Tarapacá, Chile: Savoring the Desert Oasis of Pica and Its Treats

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Iglesia de San Andrés in Pica, Chile

In my year living in the Valle de Elqui, one of my favorite activities was heading out into the orchard to see what fruit was coming into season and to pick a few figs, avocados, grapes, whatever was ready.  One of the best things in the garden was the lime tree, filled with the kind known as limón de pica in Chile.  (These small, round, green key limes are just called limones in Peru because they are basically the only type of limes or lemons you can find. Chile’s limones are oval and usually mostly yellow – what Americans know as lemons.)  After the heavy rains last summer, I gathered up several kilos of limones de pica that had fallen off the tree and enjoyed them for the next couple of months.  Suffice it to say, I’m a fan.

In any case, in Chile, the limón de pica was given its name because it grows extensively in and around the town of Pica, located in the region of Tarapacá, in northern Chile.  Only a couple of hours away from the busy city of Iquique, easily accessible by public bus or car, it is a popular destination for Chilean tourists.

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Inside the Iglesia de San Andrés in Pica, Chile

The route from Iquique to Pica climbs up the cliffs to Alto Hospicio (where I snapped this picture), and continues along Ruta 16 towards the Panamerican Highway, about an hour inland.  On the way, the highway passes Humberstone before arriving to the crossroads town of Pozo Almonte, right on Ruta 5 (the Panamerican).  Every bus stops in this transit center, where you can transfer to another if necessary.  Leaving Humberstone, I flagged down a bus heading to Pica and was able to snag a seat once half the passengers descended in Pozo.

From there, it’s about an hour to Pica, an easy ride through the desert.  On the way, you pass through La Tirana, a small town known for its famous religious festival celebrating the Virgen de Carmen.  The festival is celebrated from July 12-18 and is attended by thousands of people every year.  This celebration is particularly famous in Chile because it is the most traditionally Andean of any in the entire country; the dances are extravagant, fascinating, and entertaining.  While I visited the area in July, I arrived just after the festival had ended, so had to settle for watching videos in the Museo Regional de Iquique.  That said, on my way through, the small town was still doing a brisk business selling religious trinkets and welcoming quite a number of tourists.

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Stained Glass in the Iglesia de San Andrés, Pica, Chile

After passing through La Tirana, we continued heading through the desert, but as we approached Pica I started noticing the various patches of bright green foliage.  Pica is famous because it is a pleasant oasis in the middle of the large northern desert, which makes it a great place to grow hot climate fruit like mango and citrus.  And that was basically the reason I went there – to eat delicious fruit.  What can I say, I’m a simple person.

Catedral en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Stained Glass Reflections, Iglesia de San Andrés, Pica, Chile

The bus route ends at the central plaza of Pica, where the first thing to catch your eye is the gorgeous Iglesia de San Andrés, as you see in the photos above.  This church is prized in northern Chile for its traditional construction and attractive interior.  I was particularly fascinated by the rainbow reflections of the stained glass windows, as you can see from the photos.

Plaza de Armas, Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Main Plaza of Pica, Chile

After checking out the cathedral, I walked around Pica’s main plaza.  As mentioned, Pica is an oasis, which means it has a much more agreeable climate than the relentless sun of the open desert.  After spending the morning exploring Humberstone, I was more than ready to cool off in the plaza.  And to be honest, that is basically all there is to do in Pica: sit in the pleasant plaza to while away an afternoon.

Main Street of Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Pretty Streets of Pica, Chile

Pica has a number of old, traditional houses painted in bright colors, inviting you to admire them.  The main road hosts a library, several hotels, and a couple of stores offering Pica’s other specialty, alfajores de Pica.  The town is small, so it’s easy to wander around without getting lost.

If you continue along Calle Esmeralda, the main thoroughfare heads to Cocha Resbaldero, Pica’s other main tourist attraction besides the church and the fruit.  Cocha Resbaldero is a natural pool or thermal bath formed out of volcanic rock, popular with tourists interested in taking a nice relaxing dip.  As I was heading to Mamiña for its healing mineral waters the next day, I opted to skip the crowds (which you see here!).

Helado en Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Artesanal Fruit Ice Cream in Pica, Chile

After sufficiently ascertaining that there was not much to do in Pica (and finding that there was not fruit on every corner as I expected), I headed back towards the main plaza. After poking around some more, I found a pleasant restaurant offering fresh juices and fruit by the kilo. I bought some early-season mangos and toronjas (grapefruit) and then headed back to a little storefront offering homemade ice cream.  As I am on a mission to try artesanal ice cream in every small town where I find myself, I couldn’t resist and tried out mango and guayaba (guaba).

Alfajores de Pica from Pica, Tarapacá, Chile
Alfajores de Pica, Chile

Before leaving Pica, I bought a couple of packages of alfajores de Pica, which differ from the usual alfajores due to the slightly different technique used to make them.  Alfajores de Pica have crispy cookie layers and are usually filled with mango jam rather than the traditional manjar.  They may also be rolled in coconut, completing the tropical flavor.

If you decide that it’s not worth trekking all the way out to Pica just to buy some alfajores, they are often sold by vendors at the transit hub of Pozo Almonte and can be found in supermarkets in Iquique.  Similarly, there are juices made with fruits from the region at the Mercado Centenario.  Either way, visiting Pica makes for a pleasant day trip when combined the nearby attractions of Humberstone and La Tirana; visiting the oasis provides a nice break from the surrounding desert.

Recommendations for Pica, Tarapacá, Chile:

  • Buses to Pica leave from the 700 block of Barros Araña near the Mercado Centenario in the center of Iquique.  Before arriving in Pica, they pass by Humberstone and through Pozo Almonte and La Tirana. You can get on and off the buses at any of those stops (or anywhere else on the route).  A bus to or from Iquique costs $3000 CLP.  From Humberstone, the bus costs $2000 CLP.  You can buy your return ticket at the bus stand next to the main plaza, where you see all the buses parked.
  • If you are interested in swimming in Cocha Resbaldero, make sure you arrive earlier in the day to give yourself enough time to walk over there and enjoy a relaxing dip.  The pool is really popular with Chilean tourists so it may be better to visit on a weekday.  The pool costs $2000 CLP.
  • There are a number of restaurants in Pica but as it is a small town, they only appear to be open during the lunch hour.  I found one restaurant serving juices in late afternoon but there were no other customers inside.
  • You can buy alfajores de Pica at the factory on the corner of the plaza, across from the church.  The older gentleman who sits outside the factory is a local celebrity and the walls are covered with articles describing the alfajores and other aspects of town life.  There is another factory selling alfajores a block or two from the plaza.
  • Although Pica was a pleasant place to visit for an hour or two, I would definitely suggest combining it with a stop in Humberstone and La Tirana to make the most out of your day.
[Pica, Tarapacá, Chile: July 22, 2015]

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