“El Norte Grande” occupies almost a quarter of Chile’s mainland territory but contains barely five percent of its population. Its most outstanding feature is the Atacama Desert; the driest desert in the world, it contains areas where no rainfall has been recorded – ever. Its landscape is typically made up of rock and gravel spread over a wide plain, alleviated only by crinkly mountains. To the west, the plain is lined by a range of coastal hills that drop abruptly to a shelf of land where most of the region’s towns and cities are scattered. To the east, the desert climbs towards the altiplano: a high, windswept plateau composed of lakes and salt flats ringed with snowcapped volcanoes.
Formidable and desolate as it is, the region contains a wealth of superb attractions, and, for many visitors, constitutes the highlight of a trip to Chile – particularly for European travellers, who will find nothing remotely like it back home. The Pacific seaboard is lined by vast tracts of stunning coastal scenery, while inland the desert pampa itself impresses not only with its otherworldly geography, but also with fascinating testimonies left by man. One of these is the trail of decaying nitrate ghost towns, including Humberstone and Santa Laura, easily reached from Iquique. Another is the immense images known as geoglyphs left by indigenous peoples on the hillsides and ravines of the desert – you’ll find impressive examples at Cerro Pintados, south of Iquique, Cerro Unitas, east of Huara, and Tiliviche, between Huara and Arica.
As you journey towards and up into the cordillera, you’ll come across attractive oasis villages, some – such as Pica and Mamiña – with hot springs. Up in the Andes, the altiplano is undoubtedly one of the country’s highlights, with its dazzling lakes, salt flats and volcanoes, its abundance of wildlife and its tiny, whitewashed villages inhabited by native Aymara. The main altiplano touring base – and, indeed, one of the most popular destinations in the whole country, for Chileans and foreigners alike – is San Pedro de Atacama, a pleasant oasis 315km northeast of Antofagasta, where numerous operators offer excursions to the famous El Tatio geysers and the haunting moonscapes of the Valle de la Luna.
Further north, the stretch of altiplano within reach of Iquique and Arica boasts wild vicuña and spectacular scenery, preserved in Parque Nacional Lauca and several adjoining parks and reserves. Some towns and cities of the Far North, mainly Antofagasta and Calama, tend to be dreary and uninviting, but serve as unavoidable departure points for excursions into the hinterland. Bear in mind also, the Bolivian Winter, when sporadic heavy rains between December and February in the altiplano can wash roads away and seriously disrupt communications and access.
It seems almost inconceivable that such a hostile land can support life, but for thousands of years El Norte Grande has been home to indigenous peoples who’ve wrested a living either from the sea or from the fertile oases that nestle in the Andean foothills. The excessive dryness of the climate has left countless relics of these people almost perfectly intact – most remarkably the Chinchorro mummies, buried on the desert coast near Arica some seven thousand years ago. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Chile’s more recent inhabitants – along with British and German businesses – turned their attention to the Atacama, when it became apparent that the desert was rich in nitrates that could be exported at great commercial value. So lucrative was this burgeoning industry that Chile was prepared to go to war over it, for most of the region at that time in fact belonged to Bolivia and Peru. The War of the Pacific, waged against Bolivia and Peru between 1878 and 1883, acquired for Chile the desired prize, and the desert pampas went on to yield enormous revenues for the next three decades.
With the German invention of synthetic nitrates at the end of World War I, Chile’s industry entered a rapid decline, but a financial crisis was averted when new mining techniques enabled low-grade copper, of which there are huge quantities in the region, to be profitably extracted. Today, this mineral continues to play the most important role in the country’s economy, making Chile the world’s leading copper supplier.