Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in North Chile
With its parched desert plains and wind-sculpted topography, it’s easy to see how Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) earned its name. The sharp sandstone peaks, glittering salt deposits, and crater-like depressions make for some dramatic photographs, and watching the sunset over the valley is an unforgettable experience.
Plumes of steam from more than 60 geysers and hundreds of fumaroles erupt several feet into the air at the geyser field of El Tatio, high in the Andes in northern Chile. El Tatio isn’t the largest geyser field in the world, but with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, it’s perhaps the most picturesque.
Part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, the high-altitude Altiplanic Lagoons are nestled between the Andean peaks of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. The Miscanti and Miñique lakes are managed by an indigenous community located in Socaire, a town often visited for its handmade crafts and historic church.
If you’ve ever wanted to swim in the desert or experience the buoyancy of the Dead Sea, a visit to the Cejar Lagoon should be high on your to-do list. A desert sinkhole at the heart of the Atacama, the lagoon is famed for its salt-rich waters.
Now an eerie ghost town marooned on the arid plains of the Atacama Desert, it’s hard to believe that the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works were once home to a thriving
community of miners. The historic refineries were in use from 1880 to 1960, and served as the epicenter of Chile’s once hugely profitable saltpeter (sodium nitrate) mining industry.
The long-abandoned sites are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites and offer a fascinating insight into Chile’s history and heritage. Visitors can explore the restored buildings; peek inside the workers’ quarters, church and school; and learn about local life at the small museum, before seeing the old processing plants, mine shafts and mining equipment.
Covering 286 square miles (740 square kilometres), Los Flamencos National Reserve (Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos) is home to some of the most stunning scenery in the Atacama Desert. Between the Andes and Chile’s Pacific coast, the park has glittering salt flats, wind-sculpted moonscapes, and high-altitude lagoons surrounded by wild flamingos.
Part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, and its most easily accessible entry point, Chaxa Lagoon (Laguna Chaxa is situated in the middle of the Salar de Atacama. Its spectacularly beautiful setting is the best place in Chile to see flamingos; you can see three of the five known species (James, Chilean, and Andean at this salt lake.
As the driest place on earth, you’d expect the Atacama Desert to resemble a barren wasteland. Instead, the vast and arid landscape offers plenty to see and explore, including blue lagoons, salt flats, and active geysers—and also offers some of the world’s best stargazing opportunities.
In the middle of the driest desert in the world, you can enjoy the idyllic experience of soaking in the thermal waters of the Puritama Hot Springs (Termas Baños de Puritama. Located in a canyon, the surrounding volcanic Andes pour forth their heat into a series of eight large steaming pools.
An easy day trip from San Pedro de Atacama, the Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris stands out for the vibrant colors of its reddish, beige, green, and white earth, the result of mineral deposits left over thousands of years and the wind that has carved interesting shapes, rocky spires, and small canyons into the valley.
More Things to Do in North Chile
Atacama Salt Flats (Salar de Atacama), a salt deposit–coated lake, lies amid the Atacama Desert plains, framed by distant Andes peaks. Stretching more than 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers), it’s one of the largest salt flats and the largest lithium reserve in the world.
Tebenquiche Lagoon (Laguna Tebenquiche is a vast salt lake with a unique appearance. The lake is so shallow that its underlying lunar-like salt bed is clearly visible from the surface. Since there is so little water and often so little movement, the lake acts as a mirror, reflecting the surrounding mountains.
San Pedro de Atacama’s most notable building is the Church of San Pedro de Atacama, which keeps watch over the town’s busy Plaza de Armas. Built in 1744, it’s a remarkable example of a Spanish colonial church, built using traditional adobe bricks and surrounded by a crenellated wall, all painted white.
The pre-Columbian Pukará de Quitor National Monument overlooks the fertile Río San Pedro valley from atop a strategic bluff. Its serpentine rows of thick, stone walls defended the verdant oasis's bounty since around 1100 AD. Today, the fortress's impressive architecture and historic significance make it one of Chile's most important archaeological sites.
Despite its altitude and aridity, the Atacama Desert has hosted human settlement for thousands of years. The ruins of the village of Tulor are one of the most tantalizing archaeological clues left behind by some of its earliest settlers. One of the oldest archaeological sites in Chile, it dates back to 300 BC, according to carbon dating.
Founded in 1970, Lauca National Park in North Chile is part of a UNESCO-designated Global Biosphere Reserve. The park’s dramatic natural scenery encompasses lakes, lagoons, snow-capped mountains, and hot springs; and is home to more than 140 different species of birds, making it one of the best places for birdwatching in northern Chile.
One of a few salt lagoons dotted along the arid plains of the Atacama Desert, the Ojos del Salar (Salt Eyes are so-called for their unusual appearance. The pair of small, perfectly round lakes appear like a pair of deep-blue eyes peering out from the desert floor and are one of the area’s most photographed sites.
Founded by Jesuit missionary Father Gustavo Le Paige, the R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum houses one of the region’s principal collections of pre-Colombian artifacts. With around 1,000 items on display, it provides insight into the history and cultural heritage of the Atacama Desert.
Amid the arid plains and salt flats of the Atacama Desert, the small village of Toconao has a history dating back more than 12,000 years. The remote outpost is now best known as the gateway to the vast Atacama Salt Flats and makes a popular stop en route to the flamingo-filled Chaxa Lagoon.
While most visitors to the Chilean altiplano head straight for San Pedro de Atacama, a visit to Lauca National Park (Parque Nacional Lauca offers breathtaking scenery with less of the crowds. With snow-capped volcanoes, shimmering lakes, isolated hot springs, and a huge variety of wildlife, it’s an ideal trip from Arica.
The rugged beauty of Nevado Tres Cruces National Park (Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces draws visitors to the high desert of Chile’s Atacama region. As well as soaring peaks— including Chile’s highest, Ojos del Salado—and lagoons, the park is home to an array of wildlife including flamingos in summer, vicuñas, guanacos, giant and horned coots, and, occasionally, condors and pumas.
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