Travel Stories: Chile’s Far North

Travel Coach Chile > Regional guide > Travel Stories: Chile’s Far North

As we are still not yet able to explore new destinations as freely as before, we hope your inner traveler will be inspired by this blog post in the meantime, which we have put together thanks to our old photos. Going back through our 2019 albums, we immersed ourselves in a destination far from mass tourism, exotic and unusual: the region of Parinacota and Arica. At TravelCoachChile, we strive to offer alternatives to the classic tours such as San Pedro de Atacama or Torres del Paine. For those who are longing for wide open spaces, cultural discoveries, and above all authenticity, the choice of the Far North is an obvious one.

Head to the Far North for a travel experience filled with local colors and off the beaten track!

This is a story of a 4-day adventure from Arica to the Salar de Surire, passing through the little-known Codpa Valley.

After an early morning flight we arrive with the sunrise in Arica, where we take a taxi to one of our favorite hotels. A homemade breakfast awaits us. After filling our bellies, we decide to tour the property. We are delighted to find out that this charming lodging has recently acquired the “Sello S”, the mark of a sustainable hotel infrastructure.

We then meet up with our guide to start our 4-day roadtrip. We immediately hit it off with Alvaro, who is a trekking enthusiast and a fervent protector of nature. After a short tour of the largest market in the north of the country, we leave towards the Azapa Valley, with an obligatory detour through its archaeological museum, which is home to the oldest mummies in the world, heritage of the Chinchorro culture.

We then head back down to the coast for a seafood meal in a traditional caleta. This is one of our first opportunities to have a heart-to-hear with Alvaro, who explains that he considers himself first Aymara before Chilean, and he shares with us his passion for the culture and traditions of this ancestral community.

Once full, we take the road inland, passing by the statues of Presencias Tutelares, in the pampas of Chaca. I am immediately infatuated with this place, even though our adventure has only just begun…that says a lot about what’s to come! We then enter the Codpa Valley. This valley is actually an oasis! What a surprise! We learn from Alvaro that it was a trading post for the ancestral communities, who arrived here in caravans to sell or exchange their products. One thing is clear: life here is good. The village of Codpa is welcoming, and we take the opportunity to visit the partners who usually assist our travelers.

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We stay in a small property that sits on terraces, in a room whose stone walls maintain cool, fresh air in summer and keep in the heat in winter. The owner offers us a taste of their house wine as an appetizer, and introduces us to her garden, a tiny paradise. The evening unfolds peacefully in a small restaurant, where we get to know Alvaro better.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of local products (with jam made from fruits from the garden), we set off for our second day. On the program: a discovery of all the surrounding traditional villages and gradual acclimatization because tonight we will sleep at 11,500 feet of elevation! Since we are currently at 5,000 feet, we are preparing for a slow altitude climb of 6,500 feet.

Our first stop is at the petroglyphs of Ofragía. It’s a shame the site has not been better preserved (we can see that there are “new petroglyphs” recently carved into the rock), but we are still impressed by the symbolism of this iconic place.

We now take the road to the foothills and visit the tiny villages of Timar, Tignamar, Saxamar, and Lupica, on the way to the Aymara culture and pre-Columbian civilizations. Alvaro tells us that he is part of a group that is trying to rehabilitate the Incan Trail “Qahaq ñan”, a legacy of Incan history and cultural heritage.

We also pass through Belén, the only village with a colonial atmosphere of the seventeenth century, a vestige of the Spanish route. Along the way, we come across numerous small traditional churches, often decorated with ribbons in colorful colors. The last stop is by the picturesque village of Socorama, and then we reach the mountainous landscapes on the road to Putre.

A viewpoint offers one last photo op before we arrive at our lodge run by an Aymaran family. Tonight, Alvaro invites us to his favorite restaurant, where he tells us about his journey as a guide, his family history, and how he became aware of the importance of his Aymaran roots. We learn that he worked for the municipality and that he implemented many initiatives to raise awareness among younger generations on the importance of their cultural heritage, while encouraging outdoor activities. His story is deeply moving. We end this second day filled with emotion and ready for sleep because tomorrow promises to be tiring, and we are starting to feel the first effects of the altitude.

Our third day begins with a breakfast in the common room of the lodge, and we meet other tourists, particularly Germans and Chileans. We exchange some good tips, and we set off again with Alvaro to the Salar de Surire. We will exceed 15,000 feet in elevation today, so we come prepared with plenty of water.

On the way, we take a short hike to the village of Guallatire and then enjoy the fauna and flora of the Las Vicuñas reserve. Finally, we arrive at the incredible Salar de Surire. We are stunned by the spectacular scenery and take our time capturing perfect photos. We are lucky to be able to see vicuñas and the 3 kinds of pink flamingos that exist in Chile (James, Andean, and Chilean). This is one of our favorite destinations of the entire trip. It is breathtaking (literally, since we are at an altitude of 15,000 feet).

After touring the Salar, we pass by traditional huts, some still inhabited! Alvaro takes the opportunity to explain that he organizes itinerant trekking over several days, and that in these small houses hikers find refuge. We decide to take a look, to see if they could be a feasible option for our travelers in search of a physical challenge and authenticity. We deduce that it could be done, but the sleeping conditions are extremely primitive, and at 14,000 feet of altitude. Alvaro then takes us to his native village, where, of course, he knows everyone.

Last stop of the day: the natural thermal baths of Polloquere. This is a well-deserved relaxing break. Then we head back to Putre, where a warm meal awaits us. We are pleased with what we saw and learned today, even though the effects of the altitude are a little stronger than expected both for me and for Alex, my travel partner (a former member of the TravelCoachChile team). With our health in mind, tonight we skip the glass of wine that Alvaro offers us.

We’ve already reached the last day! We’re a little sad that time has flown by so quickly, but at the same time Alex suffers from the altitude quite a bit, and we know that it is important to go back down. However, we still haven’t checked off one of the jewels of the region: the Lauca National Park. There’s no question of leaving without seeing it, so off we go. Alvaro offers us many stops and short hikes to promote acclimatization. We also get the chance to observe a vizcacha.

We admire the beautiful landscape of the Payachatas volcanoes and the Andean landscape that has been our backdrop for a few days now. We still encounter some llamas and alpacas, and we visit the famous small pre-Columbian village of Parinacota, which lends its name to the region. We finally arrive at the Laguna Cotacotani and the Lago Chungara. We are out of luck since the fog ruins the photo a little, but chance is the name of the game when it comes to travel. We do not control the climate. We could have taken advantage of the natural baths of Jurasi to relax before going down, but Alex is really not feeling well, so we decide to put an end to his suffering and go back.

The last stop is the Lluta Valley, where we enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Then, we enjoy a well-deserved lunch break, in a high-altitude café with unusual surroundings(Pueblo Mallku), run by Alexis and Andrea, a couple who decided to abandon the typical city life and settle down at 10,000 feet of altitude, in the middle of nowhere. Today there are 6 of them there, thanks to their 4 children, and they claim an alternative lifestyle, following the signs of nature. It’s a magical meeting, a shared moment filled with anecdotes and laughs. It’s a great way to end our stay in style.

With heads full of memories and hearts filled with emotion, we say goodbye to Alvaro, our wonderful guide and friend over these last 4 days. We had a wonderful trip, experienced some unforgettable moments, and saw sights that will stay with us for a long time. Thank you for everything, Alvaro!

If you want to discover this unusual region as well, and have an authentic travel experience, contact us! We would be happy to concoct a tailor-made itinerary in this Chilean region off the beaten path.

Chile is waiting for you!

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