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Top Chile

Valle de Azapa

East of Arica, along the banks of the RĂ­o San JosĂ©, lies the ribbon of an emerald oasis: the Valle de Azapa. This is the most renowned olive producing region of Chile, with groves dating back to the 17th century. In recent decades, farmers here have also been growing tomatoes and tropical fruits like mangos, maracuyas (passion fruit) and guayabas (guava). Humans, though, have lived in this river valley for many millennia. The Chinchorro people left behind some of the oldest known mummies, which can be seen in the Museo San Miguel de Azapa. These and other indigenous nations’ geoglyphs and petroglyphs decorate the hillsides. The Museo ArqueolĂłgico’s website has an excellent map of the valley’s archaeological sites.


Two roads head into the Valle de Azapa. At the roundabout Rotunda A. Arenas (Avenida Diego Portales and Avenida Capitån Ávelos) is Ruta A-27, the more direct road to the Museo Arqueológico and the village of San Miguel de Azapa. It runs along the north side of the San José River. At the very beginning of this road, to the distant left, is Cerro Chuño. The most notable works are of a man wearing a loincloth and feathers.


A few kilometers south of Rotonda M. Castillo (Las Gredas and Avenida 18 de Septiembre), off the Pan-American Highway (Ruta 5), is the Camino a Cerro Sombrero, or Ruta A-33. This is the Ruta Arqueológica (Archaeological Route), passing at the foot of numerous hills displaying the ancients’ artistry. For four kilometers (2.4 mi), across the desert mount hemming the southern edge river valley, 14 panels of geometric, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic rock designs were scraped and chipped. All the archaeological sites are marked with tall white obelisks.


The first site along A-33 is Cerro Sombrero. The flanks of this mountain shows a human herding a group of llamas. These drawings date from the Cultura Arica period (1000-1400 AD). Golfing enthusiasts wanting to try their hand at a course composed entirely of sand may stop for a round at the Club de Golf RĂ­o Lluta, an 18-hole, Par 72 course (Camino Cerro Sombrero, Tel.: 22-3377 / 22-6935, E-mail:


On Atoca hill is another caravan of llamas with its guide and two dancers, presumably representing the traders connecting the coast and highlands. After Atoca is a southward road at the foot of Cerro Sombrero. This mountain has the greatest concentration of geoglyphs from the Cultura Arica era, including a stylized puma and other animals. An excellent view of these designs can be had from TĂșmulos de San Miguel, approximately one kilometer further down A-33. This site is also called Alto RamĂ­rez for the cultural phase from which these date (400 BC-400 AD). The side road leading up to the hilltop gazebo passes by a quadrangular sun drawn on another hillock.


Continuing back along Ruta A-33 is another signaled turnoff for a second Zona TĂșmulos (burial sites; 2 km/1.2 mi) and PĂșkara San Lorenzo (another 2 km/1.2 mi). This pĂșkara city is of the Tiwanaku period (300-1100 AD), a time of great pan-Andean integration. The rectangular houses had stone walls topped with totora reed mats. Also within the compound were llama corrals.


From the tĂșmulos-pĂșkara turn-off, Ruta A-33 turns northward, going through Las Maitas village and crossing RĂ­o San JosĂ© before joining with Ruta A-27, just before the Museo ArqueolĂłgico San Miguel de Azapa (March-December daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., January-February daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m., closed January 1, May 1, September 18, December 25. Tel.: 20-5555, Fax: 20-5552, E-mail:, URL: Entry: adults $2, children 6-17 years old $1). The museum has excellent chronological displays from the first human settlements 10,000 years ago to the colonial olive plantation that once thrived on these grounds. On exhibition are the oldest mummies yet uncovered and very fine weaving from later periods. Another series of galleries explain the Aymara culture. The museum lends free guidebooks in six languages and at the end of the museum road is a private hummingbird farm (irregular hours, entry by donation).


A half-kilometer (0.3 mi) east on A-27 is the village of San Miguel de Azapa (12 km / 7.2 mi from Arica). Its 17th-century church at the end of Calle los Misioneros was one of the first erected in the region and the cemetery dates back to pre-Columbian times. San Miguel celebrates its patron saint, Archangel Saint Michael, on September 29.


Ruta A-27 winds into the Precordillera foothills to the Sendero de la Virgen de las Peñas near Livircar. Her feast day is observed the first week of October and again on December 8.


Lodging and dining opportunities are slim in the Valle de Azapa. The only hotel is Hotel del Valle, near Arica (Camino Azapa 3221, Tel.: 24-1296, Fax, 24-1328, E-mail: San Miguel has no inns. Most restaurants are located either at the beginning of Ruta A-33 near Cerro Sombrero (Los Hornitos and Rancho don Floro) or in San Miguel de Azapa, especially on the street to the cemetery. Don’t forget to pick up some olives and other produce from the local farmers to take home with you or to have for a picnic lunch while hiking to the different archaeological sites.


A word of warning to single men traveling in Valle de Azapa: Beware the Novia de Azapa, a legendary bride phantom searching for her lost groom.

By Lorraine Caputo

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

06 Jul 2009

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