Into The Altiplano

26th Oct. 2016

Cactus flowerAfter all of the fuss around booking the trip – and aware that we had handed over a fair wodge of cash on trust – we were very pleased when promptly at 9am our driver, Benjamin, appeared. Even better, he spoke English (well, to a better standard than our Spanish). The surprise was that it was a minibus rather than a 4×4 but, nevertheless, we bundled in. We were quite a lot reassured when Benjamin explained that he’d been a guide in this area for 27 years and that he done this tour thousands of times – but he still really loved the area we were going to.

Geoglyphs on the hillsideWe are on a 4 day / 3 night ‘n’ shaped tour up into the altiplano – the high plains of the Andes, finishing up a 200km or so down the coast in the town of Iquique. First though, the trip takes in some of the sights in the Azapa valley near Arica which had been on our to-do list. We’re a bit puzzled when Benjamin stops on the side of the road just outside of town and points up at the sandy hills on one side. Then we make out the geoglyph figures sketched out on the hillside (using stones). Benjamin explains that these are hundreds of years old and are used as direction/location markers for the wandering tribes. Somewhat more modern is Arica golf course, where the holes are marked out in white lines on the dusty sand with not a blade of grass in sight.

Cemetery in San Miguel de AzapaLooking down into the valley, we can see green fields and large areas under growing tents of some sort. It is astonishing to think that anything grows in this area, but water from the highlands is used for irrigation and the area is a big producer of tomatoes, mangos and olives. In the nearby town of San Miguel de Azapa we make a couple of stops, the first of which is at the town cemetery, which again was in a very different style and culture to any we had seen before. Some of the graves had awnings with benches down the sides so that the family could gather and have a picnic to remember their loved one. Others, were just a simple cross with a wreath of plastic flowers – but all of it was very stark against the desert background.

Simple graves in the desert

Chinchorro mummiesThe other attraction in San Miguel was the mummies museum which hosts a collection of the world’s oldest known mummies dating back as far as 7,000BC. The museum documents the lives and the history of the Chinchorro tribe, and especially documents their extraordinary mummification practices – splitting skulls to remove brains; removing internal organs; dessicating the bodies; and then wrapping the bodies with leaves and adding a face mask. Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away and after heading back to Arica, and detouring around a roadblock with burning barricade (public sector workers protesting about pay), we headed off properly.

Absolutely barren landscapeRoadworks force us to take a detour off the ‘International Highway’ – the road to Bolivia, which we’ll be very close to at times over the next few days – and onto a road that zigzags its way up the side of the hills. It is an astonishing barren, craggy landscape where the only colours are shades of dusty brown and the bright blue sky. There is nothing but nothing growing here and Benjamin explains that the annual rainfall is around 0.8mm!

Candelabra cactusAfter a while, we rejoin the highway and carry on climbing and climbing. Once above 2,100m Benjamin points out the candelabra cactus that are unique to this area, and only grow in a 500m altitude range. They can grow as high as 3.5m and be as much as 350 years old, however, they only produce one flower every 12 years. Whilst we have stopped Benjamin demonstrates a strange effect whereby although the road appears to slope down, the car when in neutral will roll ‘uphill’.

The view from on highStrangely, as we get higher we start to see more vegetation – some even a deep red in colour and others with bright yellow flowers. There is a late lunch stop in the tiny town of Zapahuira. Even though we are now at 3,000m, I am hungry and am very happy to find that the soup is a meal in itself with meat, rice and potatoes all included. There is even a bonus after lunch as we sight some Guanacos and they briefly pose for us. Unlike the related Vicuñas, Alpacas & Lamas, Guanacos (with their black faces) are all wild (i.e. not in managed herds) and quite timid. Even Benjamin is excited by this sighting – as we learn over the following days, Benjamin is just happy to be in the countryside that he clearly loves.

Who are you looking at?Simple church in Socoroma

He also seems quite happy to indulge our interest in different styles of churches, and we briefly drop down into the little village of Socoroma. The tiny churches in these remote villages with their roofs made from wood and straw are a world away from the grand cathedrals we saw in Mexico. In the village, houses are being rebuilt – mud bricks and straw roofs again – and I am reminded of our homestay in Lake Titicaca four years ago. Benjamin points out a path running on the opposite side of the valley and explains that it was an Inca trail running all of the way to Cusco in Peru – and that the Spanish used it for moving silver from Bolivia down to the coast.

Oregano being put into sacksOur maximum altitude for the day is 3,700m as we pause at a viewpoint overlooking the town of Putre where we will be staying for the next two nights. One of the local crops is oregano and we can see the farmer and his family putting the dried herb into large sacks. To describe Putre as a two-horse town is possibly to overstate the number of horses and our hotel is a long way short of 5 stars. Still, we are glad to have arrived and once we have agreed a change of room due to the leaking shower cubicle, we’re able to wash off the accumulated dust.

Over dinner, we are introduced to Alma and Lea from Switzerland who ask if they can join our tour. They had done what we had contemplated doing and had taken the public bus directly from Arica to Putre. Not only had they not seen any of the sights that we had along the way, but now that they had got here they found that it was difficult to arrange tours to see the sights. Our itinerary was perfect for what they wanted to see and we are happy to have the additional company (even if we are jealous of their ability to flit seamlessly between French, English and Spanish)

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