Huasco Valley

This valley (known as the Jardín de Atacama) is an oasis of olive groves and vineyards. It is rugged and spectacular, reminiscent of the Cajón del Maipo near Santiago. At Alto del Carmen, 39 km east of Vallenar, the valley divides into the Carmen and Tránsito valleys. There are pisco distilleries at Alto del Carmen and San Félix, both of which have basic residenciales. A sweet wine known as pajarete is also produced. Today the Río Huasco is the last of the unpolluted rivers in the north. However, a huge goldmining project in the upper valley has been approved, to the displeasure of many locals.

Ins and outs

The Huasco Valley's main town and transport hub is Vallenar, which is easily reached by regular buses from both north and south.
Tourist information
for the valley is available from the Municipalidad on the Plaza de Armas in Vallenar as well as the Municipalidades in Huasco and Alto del Carmen.

Vallenar

Nearly 200 km north of La Serena is Vallenar, the chief town of the Huasco Valley. It was founded in 1789 as San Ambrosio de Ballenary to commemorate the birthplace in Ireland of Ambrosio O'Higgins. The town is centred on a pleasant Plaza de Armas, in which all the benches are made of Chile's purest marble, extracted from the Tránsito Valley. The plaza is dominated by the church, a kitsch monstrosity with its iron girder steeple and electric chimes on the hour. There is a summer-only information kiosk on the plaza.
Museo del Huasco
,
contains historic photos and artefacts from the valley. Opposite is the northernmost Chilean palm tree in the country.

West of Vallenar

Freirina
, founded in 1752, was the most important town in the valley, its prosperity based upon the nearby Capote goldmine and on later discoveries of copper. The pleasant main plaza with the Municipalidad (1870) and the Santa Rosa church (1869) is flanked by streets of multicoloured houses. There are scattered olive groves either side of town, and both olives and olive oil are sold from farmhouses and by the side of the road.

Situated at the mouth of the river,
Huasco
lies 56 km west of Vallenar. Those arriving from the desert north and heading down the valley will appreciate the change of scenery - poplars and olive groves with an occasional glimpse of the river below. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1922, Huasco is a modern town with a large beach that is popular in summer, and a further expanse of deserted beach curves round to the north. There is a new coastal promenade with shaded benches looking out to sea and an esplanade for occasional concerts in summer. The port is interesting, as the fishermen unload their catches and hundreds of pelicans hover, waiting to snatch the fish that slip off the crates into the sea. There is a thriving sea-lion colony on the small islands offshore, and fishermen may be willing to take people there for a small charge. However, the best reason to come to Huasco is undoubtedly the seafood.

Some 9 km east of Huasco, a road branches north at the settlement of Huasco Bajo, near which are the
Humedal de Huasco
wetlands, known for their variety of marine birdlife (there are over 100 species). Some 50 km further north (37 of them
ripio
) is the small
caleta
of
Carrizal Bajo
. Carrizal Bajo is the best place from which to visit the
Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe
, set up to preserve the habitat of the
garra de león
and other flowers during the rare occasions when the desert is in bloom. The park is also home to Copiapoa cacti and guanacos. A decent salt road follows the coastline north of Carrizal Bajo, passing a series of small
caletas
en route to Caldera, including the beautiful beach at Puerto Viejo.

East of Vallenar

East of Vallenar, a paved road leads 39 km to
Alto del Carmen
, the site of the distillery of one of the best
piscos
in Chile. The road clings to arid hillsides sprinkled with cacti and
maitén
bushes, passing the Santa Juana Reservoir, which was created following the damming of the Río Huasco in 1995 and has transformed agriculture in the area. The valley is filled with grapevines for
pisco
and with groves of pepper and eucalyptus trees.

At Alto del Carmen, the road forks: left for the
Tránsito Valley
, right for the
Carmen Valley
. The Tránsito Valley is wilder and extends further into the heart of the mountains, while the Carmen Valley is greener and more populous: both valleys are unlikely clefts in the rocky Andes and reward the traveller who is prepared to make the effort to get to know them. Some 21 km beyond Alto del Carmen along the Tránsito Valley is the
mina de mármol blanco
, where Chile's finest marble is quarried. The peaceful village of
El Tránsito
, where there is basic accommodation and a cheap restaurant, is a further 10 km on. The village has a pleasant shady plaza, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop in winter. The Carmen Valley stretches 25 km from Alto del Carmen to
San Félix
, the largest town of the valley, and the site of the distillery for Horcón Quemado
pisco
. A 39-km-long path connects the two valleys, from San Félix to the Quebrada de Pinte, 7 km south of El Tránsito, forming part of the Sendero de Chile. Allow two to three days for the trek. The tourist information office in Alto del Carmen's Municipalidad is helpful.

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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