By Isabella the virtual traveller.

The city of Arica at the border with Peru is the beginning of the region called Norte Grande. It has belonged to Peru and Bolivia in the past and the negotiations have left Bolivia landlocked. The port became important for exporting silver from Bolivia. Now Arica is an international link to Bolivia by rail and road and also a link to Peru by road. It sounds like a busy and important link for trade and tourism. Arica is dominated by the El Morro Hill, the site of a famous battle. The town is frequently visited by soldiers on leave from lonely outposts in the mountain border stations. They will be welcomed by these hospitable people and enjoy good company, good food, and a relaxing time by the ocean.

On my arrival I seek out the beaches to enjoy the sunshine and the water warmed by the Gulf Stream. I watch the surfers enjoying their exhilarating sport helped by the powerful reef breaks. As I watch these happy people with their affinity to the sea my mind takes me back to ancient times when the Chinchorro harvested the sea. I can see them catching enough fish for their needs but obviously not over fishing, as there is still an abundant supply. I feel refreshed by the ocean after my lengthy journey. There is a problem with fresh water in this region because of lack of rain, the river valleys crossing the northern desert are dry for most of the year, so water has to be piped in. A short distance away, in the fertile Azapa valley, flowers are grown commercially, reminding me of the wonders of nature and the way she adapts herself and compensates.

On entering the city I feel quite excited and surprised to see that it is a lot larger than I had imagined. The buildings seem fairly low rise and the pedestrianised streets are thronged with happy people visiting the shops and the many restaurants and bars. There is a good choice of venue to sample the local food and drinks and I think that my immediate plan should be to make that choice. After my meal I visit the small church in the centre of town designed by M. Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the famous tower in Paris and the framework for the Statue of Liberty in New York. I enjoy sitting quietly in this peaceful church, saying a prayer of thanks for being here and reflecting on all the people who have prayed here before me. Also my thoughts form the question “what was M Eiffel doing here and what were the circumstances surrounding his arrival”. Arica is a good place to stay and return to after my forays into the Atacama Desert and Altiplano. The Altiplano are the rolling high plains of the central Andes which I am about to explore. While I am here I will hire a jeep which I can return before I move south. I have heard that some of my journey will be on barely distinguishable tracks. There are so many places of interest, so I will just go as the spirit takes me in a relaxed, unstructured way. I can stay awhile when I get tired and eat when I`m hungry. I must remember to take a supply of drinking water with me and some protection from the sun and temperatures.

Driving from the coast, as I ascend I pass through many ancient villages and stone forts dating back many years. I imagine the native tribesmen protecting their families from invaders and hunting for food to nourish them. At San Miguel there is a museum containing an impressive collection of sand preserved mummies. This museum is in the fertile Azapa Valley which leaves me marvelling at the wonders of nature through precious water and the properties of sand for preservation in such close proximity. Leaving San Miguel I catch sight of the ancient geolyphs which set me thinking of the people who carved them such a long time ago. I am climbing steadily and see the volcanoes Parinacota and Pomerape towering above me and it is not hard to understand why they were sacred to the ancient people; Power seems to emanate from them.

Now I have arrived at Lago Chungará, a nature reserve that I really wanted to visit. I am glad that I came because the lake is very beautiful and home to many birds including Tagua, nesting on floating reed beds. Also black headed gulls and giant coots. I am enthralled by the beauty of the pink flamingos and their graceful flight as they fly kissed by the sun. There are Vizcachas (furry grey long tailed rodents) long necked Vicunas and Llamas scampering, wandering and grazing on a carpet of bright green lichen, covering the rocks. Each time I arrive at a high point that looks down into a valley it is wonderful to see a cluster of white buildings, nestling in the valley, surrounded by a patchwork of green and cultivated fields. As I stop at Camina and look back up to the brown, bare and barren vista stretching into the distance, I marvel at the way the people are growing garlic, onions, carrots, beetroot and corn cobs along the valley floor. Donkeys stand by patiently waiting to transport the harvest to market. I rest in the village square after my hot and dusty journey. Many small villages in this area are located in valleys where I see people working in the fields, wearing hats for protection from the sun. Life must be a struggle for them and is probably little changed over the centuries. I pass Isluga volcano which sits solidly over the village of Colchane, it looks harmless enough with its snow capped summit. The houses are single storey and look impoverished. I notice the large stones put on the corrugated roofs to hold them down and I imagine some high winds roaring through with clouds of sand blowing around and creeping through cracks.

The road is a wide dirt road which leads to the frontier pass to Bolivia. As I pass through the village I notice a lovely white church in a walled enclosure with the typical shaped red roof. Isluga village is very similar with low buildings and a red roofed church with the typical square bell tower with pyramid shaped roof. Alpacas and Llamas are grazing contentedly with their ear tags easily visible for identification purposes. I stopped at the village of Berenguela because I was both intrigued and pleased to see solar electricity panels on poles alongside humble thatched dwellings and again I noticed the rocks holding the roofs down. The scenery that I am passing through is very beautiful with hills and mountains as a backdrop, some of them brown and some white capped. As I look up, the sky is a deep azure with white clouds billowing above them and matching the snowy peaks. Everywhere I see Llamas and Alpacas grazing in fairly inhospitable terrain until I find the lucky ones that live in the wetlands near Kulko. The Alpacas and Llamas are raised for meat, wool and the hide, nothing is wasted. The churches are all barn shaped with the typical bell tower standing solidly and separate within an area bounded by a stone wall with a line of small arches along the top and a higher arch over the gateway.

As I take a break in the cool of one of the many churches I ponder on what I have seen. Everything seems to have a feeling of permanence with the past, present and future all melding into one. A sense of the living and the dead in tandem with one another, in Citani there are funeral towers where the dead were mummified and worshipped. The dwellings of adobe and thatch, standing on bare earth are all natural and will not spoil the environment when they eventually stand no longer. The petroglyphs and pictographs that I have seen on boulders telling of previous cultures have made me want to find out more. But for now I am in need of the ocean at Arica and a shower and a comfortable bed. I will face my jeep in a westerly direction and during a break in Arica I will plan the next stage of my journey. I will take time to enjoy the company of the local people and listen to the stories of their way of life and what it is that makes them happy or sad.

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