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The following tour operators offer excursions around the Calama area and trips to the Tatio Geysers and San Pedro de Atacama: Tungra Expediciones, Turi 2098 (tel. 55/363010); and Atacama Indómita, Sotomayor 1971 (tel. 55/361102). Your hotel in Calama can put you in touch with a reputable tour operator.

The shopping mall in Calama, Av. Balmaceda 3242 (www.mallcalama.cl; daily 11am-9pm), brandishes all the usual chain stores, which are useful if you need supplies from shoes and bathing suits to cameras and electronics, and has a cinema with mostly dubbed or subtitled U.S. films.

Chuquicamata Copper Mine

Ghost towns throughout the northern desert bear traces of Chile's nitrate-mining glory days, but the copper-mining industry is alive and well, as evidenced by Calama's Chuquicamata mine, the largest open-pit mine in the world. Few wonders generate the visual awe a visitor experiences when gazing into this gigantic hole in the ground; in fact, the mine is so vast it can be seen from space, though morning dust often limits visibility. Workers still call it El Cerro -- the mountain -- which it was when begun in 1910 by the U.S. Guggenheim brothers, but today, the mine's main pit measures 4km (2 1/2 miles) across and more than half a kilometer deep -- everything at its bottom looks tiny, including the four-story giant trucks. Now run by government-owned Codelco and together with nearby Radomiro Tomic, it produces almost a million tons of copper per year. Codelco is in the final stages of transferring Chuquicamata's 13,000 residents to modern housing in Calama, due to environmental and health concerns, but also to expand mining operations. Additionally, plans are underway to take the mine underground within the next decade.

Tours run every weekday, except holidays, from 2 to 3pm; you must be at the Chuquicamata office at the mine (Av. Tocopilla and José Miguel Carrera) at 1:30pm. For reservations (at least 1 day in advance), call tel. 55/322122 or 55/345345, or e-mail visitas@codelco.cl. To get to the office, take an all-yellow colectivo taxi signed CALAMA CHUQUI from the corner of Ramirez and Aboroa in the plaza, or hire a regular taxi for about $7 (£4.70) one-way. The mine tour is free, but donations to a foundation for underprivileged kids are encouraged. For safety reasons, wear trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and closed shoes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.