Introduction

Dust devils zoom wantonly through sun-scorched Norte Grande with its undulating curves of rock and stone, Andean lagoons, snowcapped volcanoes, salt flats and sensuously perforated coastline. Famous as much for its hilltop observatories as its massive copper mines, those vast, uninhabited spaces touch the soul and the imagination. Norte Grande's star attraction is the tiny adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama, just a day trip away from the world's highest geyser field and some astounding desert formations.

But there's more to Norte Grande than San Pedro. Go for lung-bursting, jaw-dropping adventure near the mountain village of Putre in the high-altitude reserve of Parque Nacional Lauca or further afield to Monumento Natural Salar de Surire. Spend a week sunning yourself on the beaches outlying Iquique and Arica, or make your own adventure in the lost ghost towns and hard-sprung mining centers that make this region unique.

Highlights

  • San Pedro de Atacama Watching jaw-dropping sunsets, sand-boarding down golden dunes and photographing topaz lakes against chiseled snow-covered peaks.
  • Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa Wondering about the lives they led while contemplating the world's oldest mummies.
  • Parque Nacional Lauca Breathing in the clean (but very thin) air while visiting Andean villages and high-altitude lakes.
  • Iquique Surfing by day and sipping pisco sours by night in this buzzing coastal charmer.
  • Putre Leaving the tourist trail behind and traversing the unexplored frontier north of this quaint Aymara village.
  • El Tatio Geysers Spotting llama and vicuña after visiting the highest geyser field in the world.
  • Arica Taking coastal walks, riding the rails to Poconchile and feasting on seafood.
  • Humberstone Pondering the past while wandering through this spooky ghost town near Iquique.

When to Go

Jan–Feb Vacationers hit the coast and some highland spots become impossible to reach.

Sep–Oct The altiplano has solid weather and European summer visitors have gone home.

Jul–Aug Best for highland destinations (though it gets bitterly cold at night) and for hard-core surfing.