Major fluvial incision (600–1000 m) affecting the Coastal Cordillera and Central Depression of northern Chile is analysed to evaluate supposed coeval uplift of the Altiplano and/or climatic changes in the Atacama Desert. The timing of the beginning of incision is constrained by the age of deposition of the Central Depression top. In the north (18–19°S), this top corresponds to fluvial gravels accumulated between 11.9 ± 0.6 Ma and 8.3 ± 0.5 Ma, which are genetically related to semiarid climate and to an eastward poorly dissected parallel drainage network that developed between 15.0 ± 0.6 and 11.2 ± 0.6 Ma; thus, gravel deposition ended at 11.9–11.2 Ma. To the south (19–20°S), the Central Depression top corresponds to c. 6 Ma alluvial deposits. Stratigraphically determined canyon ages and knickzone locations indicate that southward dissection began later and/or developed under a regime of lower erosion capacity owing to drier climate. Vertical incision rate evolution is compatible with eastward knickzone migration. Dissection required a considerable altitude difference between ancient and present-day river base levels, which was achieved predominantly by basin infill on an already partially elevated bedrock. Therefore subsequent incision would have been triggered by local semiarid climatic periods rather than by contemporaneous surface uplift. Exoreic canyons occur when climatic conditions in the catchments are arid–semiarid whereas endoreism is developed when these conditions in catchments are hyperarid.