As you move north, the sun-baked hills and gentle valleys of the Norte Chico gradually give way to the more desolate plains of the Atacama desert, marking the beginning of the Norte Grande. On the eastern edge of the country, the desert climbs up into the Altiplano highlands, where salt flats and lakes spread out far into the distance, eventually spilling over into Bolivia and Argentina.
As a whole, the area takes up nearly a quarter of the country’s landmass, yet houses less than 5% of its inhabitants, a testimony to the aridity of the land.
Apart from the Lake District, the Norte Grande is the most visited area of Chile. Most people opt for a tour, as the vast and inhospitable landscape makes independent travel difficult.
In the Atacama desert, you can take a trip out to the nitrate ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura, which can be easily accessed from the coastal town of Iquique. Another of the desert’s highlights are the immense geoglyphs carved into the side of the vast ravines, by long-departed indigenous tribes. The vast, steaming El Tatio Geysers just south of San Pedro are spectacular and also worthy of a visit.
Up in the highlands of the northern Altiplano, head to one of the national parks on the border of Bolivia, such as Parque Nacional Lacuna and Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga, and admire their mineral baths and shimmering blue lakes, among miles of empty salt flats.