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Introducing Norte Grande

Traveling inland, the balmy coast of sunbathers and surfers shifts to cactus scrub plains and dry mountains streaked in reddish tones. Mines scar these ore-rich mammoths whose primary reserve, copper, is high-octane fuel to Chile’s economic engine. But there’s life here as well, in the fertile valleys producing pisco grapes, papayas and avocados. Clear skies mean exceptional celestial observation. Many international telescopic, optical and radio projects are based here. The driest desert in the world, the Atacama is a refuge of flamingos on salt lagoons, sculpted moonscapes and geysers ringed by snow-tipped volcanoes. In short, these places are an orgy for the senses and ripe for exploration.

Chile’s 2000km northern stretch takes in Norte Chico, or ‘region of 10, 000 mines, ’ a semiarid transition zone from the Valle Central to the Atacama. Its main attractions are the beaches, La Serena, Valle Elqui and the observatories. The Atacama Desert occupies ‘Norte Grande, ’ gained from Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific. The stamp of ancient cultures is evident in enormous geoglyphs on barren hillsides. Aymara peoples still farm the precordillera (foothills of the Andes) and pasture llamas and alpacas in the highlands. Divert from the desert scenery to explore the working mine of Chuquimaquata or brave the frisky surf of arid coastal cities.

Take precautions against altitude sickness in the mountains and avoid drinking tap water in the desert reaches. Coastal camanchaca (dense convective fog on the coastal hills of the Atacama desert) keeps the climate cool along the beach, while altiplano temperatures change drastically from day to night.