inca Empire. There are still remains of the tambos that served as stops on their journeys.
Strewn along the plains and the sierra, there are picturesque villages with stone and mud houses, corrals and agricultural terraces. The cemeteries of this area also stand out with their wreathes of paper or metal placed on the crosses, for lack of fresh flowers. The most important buildings in these villages are the churches that are a legacy of the Spanish missionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Surrounded by the village houses they display a mixture of traditional beliefs and the Christian faith and are always beautiful in their simplicity. It is impossible not to admire the bell towers, the doors with their baroque carvings, the polychromes in the altars, the iconic colonial paintings of a suffering Christ and the statutes of the virgin adorned in velvet and lace. For a visitor to these villages and their churches it is a pleasure to wander through the markets and mingle with the locals with their golden faces and colourful clothing. In particular the women amaze with the tiny black bowler hats, their babies carried on their backs, their mastery of herbal medicine, their cooking of chuño de papa and charqui de llama, and with the fantastic textiles created on their looms. Over ten thousand years of human presence is kept in this great open-air museum, with the seacoast cities of Arica and Iquique contributing the modern touch. These cities provide the tourist infrastructure for the area and enable the visitor to easily pick up excursions to the region's wonderful beaches, archaeological sites, thermal springs, picturesque hamlets and its National Parks.
Arica, city of beaches and "eternal springtime" is on the border with Peru. It is the starting point to climb to the Lauca National Park (declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO). At 4500 meters Lauca is the meeting point for the borders of Chile, Bolivia and Peru. The traveller making the journey up to the park will encounter thousands of cactus, a string of Andean towns and Lake Chungará, the world's highest lake whose crystalline waters mirror the volcanoes that surround it. In this park, just as in the more southerly Las Vicuñas National Reserve and the Salar de Surire National Monument, there are vicuñas, guanacos, llamas and alpacas, as well as hundreds of bird species such as flamingos (parinas), wild geese, Andean seagulls and a huge variety of aquatic birds. The village of Parinacota, near to Lake Chungará, with its white houses and eighteenth century church is one of the most typical of the highland plains. The church is decorated with strangest of murals depicting Christ being crucified by the Conquistadores. Parinacota is also one of the string of towns that make up the "silver route" going from the famous mines of Potosi to the harbours of the Pacific.
Continuing south along the coast from Arica, the city of Iquique is a fun place to relax with its beautiful beaches and excellent hotels. Newly constructed buildings and condos share the cityscape with the elegant mansions of the old saltpetre tycoons, with their galleries that open to the street and their roofed balconies. The city's guava cocktails and seafood feasts (served in restaurants fronting the sea) are not its only temptations, shopperholics would do well to take a tour of the Zofri, the largest duty free area in Latin America. Iquique is also a good starting point for many interesting excursions. It is possible to visit the pampa "de caliche", Humberstone, Santa Laura, Victoria and many other abandoned refining centers that bear witness to the saltpetre boom of 1840 to 1920.
They are ghost towns today, mere memories of the glory days when they produced around 65% of the "white gold" consumed in the world.
The lonely beaches of the coast with their warm waters and soft sands invite you to take a swim, dive or surf. Alternatively travelling towards the mountain range, Mamiña with its beautiful church built in 1632 and its paved streets offers thermal springs and mud baths. Pica is the village equivalent of a flower and fruit garden supplied by natural springs it has a natural pool amongst its rocks as well as orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, mangoes and guava trees. The famous "limón de Pica" (pica lemon) which is used to make the best pisco sour is originally from here. Pica's old houses are decorated with bougainvillaea and the church is remarkable for its scene of the Last Supper, with real-size characters. The church in neighbouring Matilla is famous for its fruit honey pastes. Even a quick tour from Iquique should not leave out La Tirana. Every July 16th, on the day of the Virgen del Carmen, La Tirana celebrates Chile's most colourful and popular religious holiday. About a hundred thousand people gather on this day to honour the Virgin with musical bands, groups of dancers and "devils" wearing colourful masks and wonderful costumes.
Further to the south in the heart of the Atacama Desert, is San Pedro de Atacama, an absolute 'must' to visit. If allowed a visit to only one place in the north many would undoubtedly choose San Pedro, a place that offers a synthesis of the north. After crossing the most arid of pampas and mountain ranges San Pedro emerges as a green miracle in the middle of the desert. It is a charming oasis of white houses, sunny streets and a town square bordered by old pepper trees and adobe gates. The solid architecture of its church (built in colonial times with mud, straw and cactus wood and featuring a stone altar with polychromed niches) stands in front of a house that was once, apparently, used by Pedro de Valdivia. San Pedro is a meeting spot for many different types of people looking for a special place. This helps explain the welcoming and informal atmosphere of its small restaurants, shops and markets, all enlivened by the sounds of the quena and the charango. San Pedro has accommodation ranging from hostels and good hotels and has excellent tourist organisations. Its museum founded by the Belgian missionary R.P. La Paige (the father of archaeological research in the region) has more than 380,000 pieces beginning with the origins of the Atacama culture 10 thousand years ago and encompassing the arrival of the Spaniards. The museum's collection includes close to 600 hallucinogen trays-the largest collection of its kind- and hundreds of mummies (the remaining representatives of a people that made the desert their home, the aridity their cornucopia and the uninhabitable the domain of gods and lords). Tulor, near San Pedro and in the constant presence of the Licancabur volcano (reputed to be a sacred mountain) tells the tale, in the remains found there, of the first farmers of Atacama, with their mud huts in the shape of igloos built 2000 years ago. The fortress or pucará of Quitor, built a thousand years later, speaks of the time of the great Andean lords. A time when trade with other regions was intense and when caravans brought from the jungle the exotic feathers for the shamans' attire and hallucinogens to allow them to take on the powers of the puma, the condor and the snake during ritual ceremonies. Stone walls are all that remain of this once great fortified citadel. These walls witnessed the arrival of the Incas and the conquest of the Spaniards, when Francisco de Aguirre, terrifying those who had never seen horses or harquebuses (the Spaniards' guns) entered the city with his cavalry, took it in a little over an hour and exhibited the severed heads of the leaders on its walls.
San Pedro is an ideal place for walks, mountain climbing and excursions on mountain bikes. Ideal excursions would be to any of the following, the Valley of Death (with its labyrinths and red mountains at sunset), the Salt Mountain Range (a lake bed of curious shapes and crystals), the Plain of Patience and the Valley of the Moon (an area of wind-carved sculptures and desolated lifeless lunar landscape). The Salar de Atacama (the Atacama Saltpetre Bed) is Chile's biggest salt deposit comprising 3000 square kilometers, its lithium deposits represent 40% of the world's reserves. The Salar de Atacama dresses endless horizons in white interrupted only by flamingos and multicoloured lagoons. At over 4000 meters the Tatio geysers are the highest in the world. To be at Tatio when the sun starts to light the contours of the hills is to be speechless with awe. At this time the geysers spurt to unexpected heights and the landscape is enveloped in steam as volcanic waters boil up from inside the Earth. The ghostly Dantesque atmosphere evokes the beginning of the world. Amid this spectacular scene you can bathe in the thermal pools or you can go down to the Termas de Puritama to take advantage of its medicinal waters. Heightening all of San Pedro's natural wonders are the landscapes of the highlands plains, the volcanoes, lagoons and yellow pampas interspersed with picturesque and ancient towns like Toconao, Caspana and Chiu Chiu. The pucará of Lasana (s. XII) invites you to explore its small streets surrounded by stone buildings. Chuquicamata, the world's largest open mine it is also well worth a visit. It is one of the major copper producing mines yielding over 600 thousand tons of fine copper each year.
Finally, going south we reach La Serena, after passing by lonely beaches, the Pan de Azúcar National Park, with its incredible variety of cactuses and islands full of penguins and the Copiapó Valley. The Copiapó Valley almost beats the desert with its grapevines and fruit plantations but the desert has its own spectacular surprise when in some areas in specific years it explodes with multicoloured flowers and is for a short time the "flowering desert".
With good hotels, exclusive condos and modern architecture resorts, La Serena has become the area's most attractive beach resort. The long Avenida del Mar offers kilometers long beaches lined by pleasant chalets, apartment buildings and small restaurants which come to life in the summer, In contrast away from the beach the city has a colonial and traditional atmosphere with includes close to 30 old churches. On the outskirts of La Serena lies the fertile Elqui Valley that not only produces papayas and grapes for the making of pisco, but also produces esoteric waves. As the tale goes, the Elqui Valley has mysterious energies. Gabriela Mistral, the famous poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, was born here and a visitor to its quiet towns and beautiful views will not go unrewarded.
The region's clean and clear night
skies have attracted international astronomical observatories that have
been established in the region's mountains. The most accessible observatory
from La Serena is the Tololo Observatory, which is open to visitors. Reflecting
on the north we contemplate a fascinating place for adventure, archaeology
and rest. A place where it is possible to scale volcanoes, to ride a mountain
bike across a plateau larger than Holland and as high as Tibet, to trek
across the world's most arid desert or simply to paraglide above the peace
of seaside cliffs.
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