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Introducing Copiapó

Powerful men wrangle through the bars and strip clubs of this perfectly pleasant mining town. But like most places on the frontier, there's a certain edgy visceral attraction to it all. With its pleasing climate, a leafy main plaza and many historic buildings, you may find yourself oddly comfortable amid the milling miners and down-to-business pace of Copiapó. This said, it's not really worth stopping here for too long unless you want to make a foray into the remote mountains near the Argentine border, especially the breathtaking Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces, Laguna Verde and Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world.

The town, nestling in the narrow valley floor on the north bank of Río Copiapó, does earn some kudos for being the site of several historical firsts: South America's first railroad (completed in 1852) ran from here to Caldera; here, too, appeared the nation's first telegraph and telephone lines, and Chile's first gas works. All came on the back of the 18th-century gold boom and the rush to cash in on silver discovered at neighboring Chañarcillo in 1832. Today it's mainly copper that keeps the miners and beer-hall gals in the green. In fact, the town is booming as of late; some 150,000 people have come to take advantage of multimillion-dollar investments in mining, expected to keep the town thriving for the next 15 years.