Despite its distance from Santiago, Norte Grande has always played a strong role in Chile's political and economic arenas, thanks mostly to the vast mineral wealth sitting just below the rocky surface. And even with its extreme desert aridity, it has sustained humans for many thousands of years.

Earliest inhabitants include the Chinchorro (famous for their extraordinary burial practices), the coastal Chango, and the Atacameño peoples who lived in oases near Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, using irrigation techniques adopted from the Tiwanaku culture in present-day Bolivia.

The indigenous populations were largely overtaken during the violent conquest in the latter part of the 16th century, but pockets of independent Changos remained, and the area wasn't substantially colonized until large deposits of nitrate brought the first boom to the region in the 1810s.

Interestingly, this part of the country only became Chilean in the late 19th century. Before the War of the Pacific (1879–84) the region belonged to Peru and Bolivia, but by the time the war had ended, Chile had increased its landmass by one-third.

Chileans were not the only ones to reap the benefits. Foreign prospectors moved quickly to capitalize on Chilean land gains. The nitrate boom was uniquely explosive here. Company towns flourished in the early 20th century and became bubbles of energy and profit, and large port cities such as Antofagasta and Iquique sprang to life.

It didn’t last long, though – the invention of petroleum-based fertilizers spelt doom for the nitrate industry and the subsequent bust drove the nation to near bankruptcy, and left scores of ghost towns scattered along the Panamerican Hwy.

Mining once again threw Chile a lifeline as copper prices began to rise and the previously stagnant copper-mining industry came into its own. Huge operations (including one of the world's largest open-pit copper mines, at Chuquicamata) soon dotted the landscape, keeping the economy afloat but bringing with them a slew of unique, modern problems, including environmental degradation, higher prices, overcrowding and pollution.