Much of Northern Chile consists of the Atacama desert. The best access point for tours to the desert is the inland town of San Pedro de Atacama, from where you can travel onwards to either Salta in Argentina, or the Uyuni Salt flats of Bolivia. Elsewhere in Northern Chile there are also more off the beaten track destinations along the coastal road that runs North to Peru.
San Pedro de Atacama
Catch a morning flight from Chile's capital Santiago to Calama, and by mid afternoon you'll be in the heart of the Atacama desert once you've travelled onwards to San Pedro de Atacama (which lies 100km South East of Calama). San Pedro de Atacama is a small pleasant town with a distinctly Indian feel to it. At 2400 metres altitude, you'll feel a little breathless. The town makes a perfect base for exploring nearby beuatiful lunar-like landscapes, geysers, volcanoes and salt flats. Other than the wonderful natural scenery, there's also various archaeological sites nearby including pre-Inca fortresses (at Pukara de Quito) and excavated stone age villages (near Tulor).
San Pedro de Atacama is a popular destination and caters towards luxury tours to Chile. The best hotel is the excellent Explora en Atacama, or you could consider alternative luxurious hotels such as La Casa de Don Tomas, Tulor Hotel or Hosteria San Pedro.
Other travel destinations in Northern Chile
There are various less visited regions in Northern Chile on or near the coastal road that runs to Peru. Tocopilla is 200km north of the largest town in Nortern Chile, Antofagasta (Antofagasta has little of interest to tourists, though it does have lovely mountain backed coastal setting). Nearby to Tocopilla are the Geoglyphs of Cerro Pintados, some 400 figures on a hillside. Chile's scenic coastal road runs further North through various small fishing villages (San Marcos and Chanaballita both have basic accommodation) to Iquique, a port city with some fine colonial buildings. There's very peaceful nearby hot spring resorts at Mamina and Pica. Travel still further North along Chile's coastal road to the city of Arica, which is on the border with Peru. Nearby to Arica is the stunning beautiful Lauca National Park, and area of beautiful lakes and snow capped volcanoes. There are various small highland villages near Lauca National Park that retain a distinct indigenous Aymara culture. This part of Northern Chile is also very good for birdwatching.