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High and Spectacular Northern Chile

INTERNATIONAL Tours & Travel Ltd (ITT) strives to provide clients with the latest information on products and destinations in South America along with personalised service and attention to detail. They told Penguin News: “To keep our knowledge current, we try to visit as many new and exciting destinations as often as possible to provide our clients with the best possible travel experience.”

In May, Sally Ellis headed to the far north of Chile.

When I invited my friend to come and drink pisco and take llama selfies with me in the north of Chile we didn’t realise that it would also be a test of our physiological make-up, we’d actually be eating the llama, that it would be veritably Baltic at times, but more importantly how much gasping in amazement we would do. Firstly I had to correct my own misconception … I sagely corrected people when in response to my “I’m going to the north of Chile” they presumed the Atacama and I confidently said “No, further north than that”. Well we were wham bham in the middle of the Atacama Desert which actually stretches 1000+ kms from about Copiapo to the Peruvian border.

A 2.5 hour flight from Santiago saw us landing in Arica – only about 19 kms from the Peruvian border. We thought that being Mothers’ Day we had earned our right to our first pisco, feet dangling in the pool, surveying the 15 kms of beach (oh, it actually extends about another 15 kms into Peru). El Laucho, La Lisera and Brava – take your pick depending on whether you want to sunbathe, surf (very popular and there are schools), dive, or chill with a cocktail and some seafood. Even in May the temperature was a very pleasant 24oC or so. No rest for the wicked though and we enjoyed a city tour of Arica taking in the San Miguel de Azapa museum (which is home to the world’s oldest mummies dating back to 5000BC), the famous natural monument Morro de Arica which proudly flies the second largest flag in Chile (the largest being outside La Moneda in Santiago), the San Marco cathedral built in iron by Eiffel (of the Paris tower fame) and brought flat packed to Arica in 1868 after a tidal wave destroyed all the churches here, and learning that despite the fact that we were in the middle of the desert this city is the source of most of Chile’s supply (and therefore probably ours as well) of tomatoes and olive oil. Our history lesson for the day centred around the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific (or Saltpeter War) between Chile and the Peruvian-Bolivian alliance which ended in victory for the Chile and they gained the significantly resource rich area around Arica and Iquique. It left Bolivia landlocked and that dispute continues to rumble.

The following day we made our way through the verdant Lluta valley marvelling that olives, oregano, alfalfa, maize and the like could all flourish in this arid location, and keeping our eye out for the many geoglyphs in the hillside. As we climbed higher and the vegetation grew less the air became noticeably thinner particularly as we did a short walk to see the at pre-Incas pukara (fortress). One of my favourite stops on this route was at Socoroma at an altitude of 3000m – a very picturesque Aymara (an indigenous people of the Andes and Altiplano region) village with a well ordered plaza and plenty of bright flowers. It was easy to imagine how it would come alive during festival time.

Carrying on climbing and getting further into the desert, passing a never ending stream of lorries plying trade between Bolivia and Arica (the former now has free use of the port as part of a trade agreement), we eventually reached Putre - the main town within the Lauca National Park and an ideal base from which to acclimatise and explore. It got dark and cold very quickly and it took quite a lot of will power to go out from our hotel (Qantati which offers brilliant views of the nearby volcanoes from most rooms) and search for supper … but we did and I was delighted when I managed to live vicariously through Andrea as she tucked into an alpaca steak and quinoa supper (umm …I had vegetarian pizza).

The next day saw our first venture into the Park – it was truly amazing and it definitely stakes claim on being the day and place I had the poshest picnic in the most beautiful surrounding. We had our first close up sighting of camelids (llamas and the like in layman’s lingo) as well as rheas as we headed to Monumento Natural Salar de Surire at 4300m and just about 20 kms from the Bolivian border. The Salar is a spectacular drying salt lake split into two sections. The first is home to a year-round population of 12,000 + flamingos (three different species). I did a wry laugh to myself remembering how I had drug my poor husband half way around the Galapagos in tremendous heat looking for just one flamingo, and here I am blasé picnicking on chicken, quinoa (yes, it is a bit of a staple in these parts) and peaches just metres from a sea of orangey pink extremely elegant but flighty birds. As you circumnavigate the lake the many unofficial routes from/to Bolivia are evident, hence the carabinero outpost on the edge of the lake trying to combat illegal immigrants and smuggling, as well as look out for the people who get caught ill prepared in flash storms particularly when travelling at the wrong time of year. On the far side there are sulphurous (yep, smelly so stay upwind!) thermal springs and a picnic area so remember to take your bathers. It is super refreshing after the dusty track. As you do a complete circle you come to the part of the salar that is mined for borax.

Taking the lead from our guide we took the casual approach to the fact that the nearby 6000m Guallatiri volcano was showing activity for the first time in about 15 years. The deserted (other than a carabinero outpost) village by the same name has a beautiful 17th century Altiplano church well worth a visit.

Our second full day in the Park took us to Lago Chungara, one of the highest lakes in the world at 4500m – wow! what a setting to do some birdwatching. Sat beneath the snow-capped traditionally shaped Parinacota volcano (repeatedly called Pannacota by me) you can’t fail but take excellent photos. And still the traffic from Bolivia rumbles on relentlessly through this stunning setting.

Parinacota village with its white washed adobe houses, once a major centre for the area due to its locating on two trading routes is also now reduced to a population of just 10 people. 

And then it was time to head back to the coast, returning via the cleanest truckers café I have ever been too, where for the second time we were served soup that transpired to be llama neck broth …we don’t think they were pulling our leg but we still weren’t very brave about it. We felt we had built up a great rapport with our driver and guide and felt very safe with them, but there were frequent stark reminders in the form of shrines etc. how even on this very well maintained international highway accidents are far too common as lorry and other drivers overdo attempting the long distances in bright sun without breaks, or overtaking on some of the hairily tight bends.

I would suggest visiting Arica and the Lauca Park between March and October. Rainy season in the highlands is between November – February where flash floods can cut areas off and you do not have access to some of the best sights. And if it’s not raining it probably too hot to be that enjoyable.

From Arica we took the coach 300 kms south to Iquique. It had a lot to live up to after Arica and the Park, but we really enjoyed our day at the deserted Humberstone & Santa Laura saltpetre mines which are now effectively very well appointed museums transporting you back to what it must have been like to live and work in the relentless dusty heat of a working nitrate mine no matter how advanced conditions were for the time. Further inland from there we also visited Pica – a leafy oasis which springs from nowhere in mid desert and is also home to thermal springs which are open to the public. On the return we stopped by La Tirana famous for its religious festival dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen and held annually in mid-July causing the village population to rise from about 600 to 150,000.

Iquique with its pleasant climate year round, the beach, casino, sightseeing and good choice of hotels and restaurants makes this an attractive destination for anyone looking for a bit of winter sun. We opted for El Rayu restaurant and were rewarded with some excellent octopus (so Andrea tells me), ceviche a la plancha and a very impressive wine collection. There is a range of Terrado properties and a Hilton Garden Inn all well located in Iquique when considering your hotel options.

I still don’t know my alpaca from my vicuña or my llama … but they were all darn photogenic. And it transpires that I am quite adaptable to soroche (altitude) so turned down the kind offering from our driver of coca leaves (proffered in the way you would crisps) but searching out cups of coca tea for Andrea from the resilient ladies in the mountain villages was a great way to strike up conversation. Unfortunately mostly they left me a little deflated as we learnt how these once lively villages are now all but deserted as the draw of warmer temperatures and a more modern lifestyle (spotted via cable TV and the internet via smart phones – yes, would you believe it virtually half way up Everest!) has drawn the younger generations to Arica or further afield. The heartening thing was that it also works in reverse – our superb driver /guide from Putre was actually from Arica. And I understand that lure. All in all I can’t recommend the area enough … I am well and truly sold on it.

For further information and assistance on planning your holiday to this stunning part of Chile please contact me on email se.itt@horizon.co.fk

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