The Atacama Region combines the extreme dryness of the desert with fertile farmlands in its valleys. Both features are key in determining the region’s characteristics: farming is the second most important activity after mining.
The Copiapó Valley – “green valley” in Aymara – spreads like a splash of vegetation in the middle of the desert. It was here that Spanish Conquistadors Diego de Almagro and Pedro de Valdivia rested after their grueling journeys through the mountains and across the desert.
The regional capital, Copiapó, is situated 74 kilometers from the sea and is home to 61.1% of the region’s population. The other two major towns are Chañaral, a seaport, and Vallenar, a center for the iron mining industry.
The original inhabitants of this area –Diaguitas, Changos, and Incas – valued its mineral wealth. Since the 19th century, iron, copper, silver, and gold have brought prosperity.
The region experienced a boom when the Chañarcillo silver mine was discovered in 1832. For many years, this was the world’s third largest silver mine.
Mining accounts for 45% of the region’s GDP and 90% of its exports. Moreover, various geological surveys have identified new deposits.
Iron ore mining is the most dynamic activity and there are numerous small-scale mines, which sell their output to ENAMI (the national mining company) for processing at its Paipote smelter.
The region’s main copper deposit is Candelaria, which produces around 200,000 tonnes per year and is controlled by Phelps Dodge, an international corporation. The next in size is El Salvador, owned by CODELCO, with an annual output of around 81,000 tonnes. Both mines export through the port of Chañaral.
Over recent decades, fresh fruit also emerged as regional export item, when the Copiapó and Huasco valleys joined Chile’s fruit-growing boom. They enjoy a comparative advantage because, thanks to the sunny climate, fruit ripens earlier than in the rest of the country and reaches northern hemisphere markets first.
Grapes are the main crop and, on a smaller scale, olives, raisins, tomatoes, peppers, onions, broad beans, citrus fruits, nectarines, apricots, oregano, and flowers.
The region’s organic wealth, its clear waters and sheltered bays, together with its entrepreneurial experience, favor the development of aquaculture. Species produced include the northern scallop, Japanese and Chilean oysters, abalone, turbot, algae, and different varieties of mussels. Other products with more value added include boned fish fillets, smoked and salted fish, roe, and fishburgers.
Beaches, guanacos, and foxes
Region III abounds in tourist attractions. It has 528 kilometers of virtually unexplored coastline and beaches, as well as salars in the desert, volcanoes, and – above all – the amazing spectacle of the desert in flower.
Three beautiful national parks show very different pictures – Nevado de Tres Cruces in the Andes, which comprises salars, lakes, and Andean ecosystems; Llanos de Challes on the coast; and Pan de Azúcar, which abounds in flora and fauna, including Humboldt penguins, sea otters, sea lions, guanacos, and foxes.
At Pan de Azúcar, the barrier of hills facing the sea helps to develop semi-desert vegetation, where cacti predominate, fed by the camanchaca, a thick morning fog that completely obliterates the view a few steps away and lifts under the heat of the sun.