Into the Atacama

From La Serena, the shrubs and cacti of the semi-desert stretch north as far as the mining and agro-industrial centre of Copiapó. Beyond this city, the Atacama Desert begins. The main population centres are in the valleys of the rivers Huasco and Copiapó, and in the Salado Valley, where the most important economic activity is mining, especially inland at El Salvador.

Although much of this region appears lifeless and of limited interest to visitors, the area around Vallenar is famous for the flowering of the desert following the rare occasions when there is heavy rainfall; the upper reaches of the Huasco Valley are beautiful and tranquil, and make a good resting point en route to or from the Atacama, as does the beach resort of Bahía Inglesa, while the port of Huasco itself has excellent seafood. All along the coast of this region a variety of excellent inshore fish known as
pescado de roca
are caught. There are also three national parks: the Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar, which protects a wide range of marine life; the Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe, which safeguards the habitat of one of the very rare flowers that bud with rainfall; and the Parque Nacional Tres Cruces, which covers extensive areas of salt flats northeast of Copiapó. East of the Parque Nacional Tres Cruces is the Paso San Francisco, a desolate yet spectacular border crossing into Argentina; near the pass are some of the highest peaks in the Andes, although most are best tackled from the Argentine side.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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