Overlooked by arid, rippling mountains, the prosperous city of COPIAPÓ sits in the flat basin of the Río Copiapó, some 60km from the coast and 145km north of Vallenar. To the east is the most northerly of Chile’s “transverse valleys” and beyond it the transformation from semi-desert to serious desert is complete, and the bare, barren Atacama stretches a staggering 1000km north towards the Peruvian border. Just to the north of the city, Arabian-style dunes await exploration. There isn’t a great deal to do here, however, and Copiapó’s main use to travellers is as a springboard for excursions into the surrounding region.
When Diego de Almagro made his long trek south from Cuzco in 1536, following the Inca Royal Road down the spine of the Andes, it was into this valley that he descended, recuperating from the gruelling journey at the tambo, or resting place, where Copiapó now stands. The valley had been occupied and cultivated by the Diaguita people starting around 1000 AD and was then inhabited, beginning around 1470, by the Inca, who mined gold and copper here. Although Spanish encomenderos (see Enter the Spanish) occupied the valley from the beginning of the conquest, it wasn’t until 1744 that the city of Copiapó was founded, initially as “San Francisco de la Selva”. A series of random silver strikes in the nineteenth century, most notably at Chañarcillo, threw the region into a frenzied boom.
Following a period of decline at the beginning of the twentieth century, Copiapó is once more at the centre of a rich mining industry, revolving around copper, iron and gold. The city shot to international notoriety in October 2010, when 33 workers from the nearby San José mine were rescued after 69 days trapped underground.