Windswept high deserts painted in bright mineral rainbows - magenta, orange, blinding white - flow across the volcanic altitudes of Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces. The park's harsh but dazzlingly beautiful terrain is displayed in two separate sectors.
The larger northern sector is home to the shimmering salt flats of Salar de Maricunga, and brilliant unexpected blues of Laguna Santa Rosa, a birder's paradise and home to three types of flamingos. To the south is smaller Negro Francisco Lagoon, another important wetland surrounded by herds of vicuñas (small llamas) and sudden snowy peaks, including snowcapped 6,052 m (19,855 ft) Copiapó Volcano.
As impressive as Copiapó is, rising high above the Azufre Mountains that separate the two park sectors (though unprotected, they also have fine hiking and camping opportunities) it is dwarfed by the world's largest volcano, 6,887 m (22,595 ft) Ojo de Salado. Despite their size, both are fairly non-technical climbs and can be summited, with guides, between December and February.
The two, completely separate sectors of Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces are spread out across 49,000 hectares (182 square miles), beginning about 150 kilometers (94 miles) from the sunny city of Copiapó. Public transportation isn't really an option for exploring the park, but you can hire cars in town.
Copiapó is a major population center and historic copper mining town, bleached pale in the intense sunshine. While most people arrive on buses from Santiago or elsewhere along the Pacific Coast, Aeropuerto Desierto de Atacama (DAT), 40 km (25 mi) north of Copiapó, has direct flights to Santiago and around Chile. Tourists are catered to with several hotels and restaurants, as well as a recommended historical museum and handful of pretty, if not extravagant, wooden churches dating to the early 1800s.