Background

Although small groups of Spanish settlers took over the fertile lands in the Huasco and Copiapó valleys in the 16th century, no towns were founded until late in the colonial period. Even the valleys were sparsely populated until the 19th century when the development of mining led to the creation of the ports of Caldera, Chañaral and Huasco and encouraged the building of railways. Mining remains a major economic activity: one of the largest copper mines is at El Salvador and over 50% of all Chilean iron ore is mined around Vallenar. Agriculture is limited to the valleys; the Copiapó Valley is an important producer of grapes, while the lower Huasco Valley is Chile's main olive-growing area. Fishing is centred on Caldera and, on a smaller scale, Chañaral and Huasco.

This part of the country can be divided into two: between the Río Elqui and the Río Copiapó the transitional semi-desert zone continues; north of the Copiapó the Atacama Desert begins and drivers should beware of high winds and blowing sand. The valleys of the rivers Huasco, Copiapó and Salado form oases in this barren landscape. On the coast, temperatures are moderated by the sea and mist is common in the mornings. Inland temperatures are higher by day and cooler by night; Vallenar and the upper valleys of the Copiapó and Huasco can be especially cold on winter evenings. Rainfall is sparse and occurs in winter only, with amounts decreasing as you go north.

East of Copiapó the Andes divide between the eastern range (Cordillera de Claudio Gay) and the western range (Cordillera de Domeyko); a basin collects the waters from the Andes. Here there are salt flats, the most extensive being the Salar de Pedernales. The eastern range has some of the highest peaks in Chile: Ojos del Salado (6893 m-6864 m), Incahuasi (6615 m), Tres Cruces (6749 m) and San Francisco (6020 m).

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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