Don't let the bleak-looking desert discourage you. Northern Chile will not fail to impress you with its beauty and fascinating charms.
Arica is a walkable, safe, and hip city that is famous for Chilean sandwich bars, so wander around the street Patricio Lynch and try out the chacarero or the barro luco! Climb up to the top of El Morro for stunning and expansive views. A day-trip tour worth booking is to Putre and the high plains region of Parque Nacional Lauca. If you want to explore closer in to town, right on the outskirts you'll find one of the largest collection of mummies in the world, dating back 9,000 years, at the Museo Momias Chinchorro.
Next head your way further south as you watch the desert go right into the sea, making your destination the calming oasis city by the sea, Iquique. Whereas Arica has the hippie vibe, Iquique satisfies the yuppie vibe. The beaches are fantastic for swimming and surfing, and the city has preserved its central historic district with a wonderful boardwalk (Baquedano Street) with ceviche cafes and affordable lodging. On Baquedano Street you'll also find the very nice and free city museum, and near the bus terminal the very fun Museo Corbeta Esmeralda, a maritime museum right on board a replica of the 19th-century ship that sunk off the coast of Iquique in a battle in 1879. Outside of the city are the World Heritage sites of Salitre and Humberstone, a ghostly collection of abandoned saltpeter mines that the desert has preserved in time -- well worth a visit! Small bus lines across from the mercado central will also take you out to Pica, a spot in the middle of the desert popular with locals to enjoy the hot springs there. Before you leave Iquique, make sure to visit the Zona Rosa (or locally called "Mall Zofri"), a huge duty-free district on the northern side of the city where you can get great bargains on everything imported.
From the coast you'll next head inland to the Bolivian border area, famous for its rich mining history and haunting landscape. Calama is the major city, but it's rather industrial, so you want to head one hour past it to the beloved San Pedro de Atacama, the archaeological capital of Chile.
It's best to plan a stay of 4-5 days in San Pedro, because for a little village it is chock full of activities and historical significance, not to mention its beautiful surroundings are hard to get enough of. more...
Hey folks, this route is so heavenly and exotic, and still so undiscovered, you've got to get on it before the tourism machine gets here.
If you're going to Peru from Ecuador, 99% of travelers will go through Huaquillas, but why follow the crowd? There are at least three other side doors, and all of them are way more cool.
Go a bit east and over the border through Macará, a rice growing capital of Ecuador and also famous for Seco de Chivo, which is a delectable stewed piece of goat in a gravy over rice.
But way before you get there, you can stop first in Balsas, which has a grotto of medicinal waters surrounded by cinnamon and oak trees. Heal thyself, baby!
Then a little farther east down the road is the amazing Buenaventura Reserve where you'll get a guaranteed welcome of thousands of hummingbirds (see my article on Zaruma), as well as find yourself in a rare few square kilometers that is the nexus of different avian migratory routes, creating a habitat for many endangered species. more...
Okay, yah yah, I know, this route is pretty short. You can get to "VdL" as they call it in just a few hours. However, there's so much in between that I'm recommending this route as one to get off the bus a lot, stay overnight even instead of going back to Bogota.
First, you want to stop in Chia (no, not to get Chia pets), an idyllic town on a beautiful lake with beautiful courtyards. City folk love to go to Chia for the weekends and chill. Then continue north to Zipaquira, one of my favorite towns in the whole country. The main attraction is the Salt Cathedral, a huge underground mine that has been converted into a church. But the town itself is a charmer too!
Leaving "Zip" on the way to Tunja, you should get off to visit the several important monuments at the site of the Boyaca Bridge (Puente de Boyaca), which is the decisive location where Colombia won its independence in 1819.
Tunja is the chilly and high capital of the province, a major transporation hub, and very important historically. It hosts many festivals throughout the year, so don't be too rushed to pass it by. The colonial architecture and art of the city is both unique and undervisited, so enjoy it without the tourist mobs. more...
This is such a well-worn route it's hardly worth mentioning, but then again I'm surprised at the number of travelers who take it direct without considering all the lifetime experiences they pass up before they get to Cusco.
For hikers of any ability, the town of Chivay should be your first point of order, because from here you can head out to the unforgettable Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. You don't have to go down to appreciate its splendor. On the way there you'll skirt the Aguada Blanca National Reserve, inhabited by herds of vicuñas and alpacas. One of the best hikes is at the top of the steepest side of Colca Canyon where you come to Condor's Cross (El Mirador), where the biggest flying bird in the world can usually be seen soaring amongst the peaks. There are also some picturesque colonial town around the rim of the canyon, like Yanque, Coporaque, Achoma and Maca.
Continuing northeast, you come into the Caylloma province, that possesses some of the highest satin-sheen lakes in South America like Lago Condoroma. As you come toward Espinar, no doubt you will think you are immersed in scenes of Lord of the Rings with the vast plains and swamps and mystic mountains more...
If you're coming from the splendid beach at El Rodadero in Santa Marta or visiting the Quinto de San Pedro Alejandrino where Simón Bolívar spent his last days, go west young packer on this Caribbean coastal route that involves just a couple hours ride at a time.
While most bypass the big industrial port of Barranquilla, it is South America's second Carnival capital (first being Río de Janeiro) at a much better bargain. It also is a great spot for art deco fans, including the Metropolitan Cathedral and the famous Teatro Amira de la Rosa museum and library.
Before you get to Cartagena, stop for an unforgettable experience at the Volcan de Lodo Totumo, a real volcano only about 30 feet high, that bubbles up lukewarm medicinal mud you can bathe and receive massages in, and then get yourself washed off in the nearby water -- very therapeutic and fun!
Cartagena itself is to die for, what I call the New Orleans French Quarter on Steroids! Old, full of pirate history, sultry and exotic. Sit on top of the old town wall at night with a pitcher of coco-limon and enjoy the gentle ocean breezes, visit the old maritime antique stores more...