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Our dealer's store, cleverly concealed as a florist.

First stop, after breakfast on patio overlooking the Pacific!, was a trip into Arica. Getting to grips with the Basher, as Ness has named our jeep-truck-monster, in traffic proved quite easy. It’s big though. No luck finding a parking space at first. Eiffel’s iron church looks colourful in the main square – it’ll keep for later. Finally gathered that the handpainted signs for “Estacionamiento $300/hora” are Arica’s equivalent of NCP’s!

Trying to find the Tourist Info, Sernatur, we asked the doorman at an office block – he asked us to follow him, and then walked us into the bank inside, down the backstairs - I thought at first it was his way of showing us the door, the back door that is. But he carried on and almost walked us all the way into the Sernatur office. Inside a tiny office – 3 desks. Picked on the older looking woman as I figured she might know most. She spoke fluent French, having lived near Lausanne for 18 years.

We walked out with a few more maps and booklets and a recommendation to visit the Azapa valley. She also gave us counsel for our visit to PN Lauca in a few days: drink water, don’t eat much, and chew coca leaves if you do start to feel unwell. And some suggestions for local shopping and eating – the cynic in me tends to think these would either be: a) the places she sends all the tourists to, or b) owned and run by her cousins, grandparents, friends.

But we did decide to seek out the market she told us about. First I thought it simply consisted of the small street stalls and the guys selling fish/eels? from plastic white buckets – must find out what they are.

Then we found the market, through a small passage into a large covered area with stalls, hemmed in tightly, selling veggies (lots of avocados), and small “cafetarias”. At a stall we bought some water, and I asked again for “hojas de coca”. Before we went into the market I asked one of the fish-sellers. “No, you can’t get coca leaves anywhere here.” But at the stall where we bought the water the old boy’s wife suddenly got off her stool in the corner and went over to the flower stall across the “aisle” and then beckoned us.

With her help we procured two little plastic bags of what looks like bay leaves (they may very well turn out to be just that!) As we left the market I was proudly telling Ness that “I bought some really good shit!”

The town centre feels friendly, people going about their business shopping, talking. It’s got that middle-American feel to it, not unlike Salta but less threatening, not threatening at all in fact.

Next we headed out of the town centre towards the Azapa valley. Glad to have the extra height that Basher affords us – don’t mess with us! All around, except for the immediate stretches of land either side of the road, is brown. Brown hills, brown stones, brown sand. High rugged hills stretching away on either side as far as we can see. The town buildings give way to agricultural buildings as we move inland.

Nothing, a lot of nothing.
Whatsisname looking over the citizens of Arica.

Taking a turning off to the right at about km.7, we start to leave the fertile central part of the valley behind. A bit later the road becomes a dirt track, quite wide. Time for Basher to start showing what he’s worth I hope! Buildings thin out even more, and after a short while we’re driving along a road which is hard to distinguish from the rocks and sand around us.

Wooden posts here and there are the only sign, and the tracks left by other vehicles. Small primitive cabins, no bigger than portaloos, constructed out of bits of flotsam and jetsam, on either side, but some even have little curtains behind the cracked panes of glass. What are these constructions? Who uses them, and for what? Out here, in the middle of nowhere.

It’s amazing how quickly we have left behind the inhabited world. Now there is no-one around us, no-one in sight, and we carry on. Seems safe so far, although I am worried about what we’d do if something went wrong with the car – we don’t seem to have a spare wheel anywhere. The track starts to get even rougher, now there are not even any of the portaloos around us. Then the “road” ends abruptly, with a drop on our “starboard” and in front of us, and an incline of brown sand on our left. Time to turn back. Hairy moment as we do so – I’m aware that, even in Basher, it would be all too easy to get totally stuck in the sand here. Carefully, using Basher’s L4 drive, we manage to turn round. Heart pounding, trying not to let on to Ness, we drive back.

The views looking back are even more impressive, i.e. looking back towards where Arica & the Azapa valley ought to be – except they are nowhere to be seen. We take it slowly, taking a few pictures on the way. This is what we have come to see really, not the museums and geoglyphs (which were the excuse for the trip). Both in good spirits – good!

As we come back to the furthest lying farmhouses we pick up a middle-aged couple who ask us for a lift. Find out this place is called Alto Ramirez. They give us some more info about where to drive, what’s being grown in the fields around us (maize, olives, tomatoes). Dropped them off at the main road and, after a minor misunderstanding about which way we should head, we continue along the main road.

We turn right a few kms. further and follow a track between farms, eventually sighting the geoglyphs. Picture, for the books. The road ends at a farm a bit further on so we turn round and end up back at the main road.

We carry on up, through the central bit, which gets narrower as we continue. Here and there we pass a school, numbered. Then we drive through San Miguel de Azapa, a small village, but the “big town” by these standards. There’s a police control, duana, at the entrance to the village. We must have doubled back at some point, trying to find the local archaeological museum.

There’s a small shack selling bebitas just opposite the museum. Two more turistas here – aargh, Germans! We have water & coke, plus local (purple) olives. The Germans are driving to Putre today and are driving down to Santiago – they don’t look the type though. Some chat with the shack-owner and buy biscuits to have something to nibble on.

Then we visit the museum. It is small and a bit stuffy, to be expected, but very good all the same. The mummies are minuscule – are these real people? Apparently they are. Macabre.

A group of school-children enters as we are halfway through. All in unifform red-white-blue uniforms. They liven the dead place up – it needed it! Ness is taking her time so I carry on, ignoring the young couple we saw on our flight from SCL to ARI. The central room has a gigantic olive press (C18-20), which was still in operation until 1956. As I’m reading about it in the guide I’m approached by one of the kids who asks me about the olive press. I start telling him that it’s an olive press, dah dah dah, 1956 (had some trouble with that in Spanish!), and in the blink of an eye I’ve got twenty munchkins around me asking me questions, what’s this, what’s that, what are these rocks for? The rocks aren’t in the guidebook so I have no idea. Still, don’t feel I can let them down or ignore them so I start talking about the other piece on display. Turn for help to their schooltrip guide – “es una visita de escuela, sí?” “Sí.”, shrugs her shoulders, leaves me to it. Make an exit for the visitors shop when the kids attention is elsewhere.

Forgot to mention: before we visited the museum our Plan “A” was to cross to the Valle de Lleuta but the road looked like hard work. Could have been fun but I doubt it. Very glad with hindsight we didn’t attempt it – would have probably taken us 2-3 hours just to cross the ridge.

Continue up the valley, which now starts to get very narrow and even poorer. We pass another school. Two little schoolgirls further down the road, we give one of them a lift, she was called “Shirley” (or the pronounced equivalent) and we dropped her off at the very last house, past km.40. The road then become a rough track again, rocks looming over us on our left, and seemingly no way of turning back. We don’t know what lies ahead, if anything, so we reverse back and eventually find a spot to turn. Then it’s an easy drive back to Arica. In parts the road is half-covered in sand, from the rockfalls.

Reminds me, when we turned round after our first “excursion”, beyond Alto Ramirez, we noticed a sign saying “don’t go beyond this point”, on our way back!

Back in Arica we decide to take a detour to the big statue of Christ on the cliffs overlooking Arica. At the top there are a car park, museum & some statues. Something about the battle between Chile & Peru over Arica. Chileans won. Now there are a big bronze Christ figure and some commemorative plaques to generals from the battles. Not much else.

Ness freaked me out walking close to the edge of the cliff. Birds of prey, vultures of some kind, circling above and below us along the cliff. Drive back down, through the poorer shanty-like parts of town. Eiffel’s church is now closed so we just head back to the hotel. Drinks on the terrace, dinner in the restaurant, rather than heading into town – we’re both feeling tired, despite having spent most of the day in the car. And now… bed! (to sleep off the PS’s!)