After almost three months and 4,000 kilometres, we've made it all the way to the top of Chile. We've arrived in Arica and our Chilean adventure is about to come to an end. Peru is only a couple of miles away.
Sitting right on the Pacific Ocean, Arica is famous for being the driest city on Earth - an average year will see it get less than one millimetre
of rain. While we've been making our way north from Santiago, Arica and its surrounding region have seen torrential rain and flooding. Yes, flooding
. The driest city in the world. The world! Farms in the Azapa Valley - Arica's answer to the Elqui Valley - have been inundated, countless adobe homes washed away, roads blocked, bridges destroyed. You just could not make it up.
While in Iquique we had read, horrified, the newspaper headlines: "Catástrofe!", "Desastre!". So bad had the rains been that the Chile-Peru border had even been closed for a while. The reason? The rain had washed a number of landmines - laid in the seventies following a period of tension between the two countries, yet another legacy of the War of the Pacific I've previously alluded to
Where are their legs?
Surreal scene in Putre...
- onto the road. The army had to be brought it to detonate a few of them and reopen the road and border crossing. Again: you just could not make it up.
Fortunately by the time we arrived in Arica the rains has passed and the crossing into Peru was partially open (although the mine clearance operation was still ongoing). Before waving goodbye to Chile, however, there was one more place we wanted to see.
Parque Nacional Lauca is a jewel of volcanos and lakes up on the altiplano, pushed right up against the border with Bolivia. Getting there from Arica is simple enough logistically but presents the body with something of a challenge: when I say "up on the altiplano", I mean up
. 4,500 metres up. Arica, of course, is at sea level. Usually, that kind of ascent requires some sort of acclimatisation, but that's not really possible here since there's not an awful lot between Arica and the park. To get there we get an early morning bus which whisks us in barely three hours from sea level to the tiny town of Putre at 3,500 metres - even this is a bit too much of
an ascent. We spend most of the rest of the day supine, and even the most simple acts like getting up to go to the loo (which you tend to do rather a lot at altitude) require an extended recovery period. It's rather alarming at first, but not entirely unexpected. We've arranged with a local guide to take us up to the park two days hence and his wife has told us in no uncertain terms that we need to take it easy at first - hopefully spending a couple of nights in Putre will make visiting the park less of an ordeal!
Almost exactly a year ago we were in Nepal, walking the Annapurna Sanctuary trail. That culminated at 4,130 metres at Annapurna Base Camp and I have bad memories of the night spent we spent there. The first night in Putre is no different. With a largely unaffected Alex sound asleep, I lie there, my heart thumping furiously and gasping for breath. I keep drifting off only to wake with a start and a very unwelcome feeling of impending suffocation - apparently very common after a big altitude jump. It's really not nice at all. We've both
been taking Diamox tablets for a couple of days in an attempt to speed up the acclimatisation, but the side-effects (namely intense pins and needles in the fingers, combined with its pronounced diuretic effect) are not really helping me sleep either. Still, this is the price you pay...
The next morning I'm feeling quite a bit better - we undertake a lovely walk along the valley in which Putre sits, overlooked by the massive snowbound peaks of Taapacá. The valley is an oasis of green, home to some impressive crop terracing predating the Incas. A few kilometres down valley from Putre, at the end of the walk, are some wonderful cave paintings - reputedly thousands of years old. They are wonderfully impressive but they do make us wonder about Chile's commitment to protecting its heritage: the paintings are completely unprotected and woefully vulnerable to vandalism. We've noticed since October that Argentines and Chileans are very keen on engraving their initials and nauseating love messages all over the place...
The second night in Putre is much more comfortable, and we wake up ready to explore the wonders of Parque Nacional Lauca.
And what wonders, what wonders...Dominated by the
twin, towering volcanos Parinacota and Pomerape - both well over 6,000 metres high - the park is a stunning wonderland of grassy altiplano where llamas, alpacas and vicuñas graze in huge numbers. Vizcachas - similar to chinchillas - hop about rocky outcrops and rare giant coots pepper the shores of the gorgeous Lago Chungará, the park's crowning glory. Astonishingly, the park is crossed by a narrow, windy but immensely important and busy road linking Arica with La Paz. This is Bolivia's shortest path to the Pacific and effectively its only access to the sea since Chile went and stole its coastline. While the park's size means the road is rarely in view, the hundreds of fuel tankers and heavy trucks - all with Bolivian numberplates - tell an interesting story.
What a wonderful way to end this superb introduction to Chile. From the glaciers of the Carretera Austral to the baking Atacama Desert, with Chiloé's emerald coastline and Araucanía's smoking volcanos in between, the range of sights we've seen has astounded us. We'll definitely be back - and possibly sooner than we think. We just enjoyed ourselves too much.
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