Antofagasta is the largest city of the Norte Grande region and a product of the mining boom that hit the region in the 19th century. Profitable nitrate mines of the last century brought many foreign settlers to the city, and Antofagasta today possesses a markedly European feel in its architecture and ambiance. The Barrio Historico is home to many historic Victorian buildings, and the clock tower of the Plaza Colon is an exact replica of Big Ben. With 20 km (12 miles) of beachfront and a mild, dry climate, Antofagasta has also developed as a year-round beach resort. The highlight of its shoreline is the Portada, an enormous rock located just to the north of town which the sea has steadily eroded into a dramatic natural arch.
Today, the most dominant geographical features of Chile's Norte Grande are the Pacific Ocean, high peaks of the Andes and the starkly desolate Atacama Desert. Antofagasta is the embarkation point for copper mined at La Escondida and Chuquicamata - the latter of which holds the distinction of being the largest open-pit mine in the world. Visitors who want to learn more about Antofagasta and the Norte Grande can visit the Museo Regional. In addition to its interesting exhibits on the history of the city and the mining industry, the museum holds a colourful collection of rock and mineral samples culled from the surrounding region. Atacama is often called a "perfect" desert - some coastal stations have never recorded measurable rainfall. The only precipitation comes from the fogs, which can condense in higher regions and foster some vegetation, such as the candle-holder cactus, which grows just 5-7mm a year and flowers for a mere 24 hours.
The following 13 cruises call at Antofagasta.
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