11 Off-the-Beaten Track Places in Northern Chile You Shouldn’t Miss
There’s aren’t many places in the world that compare to Northern Chile. There’s a feeling of otherworldliness that’s difficult to describe and a vast open space that feels like it will never come to an end, only to occasionally be punctured by a towering, snow-capped volcano or high Andean lake. It’s a sun-baked land that’s littered with freely roaming wildlife both on land and in the seas and small villages of indigenous people that have called these lands, in north Chile, home for thousands of years.
San Pedro de Atacama is normally the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about north Chile, but there’s way more to see than that. Admittedly San Pedro and the Atacama Desert is beautiful but it’s also crowded and there are many other valleys, national parks, islands and settlements to visit to really discover the magic of northern Chile.
Here are my top 11 off-the-beaten track places that are really worth your time in northern Chile.
Located almost 600km north of Santiago, the Elqui Valley is a gem in the centre of Chile’s fourth region. The quiet, beautiful valley stretches inland from La Serena into the Andres providing a feast of contrast for the eyes- high, dust brown peaks against sheer green cultivation on the valley floor. Here you’ll notice endless rows of local produce like custard apples, Chilean papaya and of course grapes from which the famous national spirit of Chile, pisco is made. While driving through the valley is inevitable and you’ll definitely want to stop and take some pictures, one of the highlights of this valley are the small villages that add character and colour to the sandy, dusty backdrop of these hills.
Vicuña and Pisco Elqui are neat little farming towns that make excellent bases to explore the area. In Vicuña don’t miss the Gabriela Mistral museum to learn more about the Chilean Nobel Prize-winning writer and Pisco Capel, while in Pisco Elqui you’ll want to check out Pisco Mistral, the oldest and prettiest Pisco distillery and the quaint main square, where you can buy local jams and handmade jewellery.
The Elqui Valley, with the exception of the Atacama desert is the best place in Chile, if not the Southern Hemisphere to watch and learn about the night’s sky. Here, there are a handful of observatories you can visit for an evening tour which ends with looking through some telescopes to see the dazzling displays of planets, stars and galaxies. Notable observatories to visit are Cerro Mamalluca Observatory, Del Pangue and Cancana Observatory and tours can be booked in Vicauña and Pisco Elqui.
Wellness in the Elqui Valley:
Apart from all the stargazing and views, the Elqui Valley is also a wellness hub in the area. There are a handful of spas and wellness-focused hotels that offer a unique, peaceful experience, natural therapies and a chance to recharge and rest.
Spa Cochiguaz – this peaceful and no-frills spa and wellness centre allows you to truly be at one with nature. Located in the middle of the valley, and away from the hustle and bustle you can hike during the day and indulge in massage, reiki and herbal baths as the sun sinks down over the mountains in the evening. Plant-based food is offered here too.
Elqui Terapias – One of the best places in Pisco Elqui to get a massage if you’re just passing through. Break up your time sightseeing and trekking with a long and relaxing massage. They also do couples massages.
With some of the most turquoise waters in Chile, Bahia Inglesa is the place to visit if you’re really missing the beach. Located North-west of the city of Copiapo, Bahia Inglesa is just a tiny little beach in a nondescript town that makes the perfect place to stay for a couple of days to get away from it all. There’s nothing much here but that’s the beauty of the area unless you’re here in February where things get busy as Chileans head all around the country to enjoy their holidays. Head to the beach and enjoy the (almost) warm, turquoise waters and delightful sea breeze, rent bicycles and explore the nearby bay and town of Caldera and at sunset enjoy walks on the beach to the peaceful sound of the crashing waves.
NEVADO DE TRES CRUCES NATIONAL PARK
Straight across from Bahia Inglesa is the Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park where the Cordillera splits and over thousands or millions of years formed a plateau where trapped water forms salt flats. One of the salt flats, Salar de Maricunga, a shining-white expanse is flanked by tall awe-inspring volcanoes and blue skies. Continue on the road towards Mina Marta and you’ll pass mineral rich mountains until you arrive at Laguna Santa Rosa and a little further south Laguna del Negro Francisco, home to wild ducks, flamingos and a vast variety of bird species.
THE HAND OF THE DESERT
This recent Instagram famous hand is essentially a stone hand sculpture rising up from the desert floor. Located in the middle of the desert, some 70km south of Antofagasta on Highway 5, the 36ft sculpture by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal draws people from all over looking for the perfect Insta shot. The best time to visit is at sunset as that golden hour light starts to illuminate the landscape. Stay a few hours longer and you’ll get rewarded by some of the best stargazing in the area and night time photography opportunities. If you do have some extra time for exploring the area I’d also recommend checking out some nearby mining ghost towns such as Oficina Yugoslavia, Oficina Bonasort and Oficina Rosario- now completely abandoned due to collapse of the nitrate industry at the beginning of the 20th Century.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
OK, so not exactly an off the beaten track destination as San Pedro de Atacama is probably on everyone’s list when thinking about the north of Chile, but it simply couldn’t be missed off any article about Chile’s north. Rent a car, base yourself in the tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama and spend your days driving around and exploring the magic and otherworldliness of this stunning landscape. Some places you simply must visit are the Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte, Lagunas Baltinache and Piedras Rojas. You’ll be able to experience the natural pools, salt flats and outstanding landscapes that have evolved over millions of years. Don’t miss stargazing in this spectacular desert as well as epic sunsets and sunrises and local wildlife spottings such as vicuñas, flamingos, viscachas (Andean rabbit) and Andean foxes.