Friday, April 10, 2009

And then I got high...

Up in the mountains, of course - what did you think I meant!? Well, actually, first, I came back down to sea level - San Pedro, in the middle of the dry desert was about 2500m above sea level, but a 12 hour overnight bus ride placed me in Arica, back at sea level, right on the Pacific coast and less than 40km South of the Peruvian border.

Arica's tranquil, but not all that interesting of a town, but the sunsets over the ocean and the cruise ships in port are pretty cool

My next destination, however, was Cuzco, Peru for the Machu Pichu trek, but that wasn't starting till the 20th, and even with a few extra days in Cuzco to get used to the altitude, I had a good 10 days to get there, so I made a sharp right turn and headed towards Bolivia to Parque Nacional Lauca - a picturesque mountainous valley residing high up in the Andes - most of the park lies at over 4,000m above sea level... Which makes for some very cold evenings!

Having experienced some fun with altitude back in Nepal last February, I figured I needed to go up slowly, so the first stop was Putre, just outside the park, and at an altitude of 3,500m. With a population of about 1,900 people it's also the biggest town near the park, and the best place to organize any sort of tours/transport. The park is apparently growing in popularity, and Putre is being compared to a budding San Pedro - a tourist oasis in the middle of the wilderness, but, let's just say, it's not quite there yet. In reality, what I found in Putre, was approximately nothing. It's a small town, with a few tour agencies and even fewer tourists. I had my own private room at my hostel because there was all of five of us staying that night.

I didn't really have much to do in Putre as it was really just an acclimtization stop on the way up, so I wondered around the town a bit

Found this rock that looks a lot like a face. Here's the Siberian version...

and read about 200 pages of my book (The Bourne Identity book is not all that similar to the movie). Talked to some travel agencies in town too... and found that it's best to be in a group, if the tours are to be affordable. That evening, I met Jes and Tiggy, a pair of Brits, and two of the others staying at my hostel, and lo and behold, it turns out they had rented a car! And were heading further up the next day, and were more than happy to take me along. This was a far better solution than paying a lot of money to a tour agency, so we made fast friends.

Next morning, it was up to Parinacota, the next town up the mountain, this one at 4397m above sea level. It was everything that Putre had been, but smaller, much smaller... and older:

This church was first built in the late 17th century and is the oldest church in Chile

This Lada may as well have been built in the 17th century and while it is still technically recognizeable as the same model Lada as the one Theo, Cyrus and I drove to Mongolia in 2006, I'm afraid this one has seen better days

Some other differences: I don't know what the exact population of Parinacota was, but it was described as '3 families,' so not much. Putre had a hostel, Parinacota had Guillermo's little hut, which was lacking heating and hot water. I had some alpaca stir fry at a tourist restaurant in Putre, we each had some alpaca soup in the only place open in the village 5km away in Parinacota. So, all in all, pretty rustic - I took a liking to it immediately. We'd eventually spend two nights there, and it was cold as advertised, but my sleeping bag was actually more than up to the challenge. Around 5 in the afternoon on the first night, Xavier materialized out of nowhere - he's a Belgian volunteer spending about 6 months in nearby Bolivia, but as he only had a 3 month visa for Bolivia, had chosen to go across to Chile for a few days to get his visa clock restarted. He didn't have a car, so had hitch-hiked his way up to Parinacota. The first evening, the four of us sat around playing cards...

The next morning, we were finally figuring we'd spent enough time acclimatizing, so it was time to head out and see the park. First stop: Lake Chungara, surrounded by a pair of 6,000+ meter volcanoes and a wide assortment of wild life:

The lake and Volcana Parinacota in the background

More flamingoes in this lake

This was the point where I started to think this place reminded me of Mongolia: not a lot of people, a seriously beat up road (albeit paved), mountains all around, and animals crossing the road right in front of your car. Admittedly, there were no llamas in Mongolia.

Upon reaching the lake, we headed off to the CONAF office, which was the local equivalent of a park ranger. The office informed us that the hiking trails we had on our map (given to us by the CONAF office in Putre) didn't exist anymore, but we were welcome to do the 1km hike right outside his cabin... We did the 1km hike... And were unsatisfied. So, we drove on a bit further around the lake, passing the Chile customs point and explaining to them that no, we weren't really going to Bolivia, and then took off for a walk across the open plains on the far side of the lake.

The lake continued to offer impressive sights

At one point there was a small tornado attempting to spin up not far from us

After finding some comfortable rocks for a brief lunch break, we decided it was time to start heading back to the car, as the clouds were starting to look a bit ominous.

On the way back to the car, we found a bit of a rain/snow/hail mixture, giving a bit of nostalgia to San Pedro a week ago, where it was so dry, you couldn't even find a cloud, much less actual precipitation. That morning we had actually noted that some of the peaks around Parinacota were a little whiter than they had been the day before, suggesting that the rain we had gotten in Parinacota overnight had actually been snow just a couple hundred meters higher up.

All this precipitation was, however, quite mild, and we were back at Guillermo's little hut in no time trying to figure out how to occupy ourselves for another evening. Xavier had moved on back towards Bolivia, and the three of us decided to warm up by firing up the gas stove that the hut came with and making our own dinner (Tiggy and Jes had come prepared with rice and vegetables to stir fry). The stir fry was both excellent and warm enough to make the cabin somewhat less freezing.

All along, the plan had been for the next day to be the last day up on the mountain. However, we had planned to climb the nearby 5,000m peak of Guaneguane, assuming that a few days at 4,500m would be plenty for acclimatization needed to reach 5,000m. Jes and I were feeling OK, however, Tiggy had returned from our Lake Chungara excursion with a headache, so we were starting to have some doubts as to whether or not going up higher was a good idea. And then, the morning arrived and greeted us with this:

The prior two days had both started with clear blue skies in the morning, clouds rolling in by the middle of the day, and rain starting by late afternoon...

The inclement weather seemed like a sign, so we packed up, said our chiao's to Guillermo and headed for warmer cimates back down at sea level. But it was too soon to head all the way down just yet, so we made a couple more stops along the way:

A thermal bath/hot spring just above Putre, providing a very welcome opportunity to soak in some hot mineral water, with the cold air surrounding us. Very much like the onsens back in Japan actually...

The final stop on the way down was at Eco Truly, a Hare Krishna temple/farm on the way down to Arica.

We had been hoping for some vegetarian lunch their signs had been advertising, unfortunately we were too early, so instead got a brief tour of the temple and the farm and a quick explanation of what it is that they do there. Unfortunately, the explanation was in Spanish, so some of the more intricate details were lost on me... The major points did involve 'Love everybody, including all the animals,' strict vegetarianism, bordering on being vegan (no eggs, but they can drink some milk), and a poster of a fat Statue of Liberty holding up a hamburger instead of the torch, which, I think, was supposed to symbolize something about the consumerist American society which didn't love animals, and made hamburgers of them instead. The girl giving us the tour clearly found the poster quite amusing. I did too, actually, even if I am not planning to give up meat any time soon (excellent fish dinner back in Arica that evening...). The girl also showed us the temple (which included a yoga studio) and sang the Hare Krishna song for us... She's a good singer, even if I don't have any particular intention of joining her religion. The three of us quickly agreed that spending a week on their farm would be extremely pleasant and relaxing. Any more than that and you would go insane out of boredom. The girl giving us the tour had been there three years... We met an Australian girl at the hot springs who was going to volunteer at the farm - not sure for how long, but probably longer than a week... so, uhmm, good luck with that...

Now, I'm back at the beach in Arica, enjoying the warmth, the sunshine, and the availability of internet (just uploaded a bunch more Argentina pictures here). Will possibly try for a little surfing tomorrow, before crossing over to Peru on Sunday and heading for Arequipa for a couple of days before finally making my way up to Cuzco by the 15th of April. April 20th, start trekking towards Machu Pichu!

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