The North

The northern part of Chile is mainly desert. The driest area on earth (or probably on par with Namibia's Skeleton Coast) is in the extreme north of the country - it never really rains there.
desert coast pan de azucar chile Pan de Azucar National Park. Not easy to reach but worth the trip. From Chaņaral you need a cab to get there (30 km) or try hitchhiking. This view is 10 km from the entrance.
Pelicans and gulls feed on throwaways of the Antofagasta fish market. Chili has wonderful seafood dishes such as paila marina (soup with mixed shelfish). Try sea urchin paste or giant sea snail. arica harbour
chuquicamata copper mine chile The largest copper mine in the world, at Chuquicamata. No less than 25% of Chilean export revenues are generated by this mine. It's four km long, two km wide and 630 m deep.
Chui Chui church. An authentic desert village near Calama. Close to a wonderful valley called Pukara de Lasana. chui chui church
desert - san pedro de atacama San Pedro de Atacama is littered with tour offices. Everybody seems to organize desert tours and the place is swamped with tourists. Pricey but overall good value, and the place has a nice atmosphere. Sunset tours take you to Valle de la Luna. The desert in this area is fantastic.
Arica is the northernmost place in Chili. There's not much to see except for a neogothic cast iron church designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Tower fame) himself. Turkey vultures hang around the square in fromt of the church.

Arica was claimed and held by Bolivia because the landlocked country needed access to the sea, but Chile took control in the early 20th century. You can take a train here to La Paz (Bolivia) and to Tacna (Peru).

arica eiffel church
Brown/American/Chilean/Peruvian pelican, Pelecanus thagus Chilean fishing ports always attract pelicans (Brown/American/Chilean/Peruvian pelican, Pelecanus thagus). This was taken in Arica port.
East of Arica there are several green valleys - much like an oasis really. This area has seen human occupation for thousands of years as witnessed by the San Miguel de Azapa geoglyphs. These figures are built from loose stones and are tens of meters in length. It never rains here so everything stays where it is. The dating of these figures is not known, it may be anything from hundreds to 1000+ years old. geoglyphs san miguel de azapa
flower arica A spectacular flower near Arica

Chincol (Zonotrichia capensis), a sparrow-like bird found all over Chile

Chincol - Zonotrichia capensis


Arica lies in the coastal desert plain which never sees any rain. Going east, you soon enter the Andes which starts only 30 km away. Going up, the landscape gradually becomes greener. The first plants between 2500-2800 m are peculiar cacti that look like a candelabrum. A bit higher up, the vegetation thickens and here we meet the first guanacoes. These are the wild cousins of the llama. They're curious and friendly but they will blow snot out of their nose towards you if they feel threatened. The guanaco occurs here and in the extreme south of Chile where animals tend to be much lighter.
The related vicuņa also occurs here - this is the wild version of the alpaca. They're all part of the camel family and are the largest indigenous animals in the country. South America is remarkably poor in large mammals, especially compared to Africa with its similar climate zones.
The Chilean part of the Altiplano (a large part of the High Andes stretching into Peru and Bolivia) starts above 3500 m. This is one of the highest regions on earth with permanent inhabitation. On the edge lies Putre, a small place inhabited by the Aymara people. This is the main street around sunset. putre chile

putre chile

Sunset in Putre.

As a general remark, I can advise against driving into the High Andes in just a few hours. Altitude sickness may develop above 3000 m. Some people just feel woozy but if you're prone to this (like me), you're in real trouble. This condition can be very scary and even fatal.

Tortolita boliviana or Bare-faced Ground-dove (Metriopelia ceciliae), a pigeon occurring between 2000 and 4000 m altitiude

Tortolita boliviana or Bare-faced Ground-dove (Metriopelia ceciliae)
arica-tacna train at the border crossing between chile and peru Arica and Tacna (Peru) are linked by a railway through the desert. A mixed goods-passenger train makes the trip twice a day. The border control post is located in the middle of the desert. In true South American spirit the customs officers wish to check everything, so everybody has to get off and show his/her passport at the desk in the little building.
The line ends in Tacna in a gated railway station. There's a nice collection of old engines, a small exhibition of photos and artifacts, and even a regular 1930s car fitted with train wheels. Very atmospheric and a definite recommendation if you like trains. Tacna is a nice, clean place according to Peruvian standards. Locals believe this is due to the fact that it belonged to Chile until 1920. tacna station peru
tacna station peru Peruvian travelers arriving in Tacna to have their passports checked. We noticed a lot of women wearing 20+ skirts on their bodies, presumably to evade import taxes on cloth.

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