The Northern region of Chile is among the driest regions in the world.
- 1 Antofagasta
- 2 Arica
- 3 Calama — "copper capital" of the country with the giant mine of Chuquicamata nearby
- 4 Caldera and Bahía Inglesa
- 5 Copiapó
- 6 Coquimbo includes the Union Flag of the UK in its coat of arms
- 7 Iquique — a seaside city with long beaches and a picturesque city centre
- 8 La Serena
- 9 Pisco Elqui
- 10 Punta de Choros
- 11 Putre — gateway to Lauca National Park
- 12 San Pedro de Atacama — gateway to popular attractions such as Salar de Atacama, El Tatio Geysers and Valle de la Luna
- 13 Vicuña
- 1 Lauca National Park – in the Andes with large volcanic mountains
- 2 Valle de la Luna – an impressive dry desert landscape
Northern Chile has been thriving on the mining industry since the middle of the 19th century. It started with saltpetre which came to an abrupt end at the beginning of the 20th century when the synthetic production of nitrates was invented. The remains of the old production sites are still impressive and provide an insight into the hard life of the workers. Nowadays copper has taken over the role of Chile's main export good and is mined in giant open pits. Furthermore some minerals like lithium are produced in the salt lakes.
Many visitors come to see the spectacular landscape of the Andean Highlands. Snow-covered mountains more than 6000 m high contrasting with blue lakes, mountains showing all shades of red and brown due to their volcanic origin, and a number of geothermal areas with hot springs and geysers are among the natural attractions of the region.
On the more relaxing side, Arica and Iquique offer long sandy beaches at the Pacific coast.
- By plane: Airports in this area are Antofagasta, Arica, Calama, Iquique and La Serena which all have several flights daily from Santiago. Arica and Iquique have connections from Bolivia, Antofagasta from Peru.
- By car: The national highway #5 (Panamericana) is the main artery of the region connecting central Chile with Antofagasta, Iquique, Arica and Peru. Access from Bolivia (La Paz and Oruro) is via highway #11 passing Lauca National Park and Putre towards Arica. The alternate route from Oruro via Colchane and highway #15 towards Iquique is less used and thus in better condition (at least on the Chilean side). Access from northwestern Argentina (Salta) goes along Chilean highways #23 or #27 to San Pedro de Atacama and Calama.
The highways outside of the highlands are generally in good condition as are the main highways through the highlands to the neighbouring countries. Other roads in the highlands can be very rough. Before moving along such roads individually it is best to enquire locally about road and weather conditions.
Buses connect all cities and also provide connections to neighbouring countries. There are no longer any passenger trains in Northern Chile.
- 1 Atacama Desert. The driest place in the world.
- 2 Gigante de Atacama (15 km east of national highway #5 (Panamericana) along national highway #15 towards Colchane; the intersection of the dirt road is signposted). The largest geoglyph in the region. A remarkable planning effort considering that it is hundreds of years old. You get the best overall picture when looking on Google Earth though; therefore you could stop there if you are driving along these roads any way but it's doubtful whether it really pays to come here from a long distance. Free.
- 3 Nevado Ojos del Salado. With an altitude of 6893 m, it's the highest point in Chile, and second highest outside Asia. Sitting at the Argentinian border, the mountain has a second, almost exactly as high summit on the Argentinian side. Some 500 m below the summit you can see a lake, which is believed to be the highest lake in the world. Ojos del Salado has remarkably gradual slopes and the surrounding dry Atcama desert means that there's usually very little snow and ice. This has made the mountain a popular place for setting world altitude records for cars, indeed cars and even a truck have been driven up to altitudes above 6000 m. Maybe more importantly, it's possibly the highest place in the world you can reach by just hiking (the very last part to the summit reportedly is a somewhat challenging scramble). This high, altitude sickness is most certainly a risk — don't ascend too fast!
- 4 Oficina Humberstone (50 km east of Iquique along highway A-16 at the intersection with national highway 5 (Panamericana)). 09:00-19:00. An old residential and production site from the days of the saltpetre era. Few residential houses are furnished, but most of the site is still in remarkable condition due to the dry atmosphere. Allow 1-2 h to stroll around the huge area. CLP3000.
Be aware that you can easily get up to more than 4000 m of altitude on normal roads. Get accustomed to this by getting higher in reasonable steps. If you join one of those one-day excursions from Arica to Lauca National Park then you are very likely to suffer from mountain sickness which must be taken seriously.
In the mountainous areas mobile phone coverage is usually limited to the vicinity of towns. If you set out on a track road other than one which connects towns or popular tourist attractions then it might be a good idea to take a satellite phone with you. Filling stations are rare so make sure you know your options.