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.
A lot of folks take day trips to the surrounding landscape wonders, like the Valley of the Moon or the El Tatio geysers, or to go take a dip in the hot springs of Termas Puritama. For those that prefer archaeological visits, go see the ruins of the Pukará fortress and 3,000-year-old ruins of the village of Tolor. If you want to stay in town, there's also a beautiful award-winning museum that encapsulates the best of the region, the Museo Arqueologica Gustavo Le Paige.
If you're feeling adventurous, inquire locally about train service to Bolivia, although the service is infrequent.