Aymara & Colonial Villages
Even little Putre dwarfs the tiny villages of the area, but these, too, deserve a visit. They are also very much off the beaten track. In fact, much of this area is still begging for proper archaeological study; pre-Columbian terracing abounds.
Socoroma, 27km (17 miles) south of Putre and also just north of Rte. 11, is a tiny Aymara village clinging to a promontory at 3,060m (10,040 ft.). Its adobe San Francisco church was built in 1560 and reconstructed in 1873, but it suffered some damage in the mid-2005 earthquake. It has a spectacular view of the mountains, overlooking ancient terraces which are now used for growing oregano, infusing the entire town with its heady aroma. At the desert rest stop of Zapahuira, take the dirt road toward Belén. Past the small power plant and village at Chapiquiña, note the frequent small trees with violet-colored trunks. They're queñua, an endangered, slow-growing species and possibly the tree that grows at the highest altitude anywhere.
Continuing on, make the detour down to the village of Pachama, 68km (42 miles) from Putre, greener than most of the others. The short road is in bad shape and the village almost abandoned, but its chalk-white late-17th-century church, San Andrés, is a real gem of colonial architecture and painting. In typical Atacama style, the bell tower is separated from the church proper, surrounded by a wall with two arched entrances. If locked, make the effort to look for the person keeping the key -- the very helpful locals will usually be able to point you in the right direction. The images of St. Andrew, the Virgin, and St. Peter above the door are unique -- no other colonial church in the Atacama has exterior paintings. At the same time, they're just a hint of the fine polychrome 18th-century frescoes and painted altar you'll find inside. If you do venture inside, be sure to leave a tip.
A balmy climate and proximity to the route to Potosí led to the 1620 establishment of Belén, 77km (48 miles) from Putre and the only altiplano town founded by the Spanish, within proximity to an indigenous settlement. The smaller, older of the two churches here is on the higher ground of the main plaza; the more attractive is the 18th-century Señora del Carmen, most notable for the sculpted stone portal, featuring salomonic columns in an otherwise adobe structure. The interior holds polychrome baroque sculptures.
Within walking distance, besides the obvious and ubiquitous terraces, are two pukarás, Ancopachane near the cemetery and the adjacent Chajpa and Huaihuarani, the latter closest to a 5km (3-mile) stretch of the famous Inca road or Camino del Inca.
An attractive option for the return to Arica is to continue past Belén through Tignamar and Codpa, with plenty of petroglyphs, pukarás, and colonial churches along the way. The detour to Guañacagua is worthwhile for its baroque church, though it suffered some damage in the 2005 quake. This excursion can also be done as a day trip from Arica, if you have transportation of your own, though some tour agencies also offer the trip.
Lauca National Park
Stretching from Socoroma, Putre, and Belén eastward to the Bolivian border, Lauca National Park is one of the region's unquestionable highlights. The park comprises some of the most spectacular landscapes in the entire Andes, including the world's highest non-navigable lake, the stunning, emerald green Lago Chungará (at 4,500m/14,760 ft.), six peaks above 6,000m (19,700 ft.), volcanic calderas, and the famous altiplano village of Parinacota. Much of the 137,883-hectare (340,716-acre) park is accessible via the international highway and the secondary roads, though they're below the generally good standard of Chile's roads, affected as they are by heavy trucks and rain or snow in January and February during the "Bolivian Winter" -- not a good time to visit. Wildlife is abundant and easy to see, from the cuddly viscachas to the lithe vicuñas -- not to be confused with the larger, gray-faced guanacos you may see at lower altitudes -- and over 130 species of birds, including the three species of flamingos that exist in Chile (the Andean, Chilean, and James's), along with rare hummingbirds.
Stop at Las Cuevas, which has a Conaf station (theoretically open daily 9am-12:30pm and 1-5:30pm), and take the path down toward the little hut that holds a rustic pool fed by a hot spring. On the way, you'll pass through a warren of mountain viscachas, long-tailed rodents with more than a passing resemblance to hares. They're easy to observe, and their slanted eyes and penchant to sit back on their haunches give them a positively relaxed expression.
A little farther along Rte. 11 -- past a ridiculous red, blue, and yellow pan-flute sculpture -- you'll begin to approach the dramatic white cones of the 6,342m (20,807-ft.) Parinacota Volcano and the 6,282m (20,610-ft.) Pomerape. I recommend you head to the picturesque whitewashed village of Parinacota next, as the 17th-century church is more likely to be open in the morning; otherwise ask around for the caretaker at the crafts stalls in the little square. Most of the residents are evangelicals nowadays, hence Mass is rarely held. Much like the church at Pachama, but with more somber motifs of hell and the crucifixion, the interior boasts splendid frescoes, along with religious paintings reminiscent of the Cuzco school. There is also a macabre selection of priests' skulls and a table that -- in deference to the town's supernatural proclivities -- has been chained down to keep it from moving around town on its own accord. The exterior is walled in, with the square tower on one corner, and simple red sculptures (some bearing faces) on top of the walls. At 4,400m (14,430 ft.) and 36km (22 miles) from Putre, the village also holds the Conaf's administrative center of the park, which can provide maps and information, and there's a small campground and a 3km (2-mile) trail head behind this administrative center.
A poor road heads north toward other villages outside the park, notably Visviri at the northern tip of Chile. An obelisk north of the village marks the spot where Chile, Bolivia, and Peru meet in the high-altitude desert. On Sundays, an Aymara market drawing participants from the three countries takes place there.
The Cotacotani lagoons east of Parinacota form a mesmerizing, surreal landscape of dark lava and cinder cones piercing the green waters. A lookout point offers a good view from the highway, though it's spoiled a bit by power lines and litter. If you have time and have acclimatized, there's an easy but long 8km (5-mile) trail around them.
The view of Lake Chungará, finally, is the park's highlight. At daybreak, the summits are ablaze with orange, and when the wind is still, they reflect perfectly in its waters. Across the butterfly-shaped lake, you can see the 6,542m (21,460-ft.) Sajama, Bolivia's highest peak, among other mountains that almost encircle the lake. Some 150 species of birds inhabit the park, with many waterfowl species flocking to the lake, including native geese and duck species, giant coots, and of course flamingos. You will very likely also spot small herds of vicuñas that you can see from a short distance away, despite the proximity of the highway. A Conaf station near the lake is similar (unstaffed) to the one at Las Cuevas and has a small refuge and the most basic of restrooms (not recommended), along with a campsite. A short trail from the station's parking lot leads down to the lakeshore. A little farther on is the Chilean border station.
Vicuña Nature Preserve, Surire National Monument & Volcan Isluga National Park
Because it's less accessible than Lauca National Park and has no public transport, your only option for exploring this remote area is to hire a 4WD or take an organized tour from Putre. However, this otherworldly altiplano landscape, dotted with the remains of ancient Aymara villages where graceful vicuñas roam beneath majestic snow-capped volcanoes, is nothing short of spectacular. This park has the largest concentration of the country's vicuña, some 20,000. In the 1980s, some were caught and exported to Ecuador to help reestablish a breeding population there. Vicuñas and guanacos -- the wild form of the llama -- almost never share a habitat, with the smaller, paler vicuña living at higher altitudes, because their unique wool provides protection against the nightly subzero temperatures. Near Las Cuevas, a minor road -- A-235 -- turns south off Rte. 11. Marked with a sign for Guallatiri, the road is manageable without too much difficulty south until Surire, though the trucks that run to the borax mine near there can be an annoyance en route. Poaching remains an issue, but the preserve boasts one of Chile's few environmental success stories: the recovery of the vicuña population hunted to the brink of extinction for their wool, the world's finest.
At 83km (52 miles) from Putre, the pre-Hispanic village of Guallatiri, overshadowed by the active volcano of the same name, consists of some 50 houses and a white 17th-century Atacama church. The preserve also protects queñua along with the llareta, a very slow-growing shrub with leaves growing so tightly that, amazingly, it looks more like a rounded, moss-covered rock. Now rare and officially protected, it was previously burned for fuel in mining operations.
The far smaller Surire National Monument almost surrounds the salt lake of the same name, with beautiful views and relatively common rheas, ostrichlike birds called suri by the Aymara. It also has undeveloped hot springs at Polloquere. The borax plant at one side of the lake, however, is suspected of being responsible for a decline in flamingo hatchings; the company says it carries out periodic measurements with Conaf to make sure this isn't happening.
As an alternative to the road, consider heading back toward Putre via Itisa and Belén, which is also a long, bumpy ride of about 120km (75 miles).
Even worse and lonelier is the road that continues to the 174,744-hectare (431,600-acre) Volcan Isluga National Park. I don't recommend traveling this route alone; this is a trip best done on a multiday tour. One can travel there roundabout heading south from Arica, but the nearest village with services, the border post of Colchane, sports only the most basic accommodations. Many of the villages marked on maps are virtually abandoned, with the houses locked and the original inhabitants returning only for religious festivities. This is the case at Isluga, 205km (127 miles) from Putre, a tiny, picture-perfect village similar to Parinacota, boasting a 17th-century Atacama church. The Conaf ranger station is at Enquelga, 10km (6 miles) inside the park; there are hot springs nearby at Aguas Calientes. From Colchane, Arica is 401km (249 miles) via the paved road, but you can also travel to the seaside city of Iquique, 220km (137 miles) away.