Wandering the Ancient High Routes

Putting my hand outside the bed covers resulted in a very rapid withdrawal - the temperature was freezing...only about -2 Celsius! I had to get up and get out on the road to do some hitchhiking to the village of Parinacota, only 42km away but first I had to brave the cold by getting out of bed and getting dressed. This was only one of those few times when I actively thought about devising a way of warming my clothes in the bed first and then getting dressed, all without leaving the bed. Idea discarded; needed a lot of refining still!

I was in Putre (3,530m altitude) in the Arica & Parinacota region of Chile, the northernmost region sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean, Peru in the north and Bolivia in the east.

Eventually dressed and a fleece jacket with a soft shell jacket over that and good gloves, I was out of there with backpacks, the whole ton of weight of them, well 47kg to be exact. The owner of the hostel had told me last night I needed to get out to hitchhike between 7 - 8am - it was now 08:00 exactly as I reached a final junction in town. Yip, I was late but there was no way I was going to give up on the idea now. First goal was to at least get up to the main road about 7km from Putre town. 

Hitchhiking to Parinacota, the main "highway" between Arica
and La Paz, Bolivia. (Putre village to the left of this road)

It was an hour and a half later at 09:30 when an elderly gentleman stopped and gave me a lift to the main road; initially he thought that I’d just mentioned wanting to go Parinacota at some time in the future, not today so was about to give me a lift to Arica! Anyway, he dropped me off at the main road where there was a Chilean truck driver waiting for a mechanic to arrive from Arica. We spent a good time chatting while seeing the umpteen Bolivian trucks passing with maybe two slowing down a bit as they passed but none stopping to offer a lift.

One Bolivian truck stopped and the driver was taking a break and doing some checks and said that he’ll give me a lift if I’m still there when he leaves. Turned out to be just fancy words as with the bus that stopped to drop somebody off and told me they were full then promptly let two other people get on! I had a few colourful words to say about this but hey, that’s what hitchhiking is about - some you win, some you lose! It was 12:40 when another bus stopped and said they could drop me off at the junction to Parinacota village for 4,000 pesos (about US$ 6.00). 

At the junction of the road to Parinacota village

It wasn’t long before I had my first views of Las Payachatas (The Twins), the two snow-capped volcanoes that dominate many of the landscapes of the eastern Lauca National Park. Seeing those snowcaps across an arid landscape is just something that left me speechless, I took a few photos with the phone through the bus windows but they never would do any justice to the magnificence of those views.

View of Las Payachatas  (the Twins) from Parinacota

After about an hour on the bus and some dodgy sections of road, the bus stopped and the conductor told me that we were at the junction to Parinacota. Getting my things off here and then being left standing alone was quite a moment of “What the hell?!” as I was surrounded by miles and miles of arid desert - well, there were some wetlands in the far distance but they certainly weren’t within strolling distance. It was hardly 10min before a small car with a couple stopped and asked if I wanted a lift into Parinacota - the smile on my face was huge!!

As is normal, the couple asked me where I’m from and the woman let out a little yelp, she was South African too! This was unbelievable how I meet South Africans at high altitude; the 1st South African I met in South America was in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru - chatting to a girl at Laguna 69 (4,625m), she also turned to be South Africa - and now again at around 4,500m, I meet another South African. We had a good chat on the drive of about 5km and then some more when we got to Parinacota.

Arriving at the village of Parinacota.

Pulling into this village was like going back in time, other than the obviously modern 2-3 vehicles parked in the little square, the obvious feature of the church tower and the surrounding adobe houses was from another era. For the umpteenth time in the last few days I was just speechless. 

The church dated back to the mid- 17th century when Parinacota was along the main route between Potosi in Bolivia and what is now the Chilean coast. Due to the Spanish influence, churches were built at every single little village and town along the way with around 50 just in the Chilean side being part of a restoration project.

The friendly Don Leo who owns and runs the Alberque Uta Kala accommodation was around and he showed me to my room. The rate was 10,000 pesos/night (about US$ 14.50) and included dinner with breakfast (2,500 pesos - US$ 3.50) and lunch (3,500 pesos - US$ 5.00) optional. I was in a “dorm” room with two ‘normal’ beds and the the 2 beds of the bunk but alone, so in fact a large private room - I wasn’t complaining and the rate was really reasonable.

Alberque Uta Kala in Parinacota owned and run by Don Leo - Cerro Guane Guane in the background

I was in heaven with my camera and I loved the remoteness of this village! The high altitude and cold air made for photos where blue sky was really deep blue and in stark contrast with the arid surroundings. Sitting down along my walks around the wetlands and lakes in the afternoon was one of the most relaxing things I’d done in a long time. A few moment then viscachas would start moving around again and the birds would be closer again whilst the cool air was quiet otherwise. I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d want to be right at that moment!

Southern Mountain Viscacha Lagidium viscacia

Interesting about the viscachas here is that they’re much smaller than the ones I saw regularly in the Cordillera Blanca (Northern Viscacha Lagidium peruanum) in Central Perú. For one, their ears are shorter and the colour is much more of a yellow/brownish colour - depending on the light of course. According to literature, the viscacha in these parts of Chile is the Southern/Mountain Viscacha Lagidium viscacia - still need to confirm this as the same literature also says that the latter is heavier by 300g on average (a lot for a little animal like this) than its northern counterpart.

Anyway, as the sun started to go down the temperatures were also plummeting very rapidly and with the wind that usually starts between 11am and midday everyday, it was really cold. So after a good dinner and some coffee I was deep under the covers for the night - thinking about what wonders I’ll be seeing the next day.


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