Arica, Tacna and the Altiplano of Chile

Alpaca grazing on the grassy bofedahl

The far north of Chile is a harsh, barren land, with a landscape so empty it makes Arizona’s Sonora Desert seem like a rainforest. Why would anybody journey to such a place? The Pacific Ocean and some nice beaches are maybes, but for me it’s all about accessing the altiplano, some 4500 vertical meters above the coast. If you want to get away, and I do mean from it all, then this is the place for you.

View from El Moro, the sandy bluff above Arica, Chile 

Arica is the scene of a famous battle where Chile captured the city from Peru. It’s a sort of river oasis in the midst of some of the bleakest, most arid land on the planet. That river originates from snowmelt 150 kilometers to the east and 5000 meters above on the crest of the andes. Only near these rivers is there any kind of vegetation at all in this desolate terrain, which really illustrates the oasis effect of the water.

Arica has 3 decent beaches, a prominent hill overlooking the port, and an orderly small downtown with a pedestrian mall. It sports a wooden cathedral built by master tower builder Gustav Eiffel, not nearly as impressive as his iconic namesake. The ceviche for sale at the fish market is fresh, cheap, and delicious, and the people are friendly, talkative and quite curious as to why any gringo would come here. This is part of the driest desert on earth, the Atacama, although most tourists access it at San Pedro de Atacama, 500 miles south and inland from Antofagasta. It’s a civilized outpost on a near empty, rugged coastline, and a worthy stop on the way north or east.

El Moro looming above Arica

Just a few kilometers north lies the Peru border, and an easy way to cross it is by riding the refurbished single car train that rolls 55 k into another river oasis, Tacna. This makes 2 round trips daily, each leg takes 75 minutes, and although the seating is comfortable, there is no bathroom or refreshments on the way. The cost is quite reasonable, about US$ 3 each way, and this is a time and cost efficient way to visit either city without spending much time at the border control, which is not the case with busses.

The one car train that rolls between Arica, Chile, and Tacna, Peru

Tacna’s train station is in the absolute center of the city, and very close to many of the cultural and commercial sites of interest. The most visible upon arrival is the impressive cathedral looming over the central plaza 2 blocks from the station. This open plaza stretches several blocks in front of the front doors of the big church, with lots of open space lined by 2 busy streets full of shops and cafes. Everybody believes that Peru is much cheaper than Chile, especially for consumer goods, and I suppose that’s true as many Chileans travel to Tacna to do serious shopping. The reputed center of the bargains is an area called Zona Franca, several blocks from the main plaza, but I thought a more appropriate name would be Zona China, as most of the goods on display are cheap knockoffs of brand names and such.

The other principal area of interest in town is another long pedestrian thorough fare called Avenida Bolognese, lined with palm trees and paved with patterned stones that are similar to the Burle Marx sidewalks at Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro. More shops, stores, and eateries line this 20 block stretch and it makes for a relaxing walk back to the cathedral sector. It’s a quaint town, very clean and well kept, and a world apart from the usual Peru hot spots. After crossing the wasteland between here and Arica, it feels like arriving in the emerald city.

The pedestrian walk along Avenida Bolognese, in Tacna, Peru

A better escape from Arica is the highway that heads east up into the foothills of the Andes, towards Bolivia. This route carries a lot of truck traffic to the port of Arica from landlocked Bolivia, so it’s not a place to let your mind wander if you’re behind the wheel. But in the La Paloma bus, steady progress up the incline takes a little over 3 hours until landing in Putre, much nicer than it sounds.

High altitude but very down to earth Putre, Chile, in the mountains above Arica

Perched at 3500 meters, and not quite half way to the top of the volcanoes 30 k to the east, this rock village is worth at least a couple of nights. One to explore the surrounding trails and the town itself, full of shops where hand made alpaca clothing is dirt cheap. And another to travel another 1000 meters up and 10 kilometers away to the serene and pristine hamlet of Parinacota, seemingly stuck in time.

Parinacota volcano looms above the village named after it

Here lies the beautiful and immense meadow known locally as a bofedale. It’s a sea of verdant green with crystal clear Andes runoff in a landscape of brown and beige stone. This particular bofedale covers a golf course sized area, and is the happy place for scores of Alpaca, Llama, and Guanaco, all similar camelids common to the high Andes. A wild cousin, the Vicuna, frequents the spiky grass here as well, but never mixes with their domestic cousins. Alpacas are the only beasts shorn of their premium wool, and eaten for their meat, and so are the most numerous and multicolored. The Guanacos and LLamas, both larger, are tended and provide cargo transport but are somewhat protected. The wild Vicunas are totally protected and roam free from all predators except the Puma, rarely encountered by humans here.

Wild Vicuna grazing in the spongy bofedahl at Parinacota

Towards sundown the edges of the bofedale are frequented by a unique rodent called the Vizcacha, with a head like a rabbit but sporting a long tail that curls up when needed. These are very skittish and head for the rocks when people get too close. They would seem to be very tempting protein for airborne marauders such as eagles and condors and I assume they are also eaten at times by the high country locals. The bofedale at Parinacota is a pristine grassy plain, but putting a hand down on the spiky grass renders it punctured by sharp tips, which, fortunately, don’t pass through clothing. The green is dissected by a myriad of small streams, narrow and very shallow, and the spongy texture of the grass makes walking very easy. Of course, this is at 4500 meters, higher than any mountain summit in Colorado, so the altitude produces both a lightheaded and drowsy effect in short order. This close to the sky, the wind is constant, and the weather can change suddenly, so a quick downpour and subsequent drop in temperature is intense here.

 Looking at Bolivia across Lake Chungara

Just 10 kilometers further east lies Chungara Lake, a vista of craggy peaks, snowcapped volcanoes with flamingoes in the shallows. There are several 6000 meter peaks here, including Bolivia’s highest, Sajama, across the lake. The landscape is both forbidding and eye popping, and camping is permitted at the ranger station, often unmanned, overlooking the lake. Cozier accommodations are available in Parinacota at the ranger station and some private residences, but the options are few. All of this area is part of Lauca National Park, straddling the border between Chile and Bolivia, and adjacent to the large Vicuna preserve to the south. Not everybody will appreciate the raw beauty of the area, but those who do will revel in the epic emptiness and lack of ‘development’. In this part of the world, change is glacially slow, and that’s a comfortable feeling in these attention deficit days.

The ancient chapel in Parinacota

IF YOU GO:

A rental car in Arica would seem to be the ideal situation, affording easy access to the altiplano up a fairly busy highway. There are several rental agencies in Arica, including Hertz and Europcar. The bus line La Paloma leaves the domestic bus station twice daily and spends about 3 hours en route. Construction delays are common but not lengthy and the roads are kept in excellent condition.

At times the truck traffic from Bolivia is heavy, as Arica functions as their port of mining exports due to being landlocked.

Putre is the stepping off spot for day trips into the altiplano. There are a dozen or so hotels and inns, as many cafes and restaurants, and stores to restock most provisions for campers. A number of guides are likewise available for all day tours of the high country, with the cost ranging between $30-80. Admission is free to both Parque Lauca and the Vicuna Reserve, and with a decent map, a self guided tour can sample most of the special sites, such as the bofedales at Parinacota and Chucuyo, and the hot springs at Las Cuevas and Jurasi. 

There are dozens of hotels and hostels in both Arica and Tacna, and booking.com has a number of listings. Accommodations are also plentiful in Putre, ranging from luxurious, pricey digs which include guided tours, to very basic hostels. They can be booked on arrival, or reserved on their own websites, such as La Chakana, and Terrace Lodge. I stayed at the perfectly satisfactory Hotel kukuli, breakfast included, for $32. There are excellent cafes scattered throughout the town, and one, facing the central square, served the finest mashed potatoes ever.

The Tacna-Arica train runs twice daily, morning and afternoon, and covers the 62 kilometers in just over an hour. Tickets are purchased at the station the day of or before the trip. The single coach car holds 48 passengers, and there is no bathroom on board. The cost each way is about $3.

LATAM flies to Arica from Santiago, Chile, with 6 flights daily.