Iquique, the capital city of Region I (part of what is commonly called “El Norte Grande” in Chile), is the best place to stay while exploring this section of the Pacific coast and the Atacama Desert. Like much of rural Chile, it is vast, and families will need a rental car to see it all. There can be large climate and temperature shifts between the coast and the desert (it’s just a matter of a few miles between the two areas), so dress accordingly and bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
What to Do in Iquique
Most Chileans come here for the beaches, and there are plenty of them. The most family-friendly beachfront area is Playa Cavancha, not far from the city center. Fronting the beach is a large park with a wooden boardwalk, a playground, small zoo, and a seal tank (with shows a couple of times a day).
Downtown Iquique has 2 sights that will interest kids. One is the charming old trolley car that runs the length of Calle Baquedano, a pedestrian street just off the main square, Plaza Prat. There are a number of cafes along the way where you can grab an ice cream or coffee.
The second interest point is the Museo Regional on Calle Baquedano. The museum has a full-scale reconstruction of an Aymaran dwelling (the indigenous peoples of this region), cool mummies, and other Aymaran artifacts, as well as interesting objects from the Nitrate Era of the 19th century.
Exploring the Atacama Desert near Iquique
Other than simply admiring the landscape of the world’s driest desert, there are sights to see in this part of the Atacama.
Tour the interesting but eerie ghost town of Humberstone, which was a thriving settlement for around 3,000 nitrate miners and their families between 1872 and 1960. The old swimming pool, movie theatre, school and hospital are particularly interesting.
Several small towns in the region feature hot springs, and one of the best for families is Pica, 71 miles/114 kms southeast of Iquique. The hot springs at Cocha Resbaladero are often crowded, but the atmosphere is rustic and pleasant. Pica also has a lovely, green park in the center of town, the Plaza de Armas. It’s the perfect play spot for kids.
On the road to Pica, several miles before reaching the town, is the Valle de Dinosaurio, a monument noting just how many dinosaur bones have been discovered in this region. There are 2 huge fiberglass replicas of dinosaurs, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Touring the Geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert near Iquique
Within the national park, Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal, are the remarkable Cerros Pintados (Painted Hills), an almost 3-mile stretch of geoglyphs constructed onto the hillsides by the ancient indigenous peoples of the region somewhere between AD 500 anad 1400. Kids will have fun trying to figure out what the geoglyphs (pictures made with stones) represent.
The most impressive of all the geoglyphs is the Gigante de Atacama, located on the other side of Iquique from the Cerros Pintados. It is the world’s largest such rock art, measuring 282 feet (86 meters).