Precipitation in north-central (subtropical) Chile has been declining over the last 130 years. This is of concern in a region where precipitation is already low and which hosts considerable economic activity and a large population. Interannual variability of precipitation is primarily controlled by ENSO, but the reasons for the increasing aridity have remained elusive. Here we show that the negative trend in precipitation is not related to tropical Pacific forcing and that recent El Niño activity instead helped to alleviate the worst drought conditions. Based on data from 1979–2004 we further show that sea surface temperatures and sea-ice concentration in the Amundsen Sea and associated blocking activity in the Bellingshausen Sea are related to winter precipitation in subtropical Chile, independently of ENSO. High latitude forcing from the Amundsen Sea region may provide an alternative explanation for the observed secular drying trend.