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Guide to Chile's Altiplano region

Written by Thomas Power | 9th January 2014 |


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During the day the sun beats down mercilessly, the nights, however, are cold and come with star-filled skies.

The saltpetre beds of this region dazzle with the reflected sun and, as the viewer approaches reveal emerald-coloured lagoons and Chilean pink flamingos.

Enclosing the landscape are blue, red and purple hills and beneath the landscape, mineral riches lie hidden.

Saltpetre, a source of immense fortunes in the past, was extracted from these regions and Chile's greatest treasures; its copper mines are here.

Despite its aridity, this is no dead land. Along with its superb landscape; the north harbours a rich archaeological heritage that makes it Chile's archaeological capital.

The Chilean north bore witness to the greatness of the lnca Empire and experienced the fearless charge of the Spanish conquistadors.

Spectacular archaeological findings have been made here not least of which are the world's oldest mummies. These mummies, known as the Chinchorro mummies, have been unearthed in Arica. They are unique in Latin America and, at over 7,000 years old, they pre-date the Egyptian mummies.

Additionally, on hill slopes in this region can be seen giant geoglyphs that a thousand years ago were used to guide caravans through the desert. These huge drawings of animals, birds, men and symbolic figures were made by grouping stones together or by razing the ground.

At intervals rivers flowing in green valleys from the mountains to the sea break the aridity of this area.

More than ten thousand years ago, these valley oases attracted nomad tribes and centuries later they became the homes of farmers and fishermen whose pottery and textiles survive to this day.

These valley oases also served as stops for Pre-Inca caravans using the trade routes that connected the Amazon forest and the Pacific Ocean. Venturing inside the valley ravines you can still admire today the beautiful hieroglyphic and rupestrian paintings of llama herds and scenes of daily life left by those moving through and living in this region.

The highland plains located between 3,500 and 4,500 meters above sea level receive summer rains in January and February. They comprise a unique, ferocious landscape with their perfectly coned volcanoes and snowy peaks (reaching to over 6,000 meters), which are surrounded by white saltpetre beds, blue lagoons and golden pastures where guanacos and vicuñas, the Andean camels, freely roam.

Occasionally, a Nandu will break the quiet of these plains with the smack of its feathers. The highlands are the common lands of all the Andean people of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.

Since time immemorial the Aymara communities have roamed them with their herds of alpacas and llamas, pausing only occasionally to gather in some ceremonial town to honour a patron saint.

The highland plains experienced the splendour of the Tiwanako culture (300-1,100 BC), which originated in Lake Titicaca and that of the lnca Empire that expanded to cover over half of Chile until it was cut down by the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.

A network of lnca trails covered the highland plains, where the 'chasquis' (messengers) ran to take news to all four corners of the Inca Empire. There are still remains of the tambos that served as stops on their journeys.

Strewn along the plains and the Sierra, there are picturesque villages with stone and mud houses, corrals and agricultural terraces. The cemeteries of this area also stand out with their wreaths of paper or metal placed on the crosses, for lack of fresh flowers.

The most important buildings in these villages are the churches that are a legacy of the Spanish missionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Surrounded by the village houses they display a mixture of traditional beliefs and the Christian faith and are always beautiful in their simplicity.

It is impossible not to admire the bell towers, the doors with their baroque carvings, the polychromes in the altars, the iconic colonial paintings of a suffering Christ and the statutes of the virgin adorned in velvet and lace.

For a visitor to these villages and their churches, it is a pleasure to wander through the markets and mingle with the locals with their golden faces and colourful clothing. In particular, the women amaze with the tiny black bowler hats, their babies carried on their backs, their mastery of herbal medicine, their cooking of Chucho de papa and charqui de llama, and with the fantastic textiles created on their looms.

Over ten thousand years of human presence is kept in this great open-air museum, with the seacoast cities of Arica and Iquique contributing the modern touch. These cities provide the tourist infrastructure for the area and enable the visitor to easily pick up excursions to the region's wonderful beaches, archaeological sites, thermal springs, picturesque hamlets and its National Parks.

Arica, city of beaches and 'eternal springtime' is on the border with Peru. It is the starting point to climb to the Lauca National Park (declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO).

At 4,500 metres Lauca is the meeting point for the borders of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. The traveller making the journey up to the park will encounter thousands of cacti, a string of Andean towns and Lake Chungara, the world's highest lake. Crystalline waters mirror the volcanoes that surround it.

In this park, just as in the more southerly Las Vicunas National Reserve and the Salar de Surire National Monument, there are vicunas, guanacos, llamas, and alpacas, as well as hundreds of bird species such as flamingos (parinas), wild geese, Andean seagulls and a huge variety of aquatic birds.

The village of Parinacota, near to Lake Chungara, with its white houses and eighteenth-century church is one of the most typical of the highland plains.

The church is decorated with strangest of murals depicting Christ being crucified by the Conquistadors. Parinacota is also one of the strings of towns that make up the 'silver route' going from the famous mines of Potosi to the harbours of the Pacific.

Continuing south along the coast from Arica, the city of is a fun place to relax with its beautiful beaches and excellent hotels. Newly constructed buildings and condos share the cityscape with the elegant mansions of the old saltpetre tycoons, with their galleries that open to the street and their roofed balconies.

The city's guava cocktails and seafood feasts (served in restaurants fronting the sea) are not its only temptations, shoppaholics would do well to take a tour of the Zofri, the largest duty-free area in Latin America. Iquique is also a good starting point for many interesting excursions.

It is possible to visit the pampa 'de caliche,' Humberstone, Santa Laura, Victoria and many other abandoned refining centres that bear witness to the saltpetre boom of 1840 to 1920. They are ghost towns today, mere memories of the glory days when they produced around 65% of the 'white gold' consumed in the world.

The lonely beaches of the coast with their warm waters and soft sands invite you to take a swim, dive or surf.

Alternatively travelling towards the mountain range, Mamiha with its beautiful church built in 1632 and its paved streets offers thermal springs and mud baths.

Pica is the village equivalent of a flower and fruit garden supplied by natural springs it has a natural pool amongst its rocks as well as orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, mangoes and guava trees.

The famous 'limon de Pica' (pica lemon), which is used to make the best pisco sour, is originally from here. Pica's old houses are decorated with bougainvillea and the church is remarkable for its scene of the Last Supper, with real-size characters.

The church in neighbouring is famous for its fruit honey pastes. Even a quick tour from Iquique should not leave out La Tirana. Every July 16th, on the day of the Virgen del Carmen, La Tirana celebrates Chile's most colourful and popular religious holiday.

About a hundred thousand people gather on this day to honour the Virgin with musical bands, groups of dancers and 'devils'; wearing colourful masks and wonderful costumes.


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