Edge of the Altiplano

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

We take a flight up to Arica with LAN Chile, on the way briefly stopping at Iquique to pick up and drop off passengers. The plane flies along an arid coastline of interminable brownness bathed in hot Autumn sunshine. A never-ending steep escarpment seems to rise up out of the ocean into the hazy sky. This is the Altiplano, an area 3000-4000m above sea level, peppered with 6000m high volcanoes, where only the hardy survive. We hope to visit this desolate landscape from Arica in the next few days.

We land at the airport, pick up our bags, enjoying the feeling of lightness, since we posted 13kg of camping equipment back to England. Outside its all flat, dusty, and brown, although I can make out the cliffs in the distance marking out the abrupt rise into the Altiplano. Surprisingly its not that hot, only maybe low twenties, which is a pleasant surprise.

We negotiate a taxi for 4000 Pesos (about GBP4.00) to take us the 18km to Sunny Days Hostal in town. We are greeted by a friendly Kiwi called Ross who chats about how we can visit the Altiplano over juice and homemade cakes. He shows us our room which will cost us 7,000 Pesos each per night (about GBP7.00) including breakfast and free internet.

The next day Rachel and I go in to town to see if we can hire a car for two days to visit Parque Nacionale Lauca on the Altiplano. We take the bus all the way through town to Playa El Laucho to the south, where weve heard there is a Budget car rental office giving good deals.

Turns out the deals are not so sweet with Budget, as they are based in Hotel Arica where the most wealthy tourists spend their cash. We head into the centre of town and make negotiate with Klausse Car Rental for a Daewoo Llanos for 23,000 Pesos per day (about GBP23.00), which Ross later tells me later is a very good deal.

In the centre of Arica we head down to the docks where we see gigantic pelicans, greedy cormorants, and fat seals all fighting for a few scraps of fish guts thrown into the sea by the fish sellers. Its the first time Ive been so close to a pelican, and they look a bit like a modern-day pteradactyl with their massive beak, bulky body and impossibly slow wing beat when flying.

In town we visit a couple of places linked to the French engineer Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). One is the beatifully proportioned Customs House - now an exhibition hall - where we climb up an spindly iron spiral staircase to look out over the town. The second port of call is Iglesia San Marcos, which had its metal framework fabricated in Paris and shiped out to Arica for assembly. Despite my premonitions about an iron church being like the inside of a submarine (having read a description by ex-hostages McCarthy and Keenan), I find it is light, colourful, and airy; the cast iron columns dont look like metal and the trussed roofing beams appear decorative.

Unfortunately, although Arica has some unique architectural gems, most of the city is extremely ugly and spills out like a shanty-town into the surrounding desert. Everything looks faded and is covered in a layer of grime. And so we look forward to driving up past those brown cliffs and into the mysterious Altiplano beyond.
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