The Norte Grande is as vast as it is remote, but don’t be fooled by this seemingly empty landscape: the Atacama Desert is filled with natural wonders that make it one of most breathtaking destinations in the world. With a striking desert and volcano-lined horizon as your backdrop, you can discover otherworldly landscapes like salt-crusted white valleys, burnt-orange sand formations, stunning blue lagoons, lush oases, and picture-perfect beach destinations. Exhilarating hikes up volcanoes or through cactus-laden creeks and adrenaline-boosting bike rides attract outdoor sports enthusiasts, while relaxing thermal pools, a plethora of wildlife, calming beaches, and colorful native culture keeps tamer travelers charmed.
Spanning some 1,930 km (1,200 miles), Chile's Great North stretches from the Río Copiapó to the borders of Peru and Bolivia. Here you will find the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth—so dry that in many parts no rain has ever been recorded.
Yet people have inhabited this desolate land since time immemorial. Indeed, the heart of El Norte Grande lies not in its geography but in its people. The indigenous Chinchorro people eked out a meager living from the sea more than 8,000 years ago, leaving behind the magnificent Chinchorro mummies, the oldest in the world. High in the Andes, the Atacameño tribes traded livestock with the Tijuanacota and the Inca. Many of these people still cling to their ways of life, though much of their culture was lost during the colonial period and by the abandonment of small villages as mining in the region boomed.
When huge deposits of nitrates were found in the Atacama region in the 1800s, the "white gold" brought boom times to towns like Pisagua, Iquique, and Antofagasta. Because most of the mineral-rich region lay beyond its northern border, Chile declared war on neighboring Peru and Bolivia in 1878. Chile won the five-year battle and annexed the land north of Antofagasta, a continuing source of national pride for many Chileans. With the invention of synthetic nitrates, the market for these fertilizers dried up and the nitrate barons abandoned their opulent mansions and returned to Santiago. El Norte Grande was once again left on its own.
What you'll see today is a land of both growth and decay. The glory days of the nitrate era are gone, but copper has stepped in to help fill that gap (the world's largest open-pit copper mine is here). El Norte Grande is still a land of opportunity for fortune-seekers, as well as for tourists looking for a less-traveled corner of the world. It is a place of beauty and dynamic isolation, a place where the past touches the present in a troubled yet majestic embrace.