Background

Stretching north from the Río Aconcagua to the Río Elqui, this area is a transitional zone between the fertile heartland and the northern deserts. Rainfall is rare, and only occurs in winter, while temperatures are relatively stable, with little seasonal variation except at high altitude. North of the Aconcagua, the Andes and the coastal
cordillera
merge in a spectacular lattice of mountains and are crossed by river valleys separated by high ridges. The valleys of the Choapa, Limarí and Elqui rivers are green oases, where the land is intensively farmed and irrigated to produce fruit and vegetables. Elsewhere, the vegetation is characteristic of semi-desert, except in those areas where frequent sea mists provide sufficient moisture to support temperate rainforest. The coastline is generally flat, with many beautiful coves, both rocky and sandy, and good surf, although the water is much colder than you would expect.

Archaeological finds indicate that the river valleys were inhabited at an early stage in prehistory. In fact the recent discovery, south of Los Vilos, of the skeleton of a mastodon that seems to have been slaughtered by humans suggests a presence going back at least 10,000 years. The rise of the Molle culture happened around the same time as the rise of Christianity in Europe; sharing links with northern Argentina, the Molle people produced intricate ceramics and worked with copper. They were superseded by the Diaguitas, who crossed the Andes around AD 900 and settled throughout the area. The pre-Hispanic peoples left their mark in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings).

Soon after the arrival of the Spanish and the foundation of Santiago, Pedro de Valdivia attempted to secure control over northern Chile by founding La Serena in 1544. Due to the arid climate and the more testing living conditions, the indigenous people here were less numerous than the Mapuche in the south and, despite a few setbacks for the Spanish, they were soon subjugated and wiped out. Throughout the colonial period, La Serena dominated the rest of the region; although small, it was the only city in the north and its leading families had close ties to the main Spanish landowners in the other valleys. After Independence, the area became an important mining zone, producing large amounts of silver, copper and gold.

Mining is an ever more important industry in this area: Although El Indio, inland from La Serena and once the biggest gold producer in Chile, has now closed, El Romeral, north of La Serena, is the most important iron-ore deposit in the country. Many new copper mines are being opened up including a huge mine at Los Pelambres at the top of the Choapa valley. Quartz and the semi-precious stones lapis lazuli and combarbalita are also mined. Despite the dry climate, much of the region's industry is linked to its agricultural produce, notably the distilling of piscofrom grapes; by law, only grapes grown in the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo can be used to make pisco.

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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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