Early start today – up at 6.30. Gary is picking us up at 7.30. He’s our guide for today, and called us at the hotel last night to agree where / when to meet. There will only be four of us: Ness, me, Gary and Juan, the driver. Gary speaks fluent English, having spent his first 14 years in Toronto we learn later. Juan only speaks Spanish, but is in fact the owner of the minibus it turns out. We get on easily with Gary, and Juan seems friendly although our conversation with him (Juan) is necessarily limited.
Gary is studying to be a teacher, at the University of Tarapaca. He is easy-going and I think he quickly picked up we’re not too keen on the standard tourist patter, so we chat, interspersed with the odd factual bit here and there.
Out of Arica we head inland on route 11, towards the Bolivian border. It’s a long drive, up into the mountains, along the Lluta valley initially. It’s wide and cultivated. We stop at a little decrepit church at Poconchile – nothing to see of note but it’s on Gary’s itinerary for us. His heart’s not in it really, get the feeling he is more interested in the mountain bits.
The drive takes us further along the valley, and the plots + cabins get noticeably poorer. We pass a sign for “cabañas turisticas” – one look confirms suspicions: primitive motel-style cabins made from plywood! The landscape changes several times as we continue. First to arid sand and rocks, with not even the odd bit of vegetation anywhere. We pass a mine-complex, where mounds of salt are brought to go through a natural drying process. The road climbs for a long distance, then we’re on a plateau, which simply is the floor of a higher valley. And so it goes on, winding gradually higher.
We stop somewhere, “Restaurant Internacional”, for a sandwich and drink. I try the coca tea – tastes like spinach. Gary looks at me, “what’s spinach?” his expression seems to imply. Juan is at the back chatting up the owner’s daughters. Before we reached this stop we passed a tourist wind-up, the “zona magnetica”, an optical illusion: car seems to roll back, uphill, but it’s a trick of the eye – look back and it’s obvious we’re actually rolling downhill. Another tour, this one in a bus, is close to us. We stay ahead of them for some time, then are overtaken by them at one of our stops.
We have now started to climb into the sierra and get the odd sight of snow-capped mountains which are visibly getting closer. One stop is at the edge of the sierra, where a narrow gorge indicates the division. Below are a few cabins and patches of green – people pick the most absurd places to eke out a living.
A hippie-bus, “solar camp”, on the way, still in the sandy bits before reaching the sierra, has adverts for “natural juices”, etc. Tourists would seem to be their mainstay income, probably contrary to the hippie view of the world. In the sierra we pass from one valley to another, still mostly climbing. Starting to feel the altitude now, but still lighting up, as is Gary, at every stop. One stop is a view of Socoroma, an old village which has chosen to stay isolated and self-reliant. From a distance it looks modern, with grey corrugated iron roofs, but through the binos we can see that the buildings are actually quite old, a lot of adobe.
Further on we get a good view looking down on Putre below us, surrounded by green fields (mostly alfalfa, for cattle food), with a snow-capped volcano in its immediate background. This is where we turn off route 11 and start heading into Lauca PN.
Early on, before we have even reached the park, we pass some guanacos by the roadside. The bushy sierra is now being replaced by a more mountainous flora – more plants, and of different types, more rock, and less sand. Once inside the PN we start to see more and more vicuñas, guanacos, llamas, etc. (see list!)
They’re wandering around, grazing, keeping a distance without being “skittish”. They simply move on a bit if they consider you’re getting too close for (their) comfort.
We stop for a short walk up and down, taking it very slowly now, no big movements. We can all, except Juan, feel the altitude – a bit tight-chested, relieved by taking deeper breaths of air. We are now above the 4000m mark. Onwards – the snow-capped volcanoes now look very close, all the more impressive for it.
Finally we reach Lago Chungara. It is a stunning place. Surprise, surprise, it comes complete with facilities for the visitor, which includes a number of Aymara peddlers of tourist junk. They don’t try too hard with us though. Gary leaves us to wander down to the lake while he digs around for some snacks in the car.
There is a little bench by the lake, which we occupy. For a few minutes we get to enjoy the place in all its full beauty. Vicuñas grazing here and there at the side of the lake. Giant koots dotted around, doing koot-like things (preening feathers, feeding, seemingly walking on the lake itself). On either side there is a (yes, snow-capped) volcano, the lake looks fresh, the air is clear, and there is no sound except the animals and the wind. Not even from the small car park behind us, which we have completely forgotten about.
This is what we came to see, enjoy the moment… aargh! The other tour has caught up with us and now behind me I can hear a few voices, unwrapping of snacks, slurpy noises from the cartons of juice-drink. A middle-aged guy circles our bench with his handy-cam, no word of greeting. He tries to find that perfect angle to take film of the Lago and take it home to Neuilly – yes, they’re French (could be worse – they could have been German, or Dutch!) Clearly hopes we’ll move on but I’m in “this is my lake, bugger off frog!” mood - actually enjoying it because it’s comical noticing the reaction from the various people who have by now surrounded us. A few are sensible and simply walk a bit further along the lake. The frogs hand around – earlier I asked Ness if she could tell me what “bugger off, this is my spot!” is in Spanish, but I think they have figured it out for themselves. Two Dutch girls were hanging around earlier (“Ik will effe zitten”) but when I spoke to one of them in Dutch she gathered we weren’t going to move – probably because I said “dit is mijn plekkie” – didn’t even have to add the “dus rot op!”
A friendly Spanish guy asks us to take his picture with his girlfriend/wife. He gets the works: lake, koots, vicuñas, one volcano (not bad) + llama pooh!
Llamas have the concept of a toilet – they pooh in “communal” spots, whereas vicuñas just pooh all over the place – I took the pictures to prove it! We chat with the Spaniard, from the Canary Islands. He’s a good laugh – shame he’s on the other bus, otherwise he would probably have been a good drinking partner – seems to have an infectious good humour. I share some of my coca leaves with him. He agrees, they taste like shit. Their bus is leaving. Before he goes, our Canarian friend tells us to look up Hector and Linda in Ancud. He hasn’t realised that we’re actually staying at their hotel (unless I’ve missed something) (Yes, I had – we never did find out who Hector and Linda were). Then we have the place to ourselves again, and spend a little while just gazing. Don’t know what thoughts are going through Nessie’s mind right now – mine are pretty simple, probably at the “ooh, aah” level, not looking for any profound thoughts, just happy to be here (minus froggies and cloggies!)
Back at the car Gary has, after much rummaging around, produced three kinds of biscuits, one kind of juice, and water. Juan still has the “Alex mix” playing – can’t work out whether he’s playing it for us or whether he actually enjoys it, probably the former. Now we turn back and follow a separate trail, along the bofedal. This passes a little “lake”, as in one of those puddles on a salt flat – on the other side we see some flamingos, and there is a single vicuña drinking. We also pass a herd of male vicuñas – they seek safety in numbers against the dominant male, so these groups are composed of mostly young and old animals. We carry on, seeing so many llamas, guanacos (v. similar & mix in with the llamas, although their offspring is infertile, i.e. llamas and guanacos can have joint offspring, but these animals are then infertile), vicuñas (smaller, short-haired rather than woolly), and a few vizcachas (rabbit-size), and alpacas (thicker and sturdier than llamas), as well as birds, etc. Once out of the PN we stop at Putre for lunch. The other tour is having their meal in the same restaurant. Juan is at the back again – family here or something. Gary has lunch with us (beef, fried potato, beetroot and rice). Our friendly Spaniard comes over for a chat before they leave.
Gary let slip that there is a Bernardo to be had here! B O’H is located in the main square, just a bust this one, not a full glory B O’H with horse like in Arica.
I forgot, before Putre we stopped off at Parinacota, a v. small and old Aymara village, allegedly used only for ceremonial purposes – which presumably includes the blessing of the cash registers before the tourist season begins! The little church is a real oddity, but Gary’s knowledge isn’t quite up to it. I relent and end up buying a rug/rag-thing made locally – colourful but v. simple, no pattern, simply a collection of differently coloured stripes. And got a stamp in our passports, the Parinacota municipal stamp (which the guy manning stall digs up – it’s clearly the town stamp and not some touristic gimmick!) Gary’s got delhi-belly.
So, having visited Parinacota and lunched and Bernardo’d in Putre, our drive back begins. Missed the opportunity in Putre to take a picture of the little girls carrying a little lamb (baby llama?), likewise in Parinacota I decided against taking a picture of a lesson in progress in the school (lessons in Aymara ceremonial? more likely basic accounting!) The drive back takes forever. I’m amazed at the length of it, and the variety of landscapes we have passed through. Back on the main, no.11, road, which is still a winding mountain road with a single track each way, we see the odd truck. Big articulated lorries transporting wood etc. to/from Bolivia. Reminds me of the film “The Wages of Fear” (Honestly! Ness told me I was a copy-cat because Keenan/McCarthy made the same observation). Ness doesn’t know the film so the metaphor stops there. At one point we have to wait behind one truck (Bolivian, lumber), until a truck with an enormous load has crawled round the corner on its way up. The carabinero accompanying the Bolivian truck in front of us hops out of the cab and joins his colleagues providing an escort for the wide load. More views than you could shake a stick at on the way down. The mountain vegetation starts to disappear and before long we’re back in a brown arid land. The drive seems to take forever, but eventually we reach the valley floor again, still a long drive towards the coast. Already mentioned the “cabañas turisticas” I think. Gary and Juan drop us off at the hotel. It’s dark by now. We’re weary dusty travellers, and make a bee-line for the bar! Gary was good fun to have as a guide today: easy-going, not full of himself, intelligent and articulate, though probably lacking a bit in encyclopeadic knowledge compared to “professional” tour guides, which I am quite glad about! Europe is an alien place, out of history books, to him – he has never been there. His frame of reference is Canada, Chile and other parts of America. He’s off to Guadalajara, in Mexico, for a conference and plans to travel round the coast of Brazil for his holiday. Throughout the day we have learned more about the Chilean way of life from him. Christmas, for example, is celebrated in much the same way here, i.e. with christmas trees, santa’s and lots of references to snow, despite the fact that it falls in the middle of the Chilean summer. He is proud of his country, that shows, but I get the feeling he wants to “apologise” for parts of it, and he clearly misses the green, fresh, snowy and windy Canada he has left behind – probably as much for the climate as for the fact that his parents and brothers are all still living there. We “dust off” our dry throats with customary PS’s, both now flaked. The ceiling in the bar is leopard-skin. We’re sat on the patio underneath the big tree, the sound of the waves and birds (I think?) in the background. Off to Calama tomorrow – we have an early-ish night, packing can wait until the morning.
(list of animals here?)