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.