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El Norte Grande Travel Guide

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  • Photo: Peter Guttman/Peterguttman.com

Plan Your El Norte Grande Vacation

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.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. San Pedro de Atacama This unassuming town in the middle of the desert is a world-class destination for the beautiful outdoor excursions nearby. Visit magical moonlike landscapes, large sand dunes, lush valleys filled with 900-year-old cactus plants, salt flats with blue lagoons and pink flamingos, and surreal geysers with steam and bubbling water at dawn break.
  2. Flora and fauna Yes, the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth. But head to the Chilean Altiplano, just a few hours east of Arica, and you'll find an abundance of fauna and, depending on the season, flora. Pink flamingos dot the edges of volcanic lakes like Lago Chungará on the Bolivian border, and slender brown vicuñas—treasured for their fur, the finest of the American camelids—run in small herds through the sparse grasslands.
  3. Pristine beaches Pristine sands line the shore near Arica and Iquique. The beaches are packed during summer months, but in the off season you just might have the beach to yourself.

When To Go

When to Go

In the height of the Chilean summer, January and February, droves of Chileans and Argentines mob El Norte Grande's beaches. Although this is...

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