Salado Valley

The 93 km between Caldera and Chañaral are marked by vestiges of vegetation in the desert, but further north there is nothing but unremitting pampa until Antofagasta. The course of the Río Salado is almost permanently dry and the valley is less fertile and prosperous than the Copiapó or Huasco valleys to the south.

Getting there.

As it is on on the Pan-American Highway, there are regular bus services to Chañaral from as far as Santiago to the south and Arica top the north. Copiapó airport is about 100 km south of Chañaral and there is another airport at El Salvador.

Getting around

There regular bus services between the main towns - Taltal, Chañaral and El Salvador; however, there is no public transport to Pan de Azucar or the Parque Nacional Tres Cruces.

ChañaralGetting there

There are two alternative routes from Copiapó to Chañaral: west to Caldera and then north along the coast, 167 km; or the inland route, known as the Inca de Oro, via Diego de Almagro and then west to meet the
Panamericana
near Chañaral, 212 km.

This is a small, sad town with wooden houses perched on the hillside. In its heyday, Chañaral was the processing centre for ore from the nearby copper mines of El Salado and Las Animas, but those mines have declined, and the town now ekes out a living processing the ores from other mines in the interior. Stone walkways climb up the desert hills behind the main street, Merino Jarpa, reaching platforms where you'll find several stone benches from which to watch the sea; behind the benches are religious murals daubed with the graffiti of impoverished, angry urban youth. There is a beautiful and often deserted white-sand beach just beyond the
Panamericana
, created by waste minerals from the old copper processing plant, stained green by its pollution and causing the bay to be entirely barren of marine life. To assuage their guilt, the copper company built a copper monument in the form of a lighthouse that dominates the bay, but in an ironic twist people started stealing the copper and now the monument can only be viewed through protective railings. Swimming is dangerous here.

Museo de Historia Natural
, has exhibits on the mineralogy, hydrobiology and entomology of the region; interesting for naturalists. There is a municipal
tourist information
kiosk on the
Panamericana
, south of town, in summer, while to the north, a new coastal promenade is being built.

Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar

This jewel of a national park north of Chañaral manages to combine four incredibly contrasting sets of geographical and ecological features in a stretch of land just 20 km from east to west. Offshore, the
Isla Pan de Azúcar
is home to Humboldt penguins and other sea birds, while fantastic white-sand beaches line the coast; they are popular at weekends and overcrowded in summer. A series of valleys run west to east. In pre-Colombian times they were inhabited by the Chango, a semi-nomadic coastal people. Occasionally archaeological artefacts such as pottery and arrowheads can be found. Dominating the park are coastal hills rising to 800 m, providing spectacular views. To the east the park extends into the desert. The park is inhabited by 103 species of bird as well as guanacos and foxes, and a sea lion colony can be observed by following the signs marked
loberías
from the park entrance. The
camanchaca
(coastal fog) ensures that the park has a unique set of flora that belies its desert location; after rain tall
alstroemerias
of many colours bloom in some of the gullies. The park is also one of the best places in Chile to see the flowering desert , as well as extremely rare species of cactus.

There are two entrances to the park: either along a side road 20 km from the Pan- American Highway, 45 km north of Chañaral, or by a good secondary road north from Chañaral, 28 km from the village of
Caleta Pan de Azúcar
. The
CONAF
office here has an exhibition room and cactarium. Basic maps are available, as well as entrance tickets to the park. It's a 2½-hour walk from the office to a mirador with extensive views over the southern section but, to experience the park fully, transport is needed. Although the penguins are sometimes visible from the mainland, for a closer look take a boat trip round Isla Pan de Azúcar from Caleta.

Towards El Salvador

Some 67 km from Chañaral on the El Salvador road is the smaller mining town of
Diego de Almagro
. About 12 km north of here, on a mining track through the desert, is the interesting
Pampa Austral
project, where Codelco, the state mining company, has used water resulting from the process of extracting copper from nearby mines to irrigate the desert, producing a 4-ha extension of plantations in the middle of the desert
pampa
.

El Salvador
itself is a modern town, built near one of the biggest copper mines in Chile. Located 120 km east of Chañaral, just north of the valley of the Río Salado, it is reached by a road that branches off the Pan-American Highway, 12 km east of Chañaral. All along the valley people are extracting metal ore from the water with primitive settling tanks. Further east, 60 km by unpaved road is the
Salar de Pedernales
, salt flats 20 km in diameter and covering 30,000 ha at an altitude of 3350 m, where pink flamingos can be seen.

Taltal

Situated 25 km off the Pan-American Highway and 146 km north of Chañaral, Taltal is the only town between Chañaral and Antofagasta, a distance of 420 km. Along Avenida Prat are several wooden buildings dating from the late 19th century when Taltal prospered as a railhead and mineral port of 20,000 people, exporting nitrates from 21 mines in the area. The town is now a fishing port with a mineral processing plant. There is a tourist information kiosk in the plaza in summer. Off season, ask at the municipalidad.

Although like all towns in the north, Taltal has seen an increase in floating population caused by the mining boom, it still retains its relaxed laid-back air, with small fishing boats bobbing in the bay while pelicans preen themselves on the coastal wall.
Museo Augusto Capdeville
 is a good local museum in the former
gobernación
, with rooms on prehistory, local history and the saltpetre industry, European immigration, and an exhibition on the Paranal observatory. The curator is very friendly. The surprisingly lush pleasant tree-lined plaza is laid out in the form of the Union Jack in honour of the historical importance of the British community in the town. Just north of town is the cemetery, where the European influence can clearly be seen. The impressive church on the plaza burned down in 2008 but is to be rebuilt. From the plaza walk up to the top of Torreblanca for views over the town and across the bay. South from the plaza along the costanera is an odd shaped bell tower, marking the site of the old pier, which used to sound whenever a ship was about to leave. Further south on Calle O'Higgins is an old steam engine with a pair of carriages behind which are the grounds of the former Taltal Railway Company.

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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