Arica and Lauca National Park

Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
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Saturday, August 18, 2007

We had a mega journey from Santiago to Arica, consisting of a bus, a flight and another two buses. The change in landscape in Northern Chile is quite amazing - a seemingly sudden moonscape consisting of what looks like cement dust. We landed at Iquique airport, a small airport wedged in the arid piece of land between the waves of the Pacific to the west and the mountains to the east. The bus trip to the most northerly region of Chile is quite incredible - huge canyons, dusty hills, piles of rocks and absolutely no vegetation - and all to the ubiquitous sounds of 80's mixes (they can't be escaped in Chile!). We pass an old mining town, now a ghost town, called Humberstone. Later we find out that this was owned by the English and attracted Chilean workers from far and wide. However, workers were paid only in tokens that could be spent in the town's many facilities. The place became like a prison, as it captured the workers who could never earn the cold hard cash to leave. Fascinating story.

This region is Dry - with a capital D! In Arica the sand again meets the surf. After crashing for a night's sleep, we take off the next morning on a tour to Lauca National Park that we organised in advance with Parinacota Expediciones. You can check the company out here:
http://www.parinacotaexpediciones.cl/
We loved this tour - really brilliant and we highly recommend the company. The guys that run the company, Javier and Horiols, are our guides and they make an excellent team. Horiols has been in the business for around 25 years and Javier for 10 years, so they really know their stuff. If you ever get the chance to visit this region you should definitely do this tour! Our first stop on our tour is to see a geoglyph (a giant work of rock art arranged on the landscape) located on a sloping hill side and representing a caravan of animals, with men (or spirits - depending on your interpretation) leading the flock to the market for trading. The image is 800 years old and has remained intact because of the sheer lack of rainfall in the area, as well as it's careful positioning away from the prevailing wind. The amount of salt in the soil here has also created a crust that holds the mosaic-like image together. Horiols, our driver, is well into his coca leaves and below the geoglyph we follow his lead and throw handfuls of them around to ensure a successful and safe trip into the mountains.

There are two valleys close to Arica, one is known as the sweet valley as it is fed by water that is snow melt, and the other is the mineral valley as it is fed by volcanic waters. The sweet valley is a narrow strip of lush green fields and orchards, hemmed in by the dry valley hills. It has a micro climate and produces a wide array of crops that feed the local region - mangoes, tomatoes, avocados (which have become my main source of sustenance!), maize, olives etc. Apart from the exceptional valleys, there are 3 environmental leves depending on the altitude. The bottom area is arid and plantless, as you climb higher in altitude different plants appear and disappear, bizarrely only growing in narrow bands. On our way up the valley we visit the impressive Museo Arqueologico which is full of interesting artefacts from the area. The earliest objects are from the hunter gatherer people that lived high in the mountains around 8000 years BC. Because of the extreme aridity, many delicate items are wonderfully preserved, including grass loin cloths and more stick stuffed mummies.

Into the next valley we visit a typical cemetery, where many graves have shade covers to protect the families that spend the whole day graveside on All Saints' Day offering the dead their favourite dishes and drinks. I was delighted and somewhat surprised with our lunch stop - a Hare Krishna community called Eco-Truly: 
http://www.ecotruly-arica.org/
The community is ecological and largely self reliant. They have built a series of beehive shaped mud huts and have cultivated the surrounding area with expertise. One of the funniest sights was the llama in the field who has a broken leg, but instead of putting the animal down they have hitched it up in complicated cast and sling allowing (hopefully!) the leg to heal. They are, of course, vegetarian and they served up a mean thali lunch which made me very, very happy! Onwards and upwards, we hit a curious spot where the guys pull up the car and ask whether we are on a incline or decline. Everyone believes that we are on a decline, yet when Horiols takes off the handbrake we roll backwards, and at a respectable speed! The sign declares this is the effect of magnetic forces. However, Javier assures us that it is purely an optical illusion. Quite weird though as we all get out and examine the road from various angles and it really does look the opposite to reality. At the same spot we become acquainted with the beautiful candelabra cactus, which only grows in a narrow area of the mountainside. As we continue up the mountain the coca gods aren't smiling on us ... we get a flat - in the middle of nowhere. We sit on the edge of the road and enjoy the sunshine while Horiols gets to work and we're soon on our way again.

We stop and take a lovely walk down the remains of an old paved Inca road and visit a village at the bottom of the valley which has mainly only old people left, all the families having left for the bigger towns. They are three suitably wrinkly women chewing the fat in front of the church in the old square and these are the only inhabitants we lay eyes on. The churches here have the main building and tower separate, representing the separateness of the male and the female. Bit like an Australian barbeque really. It's dark as we continue climbing, then plunge down into the valley to our destination for the first day - the town of Putre. We have dinner in a cosy little restaurant, Tim sampling his first Alpaca steak (his revenge for his spit stained jacket!). We finish off with some Coca tea before bed.

Our second day leads us up the steep road towards the volcano peaks in the distance. The flora and fauna again changes. We stop in a small reserve area to examine the the plants and animals more closely. There is a cold wind in the higher altitudes, despite the clear skies and blazing sun. These incredible lumpy, bright green plants called llareta are growing all over the place. They are round and are similar in shape to the rocks that they grow amongst. The are woody underneath and can be used as fuel (as can the cacti) in this tree-free part of the world. They look as if they might sprout eyes and legs and take over the world any minute! Jumping around the rocks are another curious critter, the viscachas. They look like a cross be ween a wallaby, a rabbit and a ring-tailed possum. We also see plenty of Viscuņas, the wild llama like animals belonging to this altitude, slightly different to the wild guanacos we saw at a lower altitude. There's also a cave here that was inhabited by the early hunter gatherer people, before they discovered that life is really much easier on the coast than at these ridiculously high altitudes.

We are close now to the volcanic Payachatas (twin peaks) of Pomerape (6282m) and Parinacota (6342m). Parinacota looks good enough to eat - a perfect cone shape with a neat drizzle of icing around the top. We visit a roadside stop where a llama, alpaca and goat (the real 3 stooges) eagerly bound over to the van, all to familiar with the generosity of tourists. We have to get the goat out of the van 3 times and even the enourmous llama tries to get in! Tim gets up close and personal with the animals, aided by a packet of peanuts. He ends up joining Javier in a spitting war with the alpaca. Honestly, this creature spits a good 10 metres if you do anything to provoke it!

We reach another walking spot - a beautiful marsh, thick with springy seemingly floating plants with crystal clear streams running up and then underground between them. The streams are lined with amazingly bright water plants. Llamas are dotted around feeding and drinking. We finish at another small picturesque village, then continue on to the highest point of our trip, 4600m, from where we look down on a group of lagoons with the mighty Parinacota as a backdrop.

Down the hill a little we stop on the shore of Chungara lake which creates a gorgeous reflection of the mountain backdrop. We see our first Chilean flamingos feeding on the shore. On the long trip back down the mountains we stop at some hot springs. Unfortunately, we have to get on a night bus later in the day so keep ourselves dry this time around. What a trip!

We make it back into Arica in the early evening absolutely exhausted and drag ourselves to the bus station for yet another long journey...
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