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Altiplano

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Here we are in Arica after three amazing days in the Altiplano. Words can barely describe the scenery. Now... if there just wasn"t the effects of the altitude to deal with. But it unavoidable when you are over 15,000ft.

We started our journey on Monday when we flew from Santiago to Arica. We picked up our "camioneta" (extra cab pickup with extra big wheels and high clearance). Perfect for the roads were to be traveling on. We had to make a quick trip into Arica to pick up an extra gas can "bidon" because there are no gas stations outside of Arica. We also stopped at the Ekono supermarket to pick up breakfast supplies for the next three days and 7 liters of water.

We headed up Ruta 11 to Putre. Ruta 11 starts out in the Lluta valley which is a green belt of agriculture surrounded by huge mountains devoid of all plant life. But along these cliffs were some geoglyphs of giant men and animals that were made using dark stones. After about 40km, the road starts to climb through these arid mountains which really looks like piles of sand. You even pass a borax mine so we think we are in Death Valley. At about 80km, what appears to be telephone poles scattered about the landscape are really candleabra cactus. These are similar to Saguaro cactus standing 10 ft high with a massive tangle of arms at the top and spiny trunk. And that is all there was for kilometers. Almost all the traffic that we met was camions (trucks) coming from Bolivia and moving very slow.

At 100km, we reached 3000m or almost 10,000ft. We enter the pre-cordillera and there is life again. We see several types of cactus along with a variety of plants. We make several stops to allow us to adjust but we are already noticing the thin air. At 124km, Putre appears in the green valley below. Our home for the next three days.

Putre is not a city but a real Aymara village. It is at 3300m or about 11,000 ft. We head in for the evening and easily find Casa Barbarita at Alto Andino and met Barbara, the owner and guide for one of the days. We discuss our options and decide to follow here suggestion of staying in the village to acclimate and going to Lauca the day after. I am glad we did.

That night we could not sleep. The headaches were almost unbearable. But we knew they were temporary and would subside with time. George went back to bed for two hours next morning and Marta spent the time walking and exploring the village which also helped to relieve the headache. We spent the day botanizing around the area. We had a good vegetarian lunch in the village (soup and salad) and then we headed to the Termas outside of Putre which is hotspring. It has two enclosed hot pools, a large outdoor swimming pool and a mud bath area. Here you sat in warm red muddy water and rubbed red clay mud over your face and body. You let this dry and then washed it off. This softens the skin and it was great fun. We also met some nice Chileans who showed us the what to do. After another dip in the enclosed pool, we head back to Casa Barbarita.

Casa Barbarita is very nice. It is rustic adobe building with two bedrooms a large living room, small kitchen with stove and a large bath with lots of hot water since all heat was supplied by propane. You needed it. It got very cold after the sun went down. It was below 40 degrees. The beds were great. They had flannel sheets, alpaca blankets and a huge comforter. We were toasty.

The next day we met Barbara at 8am for our trip up higher to Lake Chungara and Lauca National Park. We started by exploring the mountain that looked down on Putre. We were able to drive to a high pass at 4700m (15,600Ft) and explore the wild plants that survived at these extreme conditions. Very bizarre. There were huges carpets of llareta, a dense shrub that looks like a large cushion. Imagine a large rock covered mounds of green, but it wasn"t a rock... it was all a plant. The wind was cold, the air extremely thin and sun blinding. The views over the pre-cordillera was spectacular.

Next we headed for the park. We started to see vicuna. Imagine llamas with short hair or small camels traveling in packs many times right next to the road. We stopped at Restaurant Matilde for lunch of alpaca soup and coca tea. Yes George ate the soup, but I ate the meat. The soup had lots of different vegetables, potatoes, green beans, red peppers and bits of freeze dried potatoes which tasted like mushrooms. Sitting in the middle was a meaty bone of alpaca. It had a strong meat taste similar to deer meat. The restaurant is basically a truck stop for Bolivian truck drivers crossing the altiplano.

Next we headed for Lago Chungara. We passed by the bofedals of Parincota, large wetlands where the Aymara herded their llamas and alpaca. Many birds also gathered there to feed. We got our first views of Volcan Parinacota. Parinacota is a beautiful volcano very much like Mt. Fuji in Japan. It is cone and the top is coated with permanent snow field. Kinda like an ice cream cone. Off in the distance was Bolivia"s highest peak. We were now at 4500m or 15,000ft. And the headaches had returned.

We stopped just before the customs station to Bolivia to see the flamingos. We were also able to see andean geese, giant coots, gulls, greebs and ibises. It was amazing to see the amount of wildlife so high. We headed back and stopped at the village of Parinacota to see the church which has wonderful murals similar to Bosch of heaven and hell. Along with this mural was also murals of the stations of the cross which has Spanish soldiers instead of Roman soldiers leading Chris to the cross. These were painted by 1600 by Aymaras that were trained by the Spainards in La Paz.

The altitude was continuing to give us headaches so we headed back. It was perfect day, just what we had hoped for. Barbara was a great guide. We spent a relaxing evening but had another sleepless night. This time it was not due to the altitude but to the music all night that was in preparation for a big festival this weekend. I wish we could have stayed.

Today, we left Putre and are now in Arica. We have an early flight tomorrow to Puerto Montt and a long drive up to Villarrica in the Lake district. Until next time.

Hasta Luego,

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