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Precordillera de Belén

East from Arica the land suddenly rises into the soaring Andean mountains. At the range’s base is the Precordillera de Belén, the foothills of the Andes, at an altitude of over 3000 meters (9750 ft). A chain of scattered villages – from Putre to Codpa – stretches across the pampas (plains) fractured by many ravines. The landscape is desolate for miles, with pre-Incan fortresses and roaming rhea and vicuña.


Ruta CH-11, the international highway to La Paz, Bolivia, passes through the Valle de Lluta before climbing into the Precordillera. At Km 90 is Pukará de Copaquilla, a pre-Incan fortress from the 12th century. A double wall of volcanic rock surrounds some 400 round structures with stone floors, which were perhaps corrals or defensive parapets. Another important set of ruins, these from the Inca period (1470 AD) is Tambo de Zapahuira at Km 111 of Ruta CH-11, near the crossroads with Ruta A-35. This tambo was a principal rest stop along the coast - highland route. It has two types of stone buildings. The rectangular ones were administrative offices and round ones were for lodging. Nearby Zapahuira village celebrates the Presentación de la Virgen on November 21.


A camino del Inca, or stone road used by pre-Inca and Inca traders, connects Zapahuira with Socorama (population: 132, altitude: 3250 m/10563 ft). This pre-Columbian hamlet was later used by Spanish merchants on the Arica-Potosí route. The adobe church, built in 1560, has an adobe and stone altar, four silver-crowned statues and four paintings of the Cuzqueña School. Nearby is Pukará de Calacruz. From Ruta CH-11, Socorama is nine kilometers (5.4 mi) north of Zapahuira, then five kilometers (3 mi) off the main highway.


From Zapahuira, the unpaved Ruta A-35 heads south to the small Aymara pueblos of the Precordillera de Belén. After seven kilometers (4.2 mi), a two-kilometer (1.2-mi) side road arrives at Portezuelo de Murmuntani where many women weave (population: 61, altitude: 3200 m/10400 ft). The first village on Ruta A-35 itself is Chapiguiña, 17 kilometers (10.5 mi) into the hills (population: 56, altitude 3260 m / 10595 ft). Belén, 17 kilometers (10.5 mi) further on, is the main settlement of the foothill region (population: 51, altitude: 3240 m/10530 ft). This cobblestone village was founded by the Spaniards in 1625. It was a major stop on the Potosí – Azapa – Arica trek. Two churches face its plaza. Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Belén is the smaller and older one. Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Carmen, built in the 18th century, has a Baroque façade. Within the sanctuary are over 20 saintly statues and a carved wooden altar screen. Not too far from the town is another pre-Hispanic fortress, the Pukará de Belén.


The next two hamlets down A-35, Lupica and Saxamar, also have pukarás associated with them. Ticnamar (also spelled Tignamar), 20 kilometers (12 mi) from Belén, is the next town of note (population: 93, altitude: 3100 m/10,075 ft). It is famous for its woolen artesanía and religious festivals, which include Carnaval, Cruz de Mayo, Corpus Christi, San Juan and Día de los Difuntos. Its fiesta patronal, commemorating the Virgin, is August 15. The original pueblo, Ticnamar Viejo, is close by and still preserves its adobe and straw church. Beyond Ticnamar Viejo, a track goes to Termas de Chitune.


Ruta A-35 turns southeast, descending from the Andean foothills. For almost 50 kilometers (30 mi) the landscape is desolate. At the junction of A-31, the route winds south to more typical villages, like Timar, Ofragia and Guañacagua, before arriving at Codpa on the banks of the Río Vítor (population: 300, altitude: 2050 m/6663 ft). This oasis town grows guava and other tropical fruits. However, its fame lays in its grape wine vino pintatani and the wine festival at the end of March and beginning of April. The old houses are of stone and adobe. Codpa was a missionary center during the colonial period. The church, built in 1668, has two side chapels and a polychrome, wooden altar screen. During the celebration of its patron saint November 11, San Martín de Tours rides a donkey through the streets. From Codpa, Ruta A-35 is gravel paved to Ruta CH-5 (the Pan-American Highway), 67 kilometers (40.5 mi) south of Arica.


Most of the villages have no hostels. Ask about staying with a family or be prepared to camp. In Portezuela de Murmuntani, visitors may be able to stay at the school or the sede social (community center). In Ticnamar, lodging is available with families. Conditions are very basic. If staying in thatch-roofed huts, beware of the vinchuca (assassin bug) which carries Chagas disease.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

08 Jul 2009

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