Serene Beaches, Secret Valleys – Copiapó to Santiago
Best For: Swimming, hiking, pisco tasting, stargazing, alternative therapies
Route: Copiapó – La Serena – Valle de Elqui – Coquimbo – Fray Jorge National Park – Cachagua – Santiago
When to Go? Year round, but La Serena can get pretty busy between January and February
The temperate zone north of Chile is popular with locals, but typically flown over by foreign visitors. Start in the mining town of Copiapó, which is very pleasant and has some fine old buildings. Head south from there to La Serena, one of Chile’s most popular beaches, with miles of golden sand and a rather sophisticated air. Rest your pins before heading for the hills.
Inland lies the Valle de Elqui, which locals often talk about as if it were some kind of Shangri-La. The array of alternative therapy centres might explain this, but it’s also a very pretty region, with attractive villages and pisco (brandy) wineries scattered among lush, steep slopes. Not to be outdone by the north, it is also the world’s first ‘International Dark Sky Sanctuary’ and has a handful of observatories.
Back on the coast, Coquimbo is perhaps less photogenic but compensates with its carefully restored 19th-century Barrio Ingles (English Quarter), good seafood and boat trips around the bay. While there are a few nice walks around town, for proper hiking head to Socos and turn east for Fray Jorge NP. Here, trails extend through Valdivian forest that – in this arid zone – depends on condensation from coastal fog to survive. The park is listed by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve and its forest is a relic from the Quaternary Period – Atacama would have looked like this some 30,000 years ago. It’s around a six-hour drive to Santiago from here, so be sure to stop en route for a beach-side break at Cachagua.