On the north coast of Chile there are a number of popular towns that are frequented by tourists, travellers, and vacationers from within South America, and the town of Antofagasta is definitely not one of them. Many people use Antofagasta as a layover on long bus trips or as a connection on the way to San Pedro de Atacama, or bypass it altogether in search of La Serena, Valparaiso, or Santiago, having no idea of the beauty they are missing. This is why Antofagasta must be on your Chilean itinerary.
Start at Plaza Colon, the center of town and the most tranquil part of the city, and head up the gradual slanted walkway towards the domineering hill in the background, and you might forget you are deep in South America, and not on the Costa del Sol in Spain. There are clean, wide pedestrianized walkways, and side streets where hordes of walkers move in harmony in search of a coffee, a snack, or a store.
As this is a mining town known for being quite wealthy, there is plenty of high-end dining, but at very competitive, reasonable prices. There’s a wide variety of cuisines, including Japanese, Peruvian, Mexican, and classic Chilean barbecue or seafood, giving you plenty of flavors to choose from.
Coffee Is a Way of Life
The vibrant café culture in Chile is something you would expect more from a coffee powerhouse such as Colombia, but the time to relax, connect with friends, family, or colleagues at a coffee shop in Antofagasta seems to be firmly penned into everyone’s agenda. Some stop in quickly to sit before continuing their walk to work, while some pass hours reading the morning paper from front to back. The robust coffee and great service in the center of town make it very easy to start every day at a different location.
The Mano de Desierto
One of the most unique artistic expressions in all of Latin America sits closest to the city of Antofagasta, and is known in Spanish as the Mano de Desierto. The “Hand of the Desert” is a sculpture, standing over 30 feet (9 meters) tall, of a human hand making its way out of the desert floor. As art should, this massive sculpture will ignite your imagination, and have you looking at it from all angles trying to comprehend what it represents.
Night and day, you will be treated to some very special entertainment in the center of Arturo Prat promenade, leading away from Plaza Colon. There are marching bands, saxophone players, singers, juggler, mimes, and more. Find a seat close to the action, or grab a cortado coffee from one of the cafés and stroll the street with your camera handy.
With money comes shopping, and as Antofagasta is a place many Chileans travel to for work, they need places to spend that money. Luckily for the visitor, this increases range of shopping on offer and means that you can usually find something new, different, and special. The central market in town is an enormous building that is a must-visit, and the side streets leading there are filled with different types of fashion, accessories, and electronics shops. To get a sense of something that Latin America does very well, visit the huge Mall Plaza Antofagasta.
Arguably the most stunning coastline in all of Chile, the layered cliff edges of the coast here show millions of years of compressed sand and rock, with the famous La Portada archway standing alone just a few feet off the shore. This perfectly shaped archway has used mist, waves, and wind over millions of years to carve its figure out of the coastal rock and makes for a terrific view and photo.
Off the Tourist Trail
As mentioned, Antofagasta is not really on the well-trodden tourist trail. With only one real travelers’ hostel in town, and many people bypassing Antofagasta in favor of other touristic locations, Antofagasta has remained very authentic. You will not often bump into other travelers or tourists, unless they are nationals from Chile, which gives you a genuine feel of what it’s like to step into the day-to-day life of a city in Chile.
With a population of over 400,000, Antofagasta has long surpassed the classification of a town, yet it has none of the bad qualities that are associated with a big city. A small-town feel, a relaxed vibe, consistently beautiful weather, beaches, and the ocean breeze all allow you to slow your pace down and put your feet up if you feel the need to take it easy.
While there is not much tourism in Antofagasta, the locals are very interested in your story and your plans, and want to ensure that your time in Antofagasta is as enjoyable as possible, and that you leave viewing their city with the same love that they have for it. They will be happy to give you directions and tips, and assist you in finding anything you need when you are in town, and although they speak quickly, they also tend to be patient and understanding and will gladly try to help with any query you have.
The Future of Chile
Some people say that Antofagasta is a glance into the future of Chile, and if this is the case, Chile’s future looks bright. A fast-growing mining town in the 1800s, Antofagasta continues to provide for the country in this department but has also seen a steady increase in population, hotels, retail and residential construction, paving the way for the rest of Chile.
Heading to Chile this year? Check out this essential travel guide.