For hundreds of years, people have journeyed to El Norte Chico—Chile's Little North—for the riches that lay buried deep within the earth. First came the Incas, who wandered the burnt hills in search of gold. A century later the gold-seeking Spanish arrived on these shores. The 19th-century silver book brought more prospectors. Today it is copper that yields the majority of the region's income.
No wonder locals once called this "the land of 10,000 mines."
But El Norte Chico's appeal isn't purely metallurgical. The coastline has some of the best beaches in the country. Offshore there are rocky islands that shelter colonies of penguins and sea lions. Shimmering mountain lakes are home to huge flocks of flamingos. Even the parched earth flourishes twice a decade in a phenomenon called el desierto florido, or the flowering desert. During these years, the bleak landscape gives way to a riot of colors—flowers of every hue imaginable burst from the normally infertile soil of the plain.
In a land where water is so precious, it's not surprising that the people who migrated here never strayed far from its rivers. In the south, La Serena sits at the mouth of the Elqui River. El Norte Chico's most important city, La Serena is the region's cultural center as well, with colonial architecture and a European flavor. Nearby, in the fertile Elqui Valley, farmers in tiny villages grow the grapes to make pisco, the potent brandy that has become Chile's national drink. Those in search of archaeological wonders head to Valle del Encanto, a large collection of ancient petroglyphs.
On El Norte Chico's northern frontier is the Río Copiapó. This is the region that grew up and grew rich during the silver boom. The town of Copiapó, this area's most important trade center, makes an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the hinterland. Heading toward the ocean, you'll come to Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar, where you'll find some of El Norte Chico's most stunning coastal scenery.