A land of rolling, sun-baked hills streaked with sudden river valleys that cut across the earth in a flash of green, the Norte Chico, or “Little North”, of Chile is what geographers call a “transitional zone”. Its semi-arid scrubland and sparse vegetation mark the transformation from the country’s fertile heartland to the barren deserts bordering Peru and Bolivia. Starting around the Río Aconcagua, just north of Santiago, it stretches all the way to Taltal, and the southernmost reaches of the Atacama, more than 800km further north.
A series of rivers – notably the Choapa, the Limarí, the Elqui, the Huasco and the Copiapó – flow through the Norte Chico region from the Andes to the coast, allowing the surrounding land to be irrigated and cultivated. The result is spectacular: lush, vibrant green terraces laden with olives, apricots and vines snake between the brown, parched walls of the valleys, forming a sensational visual contrast. The most famous product of these valleys is pisco, the pale, aromatic brandy distilled from sun-dried grapes and treasured by Chileans as their national drink (a claim vigorously contested by the Peruvians, who consider it their own).
The largest population centre – and one of the country’s most fashionable seaside resorts – is La Serena, its pleasing, colonial-style architecture and lively atmosphere making it one of the few northern cities worth visiting for its own sake. It’s also an ideal base for exploring the beautiful Elqui Valley, immortalized in the verses of the Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, and home to luxuriant vines and idyllic riverside hamlets. Just down the coast from La Serena lies the Parque Nacional Fray Jorge, with a microclimate that supports a small, damp cloudforest. Another botanical wonder is the famous desierto florido or flowering desert. Occasionally, after heavy winter rains, the normally dry earth sprouts vast expanses of vibrantly coloured flowers. This rare, unpredictable phenomenon, centred on Vallenar, occurs on average once every four to eight years.
Skies that are guaranteed cloudless almost year-round and very little air pollution have made the region the obvious choice for some of the world’s major astronomical observatories. They range from the state-of-the art facility at dazzling-white Tololo to the modest municipal installation at Mamalluca, near the picturesque village of Vicuña, where you don’t have to be an expert reserving months in advance to look through the telescope.
The Norte Chico also boasts a string of superb beaches, some totally deserted and many of them tantalizingly visible from the Panamericana as you enter the region, just north of Santiago. Bahía Inglesa is famous throughout Chile for its turquoise waters, though increasingly prolific algae is turning the bay greener.
Copiapó, the northernmost major city in the region, serves as a useful springboard for excursions into the nearby desert or, further afield, up into the high cordillera. Here the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, the Volcán Ojos del Salado and Laguna Verde present some of Chile’s most magnificent yet least-visited landscapes: snow-topped volcanoes, bleached-white salt flats and azure lakes. A couple of hours to the north, near the towering cliffs and empty beaches of Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar, a small island is home to colonies of seals, countless pelicans and thousands of penguins.
Bear in mind that, whereas the Norte Grande, Chile’s northernmost region, can be visited year-round, the Norte Chico is at its best in the summer months (Oct–March) when the valleys are at their greenest, the coast is likelier to be free of fog and the ocean and sky are pure blue. On the downside, resorts like La Serena and Bahía Inglesa can be horribly overcrowded and overpriced in the high season, especially January.
Mining has shaped the region’s growth, giving birth to towns, ports, railways and roads, and drawing large numbers of settlers to seek their fortune here. Gold was mined first by the Incas for ritual offerings, and then intensively, to exhaustion, by the Spaniards until the end of the eighteenth century. Next came the great silver bonanza of the nineteenth century, when a series of dramatic silver strikes – some of them accidental – set a frenzy of mining and prospecting in motion, propelling the region into its heyday. Further riches and glory came when the discovery of huge copper deposits turned it into the world’s largest copper producer from the 1840s to 1870s. Mining is still the most important industry here, its presence most visible up in the cordillera, where huge mining trucks hurtle around the mountain roads, enveloped in clouds of dust.