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.
HUMBERSTONE GHOST TOWN
Humberstone is the best-preserved ghost town in Chile and makes the perfect stop along Highway 5. The north of Chile is full of these ghost towns which came about when towns and villages where abandoned entirely in the middle of the desert as mining of a particular mineral ceased, in this case, nitrate. Humberstone and the surrounding villages like Santa Laura can be visited where you can explore the town’s theatre, grocery stores, houses, hotel, hospital and the industrial plants where the saltpetre was made. Everything is exactly as it was when it was abandoned, giving such an eerie feeling, as though you’re walking through the set of a western movie. There’s nothing quite like Humberstone in Chile or anywhere else in South America.
Cities in the north of Chile aren’t anything to write home about but Iquique certainly does have some noteworthy places to take into account if you’re staying for a day or two. The main highlight of the city itself is its long beach on which you can relax and enjoy the warmest water you’ll get in Chile and long stretches of sand, perfect for strolling on at sunset. In the centre of town you’ll also find the charming Municipal theatre and Baquedano Boulevard, on which you’ll be able to see some of the oldest, yet nicely resorted houses in the city.
The best thing to do in Iquique, nothing to do with the city itself, is paragliding. Iquique is backed by a gigantic sand dune which towers over the entire city making it the perfect place for paragliding over the city and the water’s edge. If you’ve never tried it and want to give it a go, this is one of the best places in Chile to do so.
LAUCA NATIONAL PARK
Further north, located on the border with Bolivia and fairly close to Peru you’ll find Lauca National Park, quite easily one of the best national parks in northern Chile. This truly is an off the beaten track destination as not many people make it here due to its remoteness and altitude. You’ll definitely need to rent a car to explore this area (best done in Arica) and you can use the town of Putre as a base to explore the area, also serving as a great place to acclimatise. Lauca National Park is Chile’s highest national park, most of it between 4,000 and 6,000 metres above sea level, so you’ll have to consider acclimatising and moving slowly. Discover the abundance of local wildlife like flamingoes and vicuñas, snow-capped volcanoes and immense expanses of rigged, windswept planes.
LAS VICUÑAS NATURAL RESERVE
Located just south of Lauca National Park and easily combined with the above, this can also be counted as one of the most beautiful national reserves in northern Chile. There’s little else to do but drive around, take in and photograph the sweeping views and get up close and personal with the resident vicuñas, this Andean llama-like animal is everywhere in these parts. This park is pretty tricky to navigate and it isn’t well sight posted so it might be a good idea to bring a local guide who can point out the best view spots and places to go.
VOLCAN ISLUGA NATIONAL PARK
Another gem in Chile’s north, this under-visited national park is well worth it if you make the effort to get out there. Here you’ll find jaw-dropping natural views of desert plains and iconic volcanoes towering over the landscape. You’ll see wild vicuñas traversing the landscapes and geysers in the middle of the desert (Campo Geotermico de Puchuldiza). Don’t miss the one-horse towns of Enquelga, Arbilla and Isluga and it’s beautiful little church.
HUMBOLDT PENGUIN NATIONAL RESERVE
A little while north of La Serena (75km) is the Humboldt Penguin Reserve. These islands and waters hold some of the richest marine life that Chile has to offer and if you’re an animal lover and love to observe animals in the wild, this place is unmissable. Base yourself in the tiny town of Los Choros where you can organise boat tours to take you to Isla Choros on and around which you can observe the Humboldt penguins, sea lions, bottle-nosed dolphins and depending on the time of year, humpback and sperm whales passing to and from the Antarctic.
TOP TIPS FOR VISITING NORTHERN CHILE
↠ Having your own wheels really makes a difference. While travelling from one major city to another is relatively easy in Chile, it really helps to have your own vehicle when exploring smaller villages and national parks. Buses can be few and far between in national parks and if you want to explore places like Lauca National Park or Tres Cruces you’ll really benefit from having your own wheels. Luckily car rental in the north of Chile is much cheaper than in the south.
↠ Avoid the most touristic areas like San Pedro de Atacama, Bahia Inglesa, Iquique and the Elqui Valley in February, as this is vacation month for most Chileans. February is a great month to make you’re way to some of the lesser-visited national parks of the north instead.
↠ If driving make sure to have enough gas for your whole trip and plan ahead. Gas stations are few and far between in some areas in the desert in northern Chile and you don’t want to run out in the middle of nowhere.
↠ The climate in north Chile is a desert, semi-arid climate. Days are sunny and hot and nights are cold, sometimes below freezing. Make sure to bring gear and clothes for all seasons.
↠ Distances are long so make sure to stock up on healthy, road-trip friendly snacks like cereal bars, fruit and nuts so you don’t go hungry.
Do you have any comments or questions about the travel itineraries in northern Chile? Let me know in the comments below:
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