Little North Roadtrip: Copiapo, Desierto Florido, Bahia Inglesa

Copiapo

From here the Atacama Desert begins, a barren expanse that stretches to the North and whose stark hills of sandy brown and beige peer downwards  menacingly. As cities go, Copiapo itself is an oasis of green with surprising touches of quality not found in the capital: there are sunshades over children´s playgrounds (of which there are many), colourful apartment blocks with swimming pools, and numerous small plazas dotted with flowers, sculptures and statues.  There is an air of prosperity here, not unusual considering that it has grown from the Earth´s staggering bounty, first from the discovery of silver in nearby Chañarcillo (1832) and today from copper, of which Chile is the largest producer.

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Looking down at the highway to Bahia Inglesa, from 500m up

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Copiapo is the largest settlement between La Serena and Antofogasta, so it sees quite a bit of traffic.  Nothing can really prepare you for just how big Chile is, its gigantic length marring even the most dedicated roadtrippers´ intentions. Copiapo makes a good base to daytrip to the Pan de Azucar national park, the tiny beachside resort of Bahia Inglesa, the larger port of Caldera, or Llanos de Challe national park.

However, Copiapo has a few sights of its own, particularly if you are into history.

This was the site of South America´s first railroad (1852) which ran to the sea at Caldera, Chile´s first telephone lines, its first telegraph lines, and first gas works (Lonely Planet 2009).  When the silver was discovered at Chañarcillo, entreupeneurs flocked north to take advantage of this, running mines staffed by workers paid only in store credit while building for themselves huge estates called haciendas.  The mine went on to become the third largest silver mine in the world.

There are two places where you can soak up history and learn more about mining. The first is Nantoco, a mapundungun word that means ¨water of the well¨. In case you are wondering how the Mapuche influenced so far north, the reason is because many were brought to work in the mines by the Spanish and many local names have lingered until today, such as nantoco and Huasco (gold river). This town was a pocket of wealth in the area and home to many of the wealthy families that made their money mining, including the Cousiño´s and the Subercaseaux.  Today the town is a National Monument which you can visit to see its 19th century church, silver/copper smelter and the former estate of Apolinario Soto (dating back to 1870).

The second place is Viña del Cerro which is an extremely interesting spot 64km from Copiapo that dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries.  Here the Incas had a copper foundry that the Diaguita people used to pay their tribute to the empire. The ceremonial platform and ovens are still visible today.

There are also two excellent museums: the Mineralogical Museum, with more than 2300 materials on display, and the Museo Regional de Atacama, which includes a mine replica.

For nightlife, head to Barrio Alameda and to eat stop at Govinda´s, a casual vegetarian/vegan spot with a kids play area and regular yoga sessions for adults and kids.

Bahia Inglesa

Blink-and-you´ll-miss-it Bahia Inglesa is a tiny settlement overlooking a bay broken by picturesque rocks. This place really does look the way it does in pictures – its water really is that turquoise and the sand really is that white. The waves are tiny and the water is shallow, meaning that this beach is more like a swimming pool, hence the name ¨La Piscina¨.  It is perfect for children, hopeful Instagrammers and those who want to combine their beach visit with delicious food, because it also happens that it has some of the best seaside restaurants in all of Chile (visit ´El Plataeo´).

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The beachfront is lined by scuba diving outfits and souvenir stalls selling shell-laden wares. On either side of the rocks the beach stretches on, and __ in particular is particularly stunning and generally much quieter than Bahia Inglesa, and without all the shops.  This entire area is a sliver of paradise that bears more resemblance to a coastal New Zealand town than anything I have encountered so far in Chile, the only downside being that the beach itself could be cleaner – on our visit the beautiful sand was interrupted with as many cigarette butts as shells and I even found broken glass in places.

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Still completely in love with my Karun sunnies (made from recycled fishing nets) and my La Pituka leggings!

Caldera

Caldera is a large town with all the facilities you´d expect, including banks in case you run out of cash (like us!).  While it is nothing pretty to look at, it does have an absolutely gorgeous church, a plaza de armas that is full of playgrounds, a paleontology museum and a pelican-lined pier that will amuse children, as well as a sandy beach.

Vallenar

Cobbled roads, colourful houses that peer down from the hills and a roaring river awaits you in this large town known primarily for (you guessed it) mining.  While there is nothing much to do beside loll about the pretty central plaza, there are plenty of hotels and restaurants serving colaciones. As in most mining towns where the people have money to throw around, there are plenty of bars and casinos.

The link below is not technically about Vallenar, but the town features in the song and I´ve been looking for the opportunity to include this version.  The song is originally by acclaimed songwriter and nueva cancion Chilena pioneer, Violeta Parra. This version is by musician Karla Grunewaldt, and I think it perfectly captures the heartbreak of the song. The raw lyrics break my heart, as it details the journey north of Parra´s lover, which consequently ended their relationship.

Domeyko

A tiny mining settlement just off the highway, this charming settlement does not warrant a stop unless you need to take a break from all the monotonous driving (although to be fair, the semi-arid scenery around here is unusually stunning). Domeyko does not have a petrol station but there are vendors if you ask around (like we did!).  A lot of the gardens and squares have been beautified with old mining relics which up the charm factor here.

Desierto Florido

Although you can turn off to the Llanos de Challe national park to be swamped in the scientifically bizarre ¨flowering dessert¨, you can also see stretches of it from the highway as you travel north.  This year we had quite a bit of rain, so there were lots of flowers.  Inside Llanos de Challe you have the chance to uncover some of the world´s rarest flowers, including the Garra de Leon.  There are some 220 species of plants here – of which 206 are native to Chile and 14 are found only in Chile.  The garra de leon and the napina are classed as endangered and are almost extinct so count yourself blessed if you spot one! You might also see one of the many guanacos that call the park home, as well as peregrine falcons and foxes.

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Fields as far as the eye can see of pata de guanaco.

Did you like this? Have a look at:

my favorite Chilean clothing businesss, La Pituka;

sunglasses that look at the world ¨from a different perspective¨, Karun;

the unique story of Sewell and mining in Chile;

the town of Ovalle in El Norte Chico;

Humboldt penguin hotspot, Punta de Choros;

the story of Violeta Parra, and four other Chilean icons.

 

Punta de Choros & Humboldt Penguins

After La Serena the road curls around an undulating landscape dotted with cacti.  Behind us the road twists like a snake – to the side is the sea, a dark blue expanse with frothy white tips and as we drive we pass by windswept townships hugging the hills as if for dear life.

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We were on our way to Punta de Choros, jump off point to visit the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humboldt, home to one of only a few colonies of the endangered Humboldt Penguin and a must-see attraction according to the guidebooks.  It´s also home to a rich variety of seabirds such as comorants, boobies and gulls as well as sea-lions, sea otters and (frequently sighted) bottlenose dolphins and whales.   The reserve – some 860 hectares managed by CONAF – is visited by boats staffed by local fishermen-turned-tour guides, and trips take you to the penguin stronghold of Isla Choros as well as Isla Damas, a smaller island with two beautiful white sand beaches.

We have been extremely excited about visiting because it is one of the last places to see the Humboldt Penguin, a cute little guy with a spotted chest and thick beak, that breeds along the coasts of Chile and Peru.  There are only about 32,000 penguins left, a shocking statistic that places them in danger of extinction.  Their population has taken a hit due to:

  • Commercial Fishing –  entanglement in fishing nets; decline of their main prey (sardines + anchovies)
  • Prey fluctuations due to the effects of El Niño
  • Introduction of pests (such as rats) and predators (Andean Fox);
  • illegal trade (zoos and as pets)
  • Human consumption (Northern Chile only)
  • Industrial development such as mining; Punta de Choros is currently protesting of the Dominga mining project in motion for the area.
  • Habitat destruction due to coastal development
  • Habitat destruction due to the mining of guano by increasing mortality due to nest trampling and direct harvest

Information sourced from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Chile has sought to better the odds by making reserves such as this one as well as eradicating rabbits from the island of Isla Choros; Santiago´s National Zoo also has a program to hatch abandoned eggs.  However there is one more issue facing the penguins today more than any other, and that is the effect of tourist visitation.  Penguins are extremely sensitive and not only do visitors trample their breeding sites, but they also deter them from breeding, meaning that any decision to visit the reserve comes with an ethical price to pay, particularly as Conaf has reported that other wildlife populations have suffered as well.  This has become such a pressing issue that my 2009 8th edition of Lonely Planet dissuades tourists from disembarking at Isla Damas.

We turn off the highway and head down an axle-breaking dirt road towards Los Choros, a blink and you´ll miss it cluster of dusty houses in an area that dates back to the 1600´s and the early arrival of the Spanish settlers. This dry peninsula is one of the premier producers of Chilean olive oil and just outside the township there are family-run olive tree farms, where you can stop to pick up a bottle of olive oil, handmade extra virgin soap, locally sourced salt and even learn about the production process.

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Olivas de Olivarez 
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Where olive oil is made!

After Los Choros the dirt road continues past cabañas, sparsely placed along the way, until you arrive into Punta de Choros.  Punta de Choros is nothing to look at – in fact most of the cabañas are basic affairs, with the restaurants serving up average (and below) food.  There are two wharfs where tour boats embark from, and these were swarming with oblivious daytrippers and touts of the more aggressive variety.  It was also extremely cold and windy, despite the fact that just a few hours before we´d been basking beneath the warm rays of La Serena´s sun.  These winds haunted our stay, blowing and banging around our windows at night and forcing us back into our winter jackets and merino layers – and ultimately deterred us from our ocean trip: all boat were prohibited by the Navy from leaving the jetty.

We did make several trips to the neighboring beaches as the coastal scenery is both stunning and dramatic all white silky sand dunes and rocky outcrops. Spring – and this year´s unusual volume of rainfall – had prompted a staggering array of plants, flowers and insects which blossomed in every direction, creating a rich tapestry of reds, greens and yellows.

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We were also lucky enough to see two herds of wild guanacos grazing near the roadside which was simply extraordinary.

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We had a chat with local fisherman Freddy, who identified himself as part of the Chango indigenous group, which many sources label as extinct. ´Chango´ was a term given to the nomadic people that lived between Copiapo and Coquimbo that survived mainly on seafood.   Freddy told us about his grandparents, who´d grown up living in makeshift portable houses that they moved along the coast, hunting guanacos and living off of goats and mariscos. When Freddy was a boy he dived beside mountains of locos (Chilean Abalone), a molusc that Chile highly prizes and which is strictly regulated by the state body of fisheries, Sernapesca.  Today, this loco bounty no longer exists, although Punta de Choros irks much of its living from their extraction, making it one of the principal producers; each year 150 people are permitted a haul of 3000.

We hightailed it out of Punta de Choros with a few litres of Olive Oil and feeling slightly disappointed but also relieved at not having to make the ethical decision to visit the reserve.  We were also excited to continue another 4 hours to the north, to the city of Copiapo and the start of the Atacama Desert.

Pictures below are of the Desierto Florido visible from the highway an hour or so after leaving Punta de Choros.

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Where We Stayed

We rented a cabaña for two night on either side of our drive north. We used the services of Turismo Punta Choros, the more successful tour operator in the area. The cabañas were nothing amazing and certainly not five star, with dated decor and furniture BUT everything worked well, we had a kitchen, plenty of blankets, cable TV, parking, and hot water. I did stop at Cabañas Amarilis to chat with their owners and I highly recommend them.  The cabins were lovely, centrally located with breakfast and wifi included in the rate.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Bring cash as there are no cash machines and very few places accept credit cards.
  • The road is NOT paved and very bumpy – we lost a tyre!
  • September and October are the worst months to visit the reserve as there are high winds and turbulent seas
  • Very busy on weekends, public holidays and in summer so book well in advance

Ovalle & the Limari Valley

In 2014 I remember a disgusting pizza, a delicious juice made of papayas and sleeping on a rockhard hostel mattress with an unimpressed baby.  Oh and I narrowly avoided being pickpocketed too, apparently.

That was three years ago.  Fast forward to 2017 and I didn´t much relish the prospect of returning to the mining town, despite this time being paid to do so.  However I am now a guidebook writer and so one must weed through the bad in order to find something good.

And in 2017´s Ovalle, there is plenty of the good stuff.

There is the Valle del Encanto, for starters, a barren valley punctuated with rock art known as petroglyphs, made most likely by the El Molle people between 200-700AD.  There are also clusters of piedras tacitas, holes in the rockbed floor (you may remember Chile has the biggest site of these at Cerro Blanco), and a cavernous opening believed to have been used for bathing.  The canyon is also home to the loica (Long-Tailed Meadowlark), liebre (the European Hare, introduced as a game animal) and the degu, an inquisitive rodent endemic to Chile, among others.

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Nearby the Valle del Encanto is the Viña Tabali and the Termas de Socos thermal spring resort, and all of these are part of the Limari Valley.  This region is where the majority of Chile´s muscat grapes are grown and harvested to make pisco by the country´s largest pisqueras, Capel and Control (look out for the ¨armed guards¨ signs at the orchard entrances!). The valley is achingly beautiful, much wider than its sister valley, the Elqui, but nowhere near as touristic .  As we drove around the sharp bends beside the Embalse Recoleta and over the wide rivers, we were really struck by how few cabañas and restaurants we saw.

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It is in the heart of this valley (and quite a drive so be sure to check opening times before you leave) that you will find the Monumento Nacional Pichasca, a dry reserve containing the remains of a petrified forest and more petroglyphs.

The Plaza de Armas of Ovalle is interesting enough, but the real must-see of the town is the Museo del Limari which houses a small but impressive collection of artefacts found in the local area.  The pieces date back to the Diaguitas (1000-1536AD), Las Animas (800-1000AD), el Molle (200-700AD) and the Huentelauquen (1000-5000BC).  The museum is also housed in the former railway station, one of the first in South America.

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Outside the Feria Modelo there is an original carriage which is open to visit when the Feria is open.

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Where We Stayed

We stayed at Ovalle Suite Hostal Boutique a new addition in Ovalle and right in the center of town just a block from the Plaza de Armas.  For clp$40,000 we had a super king bed, breakfast, wifi and the most glorious shower – there were TWO showerheads and it was divine!!

 

 

Further Afield

Stop by the Fray Jorge national park, a luscious green oddity amongst the semi-arid landscape, for a picnic or do as we did (because Fray Jorge close at 13.30) and take a break at the Laguna Conchali on the outskirts of Los Vilos. This wetland is a great place to look for birds including (for you Dad!) the Chiloe Wigeon.

 

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And don´t forget to try one of the famous pastries from La Ligua!

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View from the road heading towards La Serena and Ovalle

Stay tuned for the next installment chronicling our trip to El Norte Chico!  Follow me on Instagram to see my favorite photos from the road – vlog coming soon!

If you liked this then you may also like:

Santiago Railway Museum;

Photos of Chile;

Cahuil;

Sewell and Chile´s Mines

 

Quintessence Alpaca Farm

The gate of this farm is colossal – and no wonder, considering that inside is one of the world´s leading alpaca farms.  In front, there are alfalfa fields as far as the eye can see, right up to the looming hills that characterize so much of Chile.  On the day we visited, these fields were being harvested for the alpacas to eat, the tractors rolling over the proud grasses with a gentle hum.

 

 

Upon entering the farm, it is clear that the alpaca is the star. You see them straight away, dainty heads upon tall necks peering over the low fences that corral them in to their paddocks and stables, their eyes alert and docile beneath lustrous lashes. Maria Herlinda de la Garza is the operator of the farm, first pulled into the alpaca world by her then-employer, grocery store mogul, Charlie Fitzmorris, who owned an alpaca farm in Chile and wanted to export to the United States.  After his death, Maria decided to continue working with alpacas because, as she writes on the website, ¨I had fallen in love with Alpacas and their amazing fiber … Their fleece has become my passion¨.

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Quintessence was the result, a success by all definitions of the word, that today exports to some 15 countries around the globe.  They have bred some of the finest animals in the world, and have processed their fibres down to a shocking 12.5 microns, a measurement that is incredibly fine.

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According to their website, Quintessence aims to ¨to create a social responsible  and sustainable company that will safe guard the environment while creating community jobs among local women and men of great skill and experience in this sector of the industry.¨

A tour of the farm can be in English or Spanish, and takes you around the entire grounds including the mill, culminating in the store which contains clothes, accessories and wool processed and created on the farm.

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What IS an alpaca?

There are two breeds of this South American camelid that closely resemble their more familiar – and larger – cousin, the llama. Unlike the llama, they were never domesticated to do heavy duty as a beast of burden but instead have always prized for their fibre, which comes in an astonishing 52 natural colors (as classified in Peru) and their meat. Their fibre (it is not called wool) contains no lanolin and is famed for its soft and luxurious quality that is somewhat akin to hair. The process for obtaining the fibre is similar to getting sheep wool, and the animals are sheared each spring; adults produce between 1420-2550 grams of fine quality fibre and then around 1420–2840 grams of second and third quality fibre.  After being shorn, the fibre is selected due to its color, size and quality, then all its impurities are removed.  It is then washed, spun and dyed with cochinilla, or natural dye.  Interestingly, alpacas never overgraze, and consume around 75% less food and water each day than cows and horses.  They also traditionally live side by side with the Quechua and Aymara people, and this co-dependence is said to be one of perfect balance.

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Why farm alpacas? Because the fibre is …

Warm, thanks to microscopic air particles that provide insulation suitable for all weather because it breathes.

Light, thanks again to those microscopic air particles.

Strong, because the alpaca is accustomed to living in an extreme environment (the Andes mountains) and this passes over into its fleece, making it last longer than most other fabrics like wool, cashmere and silk.

Luxurious in texture, a product of its environment, that is soft and comforting. Amazingly, the alpaca fibre can be processed without any chemicals.

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The Nitty Gritty

Website and blog here

Address:

Parcela 14 La Estancilla, Casilla 73,

Llay Llay  V Región Chile

Cel: +56 9 934 57300

Cel2: +56 9 836 11715

Tours: Miles & Smiles Chile (us!) offer private tours in English or Spanish to Quintessence that can be combined with either Olmue or La Campana National Park. Visit our website here.

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Despite Santiago being such a big city, it is fairly easy to escape and find yourself a sliver of nature for the day.  Some ideas:

Santuario de la Naturaleza

Aguas San Ramon (Parque Cordillera)

Rio Clarillo 

Lago Rapel

Lago Peñuelas

La Campana National Park, the place where you can find yourself walking beneath endangered Chilean Palms, rustling some 40m above like tantalizing dinosaur food, each one hundreds of years old (and my personal favorite).