As I mentioned in my post about touring Central Chile, Chile is a very long country and road tripping the length of the country will take many, many days. Rather than doing the whole thing all at once, I decided to make a road trip of it stopping for a few days each in little towns along the way.
No need to rent a car — the buses are very comfortable and safe, even for single female travelers like myself. They ticket all the bags and you watch them put it on and then they periodically check on all the passengers to ensure you didn’t miss your stop.
Here are the top 4 towns I would recommend making in northern Chile:
Right on the Pacific Ocean, La Serena is the oldest port city in Chile. It was great to see the ocean and breath in some fresh, smog free air. I spent the day wandering around the city and checking out some beautiful architecture and old churches. With lots of Spanish influence, the city is full of wide boulevards and white washed architecture. There are little verandas hanging over the streets with vines and plants adding some greenery.
There was a great boulevard that led to the beach. Lined with palm trees and various marble statues of famous generals and Chileans, it was a great walk that ended at the city’s lighthouse.
La Serena is also a great place to spend the night if you’re into space because it is home to one of Chile’s best observatories — Cerro Tololo Observatory. Interestingly, northern Chile is one of the best regions in the world for observatories because of it’s dry, arid and high altitude climate. The weather conditions are clear and consistent throughout the year, and major science organizations have set up shop around this region. This particular observatory is one of the few that is open to the public with a guided tour, so it is well worth a visit!
Iquique is a coastal beach town, located a few hours from the Peruvian border in northern Chile. Famous for surfing, paragliding, and a relaxing atmosphere, Iquique proved to be the beachy surf town we expected.
The old city center is was full of old buildings with small balconies hanging over the streets and little cobblestone alleyways. There was the huge town square with a white washed old clock tower in center. The city has a beautiful ocean front walkway which is a great spot to catch views of surfers riding some big waves. The surfers crowd the beaches throughout the day and can be seen throughout the city walking the streets with their boards under arms.
Iquique is also home to a massive sand dune and is world famous for paragliding because of the coastal winds and thermal drafts. We signed up for a tandem paraglide with instructors. We drove up to the top of the sand dune and harnessed up in some sweet looking flight suits.
I was surprised how smooth the flight was. Much like birds, you float through the air and hang on the wind gusts when paragliding. You could see so far once in the air and we got some beautiful views of the city and ocean. We were in the air for about an hour, floating all around and riding up the thermals. My instructor was really knowledgeable (and spoke English!) and he explained a lot about wind drafts and clouds during the flight. It was a really relaxing and peaceful flight, since it was so quiet. Then we spiraled down for landing and took a soft running landing on the beach.
Another beautiful beach town along our journey up Chile’s Pacific coast. This stop, however, was the best! Famous for ‘El Morro’, essentially a GIANT rocky outcropping that looks over the city, Arica is a port city with lots of beaches and vistas. It was the site of famous battle in the War of the Pacific in 1881, where Chile reclaimed this territory from Peru and Bolivia, and has remained a regional trading community ever since.
On a super sunny and warm fall day, we hiked up to ‘El Morro’ to get some panoramic views of Arica. On one side of the Morro was the Pacific Ocean and coastal cliffs. This was simply stunning and Sam and I sat there enjoying the sounds of the waves for almost an hour. On the other side, you are looking over the entire city and active port. This was equally as beautiful, as you could see the massive expanse of the city as it climbs into the valley.
San Pedro de Atacama
A hippy oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert, San Pedro de Atacama is a very popular destination among Chilean tourists and international tourists alike. It serves an wonderful stepping stone to the amazing landscapes around it. We actually stopped here on our way back into Chile after a tour through Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
A majority of the activities in this region center around nature, such as stargazing, trekking, camping, Valle de Luna national park, lagunas and geysers. It is worth staying for a few days to make sure you get a chance to see anything, although after spending 3 days in the Salar de Uyuni, we were a little natured out and only spent 2 nights here.
The town is also pretty interesting and worth exploring. It’s full of tourists, so expect the standard tourist infrastructure, but it also has a lot of spiritual healing and cosmic energy shops that are interesting. There is a lot of yoga, psychic readings, etc, and the city itself is made up of small adobe buildings all under 4 stories tall. None of the roads are really paved and you’ll spot people walking around without shoes on.