10 Things to Do in the Most Northerly Part of Chile

For the past 2 years, we keep thinking that we’ve left Chile for the last time. Then we find ourselves back there. When we decided to leave Bolivia, the most northerly part of Chile was the closest and lowest place to go. So we found ourselves in Chile again.

In 2008, we visited Arica and Iquique , but hadn’t been back during our current trip. During this short 3 week visit we noticed changes to things we’d seen last time, and discovered many new places.

The ocean walk to the Anzota caves outside Arica is one of the things on our list. The North of Chile appears all barren but there is - surprisingly - a lot to see.

The ocean walk to the Anzota caves outside Arica is one of the things on our list. The North of Chile appears all barren but there is – surprisingly – a lot to see.

Here are 10 things you can do in this most northerly part of Chile.

In the mountains

1. Drive part of the Ruta Del Desierto

The Ruta Del Desierto runs through the mountains of the Atacama Desert. There are 8 circuits in 4 regions making up this desert route in northern Chile. We drove Circuito de Las Quebradas in the region of Tarapaca. It runs from Colchane (3700m) on the Bolivian border to Huara (1000m), just east of Iquique.

Parts of the Ruta Del Desierto are unpaved, but mostly in good to very good condition.

Parts of the Ruta Del Desierto are unpaved, but mostly in good to very good condition.

During the first part of the Circuito de Las Quebradas, the mountains have interesting shapes and colours, and some things grow: like clumping, golden grass and lichen on rocks (which seems to eat away at the rock). As you drop below 3000m all of this disappears and the scenery is interesting only for its nothingness. In every direction there is just greyish-brown desert, sometimes with rocks strewn about, and no sign of any plant life.

A simple, but beautiful old adobe church in the small Andean town of Cariquima.

A simple, but beautiful old adobe church in the small Andean town of Cariquima.

A large boulder (or two) thickly covered in green lichen. (We posted more photos in our post '6 Places & Experiences we didn’t write about in 2016').

A large boulder (or two) thickly covered in green lichen. (We posted more photos in our post ‘6 Places & Experiences we didn’t write about in 2016’).

 

This route provides access to:

  • Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga
  • Thermal Baths at Chusmiza
  • Gigante de Atacama, just 12 Kilometres from Huara, and other geoglyphs along the way.
The famous Gigante de Atacama (our photo is from 2008) - one of the many geoglyphs in the Atacama.

The famous Gigante de Atacama (our photo is from 2008) – one of the many geoglyphs in the Atacama.


Iquique and around

2. Visit the historical centre of Iquique

In 2008 we went to Iquique principally for its free trade zone, but also wandered around the historical centre. This was what we wrote then:

Although we didn’t find anything in the trade free zone at a remarkably cheap price, we found it a pleasant little city, which is trying to make its historic centre nice. It has attractive wooden buildings, which were probably residences of those who got very rich during the nitrate mining boom. Some of them are badly in need of renovation.

The main square in the old part of Iquique.

The main square in the old part of Iquique.

This time we discovered that not much has changed. There is still not much that’s very cheap at the free trade zone (we were seriously checking out laptop prices – we found them later much cheaper in regular retail shops in Arica); they are still trying to make their historic centre nice, and a lot of the buildings are still badly in need of renovation.

There are some remarkable buildings in the historic centre, which are restored and beautiful. If you’re in Iquique, don’t miss the chance to have a wander.

One of the beautiful old timber houses in the centre of Iquique. Many were built in the years of the saltpeter boom.

One of the beautiful old timber houses in the centre of Iquique. Many were built in the years of the saltpeter boom.

This beautiful moorish style building in Iquique is currently under renovation. It houses a casino.

This beautiful moorish style building in Iquique is currently under renovation. It houses a casino.

 

3. Check out the beaches

Coming from Australia, it takes a lot to impress us when it comes to beaches – and the brown-grey sand of Iquique’s beaches didn’t really look that inviting. But the city’s shoreline has been made into an attractive area for residents and visitors alike. We drove along the Avenue that follows the coast on a number of occasions. On Sunday the playas were full of people, colourful beach shelters and umbrellas.

When the sun's shining the beaches of Iquique are really busy.

When the sun’s shining the beaches of Iquique are really busy. Image Credit

4. Experience the drive down the ‘sand dune’

One of the most amazing experiences in Iquique is to be had just driving into the city from Ruta 5.
You have to drop around 500m in altitude from the coastal mountains to the city. It is almost squeezed against the Pacific on one side and the mountains on the other. The fact that the mountain side you are driving down looks like it might be a sand dune doesn’t instill much confidence. I don’t remember it from 2008, but this time it was a disturbing (if not close to terrifying) experience for me… There is a wonderful view of the city and also of a huge sand dune, which looks like it could actually engulf the city if it decided to move.

Drive up the side of a sand dune, from sea level to over 500 metres above. In an earth quake in 2014 this road slid down the steep hillside.

Drive up the side of a sand dune, from sea level to over 500 metres above. In an earth quake in 2014 this road slid down the steep hillside. This made Iquique the laughing stock of all of Chile.

It is certainly a unique way to enter a city, and it was a great relief to arrive at sea level. When we left Iquique I found that driving up was nowhere near as frightening as the drive down had been.

A very small part of the gigantic sand dune which lays below an even taller one, where the road climbs up. It really dwarfs the whole city.

A very small part of the gigantic sand dune which lays below an even taller one, where the road climbs up. It really dwarfs the whole city.

5. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works

Thousands of people lived and worked at this remote site in the first half of the 20th Century. We had photographed this site from a distance in 2008, but this time we were determined to visit . It’s an interesting historical site and quite well done.

The Unesco World Heritage site of Humberstone. Saltpeter extraction works, like this one, initiated a boom for the Atacama desert and finally led to a war, which Chile won.

The Unesco World Heritage site of Humberstone. Saltpeter extraction works, like this one, initiated a boom for the Atacama desert and finally led to a war, which Chile won.

The former accommodation areas are now home to themed collections of mostly found objects of that time. Walking in and out of this museum almost brought a tear to my eye. The history was so connected in my mind with my Dad, who I lost earlier this year. He was always interested in objects that he was familiar with from his youth, and this place was full of them. And, he always had a story to go with them. It was an interesting place to visit but also a little emotional.

Humberstone WHS: a row of workers' cottages with some old machinery in front.

Humberstone WHS: a row of workers’ cottages with some old machinery in front.


Between Iquique and Arica

6. Get off the highway and check out Dolores memorial

As we drove north from Iquique to Arica, we passed through more of the completely barren Atacama Desert. About 70Km after the Humberstone site we started to see some green ahead. The trees are an endangered species indigenous to the area – prosopis tamarugo. They have been re-introduced into several protected areas to try to keep them from extinction. The Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal is one of them.

Right next to this reserve we found the Memorial to the Batalla de Dolores o San Francisco – the battle of Dolores or San Francisco. This site remembers a famous battle of the War of the Pacific (1879 to 1883), involving Chile, Peru and Bolivia, on November 19, 1879. Coincidentally, we arrived on the evening of November 19, 2016. I’m sure there had been commemorations during the day, but there was no remaining evidence.

The battle of Dolores or San Francisco was a decisive win for Chile. This site, of course, portrays everything from the view of the victorious Chilean side. Bolivia, in particular, still mourns the loss of its ocean access (and maintains a navy to this day).

The battle of Dolores or San Francisco was a decisive win for Chile. This site, of course, portrays everything from the view of the victorious Chilean side. Bolivia, in particular, still mourns the loss of its ocean access (and maintains a navy to this day).

We drove a few kilometres off the highway to the site, looking for a place to overnight. It was a good place to stop – quiet, no light except thousands of stars, lots of rocks and some rather shrubby trees. Besides being the perfect place to spend the night (we actually stayed for 2), we also found the site itself quite interesting. As well as the commemorating plaques and plinths, there are many ruins of mud brick buildings.

The battle site of Dolores is surrounded by crumbling mud brick ruins. It all looks like this was later the site of another saltpeter mining enterprise. Here somebody lovingly lined up some old pots, jars, and rusty tools on a white washed wall.

The battle site of Dolores is surrounded by crumbling mud brick ruins. It all looks like this was later the site of another saltpeter mining enterprise. Here somebody lovingly lined up some old pots, jars, and rusty tools on a white washed wall.


In and around Arica

Daniel, at the tourist office in Arica, spoke excellent English. He explained to us that, since the creation of the 15th Region of Chile (Arica and Parinacota) in 2007, the city has had more resources available. This area was formerly part of the Province of Tarapaca whose capital is Iquique. These resources are now being used for beautifying the city, conserving local heritage, and generally making their city a tourist destination of some note. They are now attracting cruise ships, the number visiting increasing each year.
He made several strong recommendations for things to see.

7. Wander the centre of the city

The city centre of Arica contains a number of old buildings, two of which are attributed to the designer Gustave Eiffel: the Church of San Marcos and the Customs House. This New York Times article – Despite Rumors, Not Everything That Towers Is Eiffel’s – brings the origin of the church into question, although I doubt if the locals would be convinced by the argument.

Paseo 21 de Mayo is an extensive pedestrian zone with all the shops you could need. There are also dedicated restaurant and café areas, often in lanes running off the pedestrian zone.

The all iron cathedral of San Marcos in Arica is commonly credited to Eiffel (most famous for his Eiffel Tower in Paris) - now there is some doubt about this authenticity. In 2015 and 2016 it underwent extensive renovations, hence our photo is from 2008. By now the cathedral should be open in freshly renovated shine and glory...

The all iron cathedral of San Marcos in Arica is commonly credited to Eiffel (most famous for his Eiffel Tower in Paris) – now there is some doubt about this authenticity. In 2015 and 2016 it underwent extensive renovations, hence our photo is from 2008. By now the cathedral should be open in freshly renovated shine and glory…

 
One of the shaded side lanes in Arica, with one restaurant next to the other...

One of the shaded side lanes in Arica, with one restaurant next to the other…

The city’s icon, Morro Rock, looms over it. It gives an incredible view of the area, if you have the energy to climb it. I confess – we didn’t.

We found it a pleasant city to just wander through, finding interesting sights along the way. It had certainly changed for the better since our previous visit.

The 'El Morro' rock sits right in the centre of Arica - next to the plaza and opposite the harbour.

The ‘El Morro’ rock sits right in the centre of Arica – next to the plaza and opposite the harbour.

8. Visit the Valle de Azapa & the Mummy museum

A 12Km drive from Arica, along the Azapa Valley will bring you to the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum. This museum is owned and operated by the University of Tarapaca. It has more than 20,000 archaeological pieces, including a large collection of Chinchorro mummies. They claim more than 10,000 years of history is represented here .

Some of the Chinchorro mummies - you don't get to see much more. They have to be kept in the dark and climatised, so they are behind thick glass; flash photography is obviously not allowed.

Some of the Chinchorro mummies – you don’t get to see much more. They have to be kept in the dark and climatised, so they are behind thick glass; flash photography is obviously not allowed.

But the Chinchorro mummy museum offers a number of other exhibits, like these fishing hooks, and many informative signs (so far only in Spanish - lets hope this will change once UNESCO World Heritage Status is granted).

But the Chinchorro mummy museum offers a number of other exhibits, like these fishing hooks, and many informative signs (so far only in Spanish – lets hope this will change once UNESCO World Heritage Status is granted).

 

According to Daniel, there is an application in to make this museum a UNESCO World Heritage site .

Olive groves crowd the roadsides, some of them with trees whose age may possibly be measured in centuries rather than decades. The original olive trees were planted some 400 years ago.
This year, the small, fertile valley achieved its hard-fought geographic indication, Olives from Azapa .

One of the Azapa olive plantations (Please excuse the image quality).

One of the Azapa olive plantations (Please excuse the image quality).

Along the valley you will also find more geoglyphs, often quite hidden behind huge hot houses. These hold the apparent miracle of intense market gardening in what looks like a totally inhospitable desert.

9. Follow the ocean walk to the Anzota caves

These caves are a natural formation caused by wind and water erosion over centuries. The Chinchorro culture had used the Anzota caves for living space and some of the mummies were found in them.

More recently they were the site of a major guano quarry.

Now the area is a bird sanctuary, and the recently constructed ocean walk makes it a pleasant place to spend some time.

The ocean walk to the Anzota caves outside Arica is easy, a large part of it is wheelchair friendly. Some of the caves have new stairs leading into them. (But they didn't get rid of the smell of bird poop.)

The ocean walk to the Anzota caves outside Arica is easy, a large part of it is wheelchair friendly. Some of the caves have new stairs leading into them. (But they didn’t get rid of the smell of bird poop.)

10. Watch the birdlife at the Humedal del Rio Lluta

The Lluta River Wetland is an extremely important habitat in arid Northern Chile. Rio Lluta is the most northerly river in Chile to flow from the Andes to the ocean. It runs into the Pacific about 10Km north of the city of Arica.

This large estuary provides important habitat for multitudes of water birds, some of which are migratory birds who use it as a resting stop. The Lluta River, along with the Loa River between the regions of Tarapaca and Antofagasta, are the only ones on the coast of northern Chile that run all year round.

Lluta River Wetlands in Arica: this 'cloud' is only PART of a flock of sea gulls!

Lluta River Wetlands in Arica: this ‘cloud’ is only PART of a flock of sea gulls!

In Closing

The most northerly part of Chile is much more than just the Atacama Desert. We really recommend spending time in the most northerly city of Arica, where there are a variety of attractions including nature, ancient history and modern shopping and restaurants. Iquique and the inland desert also provide their own attractions.

Most people associate the far north of Chile with desert. That's it. We found that there's much more to explore. The main draw points are the two major cities, Iquique and Arica, with their historic centres. But hidden in the desert you also find geoglyphs, a museum with ancient mummies discovered in the area, century old olive groves, small historic towns, and an interesting UNESCO World Heritage Site. That's of course if you can get away from the beaches. See our post for few more surprises in North Chile!

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Lluta River Wetlands in Arica: Pelicans as far as one one can see. The sea gulls have to step back into second row.

Lluta River Wetlands in Arica: Pelicans as far as one one can see. The sea gulls have to step back into second row.

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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12 Responses

  1. Tamshuk says:

    This is a very well compiled list. The bird life at Rio Lluta is what I’d definitely do.

    • Yasha says:

      Good choice – but you can do it all if you have some time…
      If you’re a bit pressed for time, we would suggest visiting Arica – we really liked it.

  2. Maria says:

    Your photos make me want even more to go to Chile. This country is for so much time in my list!

    • Yasha says:

      And you will need a lot of time to see all of it. There is so much to see in Chile – from Patagonia in the south, right up to this most Northerly Part of Chile. Glad you’re inspired.

  3. Maria says:

    Wow, this looks like an amazing place to visit. I’ve always wanted to go to South America, and I am dreaming about Patagonia, but I guess I’ll have to check out northern Chile as well.

    • Yasha says:

      Chile is a country you can spend a lot of time in – and you will see a lot of different things. The other countries in South America are the same. That’s why we have have spent more than 4 years here altogether, and probably will need one more…

  4. Very interesting post. Must visit Chile sometime

  5. Oliver says:

    Hi!
    we saw your truck yesterday in Arica, but you passed so fast… we are travelling by bicycle… ;)
    Your Blog is very interesting. Thank you very much for this information!
    We are travelling around the Pacific Ring of Fire by bicycle with kids: http://www.terracirca.de

    Safe travels!
    Oliver, Elena, Jakob and Arthur

    • Juergen says:

      Hello!

      We were only for a day back in Arica – in order to renew our visa for Peru.
      (What a nightmare it was: worse border crossing in South America! It took us over 4 hours, mostly standing in line – in the sun and heat.)

      Enjoy your trip and be CAREFUL with the sun! I read that this year UV radiation is extreme…
      Juergen

  6. I’ve not yet been to Chile, but will definitely take in the north when I visit as you’ve made it look very tempting!

    • Yasha says:

      There are a lot of interesting places to visit, all over Chile. I recommend visiting the country. Another example is the area around Santiago, which we described here

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