Limarí Valley

The Limarí Valley contains much of the north of Chile in a microcosm: beaches at Tongoy, the mysteriously lush Parque Nacional Fray Jorge, a vibrant market town in Ovalle, countless examples of ancient rock art and wonderful mountain scenery. With remote tracks through the mountains and giant hillsides sprinkled with cacti and multicoloured minerals, it is a fine place to wander for a week or more.

Getting there and around

Ovalle is easily reached by regular buses: north from LaSerena and destinations as far north as Arica; south from Illapel, Valparaíso and Santiago. Note that, although Ovalle is a small city, confusingly it has three main bus terminals and several smaller offices. The
Terminal Media Luna
is the only one used by long-distance buses. Numerous local buses and
colectivos
link Ovalle with outlying communities.

Ovalle and around

Situated inland in the valley of the Río Limarí - a fruit-growing and mining district - this lively town is a focal point for the numerous communities in the surrounding mountains and valleys. Edged by dusty hills, which are lined with vines for
pisco
grapes and orchards of avocado trees, it gets busy on market days, when local
campesinos
throng around the market area. That said, Ovalle remains a laid-back town with an almost rural feel to it. Although not a typical tourist destination it is an excellent window on the traditionally slow pace of life in the Norte Chico. It is famous for its
talabarterías
(saddleries) and for its products made of locally mined lapis lazuli, as well as
queso de cabra
(goat's cheese) and dried fruits (sold in the market). The central part of town can easily be covered on foot.
Museo del Limarí
,
is housed in the old railway station and has displays of petroglyphs and an excellent small collection of Diaguita ceramics and other artefacts. Info in Spanish only. Annexed to the museum is a gallery with temporary art and crafts exhibitions.

Embalse La Paloma, the largest reservoir in Chile, is 26 km southeast. On the northern shore is the small town of Monte Patria, with a pisco distillery that can be visited. From Monte Patria, a paved road leads to Chilecito and Carén, where there is the Parque Ecológico La Gallardina, containing a beautiful collection of roses and other plants and flowers amid the dry mountains.

Monumento Nacional Valle del Encanto is one of the most important archaeological sites in northern Chile. Artefacts from hunting peoples from over 2000 years ago have been found, but the most visible remains date from the Molle culture (AD 700). There are over 30 petroglyphs as well as great boulders, distributed in over sites.

Parque Nacional Fray Jorge

Situated 90 km west of Ovalle and 110 km south of La Serena at the mouth of the Río Limarí, this UN World Biosphere Reserve covers 9959 ha and contains original temperate rainforests, which contrast with the otherwise barren surroundings. Receiving no more than 113 mm of rain a year, the forests survive because of the almost constant fog and mist covering the hills, the result of the discharge of the warm waters of the Río Limarí into the cold waters of the Pacific. The increasingly arid climate of this part of Chile has brought the habitat under threat and hence visits are closely controlled by
CONAF
, www.conaf.cl
. Scientific groups may obtain permission to visit otherwise unaccessible parts of the park from the Director of CONAF in La Serena. All visitors should take particular care to leave no trace of their presence behind them. The park is reached by a dirt road leading off the Pan-American Highway. The entrance and administration are at Km 18, from where it is 10 km further to the summit of the coastal hills (known as the Altos de Talinay), which rise to 667 m. Waterproof clothing is essential.

Along the Río Limarí

From Ovalle, a road leads 77 km northeast, following the course of the Río Limarí to the village of Hurtado. The route passes the Recoleta Reservoir and then follows the valley, where fat horses graze on alfalfa, vines with
pisco
grapes are strung out across what flat land there is, and the glades are planted with orchards of orange and avocado trees.

The road is paved as far as Samo Alto; shortly after is the turn-off (to San Pedro) for the Monumento Natural Pichasca. Some 47 km northeast of Ovalle at an altitude of 1350 m, this park contains petrified tree trunks and archaeological remains, including a vast cave, comparable to the Cueva Milodón outside Puerto Natales, with remnants of ancient roof paintings. Gigantic rock formations can be seen on the surrounding mountains. Encouraged by the local mayor, a bright green model of a dinosaur has been erected here. Sure to be a magnet for groups of local schoolchildren, the dinosaur is supposed to be the north's answer to the sloth in the Milodon Cave near Puerto Natales, but as yet it is too early to claim that Jurassic Park has come to Pichasca. Note that it is 3 km to the park from the turn-off and about 2 km further to sites of interest.

Beyond the village of Pichasca are several plantations, where rickety wooden suspension bridges cross to the far side of the Río Limarí. It is a further 32 km to Hurtado and the road continues winding along the side of the valley, with the Andes now easily visible at the head of the valley. At Vado Morrillos, 4 km before Hurtado, is the Hacienda Los Andes, www.haciendalosandes.com, a centre for horse riding in the area, set in a very pretty location, with a 7-km nature trail. The hacienda is run by a German/Austrian couple with previous experience of running horse-riding trips, English and German spoken. Horse-riding tours from one to eight days are offered in the surrounding mountains.

The road continues on to Hurtado, a village set at 1300 m. Excellent accommodation is available at Tambo de Limarí , a hospedaje owned by Señora Orieta. Near Hurtado is the only petroglyph in Chile depicting the sun, hinting at possible links to the Incas, and it is also possible to climb the Cerro Gigante (2825 m) and visit the site of a Diaguita cemetry.

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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