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Orange or yellow obelisks with red Indian symbols mark several archaeological sites in the Azapa and Lluta valleys, including gravesites, pukarás (pre-Columbian fortresses), and geoglyphs, giant depictions of people or animals scratched into the mountain or assembled in stones. Peru's Nazca Lines (200 B.C.-800 A.D.), some 800km/496 miles north, are the world's best known geoglyphs. More varied and covering a greater area, between Chug-Chug (near Calama) and Nazca in Peru, the Atacama geoglyphs were thought to have been built much later, between 600 A.D. and 1500 A.D., and in addition to possessing ritual and symbolic significance, these geoglyphs also served as route markers for desert caravans.

The geoglyphs of the Lluta Valley are the best preserved; the closer they are to Arica, the more they've been vandalized, grimly proving the fragility of the sites and their lack of protection. Binoculars are handy for viewing geoglyphs in the Lluta Valley, high above the valley floor. You can get much closer to the geoglyphs in the Azapa Valley and see them more clearly. Across the valley from the museum, foundations remain of a pukará or village from the Tihuanaco period, with a great view of the emerald valley contrasting with the reddish desert.

Travelers who can't head to the Andean highlands for health reasons are able to do this excursion easily by booking a tour in Arica, but the Lluta geoglyphs will also be seen above the highway (Rte. 11) by those en route to Putre and the Lauca National Park -- just use the obelisks for orientation.