Wildlife At Altitude

Trip Start Apr 27, 2009
Trip End Apr 27, 2010

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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, January 11, 2010

This is one of the most spectacular tours I've gone on - a great mix of some of the most amazing scenery and wildlife I've seen. I was a little unsure about hope I'd cope with the rapid climb from sea-level to 4,500m altitude but I didn't have any problems at all - not even the slight breathlessness that I experienced in the Rockies. Others on the tour weren't quite so lucky and one guy especially struggled and ended up sleeping most of the time. I think we cut the time at our highest stop a little short because he was so ill and they wanted to get him to a lower altitude and give him some oxygen. Needless to say, I'm glad it wasn't me!

The first sights we stopped to see were actually still close to Arica in the Lluta Valley. Massive Incan geoglyphs are visible on the hillsides and there's a preserved area where a few rows of holes in the ground used to serve as ovens for the Incan people. The geoglyphs were quite interesting although it would have been nice to get a little closer. We saw quite a few more once we returned to the bus and continued up through the valley. Following the same route as the road for a number of miles was the old Arica to La Paz (Bolivia) railway line. It has fallen into disrepair and is surprisingly overgrown with plants when you consider how little rainfall the area receives. I think it's been out of use for about a decade but it looks much longer. It did make me laugh that the bus driver still stopped at the railway crossing given how overgrown the track was - maybe he was being careful not to run over any insects or something because there was no chance of a train coming!

Our next stop was at an really, really old church in Poconchile. Although it was renovated between 2001 and 2005 the majority of the building has been standing since 1580, quite an impressive feat! From Poconchile we began to climb higher into the pre-cordillera of the Andes, occasionally getting stuck behind a truck heading for Bolivia that was struggling with the tight bends and steep gradient. We made a stop for breakfast and I discovered the delights of condensed milk in tea - no idea why I didn't think of it earlier! It was the perfect way to get round the fact that they didn't have any real milk (actually, the long-life stuff that passes for real milk here!). Combined with a bread roll covered in manjar (dulce de leche) it made for a deliciously sugar-laden brekkie! I didn't bother with the tea with mate de coca leaves even though it's supposed to help at altitude - I don't eat leaves! Mind you, I might have been tempted if I had been having any signs of altitude sickness.

After a quick stop to get a closer look at the candelabro cactus that is unique to the area we stopped at a viewpoint over the small town of Copaquilla. It's a pretty impressive view, lots of huge mountains and desert around it then a small, green oasis at the bottom of the canyon. There was time to experiment with the echoes that the canyon produced and to have a view of the ruined 12th century Incan fortress at the top of the hill before we moved on again. The driver had a difficult enough job on the crazy roads but just to make it more interesting there were often vicunas (kind of like a deer) walking along the edge or trotting across the road giving the minibus a look as if to say "what are you doing here?". to be fair, they've probably been there longer than the road!

At the next stop we got acquainted with Lolly the llama and her daughter. They were very friendly, especially if you had some biscuits for them! There was no repeat of the donkey attack in Salta on a member of the tour group but I did get a kiss on the cheek from the baby llama which gave me a bit of a shock. We moved on to a tiny village called Parinacota with another really old, but beautiful, church (from the 17th century) which had multitudes of murals painted on the walls inside and a strange alcove with a couple of skulls in it. The road (I use the term loosely!) into the village and back up onto the main route wove through fields full of llamas and alpacas grazing happily on surprisingly green pastures.

The highest point of the day was Lago Chungara at 4,500m. The lake is nearly 200km from Arica and not far from the Bolivian border. As we drove higher and higher I kept thinking that we'd reached the final level of mountains only to be surprised with another. This time we were definitely at the top and had an amazing view of some snow-capped volcanos that were over 6,000m high. One of the volcanos we saw is actually in Bolivia and is that country's highest peak. 6,000m doesn't look that high when you're already 4,500m up though!! The lake itself is very shallow and under threat from the demands of the lower areas because of the lack of rainfall. However, it's still very beautiful and we saw a flock of flamingos standing in the water.

We had some time to look at the local crafts that are for sale and wander around to take in the views before heading back the way we came to Putre for a lunch of steak and rice. We had a little time to visit the main square on the town (complete with the highest cashpoint in Chile) before we got back in the bus to head for Arica. The widlife spotting wasn't done though and on the way back down we saw a viscacha (like a supersized chinchilla!) and an ostrich-like nandu which had some babies in tow.

All in all it was a great day out, probably one of my highlights of the trip (not just because of the condensed milk in my tea!), and I'm really glad that I didn't suffer any altitude sickness to spoil my enjoyment of the surroundings.

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