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Sajama to Arica

 

One could say that the trip from landlocked Bolivia to the beach in Arica, Chile is a real downer: a 5,000 meter (16,404 feet) downer to be exact. Despite the huge drop in altitude though, the emotional value of this amazing road trip makes it an incredible upper.

The trip typically begins in La Paz, the seat of the Bolivian government and the world’s highest capital at 3,600 meters (11,811 feet). After several hours of travel across the great Andean plateau of the Altiplano, the road scoots along the border of Sajama National Park, home to its namesake, Bolivia’s highest peak. Make sure to stop for thorough discussion and photo documentation of Sajama, and enjoy a jaunt around Inca Chulpas or the burial chambers that dot the plain in front of Sajama. This part of the trip alone is worthy in its own right.

Fifteen minutes past Sajama, you will hit the border crossing into Chile at Tambo Quemado, or rather, the border will hit you.

Tambo is a Quechua word for old Inca travel lodges or rest stops. In contemporary Spanish, quemado means burnt. The immigration line surges as bus loads of travelers attempt to cross before everything closes for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Almost two hours and nearly 20 forms later, you will pass into Parque Nacional Lauca with its Parinacota volcano, one of Chile’s highest peaks at 6,330 meters (20,767 feet). This peak is decorated with miniature volcanic peaks that are sometimes dusted with powdery fresh snow.

The park is home to various members of the camelid family, including the domesticated llama and the endangered vicuña. The vicuña is smaller, softer, and more uniform in color than the llama (something like a deer-shaped llama). The vicuñas of Lauca seem comfortable with the human presence of road builders and tourists. Visitors often walk within a few feet of these lithe animals at the only official rest stop. One can also spot dozens of flamingo—known as parinacota in Aymará, the indigenous language of this area—as they hunt for fish in the various lakes along the edge of the park. Once through the park, the highway passes through Putre, home to the only sizable human population between Tambo Quemado and Arica. The next edifice is a pukara, or Incan fort. Its location on a huge promontory no doubt made it easy to defend. A modern day fortification, Taki Posado, comes into view on the right. Advertised as an alternative camping and renewable energy center, Taki Posado is an eclectic assemblage of passenger railroad cars, driftwood, and awnings. About 12 km (7.5 miles) further, you can glimpse pre-Columbian Socoroma poking out from a patch of trees. Socoramo hosts a restored 16th century church and staggered terraces used for growing oregano. There are virtually no more signs of human habitation until the Lluta Valley at the end of the trip.

Though much of trip is through the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, there is some startling plant life along the way. Most notable are the storybook candelabra cacti marking the rocky, sandy mountain sides.

After an hour or two in the desert, stone cliffs yield to mammoth sand dunes and the road twists to the coast. By craning your neck to look straight up you can see huge petroglyphs known as the los gigantes, or the giants. Suddenly, the valley floor turns shockingly green. This oasis with palm trees is the Lluta Valley. Finally, the road ends, leaving you with a long stretch of beach and the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean.



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