South Peru: Arequipa to Chile

Farm Compound near Sillustani

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Arequipa is an attractive city with a number of impressive colonial buildings constructed from white volcanic material called 'sillar', but the real attraction is the Santa Catalina Convent. Covering an area of more than 2 hectares, it is really a miniature walled town within the city. It once housed 450 nuns - plus their servants - who lived in complete seclusion. The Convent has been completely restored and the remaining nuns have retreated to a small section, and opened up the rest to the public. It is a very relaxing, as well as interesting, experience to wander along the cobbled streets and through the buildings, envisaging the lives of these women in the beautiful surroundings. It didn't appear to be all that harsh, but rather peaceful and comfortable.
Because we were really keen to stay at low altitude for a while, we did forgo the opportunity to visit the Colca Canyon, which must be an impressive sight and also presents the opportunity to see condors. With Arequipa we finished our time in Peru and crossed into Chile via Tacna on October 7, after almost 2 months in the country. It contained some very real highlights, but I must mention that the Atacama Desert which runs the length of the coast was not really one of them.
Our visit to Chile will be quite short this time because we are really just in transit on the way to Argentina. The northern part of Chile is 2000 kilometres more of the Atacama Desert and we have no desire to spend more time than we have to in this barren landscape, although the sand and rocks do have a little more colour down here. We stopped in Arica for a few days, more to rest and enjoy being at sea level again than to visit the sights. The town does have an unusual church which is designed by Eiffel and built of iron. It also has a very busy pedestrian zone with lots of outdoor restaurants, one of which serves very good gelati.
From there we headed south to Iquique along the Panam, which follows an inland route and runs along a plateau of around 1000m. The plateau descends into several valleys along the way. We took passing notice of a number of geoglyphs which could be seen from the highway, and also detoured to visit the Gigante de Atacama, which is east of Huara off the road to Bolivia. It was during this small detour that we had problems with our engine stalling (turned out to be an exposed wire shorting out on the chassis) and a flat tyre, both at the same time! This made the detour a couple of hours instead of about 20 minutes... But the cavalry arrived just when we needed them. We had thought we might be stranded out there because we couldn't get the truck to start and there was absolutely no-one else around. A couple of carabineros turned up as part of their normal round and didn't leave until we had the truck going, and then followed us back to Huara. One of them helped Juergen tape up the exposed wire and we then slept the night next to the police station. We have had no more problems with the engine stalling since.
Our next stop was Iquique which is on the Pacific coast. We came there to visit the tax free zone. The port also appears to be a centre for car imports from Asia, and a place where Paraguayans and Bolivians come to buy cheap old cars and trucks. Juergen was particularly fascinated by the trucks loaded up for transport to Bolivia. Although we didn't find anything in the trade free zone at a remarkably cheap price, we found it a pleasant little city, which is trying to make its historic centre nice. It has attractive wooden buildings, which were probably residences of those who got very rich during the nitrate mining boom. Some of them are badly in need of renovation. It was also nice to actually see the ocean again. On the coast of Peru it was always grey with sea mist and low fog. Here the sun actually came out, which meant we had a view of brilliant blue ocean to alleviate the boredom of the brown desert. We followed the coast for around 250 kilometres to Tocopilla, and slept 2 nights listening only to the sound of the ocean instead of traffic.
From Tocopilla we headed up into the Cordillera de la Costa again, on our way east to San Pedro de Atacama. Before we knew it we were at 3300m. No matter how hard we try, we keep reaching these altitudes! We arrived at Valle de la Luna a couple of hours before sunset. This is a nature reserve, just 12 km outside of San Pedro, whose other-worldly landscape is caused by erosion of the salt mountains. We climbed to the top of a large sand dune, along with many other tourists, to watch the sunset turn the distant volcano bright pink - exhausting but definitely beautiful. We had hoped to spend the night there but were informed that it is not allowed and had to move outside the reserve's entrance.
Today we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama and met up with Inga and Maja again. We will leave in a couple of days to visit the Salar de Atacama, in lieu of missing the huge Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. After that we will be on our way to Argentina via the 4400m Paso de Jama. Hopefully after that we can stay out of the mountains for a while.
Mountain Sunset near San Pedro de Atacama
Tuesday, 21 October 2008, Salta, Argentina
We arrived in Salta on Saturday after a particularly long day crossing from San Pedro. It is warm (almost hot with over 30° today) and the altitude is around 1200m, so we are feeling pretty good. On Thursday we discovered that there were 2 buses of campers expected in the campground of San Pedro, so we decided to leave town and went to spend the night on an overlook of the Valle de la Luna. It was a fantastic decision because we experienced an absolutely fabulous sunset out there. Friday morning saw Inga and Maja heading for the Paso de Jama and Argentina and we drove south from San Pedro to visit the Salar de Atacama and got to see both a salt lake and flamingos up close. It was a nice drive and a fairly relaxing day.
The border post for Chile is just outside San Pedro, even though the actual border is another 160 km, up in the mountains. So we filled with fuel, went through the formalities to leave Chile, and then found a place to spend the night just along the road towards the pass, in order to make an early start the next day - more about that journey in the next update.

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