Passing from valleys of lush vineyards in Valle de Elqui, to the dramatic, volcano-dominated altiplano scenery of the Atacama Desert and the sand dunes of vibrant coastal town, Iquique, the Norte Grande and Norte Chico regions of Chile should not be missed. In only two weeks, it’s possible to take an unforgettable trip through the area’s main highlights. Let our ultimate northern Chile itinerary be your guide to discovering this lesser-known part of Chile.
Northern Chile Itinerary: Days One and Two
Santiago to La Serena
A direct 300 miles (480 km) flight north from the capital brings you to the relaxed seaside town at the heart of the Coquimbo region, La Serena. Containing some of Chile’s prime beach resorts, during the long, hot summer months it’s easy to while away a few days here, relaxing on the long strip of beaches that runs parallel to the Avenida del Mar.
A selection of pretty, peaceful churches are also of note. Admire the marble-decorated interior of the neoclassical Iglesia Catedral and the city’s first stone church – Iglesia de San Francisco. You’ll also find a plethora of restaurants cooking up regional Chilean fare, with sea bass, ceviche and caldillo de congrio (spicy eel stew) top of the menu.
Northern Chile Itinerary: Day Three
The Elqui Valley
A 39 mile (62 km) bus journey east from La Serena, the Elqui Valley is the next stop on your Chile itinerary. A fertile area that is Chile’s largest pisco producing region, it comes alive during the summer when the heavy, grape-laden vines turn the sandy mountain slopes into a patchwork of greens and deep purples.
Arrange a tour to a boutique or larger-scale pisco distillery, all of which are accessible from the picturesque towns of Pisco Elqui and Vicuña. Given the almost perfect conditions for stargazing in the Elqui Valley, finish your day with an astronomy tour at a local observatory.
Northern Chile Itinerary: Days Four to Day Eight
The Atacama Desert
An overnight bus journey or a short flight brings you 660 miles (1064 km) north to Calama, from which a one and a half hour bus ride leads directly to San Pedro de Atacama. This tiny oasis town set in the middle of the Atacama Desert is deservedly one of the top tourist attractions in the whole of Chile and it only takes a few days to discover why.
Highlights include a dawn tour to El Tatio geysers, the world’s highest geothermal field, where the billowing steam appears more clearly in the cold, crisp air of morning. Spend an afternoon bathing in the thermal waters in Puritama or Laguna Cejar and a day driving out to the two altiplano lagoons, Miscanti and Miñiques, whose waters reflect the spotless cobalt blue skies and are fringed by crisp, white salt. Hire a car to explore the desert under your own steam or negotiate a package of tours with a local company.
Northern Chile Itinerary Days Nine to Eleven:
Travel north-west for 300 miles (485 km) and arrive at the coastal city of Iquique – another hot destination for every northern Chile itinerary. Towered over by the enormous Cerro Dragón sand dune, Iquique sprawls alongside the Pacific Ocean with a host of restaurants and bars and sandy beaches safe for swimming. Playa Huayquique, which is renowned for its excellent waves for surfing, is also accessible by colectivo (minibus).
Rated as one of the prime destinations for paragliding, Iquique is the spot for trying out this sport with a tandem jump from the sandy plateau above the city. Here you’ll discover an incomparable bird’s eye view of Iquique and the ocean beyond.
Northern Chile Itinerary: Days Twelve to Fourteen
National Parks near Arica
190 miles (309 km) north is the smaller – and less dynamic – Arica, which is situated close to the border with Peru. Book a three-day tour to visit a group of nearby national parks: Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas, Salar de Surire, Parque Nacional Lauca and Parque Nacional Volcán Isluga. All located in the higher altiplano at 13,000 ft. (4,000m) above sea level on the Bolivian border, feast your eyes upon exquisite lagoons and snowcapped volcanoes as well as Andean flamingos, viscachas and vicuñas.
Finally, return to Santiago via a two and a half hour flight from Arica airport.