Flying from Santiago your plane tracks the northward course of the Andes, cruising beside a spectacular procession of glistening peaks-ice-bound, severe and stark-that split the continent and divide Chile from Argentina.
Close to Santiago, the land runs down to the Pacific with enough water from the ocean air and Andean rivers for vineyards, farms and forests. Going north this soon turns to dry hills and scrub. From your aircraft window you see landscapes turning dusty and brown, crossed by fewer and fewer valleys of green.
Hundreds of kilometres pass beneath you and the earth has become arid and empty. A new chain of mountains has risen closer to the ocean, wringing every hint of moisture from the air and turning this into the Atacama Desert-the driest desert on earth.
You land in the Atacama Desert in an unassuming landscape of gravelly sands and rock at Calama, where a dusty mining town justifies an airport and a crossroads. The road to the east climbs to a rim of low hills that block the downwards escape of the few little streams that come from the Andes beyond, tipping them into a giant basin where they are at the mercy of the sun, evaporating their puny delivery of water into thin air and leaving a wide expanse of glistening salt flats.
The road passes a viewpoint above a fractured landscape of jumbled ridges and blistering sands that earns its name of 'Moon Valley'. Stop to stand on a dramatic overhang above the vast desert views beyond, listen to the wind, and put yourself in one of Atacama's iconic photos. You descend to an almost miraculous oasis where a narrow stream from distant volcanoes arrives to support the settlement of San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro lay largely ignored in its desert setting until a couple of decades ago, when a hotel or two opened their doors to explorers and travellers, and the tiny mining village began to evolve into a base for its region. It is still a small patch of dusty streets radiating from a pretty square beside a thatched church, but its humble houses are these days adapted into a handful of cafés and bars, and little shops selling the bits and pieces that travellers buy.
Behind adobe walls and tucked away down country lanes lie beautiful expedition lodges designed by contemporary architects in response to their desert settings. Each offers its own blissful combination of nightly comfort and well-considered cuisine with daytime activity and adventure, exercise and exploration, yoga, spa and pool.
There is something remarkable to explore in every direction. The salt flats themselves (the Salar de Atacama) are stunning, stretching a sparkling white to far distant hills, with shallow lagoons reflecting dramatic dawn and sunset skies as flocks of flamingos feed. You can trek for hours into the Moon Valley, or its sister the Death Valley. Within reach of the village there are ancient cave settlements set in valleys of multi-coloured rock, tracks into canyons for biking, and plenty of opportunities for walking, trekking, horse-riding-and even ballooning sometimes.
To the east of San Pedro runs a dramatic skyline of high volcanoes along the sierras of the Andes. Sixteen peaks, some near perfect cones, are above 5000m and the highest reaches 6046m.
Venturing into the mountains on day trips from San Pedro (at much less extreme altitudes) you find high grasslands grazed by vicuñas and rheas, crystal clear altiplanic lagoons, wind-blown deserts with rocks eroded to fantastic shapes, fields of active geysers spluttering and shooting steam into the morning air, dramatic canyons, and rivers that tumble between pools warmed by hot springs.
As the sun sets your guide may take you to a perfect look-out (with an appropriate sundowner in your hand) before you make your way back to your lodge. After dinner and as darkness becomes complete you might visit one of the several astronomical observatories in the area. Some of the larger lodges have their own.
San Pedro makes a way point for trips into Bolivia, crossing the border on a road that winds through the Bolivian deserts to Uyuni and 4,000 square miles of pure white salt flats.
El Norte Chico
The Norte Chico, or 'near north', is the long expanse between central Chile around Santiago and the Norte Grande which holds the Atacama Desert.
800km from bottom to top, Norte Chico makes a long transition from the fertile central valley to the dry deserts. Its highlights are few.
La Serena is a colonial town (the second oldest in Chile) set back from a long, long beach served by a long, long esplanade of hotels that fill to overflowing after Christmas in the height of Chile's summer holidays. It sits at the mouth of the Elqui river, which flows from the Andes through a delightful valley of vineyards, orange groves, and fruit farms-a long swathe of green winding between its steep dry hillsides. The Elqui Valley is 'A cry of nature rising amidst the opaque mountains and the clear blue sky' in the words of the poet Gabriela Mistral.
Mistral, the first female Nobel laureate for literature, is honoured by a museum in the town of Vicuña. Not far from here are two spectacular astronomical observatories, Cerro Tololo and Del Pangue, that open their doors to visitors. There are several others further afield. Pisco brandy is a principal product of the region.
Lauca National Park
The extraordinary Lauca National Park lies just beyond the Atacama desert, tucked into Chile's north-east corner.
Lauca starts at an everyday 3200m but rises to 6342m, making it one of the world's highest parks. Maximum altitude is provided by Parinacota volcano, with three others over 6000m and several peaks in the 4000s and 5000s. There are more volcanoes just over the border in Bolivia including Pomerape, Parinacota's twin.
The result is stunning. Immense snowy volcanoes stand behind volcanic cones of every size dotted across a wide high landscape.
Unlike Atacama, parts of Lauca are wet from rain and mountain rivers. Chungara Lake is the highest lake, the interconnected lagoons of Cotacotani are among the most scenic. They flow underground to feed wetlands that are a magnet for wildlife.
Vicuñas, guanacos and huemules graze in numbers, armadillos and viscachas are plentiful. Pumas are present, but hard to find.
Lauca's birdlife is particularly special, with 140 on the list, including key altiplano and high plateau endemics. Good road access to much of the altitude range is very helpful.
Despite the strong competition, Lauca could claim to be one of Chile's most spectacular regions, though it is one of its least visited. The best access is from Arica on the coast or from the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia.
Lauca Biosphere Reserve combines the Lauca and Las Vicuñas parks and borders Sajama NP in Bolivia.
Squeezed between the ocean and the gigantic sand dunes that are a feature of this coast (and offer some of the world's best paragliding) Iquique goes about its business with energy and cosmopolitan style. The town expanded from fishing village to commercial hub in the nitrate boom that created the ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The last town before the border, Arica marks the end of the coastal cordillera in a chunky bluff and 110m cliff known as El Morro where an 1880 battle saw this region pass from Peru to Chile. Local holidaymakers, surfing beaches, and docks that serve as Bolivia's access to the sea keep the town busy.
Human history stretches back nine thousand years here thanks to the two fertile river valleys of Lluta and Azapa which were settled by the ancient Chinchorro people, then by Tiwanakus, before coming under Inca control. Geoglyph drawings in the surface of the earth dot the valleys and in 1983 the burial site of 96 mummies was accidentally unearthed at the foot of El Morro, echoing smaller burial sites along the Pacific coast. The earliest mummies from the region predate their Egyptian counterparts by several thousand years.
An excellent Museo Arqueológico nearby in the Azapa Valley houses a collection of Chinchorro mummies, along with ceramics, tapestries and other artefacts from Chinchorro, Tiwanaku and Aymara cultures in the region. It is among the best museums in Chile.