Explore El Norte Chico
North of La Serena, the Panamericana turns inland and heads via a couple of winding passes (Cuesta Buenos Aires and Cuesta Pajonales) towards the busy but somewhat run-down little town of VALLENAR, 190km up the road. The town, which acts as a service centre for local mining and agricultural industries, was founded in 1789 by Governor Ambrosio O’Higgins, who named the city after his native Ballinagh in Ireland. It makes a convenient base for an excursion east into the fertile upper Huasco Valley, laced with green vines and small pisco plants, or northwest towards the coast and, in the spring, the wild flowers of the Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe.
The self-appointed “capital del desierto florido” (and vigorously promoted as such by the tourist authorities), Vallenar is indeed the best base for forays into the flowering desert, if you’re here at the right time. The Museo del Huasco at Ramírez 1001 has some moderately diverting displays on indigenous cultures and photos of the nearby flowering desert.Read More
The flowering desert
The flowering desert
For most of the year, as you travel up the Panamericana between Vallenar and Copiapó you’ll cross a seemingly endless, semi-desert plain, stretching for nearly 100km, sparsely covered with low shrubs and copao cacti. But take the same journey in spring, and in place of the parched, brown earth, you’ll find green grass dotted with beautiful flowers. If you’re really lucky and you know where to go after a particularly wet winter, you’ll happen upon fluorescent carpets of multicoloured flowers, stretching into the horizon.
This extraordinarily dramatic transformation is known as the desierto florido, or “flowering desert”; it occurs when unusually heavy rainfall (normally very light in this region) causes dormant bulbs and seeds, hidden beneath the earth, to sprout into sudden bloom, mostly from early September to late October. In the central strip, crossed by the highway, the flowers tend to appear in huge single blocks of colour (praderas), formed chiefly by the purple pata de guanaco (“guanaco’s hoof”), the yellow corona de fraile (“monk’s halo”) and the blue suspiro de campo (“field’s sigh”). The tiny forget-me-not-like azulillo also creates delicate blankets of baby blue.
On the banks of the quebradas, or ravines, that snake across the land from the cordillera to the ocean, many different varieties of flowers are mixed together, producing a kaleidoscope of contrasting colours known as jardines. These may include the yellow or orange lily-like añañuca and the speckled white, pink, red or yellow alstroemeria, a popular plant with florists also known as the “Peruvian lily”. West, towards the coast, you’ll also find large crimson swaths of the endangered garra de león (“lion’s claw”), particularly in the Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe, near Carrizal Bajo, created especially to protect them. Of course, removing any plant, whole or in part, is strictly forbidden by law.
There’s no predicting the desierto florido, which is relatively rare – the frequency and intensity varies enormously, but the general phenomenon seems to occur every four to five years, although this has been more frequent in recent years. The best guide in Vallenar, and a veritable gold-mine of information about the dozens of flower varieties, is Roberto Alegría (51 613908,[email protected]).