North of Santiago

The first stretch of the Pan-American Highway from Santiago heads inland through green valleys with rich blue clover and wild artichokes. North of La Ligua (known for its sweet white cookies as well as its woollen goods), it follows the coast, and the first intimations of the northern deserts appear. From Los Vilos, a paved road turns off the Pan-American Highway towards Illapel, climbing steeply up to a pass, from which there are staggering views of the Andes and the Choapa River.

Illapel is surrounded by barren hills, with good views of the cordillera to the east. While the town is not wildly interesting in itself, it is close to wonderful mountain country, best explored by the adventurous or those with their own transport. The Illapel region is largely ignored by travellers, yet it has some worthwhile attractions. This is the narrowest part of Chile between Arica and Aysén, and the Andes are never far away, with valleys carving right up towards the snowline. There are many examples of pre-Hispanic petroglyphs for those who take the trouble to find them.

Getting there

There are direct buses to Los Vilos, Illapel and Salamanca from Santiago, Valparaiso and La Serena.

Getting around

There are regular bus services up and down the valley as far as Salamanca from where
colectivos
can be taken to the more remote upper valley. The towns are all small enough to explore on foot.

Los Vilos and the coast

Los Vilos is a small seaside resort 216 km north of Santiago. Set in a wide bay, it is a peaceful, windswept place, disturbed mainly by the noise of the kelp gulls and the waves, except in summer when it fills up with holidaymakers from Santiago. Halfway between the capital and La Serena, it is a good place to break the journey. Los Vilos was founded as a mineral port. Having suffered years of decline as a backwater fishing village, the local economy is being revitalised by the new port at the north tip of the bay serving the recently opened mine at Los Pelambres. There are several attractive
plazuelas
on the
costanera
, with stone benches among aloe and palm trees, from which you can watch the fishing boats bobbing in the sea; the water is cold for bathing. Also on the
costanera
is a small
municipal aquarium
. Two blocks inland from here is the
Bodegón Cultural
, in a former port warehouse, now a gallery showing good-quality temporary exhibitions of artwork from the region and around Chile. Entrance is free but donations are welcome. The shop sells stoneware ceramics with diaguita motifs made by local craftswomen.

Offshore are two islands reached by frequent launches: Isla de Los Huevos, situated in the bay, and, 5 km south, Isla de Los Lobos, where there is a colony of seals. There is a tourist office on the main road entering Los Vilos from the Pan-American Highway, www.losvilos.cl.

Pichidangui, 26 km south, is a popular resort on a rocky peninsula, with a beautiful beach to the north. Los Molles, 10 km south of Pichidangui, is a fishing village where many wealthy residents of Santiago have their summer homes. Nearby are the Puguén blow holes and the Piscina Los Molles, a natural swimming pool.

Illapel

Nearly 480 km north of Santiago, Illapel is a poor town that depends on mining in the surrounding mountains for its survival. The lives of the
pirquineros
in the nearby hills provide a sobering illustration of the lifestyle that miners in the north of Chile have endured since colonial times. The workers drag rocks from the mine-face in rusting wheelbarrows, living in tumbledown shacks without power, fresh water or public transport, and many of them die tragically young from lung cancer or chagas disease. If you do venture up into these remote areas, bring gifts and humility in abundance.

Illapel is a small town, and can easily be covered on foot. There is a small archaeological museum next to the library in the Casa de la Cultura with a bizarre and disordered collection of arrowheads, jewellery, pottery, miners' boots and newspapers so dusty you almost choke.

Salamanca and around

This small town lies 32 km southeast of Illapel along the Río Choapa. It is surrounded by the dusty foothills of the Andes and has a large shady plaza where craftspeople display their goods in the evenings. Halfway along the road from Illapel is the
Los Cristales Pass
, from where there are views of distant snowy mountains. Salamanca has lost some of its charm since it now doubles as a service town for the new mine at Los Pelambres. Much of the former friendliness to strangers has gone and at nighttime there can be an edge to the atmosphere in town.

Some 2 km north of Salamanca on the Illapel road is a turning for the small town of Chalinga, with a church dating from 1750 (ask at the nearby convent if entry is possible). A dusty road continues from Chalinga up into the Chalinga valley, passing plantations of pisco grapes, fruit orchards and irrigated vegetable patches before heading up into barren mountain scenery around Zapallar.

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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