Our guide Oscar (funny how, of 4 of our guides in Chile, 2 have been Oscar and 2 Marcel) arrived to whisk us off and up to Putre. We were accompanied by 2 young German women and a mother and daughter from Santiago. First stop was a large out of town market to stock up on supplies for the trip. We should explain that Oscar was doing a 4 day trip to Putre, Parque Nacional Lauca, Reservas Nacional Las Vicunas, Salar de Surire and returning to the coast at Iquique. However, our lack of time meant we would leave the big trip and return to Arica after the second day. Our journey was up the lush Azapa and LLuta valleys where Arica gets most of its fresh vegetables and produce and it was amazing to see the distinct line between the fertile valley floors and the totally barren and desert-like mountainsides. We stopped to look at ancient geoglyphs of creatures etched on a mountainside, the excellent Museo Arqueologico (www.uta.cl/masma) - where we were able to understand (because of the English translations) the collection of regional pre-Colombian artefacts as well as 4 Chinchorro 4000 year old mummies excavated from Arica in 1983, candelabra Cactus at 3000 metres (which grow only a few millimetres a year) before reaching the pre Inca fort of Pukara de Copaquilla from which we were able to view the distant and dramatic landscape. At this point we could see the snow covered mountain of Larancagua (5439 m) below which sits Putre at 3500 metres we would stop for the night.
It is difficult to appreciate how high up we now were or how we could convey in our blog what the dramatic landscape was like. Out the vehicle the effect of the altitude soon hit us and we puffed and blew after only a few steps trying to extract every molecule of oxygen out of the thin air. Problem was we has still much higher to go!
We drove on turning off the main road (that was in most part in a terrible state of repair - more later) and down into a small valley to the pre Hispanic hamlet of Socorama. Rising around the hamlet were ancient terraces lush and green with oregano. This hamlet with its church in the main square was pretty but seemed empty of people - and dogs! After another dramatic few miles along the main road we soon reached Putre. This is a small but seemingly busy little town where late of Saturday, children played in the main square, small artisan shops quietly touted for business, and a few locals, some on horseback, wandered the cobbled streets. Our home for the night was a house (owned and used by Oscar and another tour firm) where we had the luxury of electric blankets. Wandering out into the cool evening, our little group headed for the Kuchu Marka, a restaurant for a convivial evening and our first taste of alpaca - it was delicious. We met some other fellow travellers including a Scottish couple from Aberdeen/Edinburgh and a couple from Germany/France and it was great to hear their travels tales. It was then early to bed before the temperature dropped to below zero. There was evidence of this in the morning because when we set off the streams were frozen.
Yesterday, Oscar treated us to a strange phenomenon. We had experienced the magnetic zone where it was apparent the road going downhill and with our vehicle in neutral, we went backwards and uphill. Was it an optical illusion (as with the electric brae in Ayrshire), was it to do with something magnetic, or was it something that cannot be explained?!? We spoke about it over our meal that night and with the general mood of disbelief, Oscar took us to another similar 'magnetic' zone just outside Putre - same effects, same lack of explanation, same reactions from the group.
We kept on climbing and signs of the previous night's low temperature were even more obvious with snow and ice in the rivers and sheets of ice hanging from the rocks. But as we progressed the landscape became less arid with great swathes of bofedal, a harsh spiky grass that the animals, especially vicunas, find particularly delectable. At 4,300 metres we stopped for a chance to walk across the stark but beautiful bofedal ecosystem where we saw loads of vicunas, a variety of Andean birds and a few vizcachas (big fat chinchilla-like rabbits with long curly tails) - see Lauca photo album. Even after a short walk at this altitude we were all pretty breathless but we had even further to climb. After a few stops to take in the stunning landscape we turned off the road to head for the tiny hamlet of Parinacota which sits beneath the active volcano of the same name. This rough track took us past herds of grazing alpaca (these are domesticated animals bred for their meat and wool) - see Lauca photo album for pictures of them with their colourful ribbons. Parinacota village is a very sleepy cluster of houses around a pretty whitewashed church with adobe walls and straw roof. After Oscar had found the key holder we were allowed inside to marvel at the interior, its frescoes and various artefacts including impressive silverware and, most disconcertingly the skulls of two priests cosily tucked into an alcove. We were sorry not to be able to buy any of the local knitted and woven textiles (because our bags are bulging full already!) from the stalls in the square.
At the highest point on the road - for us at least - at 4,700 metres we had a photo stop overlooking Lagunas de Cotacotani sitting at the foot of Volcan Parinacota - a magnificent sight! Parinacota at 6,330 metres is one of Chile's highest peaks and still an active volcano. A few kilometres further on we reached Lago Chungara, at 4,600 metres the highest lake in the world where we had picnic lunch overlooking the lake and the spectacular snow covered mountains. On our way back to Putre we'd planned to bathe in the hot thermal springs nearby - but for some unknown they were closed. Returning to our house early, E once again was feeling the effects of the altitude so instead of staying another night as planned we took the opportunity of a lift, kindly arranged by Oscar, back to Arica where E felt much better. On the return journey we really appreciated just how high we had been on our trip and how spectacular the road is. This is one of the main links with Bolivia which needs to use Chilean (and Peruvian) ports for its trade. Consequently the road is mainly used by huge lorries that crawl up and down the route and hinder the faster moving smaller vehicles (not very many of these).
Ross at Sunny Days Hostel gave us a good welcome back and after a quick bite to eat at a nearby cafe we were tucked up in bed. Next day over breakfast we met Jonathon, originally from Bridge of Allan, who had arrived from Peru for a shower and some brekkie before heading off south to La Serena. We exchanged some Chilean Pesos for Peruvian Solas and we picked up the book he had just finished reading - thanks Jonathon! A walk into town for a coffee and a look at the fishing harbour and it was nearly time to say adios to Arica - next morning we'd be off on the train to Talca in Peru, our 20th country on this trip.
Lots of love
Eric & Margaret xxxx