Copiapó lies about 800 km north of Santiago by the Copiapó River, in the valley of the same name. In recent years, the river has dried up. The town is surrounded by the Atacama Desert and receives little rain (12 mm per year). The population of Copiapó was 9,128 in 1903, 11,617 in 1907 and, as of 2002, there are 129,091 inhabitants.
Copiapó is in a rich silver and copper mining district. It possesses a bronze statue of Juan Godoy, discoverer of the Chañarcillo silver mines in the 19th century. The Copiapó-Caldera railway line, built in 1850, was the first one in South America. The first section between Caldera and Monte Amargo was inaugurated on July 4 of 1850 in honour of the nationality of William Wheelwright, the American business man responsible for the project. The original wooden railway station is now a National Monument.