Published: August 6th 2012July 27th 2012
The trip started in Santiago as we would be flying from there on Sunday evening. We spent a leisurely morning at Tia Raquel’s place until we made our way to the airport. Everything was an absolute breeze since the airport is divided into domestic and international flights and apparently, there aren’t very many domestic flights – at least when you consider how many domestic flights there are within the United States. As we had plenty of time, I did the usual: walk around, buy a cup of coffee, etc. Francisca was taking lots of pictures to commemorate her first time flying. She ended up doing very well! Maria Gloria also did so well flying that I assumed she had flown before, but come to find out, she hadn’t! I was the cause for these two bus-travelling experts to fly for the first time!
We were super lucky with our seat choices. Sitting on the left side of the plane, I thought we were going to miss seeing the Andes, but the plane took off to the south, allowing us a quick glimpse of them and then the journey continued along the coast, allowing us to watch a most
marvelous sunset over the coast and ocean.
I read a bit of Alicia en el país de las maravillas (Alice in Wonderland) to occupy the rest of my time which there was a lot of because we made a stop in Iquique – a tiny airport that is apparently not very well run. I saw hoards of people run from gate to gate more than once and there’re only 5 gates in the whole airport. It makes it hard though when there are no functioning monitors. Anyway, we certainly took our time, and we made it just fine to our hostel.
Monday morning began our 4 day tour with Mayuru Tours. Our guide, Francisco, was of native Aymara decent and had worked as a truck driver in the region for many years before going into the tourism business. Days later I learned that Mayuru Tours itself is actually his
business! He named it Mayuru for the Aymara meaning “one day” as in “one day I’ll do it.”
We explored a bit of Arica: the pedestrian shopping strip, the beautiful teal ocean coastline popular among surfers, the brown, solid dirt Morro –
basically a hill on one side that leads up to a cliff that drops off toward the ocean – the market full of beautiful produce (I got to try a maracuya which I think is a passionfruit), and finally the valleys where all these delicious things are grown: Valle Azapa and Valle de Lluta.
The whole region is solid brown dirt plus shades of red, orange, yellow, and white in the rocks, but these valleys are alive and green with healthy fruits and vegetables – olives being very prevalent. The growth is made possible by snowmelt higher up towards the cordillera and the rivers that flow through or rather used to flow down towards the sea. Now you don’t see much of a river because all of the water is directed to the agriculture. They use special watering techniques so as to minimize evaporation because the water from the river is enough only if used wisely. Chile prides itself on the great growing operation, but Francisco informed us that this is the fruit of Bolivian and Peruvian labor. This sounds familiar hmm?
Amongst the valleys of vegetation sits a most fantastic little museum of
artifacts from the area. Because of the extreme dry conditions, these items are incredibly well preserved. Items include pottery, clothing, weaving, tools, and most impressive of course, mummies – about 300 of them! Now I know we’ve all seen pottery, clothing, etc. in a variety of museums, but these will steal your breath because of their beauty, new appearance, and real age. Woven rugs date back to 2000 B.C… That’s 4000 years old. Of course the mummies will shock you because well – they’re real dead people. Maria Gloria and Francisca almost missed the bulk of them displayed in a dimly lit room behind glass. I pointed it out to them and we all gasped a little at the sight of them. It seemed very much like a morgue with all the bodies on tables, equally spaced apart, a variety of body shapes – adults and children.
The museum also featured a huge real olive oil manufacturing mechanism around which the museum was built. Outside the sun shined and ah… “Rico el día!” Flowers were blooming in a variety of colors and the shade of palm trees offered the perfect retreat. We didn’t linger too long after
perusing the museum though because it was time for lunch.
Francisco drove us past a cemetery to a place called “La pica del muerto” or “the bite/sting of the dead.” It was a pretty large restaurant with a great colorful atmosphere. It had the same woven roof as the Arica market – certainly not rain-proof, but who cares? We ordered from a young boy who served us, and the plates were generous and delicious.
Continuing on towards Putre where we would stay for the night, we continued to gawk at enormous brown mountains, and green valleys. Several times, Francisco veered off the road to take a look from a mirador or lookout. (I can’t tell you how many times I thought “I’m sure glad Francisco knows where to go!”) At one stop, we took a look at some geoglyphs – rocks placed into formation on hillsides thousands of years ago. These can be found throughout the Atacama. At higher altitude, we spotted our first snowcapped volcano of the trip, glowing with the setting sun. We also noticed the sleepiness associated with less oxygen in the air, but I fought it – not wanted to
miss a single view of this spectacular drive.
We made a small detour through Socoroba, a small village on a hillside that has been covered with oregano terrace-farming. Oregano seems to be one of the most popular spices in Chile. My nana back in Constitución would use it in practically everything. The town was very quiet - so quiet that I think there were probably more little homes there than inhabitants. We did spot a few though working on the terraces and one riding a donkey carrying a bundle of sticks. It was like the image you usually think of when you think South America – or at least that’s what I think of.
In the last light of day, driving towards Putre we had our first wildlife spotting: guanacos (other camelids similar to llamas). The light went from gold to orange, red, and purple – not a cloud in the sky. We made it to Putre just in time to be able to make out the tiny town in a valley below at the foot of a huge volcano. Thus ended day one.
Day two began with a nice breakfast
at the hostel complete with pineapple that we had bought at the Arica market. We then set off for Parque Nacional de Lauca and the famous Lago Chungará – the highest lake in the world at 4,500 meters. On our way out, we spotted numerous more alpaca, vicuñas, and llamas. One llama apparently has a job of patrolling cars for cookies. He approached our van and stuck his nose just about in my face. I’ll admit it freaked me out a little bit. I really didn’t want a llama to spit on me. Everything was fine though. This llama is accustomed to poking his head in vehicles searching for cookies. The truck drivers often indulge him.
We saw more wildlife too, a rabbit-like critter with a longer curled tail, some emu looking birds, and a host of water birds on the lake. I must give the credit for spotting the animals to Francisco though. Again, what would we do without him?
Winding up higher in altitude, we passed large frozen cascades and half frozen streams that carve through the scrubby terrain. Here also you could see canals that were built to direct the water.
More volcanoes were visible, shiny and white with snow and one with white smoke emitting from the top. Just beyond it was Bolivia. We were very high up and almost completely alone save the occasional passing borax truck. That was probably for the best considering we had to use nature’s bathrooms. Anyway, the silence and beauty was spectacular. On Lake Chungará, we watched the birds play on cobalt blue water and listened to their cries.
Well actually, by “we” I mean Francisco, Francisca, and I. All of us suffered from mild headaches, but unfortunately, the altitude got the best of Maria Gloria, and she was unable to do the rest of the tour with us. Her attitude though was a testament to her radiant personality. “I do not have one complaint about the tour. That which I’ve done has been wonderful. You all go ahead. I don’t want to stop Francisca and Emelia from enjoying the rest of the tour.”
So the next day, Maria Gloria headed back for Arica while us three headed for even higher altitude: Parque Nacional de las Vicuñas. On the way up to the altiplano (“high plains”) that sits
between the precordillera and the Andes, we passed much more wildlife. There was an interesting parade of llamas that we were lucky to witness. At first they were all scattered on a hillside, but when they decided to come down, cross the river and street, they lined up in parade fashion, only stopping and forming a herd to take a look at us with their quizzical faces.
In the car, we discussed discrimination. Francisco, like many other Chileans, was curious about discrimination in the United States because it has a very strong presence in Chile: Chileans not only have a bad reputation for looking down upon the poorer Peruvians and Bolivians, but also the native populations (Aymara, Mapuche) from their own country.
In the afternoon, we reached the Salar de Surire – a giant salty lake with a thin layer of salt over the majority of its surface. Where there was not salt, there was brilliant blue/turquoise water with pink flamingos searching for food in it. I couldn’t help but laugh at one as he plunged his head down, beak in one place in the water while he marched his feet in a circle
around his head. Others took my breath away as they flew across the water. Their long slender shape is so graceful when it flies, and with wings open, you notice their contrasting black feathers.
Making our way around the salar, we encountered our first thermas or hot springs where people can swim. Again, a gorgeous turquoise lake, mountains in the distance, with absolutely no one to be seen around. Francisca and I were the only ones there, save one duck that came to join us. We made faces and cried out with our first steps in as we sunk into the soft clay at the bottom, but the water was exquisite and we soon were swimming around happily and rubbing the volcanic clay on our skin.
The last leg of the trip for that day was three hours to Colchane, a town on the Chilean border with Bolivia. In fact, through our hotel window you can see lights leading up to the border. “Don’t go run sneaking across the border during the night!” Francisco told Francisca and me. As the sun set on our way there, we passed deep valleys, the massive Volcán Isluga,
and a handful of decaying uninhabited small towns. Francisco recounted the particular party that each town holds each year. I don’t quite get it though. It seems like all these towns have a party, but no one lives there.
The hotel we stayed at was nice, but unfortunately no one warned us that the electricity turns off from about 10:00pm to 9:00am every night. We had had a power outage in our first hotel too, so we were starting to think we had a bit of bad luck.
Our final day of the tour consisted of driving back to Iquique. Again Francisco took us off road to show us something we would have never found on our own – giant cactus. These cacti grow about 1mm/year, so some of those guys had to have been several hundred years old – very impressive. As we left the altiplano and began to descend we passed some great rock formations where we stopped to take pictures. These reminded me a lot of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Next was a range of red striped mountains before the vast brown nothingness again. In the middle of
the nothingness are the remains of an old nitrate mine, Humberstone - a complete little city it was with housing, schools, a swimming pool, theater, market, etc. We were lucky enough to meet a man who was raised there and worked there a few years before it closed in 1960 due to the invention of artificially manufactured nitrates.
Entering Iquique is a drop down to the coast. On the way down from the dry mountain, you get a fantastic view of the large beachfront city. We explored a little bit after arriving and saw the lovely plaza with its monument to a war hero, Arturo Prat, and large fountain display lit up. We learned more about Mr. Prat the next day as we explored several open museum exhibits and looked at the replica of the Chilean ship, Esmeralda. Apparently he didn’t win the fight against the Peruvians, but his courage to fight to the end won him the recognition of the generations to follow.
One of the highlights of Iquique in my opinion was the seafood. First, we found the seafood market. Each stand had a giant hunk of swordfish ready to chop up
for you. Others had more exotic items like locos or octopus. Giant pelicans and other birds hung around in hopes of getting some scraps. Further down the shore at the harbor, sea lions hung around in the water hoping for scraps from the fishermen’s boats as they pulled in to unload. And of course, adding to the business, were the usual surplus of stray dogs.
The other part of the joy of seafood is eating it. I had the most delicious lunch of fried Reineta, salad, and rice at a little restaurant, upstairs at the market. All for 2,500 pesos – about $5. Doesn’t get much better than that!
Passing through the plaza once again we had the luck of encountering a presentation of a La Tirana show of sorts. La Tirana is specific to the north and particularly to Iquique. It’s characterized by its own type of music – featuring lots of brass, costuming – mardi gras - ish, and dance – repetitive motion. I had seen some of the sort in Talca at a show, but it was great to actually be outside with the locals enjoying the show put on by
both adults and children. Perhaps it should have just been children because there were some wardrobe issues with the women…
We spent the rest of the afternoon perusing the city, walking the lovely boardwalk full of inline skaters, bikers, and skateboarders (very California vibe), eating ice cream, collecting shells on the beach – it was covered – and finally making our way to the casino. Francisca was the brave one and played a game. After she did, I tried too. I ended up winning 3,500 pesos! But that’s only after I paid $2,000 to get in and play the game. Whatever, it was a nice walk there and back. We stopped at a restaurant on the way back to the hostel for another good meal for a good price – complete with fresh mango juice this time. We chatted for a while, laughing, and having a good time. I couldn’t have asked for a better last day with my family.
We said a brief goodbye in the morning before I caught my 8:30 am bus, all very pleasant, and I was off to another adventure!
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