1 Jun 2012
Located in Chile's near north, this area is home to a maze of coastal lagoons and wetlands, not to mention a reserve dedicated to what is arguably Chile's most eccentric fauna – the speedy, scampering long-tailed chinchilla.
A mere 90 kilometers separates the Pacific Ocean from the Andean mountain range at this narrowest point of Chile's terrestrial territory, and the provincial capital of Illapel sits roughly in the middle of the slender stretch.
The Las Chinchillas national reserve was established to protect the last wild colonies of Chile's nearly-extinct long-tailed chinchilla. At over 4,000 hectares, the reserve and the surrounding hills are home to fox, puma and a variety of owl species. Enjoy hikes over the cactus-covered terrain under some of the clearest skies in all of Chile, and look for gold and copper traces in the rocks in this mineralogical zone. Camping at the reserve to partake in a bit of nighttime exploring might be the ideal option for visitors intent on spotting the nocturnal long-tailed chinchilla.
From Santiago and La Serena, intercity buses pass by the reserve. If you are coming from a closer locale such as Illapel, consult with colectivos (shared taxis) about getting to the reserve, which is located about 15 kilometers northeast of the city.
A Ramsar site of international importance, the Laguna Conchalí nature sanctuary comprises approximately 35 hectares of marine and coastal wetlands. Brackish saline lagoons amble toward the sea and provide nesting and feeding habitat for endemic bird species found nowhere else, such as the Chilean Mockingbird. These protected waters also serve as staging areas for a mind-blowing array of migratory waterbirds, including the Coscoroba Swan and the White-Faced Ibis. Naturalists will delight at the endemic fish species and endangered reptile species, including the Tropidurid lizard, that roam these salt grass marshes.
About 4 kilometers to the south of the nature sanctuary is Los Vilos, a diminutive coastal town embellished with brightly colored fishing boats scattered along the beach. Reportedly serving up some of the most outstanding seafood in the region, Los Vilos makes a great stop for a casual lunch next to the water. From here, buses to Illapel, 54 kilometers to the northeast, are available, and visitors can consult with local buses for timetables.
Just to the north of Los Vilos and off the main highway to the west, Caleta Ñague is an isolated cove protecting a sandy beach extending as far as the eye can see in either direction. A walk along this endless stretch bordered by sloping cliffs makes a stop in Caleta Ñague a more-than-worthwhile detour.
This region's mining history is peppered with local legends, and searching the hills for copper, gold and other minerals has been in the locals' blood for generations. One new copper and gold project is the El Espino mine, located about 30 kilometers north of Illapel near the community of Rabanales. Visiting mines often requires significant advance scheduling, and visitors interested in a mine tour should get in touch with mining representatives directly.
Roughly 30 kilometers north of Illapel, Plan de Hornos is an old agricultural estate which includes four communities of traditional copper and gold miners who transform these precious minerals into artisanal wares.
Known as the "land of gold and sun" for the region's traditional mine-centric lifestyle and for the incredible number of sunny days every year, a visit to the little towns comprising Plan de Hornos gives visitors a glimpse into the region's living history. La Yesera, Rabanales, Quebrada Grande and Rincón del Romero comprise this cluster of little towns and make for an intriguing day-trip off the beaten track, via local bus from Illapel.
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