Star-gazing in Copiapó & dipping into Bahía Inglesa, Chile’s answer to the Caribbean
In all honesty, we only put this town on our route because of the beach. Most backpackers skip mid-north Chile to head straight to San Pedro de Atacama for the Uyuni Salt Flats tour, or they stop over at La Serena, which is a third of the way up to Atacama, and famed for its beaches. Not fancying a beach resort vibe, we chose instead to visit Copiapó in Chile once we heard of the nearby (or, as it turns out, not that nearby) Bahía Inglesa – yup, English Bay!
What to do around Copiapó
The beach is about 40 minutes from the town by car, and we were seriously lucky that we met some excellent humans in the hostel who had hired a car and offered to take us along with them to the coast. We expected to be able to easily get a bus from Copiapó, but as it turns out, buses are useless and not an option unless we wanted to stay in Bahía Inglesa (very expensive) or nearby Caldera (bit of a dive). Had we not have met our hostel friends at a fatefully-timed breakfast, we would have been forced to hire a car ourselves (around £35-40 a day).
Anyway, back to the beach. It’s claimed to be the ‘Chile’s answer to the Caribbean’, and we would agree that the similarity is rather impressive for the Pacific coast! However, every bugger in Chile knows this, and the beach was completely rammo until the sun started to go down at around 7pm. Once people started to clear, we had the beach almost to ourselves to enjoy a fantastic sunset with our travel buddies. We heard rumour of another beach, Playa la Virgen, which was equally beautiful but less known, and just round the corner from nearby Caldera. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go there, but it should be worth you checking out!
The small town around Bahia Inglesa itself is pretty cute, and totally geared towards tourism. Prices are steep compared to the rest of Northern Chile, but still not expensive to the average European. We recommend heading to the marina of Caldera for lunch (5-10 minute drive), where you can negotiate a Menu del Dia with Pisco shot for around 4000 pesos (£5) each. If you get a hire car, you can park for free but expect to pay the guy who helps you park (i.e. points at a space) a small tip.
Maricunga Salt Flats
If you’re not able to go as far as Bolivia for the salt flats, there are the Maricunga salt flats in Chile that you can visit from Copiapó, along with a nearby volcano for those who like to hike with a dash of danger.
See granite orbicular plutonic rocks
If there are any geologists among us, they may be interested in granite orbicular plutonic rocks, which can be found on a beach near Caldera, just outside Copiapó, Chile. This is best accessed via car. These rocks are formed in circles, like leopard print, and there are only a few recorded instances of this type of rock in the world (mostly in the Nordics!). The beach is not particularly paradise-like, so it’s usually completely empty.
Museo Regional de Atacama (Chilean Miners’ Museum)
For those who would rather stay in Copiapó, there isn’t a huge amount to do, but we reeeeally recommend the Museo Regional de Atacama, which is free. It has a bit of poorly-explained independence history, but the gem is the extensive exhibition on the 33 Chilean Miners that got rescued from a mine collapse in 2010. There is an hour-by-hour account of how they were rescued, and exhibits such as the note that the miners sent up to show they were all alive, and the shuttle that each miner stood in to get pulled out of the ground. Andy came out feeling very emotional! Note, this museum is primarily in Spanish. However, there are a few badly-translated signs here and there, and a guide who offered to explain things in English if we wished.
See the Milky Way in Copiapó
But the most amazing thing we did in Copiapó was to star-gaze. OH MY GOD. We saw the Milky Way for the first time, and it blew our minds! Arguably, the way we did this was to trespass at an unbuilt observatory about 45 minutes out of the city thanks to our new local friend, but you can get the same light-less environment on a beach or a hike outside the town (but be extremely careful!). The towns are so few and far between in the Atacama Desert and the skies so clear that the stars pop like diamonds!
Where to stay in Copiapó
If you value your privacy, Oasis de Atacama consists of an interesting collection of bungalows close to the centre of Copiapó. Facilities are fairly basic, but at least you don’t have such a shared feel if you’ve grown sick of hostels on your travels through Chile. Extremely highly rated (9.6 on Booking.com, say whaaaaat?!) is Hotel Boutique Molzano, an accommodation option with a very homely feel, also in a central location.