The Altiplano of North Chile


When you leave the easy-to-drive Pan American Highway, you will find off roads where the real fun and adventure begin. Hardly known and little explored is the altiplano between Iquique and the Bolivian border, which has been one of our favorite trips within South America. Here’s an impression.

To the Altiplano: The Geoglyphs at Ariquilda

From Ruta 5 we took a turn-off. A dirt road led us into the desolate Atacama Desert. Amidst a flat area of grey and black stones grew a couple of tamarugo trees and shrubs, which provided enough shade to make it a good camping spot. At night silence and a starry night reigned.

A sign brought us to the Quebrada Aroma, a canyon where nothing grows at all, but maybe it was exactly this bareness that made the area so overpowering. A narrow track wound up and down along vertical walls with colors changing from crimson to brown, from dark grey to copper green.

This canyon appeared utterly uninhabitable, yet in prehistoric times people lived here. Especially around Ariquilda rocks are covered in geoglyphs that are a testimony to the lives of these nomads. Among the geoglyphs are animal motifs and easy to recognize were lizards, scorpions, and four-legged mammals – I assume llamas.

At the bottom of the canyon runs a river with clear, murmuring water. From above it looked as if a large worm twisted through the canyon. In other places the river widened and became a swampy wetland, turning a large part of the valley green.

The air contained mainly dust; dust that penetrated anything. A tailwind  overtook the Land Cruiser and entered through the open windows and all other holes the Land Cruiser has because of rust. At the end of the day everything inside the car, including us, was covered in a layer of grey.

Elections and Soldiers

The trail continued to hug the slopes forever without an end in sight. Without a proper map we continued north and hoped for the best. Somewhere we should exit the canyon again, shouldn’t we? But where? It felt like driving in the Zogros Mountains of Iran, where we felt just as lost but enjoyed the scenery nevertheless.

We climbed higher and reached an altitude of 2500 meters. We passed three villages: Jaiña, Allailla en Chiapa. Especially the second was nothing but a ‘ceremonial’ village, as it is called here: the inhabitants have moved to the coast or Iquique for jobs and only return for festivities or holidays. Chiapa is larger. The only people awake appeared to be military who have been stationed here because there are elections in a couple of days.

Twenty soldiers to supervise twenty families properly casting their mandatory vote seemed like overkill and is a typical form of hidden unemployment. Coen admired the military vehicles, especially a Hummer. More soldiers joined the chat; obviously, it is not common to receive attention from visitors in this far-flung place, let alone a foreigner.

The Hot Geysers of Puchuldiza

The geysers of Puchuldiza are located at 4200 meters. The daily afternoon wind of the Altiplano was cold and came howling across the plain. The thermal bath mainly felt only warm because my head sticking out above the edge of the bath almost froze with cold. Not much was needed to get an ear infection here. Or a lung infection, I figured while getting out of the bath and trying to get dressed, which was almost impossible because my fingers appear to be frozen. But after a day of eating dust the bath was refreshing nevertheless.

Just before sunrise the wind died down and the surroundings were mesmerizingly beautiful. A lonely plateau. Bare mountains, a couple of grazing llamas and spouting geysers. During winter the steam freezes, we have seen extraordinary pictures of it. Now it was summer, but still the Land Cruiser had ice on the inside of the windows this morning. Even at such altitude, and even without a functioning heater, we slept well in our isolated home on wheels.

The Pecking Order of Navigation Systems

“I am ready for some coffee and an alfajor (type of cookie),” Coen said. “This excellent asphalt continues straight ahead so I’ll manage with a frisbee under the alfajor,” he replied after I commented that an alfajor made of puff pastry is not so practical to eat when driving. I crawled to the rear of the Land Cruiser to get the coffee and cookies and while sipping our coffee the tarmac indeed makes for smooth driving.

“Hé, Mamiña. We don’t want to go there at all,” I remarked. “Have we missed a turn-off?”

“No, there was only a road leading to some mines,” Coen replied, “the sign said nothing else.”

We continued to Mamiña to see if there is a short-cut leading from there to our main road. Yes, there was.

“A three-hour drive over a horrible track,” the police officer enlightened us. “It’s better to return on the same road which is entirely asphalt, which will take you an hour. And yes, you should have taken that main road towards the mines,” he finished his instructions.

“See, that’s the result of sending your navigator for coffee – you miss a turn-off,” I remarked with a smile – feeling an urge to bring this to Coen’s attention. You see, the turn-off was absolutely clear to the eyes of a map-reading navigator. But to the eyes of a GPS worshipper matters are not that simple. The route we were looking for, on my map clearly a main road, was not mentioned in the holy of holies. So it can’t be the right road. So the GPS worshipper stuck to the minor road, leaving the navigator in the dark while she was getting coffee.

We drove a 150-kilometers useless detour, through the most uninteresting landscape we have come across the past two weeks. I triumphed in silence (mainly in silence!). Most of the time, the GPS overrules my suggestions with regard to directions, but for the time being I have regained my place and importance as navigator.

For a moment the GPS lost a bit (okay, only a little bit) of its holiness and the map and I have regained a few points in the pecking order of navigation systems again.

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