These agricultural colonial-era villages and 12th-century Atacama Indian ruins merit a stop on the return trip to the airport, after an early morning visit to the Tatio Geysers. That said, this can be an exhausting journey, considering the 4am wake-up call and the long drive thereafter. If you can't muster the stamina, try a day visit from Calama.
Chiu Chiu is a tiny village founded by the Spanish around 1610, and it boasts the mid-17th-century church of San Francisco, one of Chile's oldest. The whitewashed adobe walls of this weather-beaten beauty are 120cm (47 in.) thick, and its doors are made of cedar and bordered with cactus, displaying the Atacama style unique to the extreme north of Chile and Argentina, but it's most unusual for its two towers (officially open to visitors Tues-Sun 9am-2pm and 4-7pm). Just north, explore the ruins of the Pukará de Lasana, a 12th-century Indian fort abandoned after the Spanish occupation and restored in 1951. You'll want to spend some time wandering the labyrinthine streets that wind around the remains of 110 two- to five-story buildings built alongside the Loa river gorge, taking in the views toward the Andean peaks.
Another fortress due east, the Pukará de Turi, was the largest fortified city built in the area; archaeological evidence shows the site was inhabited from the 9th century through almost 1600, when it was abandoned in the wake of the Spanish conquest. The scale of these 4-hectare (10-acre) ruins, with their circular towers and wide streets, is impressive, though those at Lasana are in better shape.
A bit to the south, Ayquina takes in part of a small valley formed by the Salado River, an affluent to the Loa River, with the church and cemetery at its bottom surrounded by gray limestone houses largely covered in straw, as tradition dictates from before the Spanish conquest. Only about 100 people still inhabit the village as people have left to find work in the copper mines, but it returns to life as some 40,000 people -- including some 30 groups of costumed native dancers -- converge on September 8 to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Chuquicamata's miners, to whom its lovely 17th-century church is dedicated. Walk to the arch east of the church to take in the view over the Salado and its lush valley.
While maps mark a road southeast from Ayquina to Caspana, it's been washed away at a river crossing. Take the road farther south, doubling back toward Calama to reach the engaging village of Caspana, surrounded by a fertile valley cultivated in a terraced formation like a sunken amphitheater. The village is characterized by its rock-wall and thatched-roof architecture. In the center, there is a tiny museum dedicated to the culture of the area and a crafts shop selling textiles made from alpaca. Cactus lampshades sold here do indeed give off a pretty flickering light, but pass them up because the species is endangered. Caspana also boasts a colonial-era church, San Lucas, completed in 1641 of stone, cactus, and mortar, and covered in adobe.
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