Geysers, Mummies & Salt Baths in Northern Chile

While the south of the country is best known for its lush forests and glacier-riddled mountains, northern Chile feels in every way the opposite. Steph Dyson tells us how to escape the crowds in the north.

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Photo © Steph Dyson

Bone-dry and seemingly monotonous in topography, the Atacama Desert might not seem like the obvious destination for some of Chile’s most dramatic natural landforms and cultural sights.

But, with the world’s highest geysers and oldest mummies, and some of the clearest skies on the planet all found here, the region is both superlative and unmissable.

Geysers and Salt Baths in San Pedro de Atacama

Most travelers begin their tour of the north from the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama.

Head out into the desert to marvel at the spluttering El Tatio Geysers - the highest geyser field on the planet, climb the serrated ridges of the Valle de Luna for a spectacular sunset, or bob around in the saline waters of Lagunas Baltinache.

Starry night skies above the Atacama Desert. Photo credit: Milly McGrath

The night skies here are also some of the clearest on earth, making a star-gazing tour a truly unique experience.

Hire a 4WD from nearby Calama for a cheaper – and more exhilarating – way of seeing the sights. If just the thought of driving at these altitudes leaves you breathless, negotiate a package of tours with an agency in San Pedro for significant savings.

Is Bolivia next on your itinerary? See the otherworldly landscapes of Salar de Uyuni

Ancient Cultures in Coastal Arica

Right on the Peruvian border, frontier-city Arica, dubbed the “City of Eternal Spring”, doesn’t just have the country’s most pleasant climate, it also guards Chile’s best-kept cultural secret: the Chinchorro mummies.

At 7,000 years old, they’re two millennia older than those in Egypt. Find them on display in Museo Sitio Colón 10, where 32 mummies were uncovered in the foundations of a residential building. Being too fragile to move, they were left in situ.

Reinforced glass now allows visitors to stand above them and peer down into history.

The Puna of Parque Nacional Lauca

Due east of Arica and the road snakes up into the mountains to reach the enthralling Parque Nacional Lauca.

Its most coveted attraction is the aquamarine Laguna Chungará, which reflects the flawlessly conical Volcán Parinacota, while the rest of the park is covered in scrubby puna (grasslands), is home to grazing vicunas (a local relative of the llama) and fringed by gently steaming volcanoes.

Explore on a tour from matchbox-sized Putre, a short drive from the park.

Laguna Changara. Photo credit: Steph Dyson

Travel 2,700mi (4,400km) south and discover the best of southern Chile

Extreme Sports in Iquique

A coastal city accessed by a helter-skelter highway, Iquique is an adventure travel destination for lovers of extreme sports and extreme partying. 

During the day, rent boards to take on the eight-foot surf at Playa Cavancha, or swoop down the Cerro Dragon dune by sand board.

For adrenaline junkies, paragliding from the cliffs above the city, landing on the beach below, is the ultimate fix.

After a busy day of adventure, American-style bars and blaring clubs in Península de Cavancha are the places to let loose.

Star-Gazing and Tipples in La Serena

Further south towards Santiago, colonial La Serena is not particularly interesting itself. However, it’s a great base to explore the vineyard-ridged foothills of the Andes Mountains by hopping on a Pisco Elqui-bound bus east.

Here, it’s all about sampling Chile’s favorite grape liquor, pisco. Hitchhike between boutique distilleries and don’t miss the local pisco sours – try a maqui sour for a tangy, fruity twist.

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