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.

Brief history

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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Chile features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

In pictures: exploring the otherworldly landscapes beyond Santiago

In pictures: exploring the otherworldly landscapes beyond Santiago

Santiago has transformed itself over the past decade, with a burgeoning food scene and thriving nightlife to boot. But the city's real drawcard remains its oth…

15 Sep 2017 • Nori Jemil insert_drive_file Article
24 breaks for bookworms

24 breaks for bookworms

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas In 1971, fuelled by a cornucopia of drugs, Hunter S. Thompson set off for Las Vegas on his “savage journey to the heart of …

02 Mar 2017 • Eleanor Aldridge camera_alt Gallery
15 things everyone learns backpacking South America

15 things everyone learns backpacking South America

South America has become a favoured destination for the intrepid backpacker, and while it’s impressive in the astounding diversity of its nations, there are a…

02 Mar 2016 • Steph Dyson insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook