The far north (Norte Grande), which extends from the Peruvian border to about 27° south latitude, a line roughly paralleled by the Río Copiapó, is extremely arid. It contains the Atacama Desert, one of the driest areas in the world; in certain sections, this desert does not register any rainfall at all. Average monthly temperatures range at sea level between about 20.5° C during the summer and about 14° C during the winter. Most of the population lives in the coastal area, where the temperatures are more moderate and the humidity higher. Contrary to the image of monochrome barrenness that most people associate with deserts, the landscape is spectacular, with its crisscrossing hills and mountains of all shapes and sizes, each with a unique color and hue depending on its mineral composition, its distance from the observer, and the time of day.
In the Norte Grande, the land generally rises vertically from the ocean, sometimes to elevations well over 1,000 meters. The Cordillera Domeyko in the north runs along the coast parallel to the Andes. This topography generates coastal microclimates because the fog that frequently forms over the cold ocean waters, as well as any low clouds, is trapped by the high bluffs. This airborne moisture condenses in the spines and leaves of the vegetation, droplets that fall to the ground and irrigate the plants' roots. Beyond the coastal bluffs, there is an area of rolling hills that encompasses the driest desert land; this area ends to the east with the Andes towering over it. The edges of the desert in some sections have subterranean aquifers that have permitted the development of forests made up mainly of tamarugos, spiny trees native to the area that grow to a height of about twenty-five meters. Most of those forests were cut down to fuel the fires of the many foundries established since colonial times to exploit the abundant deposits of copper, silver, and nitrate found in the area. The result was the creation of even drier surface conditions.
The far north is the only part of the country in which there is a large section of the Andean High Plateau (Altiplano). The area receives considerable rainfall during the summer months in what is commonly known as the "Bolivian winter," forming shallow lakes of mostly saline waters that are home to a number of bird species, including the Chilean flamingo. Some of the water from the plateau trickles down the Andes in the form of narrow rivers, many of which form oases before being lost to evaporation or absorption into the desert sands, salt beds, and aquifers. However, some rivers do manage to reach into the Pacific, including the Río Loa, whose U-shaped course across the desert makes it Chile's longest river. The water rights for one of the rivers, the Río Lauca, remain a source of dispute between Bolivia and Chile. These narrow rivers have carved fertile valleys in which an exuberant vegetation creates a stark contrast to the bone-dry hills. In such areas, roads usually are built half way up the arid elevations in order to maximize the intensive agricultural use of the irrigated land. They offer spectacular panoramic vistas, along with the harrowing experience of driving along the edges of cliffs. In the far north, the kinds of fruits that grow well in the arid tropics thrive, and all kinds of vegetables can be grown year-round. However, the region's main economic foundation is its great mineral wealth. For instance, Chuquicamata, the world's largest open-pit copper mine, is located in the far north. Since the early 1970s, the fishing industry has also developed enormously in the main ports of the area, most notably Iquique and Antofagasta.
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