Day 18 |
Oct 29, 2008

Arica, Chile

By Robin L. Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 18° 28.457’S, 70° 19657’W

Weather: Morning grey overcast skies clearing to blue skies and full sunshine

We woke this morning as the ship pulled alongside the dock at the industrial port of Arica. After a slight delay, waiting for the Agricultural Inspector to clear the ship, we were ready to disembark and head off on our tours for the day.

A few of us joined Ignacio, Claudia, Toby and JJ on a full day tour to Lauca National Park, which lies at close to 5,000m above sea level. As we drove through a grey-skied Arica, we spotted several birds before beginning our ascent through the Atacama Desert via the town of Pocochile. The green valley floor soon gave way to spectacular but barren desert, but higher still we came back into a landscape studded with a surprising number of shrubs. We identified a yellow Senecio and a delightful small blue and yellow lupin, and stopped to take photos of the architecturally interesting Candelabra Cactus. Up, up up and after a delicious cuppa of matte tea (leaves from which cocaine is extracted!) the glacial streams gave a greenery enjoyed by wild guanaco and mountain viscacha, and domesticated llamas and alpaca.  We saw the great twin volcanoes - one in Chile the other in Bolivia – long before we reached one of the highest lakes in the world at 4,578m.  Here, given the 4-1/2 hr ascent, we had a disappointingly short 20 minutes to enjoy the spectacular views and bird life (including six pink flamingoes) and one tiny yellow saxifrage. Then it was back down, a short stop in Putre before the late afternoon sunshine brought a new, soft beauty to the desertscape. Maximum altitude reached was 4,663m.

The rest of us headed off in a mini bus for a shorter, seven-hour tour, to the town of Codpa. Codpa is an Aymaranword meaning "pedestal". To get there, we drove through the Atacama Desert. The scenery was absolutely amazing. It is hard to imagine the sheer vastness and extent of the desert. On one hand, it is barren and stark, yet on the other hand the subtle colors and patterns of the sand are hypnotic and breathtaking. Another incredible feature was the narrow bands of greenery that appeared every now and then when we drove past a valley with a riverway. Many of these rivers only flow a few months of the year – the rest of the time the locals must draw water from deep wells (over 40m deep).

We made several photo-stops on the way, including one to have a closer look at he Candelabra Cactus. These cactus only grow at high altitude (over 2,000m or 3,000 feet) in the desert. They are quite spectacular – standing over 3m tall with a straight trunk and then a profusion of branching growth at the top.

We drove up over a high pass (about 2500m or 7500 ft) before descending into the Codpa Valley to our destination Codpa – a very small traditional Chilean village located 1,852 meters (6,076 ft) above sea level. We were greeted by a shaman (traditional medicine man) who performed a cleansing, welcoming ritual using local wine and cocoa leaves. We then visited an old Church of San Martín de Tours that was built in the 1700s, followed by a small museum displaying artifacts from the local indigenous culture. On our way to the local restaurant for lunch, we passed by some of the local ladies who were displaying their homemade crafts. Lunch was delicious, and included homemade bread with a tasty, albeit very spicy, salsa,  quinoa (a ancient Andean food that tastes much like couscous, and a variety of organic, locally grown fruits (mango, white guava, oranges and prickly pear cactus). We were also given some of the famous pintatani wine, which is locally made, to taste.

We had a wonderful time and the locals were so incredibly friendly and welcoming. We were sad to leave! Once back in Arica we had a few hours free time to wonder the Main Plaza and the local shops before heading back onboard and sailing for our next destination – Iquique, Chile.