Five hours by bus along a dry desert road from Arica brings you to Iquique, a lively, historic coastal hot spot, popular with Chilean families who come for sun, sand and copious cocktails.
Iquique makes you want to splash out as well as splash about in the Pacific. So stay in the welcoming Terrado Arturo Pratt, overlooking the busy main square, whose balconies have uplifting views across to the giant sand dunes. It’s a cheerful place, light and inviting with a long, narrow swimming pool.
A lively market, a few streets back sells delicious fresh seafood and juices in its appealing cafes. Chilean people are friendly and cheerful and the overall mood is upbeat and carefree.
Head to the beach to watch enormous Pacific waves and feast on tubs of ceviche from a waterfront stall.
Iquique was once a saltpetre mining town and Baquedano is an historic strip of renovated 19th century mine workers houses, now home to interesting bars, cafes and galleries and a major draw for visitors.
Iqique is also known for its duty free shopping and casino. All round it’s a pretty racy spot, but it’s not overwhelming, just fun. A few days here will set you up for the long journey south. If you’re travelling by bus you’re looking at 17 hours to La Serena, another key highlight for tourists.
Book a more expensive ticket (£50) and you will be comfortable in a wide reclining seat. Every so often you’re given a sandwich in a plastic bag and a carton of fruit juice, which means the driver doesn’t have to stop at service stations. It’s a boring journey and flying is a better option if you can book ahead or you’re travelling off-season. Otherwise it’s expensive. You could pay nearly £200.
When you tumble off the bus, you’re in La Serena, gateway to the Elqui Valley, one of the most beautiful places in Chile. It’s glorious, green and full of natural wonders. Pick up a colectivo here for £5 each and prepare to marvel at the magnificent scenery, lush yet stark, soft and dramatic.