Between the fertile central valley to the south and the vast expanse of the Atacama Desert to the north, El Norte Chico—or Chile’s Little North—hosts a fantastically eclectic range of climates, landscapes, and activities in a compact area. Among the burnt hills, stargazers and wine buffs rub shoulders with adrenaline seekers in a region known equally for its white-sand beaches and towering mountains as its world-class research telescopes and vineyards.
These varied landscapes and ecosystems, unsurprisingly, are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. Visitors with the will to tear themselves away from the beaches can tour rocky offshore islands that shelter colonies of penguins and sea lions or cruise the clear, cool waters of the marine reserves where sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins flourish. 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 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 come to Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar, where you'll find some of El Norte Chico's most stunning coastal scenery.