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Introducing Iquique

Barefoot surfers, paragliding pros, casino snobs and frenzied merchants all cross paths in the rather disarming city of Iquique. Located in a golden crescent of coastline, this city is counted among Chile's premier beach resorts, with a glitzy casino, beachfront boardwalk and more activities (from paragliding to sand-boarding) than any sane person can take on in a week. The big draw here is the swaths of pitch-perfect beach, which offer some of the best surfing around.

Refurbished Georgian-style architecture from the 19th-century mining boom is well preserved, and the Baquedano pedestrian strip sports charming wooden sidewalks. Iquique's main claim, however, is its duty-free status, with a chaotic duty-free shopping zone (zona franca), which uses the ominous-looking sandy hills behind the town as an outlandish nighttime billboard.

The city, 1853km north of Santiago and 315km south of Arica, is squeezed between the ocean and the desolate brown coastal range rising abruptly some 600m behind it.