Less well-known but no less attractive, the inland valleys Atacama and Elqui are treasures waiting to be discovered. These are part of primeval Chile, where nature and man still coexist in harmony.
These are valleys that break up the landscape. The arid nature of most of this territory gives way to patches of vegetation made possible by rivers running down from the Andes. These were resting areas used for originary people for centuries, and these people left behind impressive petroglyphs.
Valle del Limarí
Valle del Limarí is increasingly renowned for the production of fine wines favored by its ideal climate. Fray Jorge National Park and Valle del Encanto are two milestones not to be missed.
Fray Jorge National Park
This is a Valdivian-type mixed forest located in the coastal desert zone, as if southern Chile had somehow moved to the north. That’s what it feels like when you walk into a huge forest that opens up a few kilometers away from Ovalle, interrupting the area’s typically arid landscapes. Located 150 kilometers south of La Serena and 75 kilometers from Ovalle, the park’s 9,959 hectares were declared a World Biosphere Reserve by Unesco.
This natural phenomenon owes its existence to the condensation of coastal mist, or camanchaca, allowing trees such as Winter’s bark (drimys winteri), buckthorns (Rhamnus lycioides), Chilean tepas (Laureliopsis philippiana) and a wide variety of ferns that survive over 1,250 kilometers away from their traditional habitat. Fray Jorge is living proof of what this region looked like thousands of years ago, before the last glaciation.
The view from any of the nearby mountain tops is breathtaking on a clear day, with a stark contrast between the desert and lush forest. The best time to visit this park is between October and November, the flowering period.
Fray Jorge has a campsite known as El Arrayancito, with campfire areas, drinking water and rest rooms. The campsite is managed by CONAF and its office is located in an over 100-year-old manor house 5 kilometers from the park entrance. The campsite is only open on weekends and holidays during the off-season. As for the rest of year, you can ask at any Conaf office before visiting the area.
Valle del Encanto
An open air museum that follows the trails of the past close to the Tabalí Winery.
It is believed that the molle culture and other groups of hunters inhabited this area from 2000 B.C. up until the 12th century. This is why several petroglyphs can still be found at Valle del Encanto, including representations of tiara masks, human figures with antennae, solar symbols and pictographs in the shape of serpents and fish.
An unexplained mystery is the so-called tacit rocks that were probably used to grind grain or prepare paint or potions for unknown shamanic rites. The area has a campsite and a picnic area.
A visit to Pichasca is like taking a walk through prehistoric times. A dinosaur replica, fossils of ancient araucaria trees, a huge cave and spectacular viewpoints looking out over the Río Hurtado valley are some of the area’s attractions.
The Pichasca National Monument is known as Chile’s jurassic park. The monument is located 85 kilometers south of La Serena in the Río Hurtado valley, an area with a semi-desert climate and forests made up of cacti over 2 meters tall that attract visitors’ attention.
Pichasca is a surprising and mysterious place known for its beauty and serenity. Just a short walk away and visitors run into the feet of a titanosaurus, a huge plastic dinosaur replica built after the locals found some bones of this creature that walked this region at least 75 million years ago.
Other impressive attractions are the petrified forest and Casa de Piedra, a cave used approximately 10,000 years ago by men who left behind remains of baskets, food, arrowheads and cave paintings.
Take Highway D-595 starting from Ovalle and drive past the Recoleta Dam to get to Pichasa. The area has a picnic area, rest rooms and a tourist information center. An additional attraction in the area is one of Chile’s most beautiful birds, the Tricahue parrot that is renowned for its beautiful plumage.
Valle del Quilimarí
With a lusher green and smaller towns, Quilimarí is a narrow valley through which a river of the same name runs. It is known as the valley of the petroglyphs because the ancient dwellers of this area left myriad stone pictures behind.
The valley starts near Pichidangui and connects to Valle del Choapa and Valle de La Ligua. Cradle of the diaguita culture, the area is surrounded by petroglyphs and ceremonial places dating back to 300 B.C.
The trip starts at Quilimarí, a small town built around the beautiful old Nuestra Señora del Carmen Colorado chapel, built back in 1760.
Other places not to be missed are Guangualí, an interesting town whose inhabitants have specialized in the creation of lively-colored pottery; Los Cóndores with its petroglyph museum, the Tilama quartz mine and the Culimo dam, home to petroglyphs and the largest concentration of Chilean palm trees. 24 kilometers north of Tilama, through impressive tunnels and over bridges belonging to the abandoned Northern Railway, we find the oldest town in the valley, Caimanes, founded by Diego de Almagro, Spanish conquistador in Chile, back in 1536.
The Mysterious Choapa Valley
The valley is known as the national archaeoastronomy capital. This is an intriguing place with clear indications that something strange once happened here.
The town of Illapel is the gateway to the Choapa Valley and home to dining specialties such as river shrimp. In addition, Illapel is a thriving nightlife hotspot, the legacy of nomadic prospectors who combed the region for decades. You can still see old ore crushers and visit Farellón Sánchez, a mining ghost town.
The old gold panning sites and the town of Cuz-Cuz are also interesting attractions, with the Taller Taucán ceramics and ethnomusic workshop, a good place to steep yourself in diaguita culture.
There are mysterious marked rocks or speaking stones, some of which evidence signs of an age-old fascination for spaceships and beings from other worlds. Local guides and small companies offer tours of the most typical attractions in the area.
El Coligüe Archaeological Trail is perhaps the most interesting attraction, with rural home lodging, donkey and mule rental, as well as local products.