One of the biggest challenges when working on an itinerary for Chile is tackling the geography. Chile is over 4000 km (2500 miles) long but at most 180 km (110 miles) wide. The latitude near Peru border at Arica is close to the equivalent of Mexico City or Veracruz Mexico; 20 degrees south. Punta Arenas, the major city in the south, is at 53 degree south, which is farther south from the equator than Vancouver Canada is north. In Europe it is equivalent to the distance from Scotland to Nigeria. Think of trying to cover the whole West Coast of the US and into Mexico in three weeks.
Many visitors choose to focus on either the south portion of Chile or north portion of Chile. Santiago is mid-point and you either travel North or South. We love flowers so the idea of seeing the flowering desert first grabbed my interest. The flowering desert, desierto florido, actually does not happen in the Far North of Chile but in an area more in the mid North or “El Norte Chico”. The flowering desert is as unpredictable as the blooming Sonoran desert in Arizona. It also happens in September to October which would be too early for us. So we discarded the idea of trying to catch the desierto florido.
But the desert still attracted us. It may just be the contrast from the wet and mild weather of the Northwest US. Beyond El Norte Chico, along the very the northern border with Peru, is El Norte Grande or the Far North. The austerely beautiful, forbidding, vast area of desert stretching from the border of Peru to 1000 km (620 miles) south. Here lies the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. At the eastern edge of the desert, the Andes mountains climb to a high plateau; the Altiplano. The Altiplano is as high as Tibet, rising to 14,000 ft or more in elevation. It is about 180 KM (110 miles) from Arica on the Pacific coast to the small village of Putre at over 11,000 ft. We are planning on spending three nights in Putre and using it as a launching point to explore Lauca National Park. The village of Putre has about 1200 inhabitants. They have just gotten internet access through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After doing a web search, I found Alto Andino Nature Tours. There is actually a house for rent so we can 'slow travel'. We have reserved the house, Casa Barbarita, for the three nights (November 24, 25 and 26th). We have also arranged for a naturalist to guide us and explore the botany of the region. Barbara Knapton who runs the tours has been very helpful.
Our challenge will be avoiding altitude sickness which is why we plan to spend three nights in Putre. The anticipation of an adventure in the high Andes is exciting.
But of course, we also want to visit the Lake District and Patagonia in the south.