The Little North

Atacama and Elqui

Home to the world’s driest desert, clearest skies, and highest volcano – the Atacama and Elqui are both superlative and under-explored. From the magnificent altiplano landscapes of Parque Nevado Tres Cruces, to the Pisco vines and state-of-the-art telescopes of the Elqui Valley; from the colonial center of La Serena to the beaches of Coquimbo next door, the “Norte Chico” or “Little North” is one of Chile’s most diverse and beautiful regions. Read more...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009  
Atacama y Elqui Isla Damas (Photo:Chilephoto)

The “Norte Chico” covers Chile's Regions III (Atacama) and IV (Coquimbo), running more than 500 miles (840 km) north to south up from the fertile central valleys to the depths of the Atacama Desert.
 
The Cities
 
The region’s largest urban center, the twin cities of Coquimbo and La Serena, are the first stop for most visitors in the region. Located on a ridge above the coast, La Serena is Chile’s second-oldest city and home to its best-preserved colonial center. The row of swish nightclubs that line its beach lead to its scruffier, livelier sister, the old port of Coquimbo.

 

Jutting out on a club-shaped peninsula into the Pacific, Coquimbo has a storied history of pirates and treasure, and hosts Chile’s biggest independence day parties each September. From the fish market on the water, to the monumental cross that surmounts the city’s highest hill, Coquimbo’s streets are filled with creaky houses and raucous bars.
 
Copiapó, the northern city, is a gritty yet captivating mining town. Smack in the middle of some of Chile’s most productive mines, this city of 150,000 became famous internationally for its proximity to the San José mine, where the 33 miners were rescued in 2010, and its close ties to Chile’s mines. Copiapó also has a lovely colonial square, captivating traditional watering holes filled with hard-bitten old timers, and easy proximity to some of the southern Atacama’s best parks.
 
The Elqui Valley
 
The mouth of the Elqui Valley opens up just outside the city of La Serena, its gentle hills and vineyards no hint at the dramatic, craggy peaks and bone-dry landscape farther inland to the east. Farms and yineyards dominate the western end of the valley, with La Serena’s famous yellow papayas growing alongside the vines that produce the majority of Chile’s pisco, the national drink. Past the spectacular lake formed by the Puclaro Dam, the quaint town of Vicuña sits at the valley’s heart and serves as a key point in the heritage route that traces the life of Chile’s first Nobel Laureate: poet Gabriela Mistral.
 
Past Vicuña the mountains rise higher and the greenery dies out as the you reach the heart of the Valley. Here, high in the Andes, you will find some of the world’s most advanced astronomical observatories pointing into the depths of the clearest skies on earth.
 
The Atacama
 
In the high mountains, Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces has cerulean blue lakes and flamingos, the southernmost salt flat in the world, and a set of spectacular high altitude mountains that mark the border with Argentina. The Ojos del Salado – the highest volcano on earth at 22,608 ft (6,891 m) – sits just outside the park.
 
Across the country, Pan de Azucar National Park and the Humboldt Penguin Reserve sit on Chile’s Pacific coast within easy striking distance of the popular beach resorts Caldera and Bahía Inglesa.

 

Every few years, lucky visitors will have the chance to see one of the continent’s most stunning natural phenomena: El Desierto Florido, or the Flowering Desert. A few times each decade, the El Niño current drops scant rain on the world’s driest desert, resulting in a stunning emergence of wildflowers in shades of white, yellow, fuscia and red.
 
With characterful cities and magnificent landscapes, the Atacama and Elqui may not be the regions you arrive in Chile aching to see, but they may just be your favorites by the time you leave.

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