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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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 .
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 .
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.
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.
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.