The Far North – Arica to San Pedro de Atacama
Best for: history, surfing, paragliding, stargazing
Route: Arica – Lauca National Park – Iquique – Chuquicamata – San Pedro de Atacama
When to Go? Year Round. It rarely rains here, but storms are likely in Lauca NP/the altiplano between January and March.
Arica was acquired from Peru during the bloody 1878-83 War of the Pacific. Checkout the battlefield site on the clifftops of El Morro and the iron St Mark’s church, which was – despite the claims on its brass plaque – probably not built by Gustave Eiffel. Nevertheless it’s a cool city with a laid-back beach scene and good surfing, and also a handy gateway for Lauca NP – a beautiful stop, albeit one short of great hiking trails.
Around 310km south, following the Panamerican Highway parallel to the coast, Iquique is a lively, cosmopolitan coastal city with handsome buildings dating from the nitrate boom era of the late 19th century, when British capital and manpower poured in. Now it is a global hotspot for paragliders, thanks to cloudless skies and the dunes that propel Pacific winds skywards. It’s also a convivial base for visiting two UNESCO heritage sites – the former ‘nitrate towns’ of Humberstone and Santa Laura – as well as the hot-spring oases of Pica and Matilla and the starkly beautiful Volcán Isluga NP.
The road to San Pedro de Atacama passes one of the world’s biggest open-pit mines, Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara claims – in The Motorcycle Diaries – that he began to think deeply about workers’ rights. San Pedro, with its hip bars, smart hotels and nearby geysers, salt flat and star-gazing observatories, makes a fine end to any 1,000km road trip.