This desolate region is one of the most striking in Chile. The Atacama Desert is punctuated by small oases in the all-encompassing yellowness; clefts of green such as the beautiful Quebrada de Jere, near Toconao, or the Alto Loa, from where the lifelessness of the surrounding desert seems somehow impossible.
The main cities are Antofagasta and Calama, both of which are service centres for the mining industry that dominates the region’s economy. Calama is the departure point for the sole remaining passenger train service in northern Chile, the ‘tren de la muerte’ to Uyuni in Bolivia. Most visitors, however, head straight to San Pedro de Atacama, an ancient centre of civilization in the region since well before the Spanish conquest, and the base for excursions to spectacular desert landscapes such as the Valle de la Luna and the Salar de Atacama, as well as to the El Tatio geysers and altiplanic lakes. San Pedro is home to one of the north’s most important archaeological museums, and excursions can also be made over the border into Bolivia to the Salar de Uyuni and to two beautiful lakes, Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde.
The far north of Chile is equally as forbidding as the region around Antofagasta and Calama. There is a palpable sense of antiquity here in the few oases and settlements that are sprinkled across the Atacama; the profusion of geoglyphs are testament to the fact that, wherever there is water, people have been living for millennia. These geoglyphs of peoples now vanished and the countless ghost towns of former nitrate oficinas both stand witness to the harshness and fragility of life in the region.
Further inland still, towards the altiplano, are some beautiful spots. Mamiña and Pica are two thermal springs resorts near Iquique, each of them remarkable for their tranquillity. There are four remote national parks in the high Andes, the northernmost of which – the Parque Nacional Lauca – offers some of the most stunning scenery in Chile, with a necklace of high lakes, snow-capped volcanoes, lava fields and varied bird life.