Between the Mediterranean climate of Santiago and the bone-dry Atacama Desert runs a roughly 500km (310-mile) stretch of arid territory that Chileans call Norte Chico, or Little North. Though less famous overseas than the far north, the area surrounding La Serena, Chile's sole remaining colonial Spanish city, features much more in the way of beach fun, along with penguins and dolphins up the coast and a unique fog-fed mini-cloud forest to the south.

Get away from it all in the rustic Elqui Valley and sample its spirits -- both brandy and its esoteric retreats. With 300 nights a year of some of the world's clearest skies, astronomers from around the globe are drawn to the region, a hub of state-of-the-art telescopes. With few travelers and a clutch of good value, holistic lodges, and plenty of outdoor activities ranging from hiking to horseback riding, it's a place to truly unwind and revel in the beautiful landscape. Norte Chico's most alluring attraction might be the desierto florido (flowering desert), which occurs only every few years, when above-average winter rainfall triggers a springtime explosion of wildflowers that turn the dusty desert into a multicolored feast for the eyes.