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Northern Chile - before Southern Chile

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

Southern Chile has hosted Aaron and I for the last three weeks and we've enjoyed her immensely. Before I post my thoughts about this lovely part of the country, I thought I'd share another chapter from my 'book in progress,' about a very special part of Chile. Hope you enjoy. (No, I don't know what I'm doing in this photo, haha).

Having said a last buenas noches to my couchsurfing host before we both crashed tiredly into bed, I wake up this morning refreshed and ready for my next adventure. I leave a delicious fruit flan in her fridge for when she arrives home tonight after her ten hour shift, then exit her home for the last time. Out to the street, on to the #5 collectivo, and off to the bus station. I buy a fare to Putre, a tiny ancient village just west of the Parque Nationale de Lauca, a village so small it only warrants a 4-font on the map.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning as we reach the outskirts of Putre and the vastness of the landscape awes me, hills golden and stark against a vividly blue sky. We continue to wind a little further along the well-maintained highway and then reach a small dirt road and a small sign pointing in to a village. The bus stops suddenly. Looking out my window, I see a herd of sheep scattered across the road in front of the bus. An old woman, in a wool skirt and thick leggings, walks casually from one side of the road to the other, using a stick to prod the sheep and their wayward lambs off the gravel. When she's maneuvered them off the road, the bus starts moving and we bump up the track to the town’s centre, a place that looks to be a thousand years old with its crumbling stone entrance and ancient church. We stop and I climb off.

'Hola,' I say to a couple of old men sitting on a stone bench in the square. “Donde estan los hoteles?” I ask. They point down a street perpendicular to the plaza. There aren't a lot of choices it seems - I walk through the entrance of a dilapidated building named the Cali Hostel. After booking a room, I'm led to a cement ‘courtyard,’ open to the vividly-blue sky. Woolen-clad women are washing and hanging sheets and towels on clotheslines at its edge. Young backpackers sit outside the small rooms that surround the area. They smile at me as I walk by them. In my room, I smile to see big wool blankets on the bed – this small pueblo sits at 3500 metres above sea level and I’ve heard it gets really cold at night.

It’s still early in the day so, after unpacking, I head back out to the street. I look around to see what catches my eye - which way shall I explore? To my right and far up the hill, I see two snow-capped peaks in the distance. They are, as I've read, part of the Taapaca volcano complex, otherwise known as the Nevados de Putre. The peaks, themselves, might be a bit out of reach, but I'll aim myself at them regardless. The village is so small that within five minutes of leaving the town centre, I’m in the surrounding hills, along with a dog who has joined me. He looks just like my Pauzz back at home, just a bit smaller and I tell him so. He and I chat for awhile as we continue up the path. Though I try to shoo him away, not wanting to lead him astray, he stays close, seeming to know the trail well. Well, who am I to dictate where this little stray goes? I’m happy for the company.

Just up ahead of us, further up the hill, a herd of tall creatures comes into sight. I think they’re alpacas! Holy, they are…and to my great delight, they don’t run when I come nearer. They seem quite curious, all raising their heads and staring at me, but only one is brave enough to come closer. He’s much bigger than the others, probably seven feet tall, and has scary ice-grey eyes. Obviously the ‘guy in charge.’ He struts around, eyeing me up, then suddenly, charges me, not overly aggressively, but still, my adrenaline flows. I stay still. He repeats the charge a couple of times then settles down when I don’t move, deciding, it appears, that I’m no threat to him and his girls. I sit and watch them watch me while they graze. They are big white fur balls, very pretty with big brown eyes and long, long black eyelashes. Coloured ribbons hang from their ears, I assume, to identify their owner. Once I get my fill of these South American camelids, I say goodbye to them, and with one last look behind me at them, my dog and I walk on up the trail.

The path winds through the sandy desert, with pink and yellow flowering shrubs framing my way. As I reach higher elevations, the ground becomes a little mossier and wetter, and then so do my feet. We follow a creek upstream into the hills and soon are out of the flat desert. The trail becomes muddy then and eventually takes me to a narrow gully. At its end, a rock wall. I being climbing up the rocks, hoping they’ll take me to the pretty green pastures I saw on my way up. The dog isn't as keen as I am to tackle the rocks, and he waits below as I scramble higher. Obviously, he's smarter than me - it's a bit of a challenge. As I climb higher, it gets harder to find handholds. Perhaps too big of a challenge. The cautious side of me reminds me that I’m not 20 anymore and suggests that I head back down. Listening to my better half, I crawl carefully off the rocks to the trail below where ‘my’ dog awaits me, very happy, it appears from his wildly wagging tail, that I'm back. We backtrack to the foothills where we find a much safer, albeit wetter, path to the pastures I had been aiming for. After a couple more hours of trekking through them, I reach a large rock, and climb on to it to see what I can see. What a gorgeous vista! A cloudless blue sky, green meadows filled with golden bunchgrass, and a 360-degree view of the landscape. And in front of me, those magnificent volcanoes. I sigh contentedly. Famished after the hours of hiking and perilous rock climbing, I dig through my pack looking for the oreos I bought earlier, the only interesting non-perishable I could find in town. For his companionship, I feed one of the cookies to the dog, telling him that if he’d followed me up the crevasse as a loyal friend should have, he’d have gotten more. Lesson learned for him.

The sun is warm and I lie back enjoying its warmth. I drift off into wonderful oblivion. What seems to be only minutes later, I’m woken up, perhaps by the wind. I stretch then stand, feeling quite rejeuvenated, then hoist my daypack over my shoulders, ready for the long trek back. Dog follows me all the way to the village, showing me the way home through the desert’s sandy trails. He leaves me though, as soon as we reach the town centre – he’s found another friend, the fickle soul. No matter...I thank him silently for our time together and leave him to his new pal. Tired, I walk to my hostel. Though I’ve had a bit of a snooze up in the hills, I need another after such a rigourous hike. I fall on my bed, my limbs heavy with exhaustion, and I’m asleep in minutes.

Putre and the adjacent Parque Nationale de Lauca are at 11,500 feet or 3500 metres elevation. The Aymara people here in the village have lived in the region for a thousand years, persevering once the Inca left, after invading and ruling over them for some years. The Aymara are a tough people, and thrive in the extreme weather of the region – its sometimes-warm days, and its very cold nights. Their faces radiate health though, the children’s fat cheeks glow bright red and their beautiful black eyes sparkle. It’s not cold in the heat of the day, but nevertheless, all of them wear multiple layers of warm clothes. The women overlay their wool skirts until they are round with them, and then perch bowler hats on top of their long black braids. These funny hats originally came over from Europe to top the heads of European railroaders. Those heads were too big for the hats, however, and they were handed over to indigenous people who’ve worn them since.

In the morning, I book a tour with a young local guy. In his jeep, we climb up through the hills, 1000 or so metres above Putre. He drives to a rocky outcrop and we climb up to what he calls his ‘secret spot.’ Here, the air is thinner and colder but the sky just as vividly blue. Below me, surrounded by golden hills, lies an emerald green laguna. Small islands dot the lake, creating blue pathways through the lagoon, and a snowcapped volcano lies behind it, finishing off this beautiful and natural work of art. Our second stop takes us to a trail where we hike a small distance along a path bordered by rock cliffs. On many of the rocks, small animals sit, warming themselves on the rocks in the hot sun. They are vizcacha, fat long-tailed rodents that look more like rabbits. They seem quite brave in the face of visitors, and I get some great close-up shots of them with my ever-present camera. Intermittently, a splash of colour. Vividly green against the grey cliffs, strange perennial plants pop out. They are the agorella compacta which, in order to survive in this extremely high elevation, compact their small bright leaves so tightly that they look like green rocks rather than plants.

We return in the early afternoon and I go for a walk out the back of the village. At the edge of the pueblo, a steep hill leads down in to a valley, and then back up to rolling hills interspersed with jagged cliffs. The view compels me to pull out a pencil and piece of paper and try to draw it. I sit and draw for an hour.

It's so cool to do exactly as I please every moment of every day. Sometimes I shake my head at my lot in life – able to take a year off work and go see all the amazing places the world has to offer. My only real task is to keep track of my belongings which is more difficult than it should be for me. So far, I've done very well; however, my luck has come to an end. When the colours in the shrubbery below in the river bed draw me away from my sketching, I hike off into them. I leave one of my two only shirts behind. But I haven’t discovered my loss yet as I hike, and so I’m still happy, picking my way down a trail to the valley.

After wandering a bit, I head back to the cliff to climb back up the trail. But there’s no trail to be seen. Somehow, I've miscalculated my route. I crawl up through the brambles, balancing precariously on fallen logs, and pulling myself up by vegetation I pray doesn’t let go from the earth. I’m a scratched-up mess by the time I reach the top but I feel like I’ve won a battle and I feel stronger for it.

I’m heading out of this pretty pueblo tomorrow, but I’m so glad I’ve come – Putre has been a fabulous ride.

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