Located some 1,350km (840mi) away from Santiago, Antofagasta is the largest city in northern Chile with a population of 350,000 inhabitants. Its desert climate, influenced by the cold Humboldt Current, which runs along most of the South American Pacific coast, allows for only very minor precipitation in the area (the annual average is 3mm, or 0.1in) and usually pleasant temperatures. Antofagasta also presents the highest per capita income in the whole country, mostly thanks to the impact of the copper mining industry, which is heavily based here.
This city uses to be a strategic stop for travelers in their way from Iquique or San Pedro de Atacama and more central destinations in the country. Nevertheless, most of these people neglect Antofagasta’s attractions, using the city only as a dormitory to break longer trips. Antofagasta deserves, however, at least 1 or 2 days of its visitors’ time, if not for the city on its own, which is kind of an “ordinary” place, at least for two nearby attractions: one historic and another natural.
The ruins of Huanchaca, in the city’s southern end, in front of the Enjoy hotel-casino, are the remains of a former silver foundry, built in the later part of the 19th century to refine, mainly, the ore extracted from the Oruro and Pulacayo mines, in Bolivia. Even though back in the day it was considered to be the most modern foundry in South America, having employed more than 1,200 people, the company had to cease activities in 1902 due to the global instability of silver prices and to production issues in the mines feeding it. Nowadays it is possible to visit the former plant and check a museum dedicated to the history of mining.
The better known highlight of the region and the city’s main postcard, however, is a Natural Monument located 18km (11mi) north of downtown: La Portada de Antofagasta (Antofagasta’s Gateway). This is a natural formation comprising a coastal cliff made of sedimentary rocks that features a natural arch, 43m (141ft) high and 70m (230ft) long, surrounded by the ocean. The site has a small trail connecting its museum to a viewpoint and a staircase connecting the viewpoint to the beach, closed since 2013 due to the detachment of rocks.
Besides these attractions, another interesting sight in the area is the Hand in the Desert, an 11m (36ft) high man-made sculpture in the shape of a human hand, located 75km (47mi) south of the city, in the middle of the desert, next to Route 5. The astronomic observatory of Cerro Paranal, operated by the European Southern Observatory, is one of the most important in the entire continent and is located 120km (75mi) south of Antofagasta offering free guided visits every Saturday morning. In case you are interested, take into account that it is located at an altitude of 2,635m (8,645ft) and that air humidity is usually between 2% and 10%, so that, besides sunscreen, you should carry along enough water in order to prevent dehydration.
From Antofagasta it’s a 415km (255mi) trip north to Iquique or a 310km (190mi) trip northeast to San Pedro de Atacama. The border with Bolivia in Ollague is also 415km (255mi) away, while the border pass to Argentina is 470km (290mi) away from the city center.