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Day 9 - October 26, 2009 - Arica, Chile

By Hans-Peter Reinthaler, Biologist | Claire Allum, Anthropologist

Co-ordinates: 18° 28.45´ S, 69° 19.65`W (Arica Port)
Weather: sunny

by Hans-Peter Reinthaler, Biologist

At 7.00 am the Prince Albert II reached the port of Arica, Chile. The clearance of the ship took a while and our excursion to the Lauca National Park started a little later than scheduled. On the bus there were 11 guests, five colleagues of mine and myself.

From the pier, the excursion bus drove us through Arica, and then, at the outskirts of the town, we entered the Lluta valley. After approximately one hour, the bus stopped in Poconchile. Our first stop on the mammoth excursion through the Atacama Desert and up to the Chilean Andes. Just one day earlier, I had given a presentation on the Atacama Desert, explaining the ecosystem and the adaptations of the plants to this driest place on earth.
At Poconchile, we visited one of the oldest churches here in Chile, dating back to 1581. From a botanical point of view, there were only introduced species like Casuarina, Eucalyptus, Geranium and crop species like corn, onion and alfalfa to see.

The road goes along a valley that has at best a dozen native species and the rest is occupied by the intensively cultivated crops that are possible due to the water that comes from high in the mountains. The fertile Lluta Valley is a long, green oasis and very narrow, never wider than 1 km and in many places as narrow as just a few hundred meters. It runs from the Pacific Ocean to about 60 km inland, and is dwarfed by the immense valley walls that tower in some places to more than 1,000 m above the valley floor.

By around km 40, the bus left the Lluta Valley and we took the winding road up the steep mountain slopes into the Atacama Desert. Our second stop was at Copaquilla, an old Inca fortress in the middle of nowhere. The view at the stop was stunning! All around was desert, but at 100 m looking down from where we observed the Inca ruins, there was a little green valley with even more lush vegetation.  

Once the paved international road that leads up to Putre, Lago Chungara, and Bolivia leaves the bottom of the valley, the plant life disappears completely until reaching an altitude of more than 2000 m. There is one plant that stands out in this arid environment – Browningia candelaris – an impressive cactus that can reach a height of 5 m. One can see its silhouette of wide-spread arms on the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

A short photo stop, from where our guests had an excellent view of the town of Putre and an another stop at Chucuyo, where they had the opportunity to before going up to the lake to strengthen them with Mate de Coca tea, gave a first impression of the landscape and plant life in the desert.

From Putre, it was an another 1.5 hour drive to get to the Chungara Lake – one of the most beautiful places to observe plants of extreme altitude. Soon after Putre, the first red spots of prickly pear cactus appear; these are dense, high mounds or cushions of up to 60 cm high and sometimes up to a meter in diameter. At around 4200 m, the first Llaretas – bright green mounds in the brown desert of Azorella compacta, appear. Also the the shy Vicuñas can often be seen along the International Highway that leads to Lago Chungara.

After one hour up in this beautiful scenery with the Parinacota Volcano in the background, alpacas and llamas on the shore of the lake and a rich birdlife with Andean Goose, Andean Flamingo, Puna Ibis, Andean Coot, Andean Gull and Andean Duck, we again headed down the highway to Putre. In Putre, a small lunch with Empanadas was served at the “Hosteria Las Vicunas” and afterwards we made a short stop at the main square of the villiage.

From here, the bus brought our somewhat tired guests down again to sea level, first stopping at around 2,500 m to take pictures of the candelabra cactus and at sea level to have an excellent birding experience on a beach nearby Arica. Punctually at 18:30, our bus stopped at the gangway and after a short, well-deserved break, our guests enjoyed dinner in The Restaurant.

by Claire Allum, Anthropologist

A short while after the few intrepid guests and Hans-Peter boarded their buses for Lauca National Park, I set off on the panoramic tour of Arica and visit to the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum. Arica was once an old Peruvian city founded by the Spanish sea captain Lucan Martinez de Begazo in 1541, which quickly became an important port for the export of silver being mined by the Spanish in what is now Bolivia. A large hill on the south side of the city, known as the Morro de Arica, was where Peruvians made one of their last stands against the Chileans in 1880 before surrendering the city during the War of the Pacific. Now, tourists like me take pictures of the magnificent view of the port and city from its crown.

On our way to the museum, we stopped to view and take pictures of ancient geoglyphs decorating the sides of sandy hills. Depicting llamas, human figures and some geometric shapes, they were probably a form of signpost to long-distance traders travelling between different Andean cultures and trading textiles, foodstuffs, coca, dyes, feathers, shells and other valuables.

At the museum we saw a family of black Chinchorro mummies, the oldest artificial mummies in the world. All tighly wrapped in twine and fabric, stuffed with grasses and covered in shiny, black manganese paint. Family groups were buried together. I wondered if these were some of those found at the base of the Morro de Arica in 1983. The museum was small, but the displays clear and interesting, plus it was possible to buy an English language guide to the exhibits.

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