Views of the Chilean Altiplano en route to Parque Nacional Isluga, Chile
There are times when an independent traveler wants to take local buses and explore ruins or beautiful landscapes at a relaxed pace. And then there are times when taking an organized tour is the more economical and convenient option, due to massive distances or the need for an off-road vehicle. But then there are other times when your tour guide shows a passion for promoting and protecting the rich regional heritage that is often missed by tourists quickly passing through en route to somewhere more famous, when this knowledgable person serves as a gateway into the history and culture of a fascinating region. This was the case on my tour to Parque Nacional Isluga.
On my last full day in Iquique, I signed up for the Parque Nacional Isluga tour for two reasons: I was curious about the weavings from Isluga that were on display at the Museo Regional de Iquique, and I wanted to see the high altitude Andean landscape in this part of the country. I had already visited the gorgeous lagoons in Parque Nacional Lauca, near Arica, and the wonders of the Atacama Desert, near San Pedro, and I was curious how the scenery changed over here.
In the end, beyond the scenery and textiles, this tour ended up illuminating so many aspects of life in the northern desert over the past few centuries, and inspired me to keep on traveling and exploring Chile. Fair warning: this post is very long and picture-heavy, but I want to encourage other travelers to take the time to visit this area on their way through Chile!
El Gigante de Atacama
The tour left Iquique very early in the morning for one good reason: we wanted to make it to the Gigante de Atacama before the sun came up over the mountain. The Gigante de Atacama, or the Giant of the Atacama Desert, is a huge geoglyph carved into the side one of the hills found in the middle of the expanses of sand. These geoglyphs are found throughout northern Chile, and for the most part, archeologists are still studying and debating the meaning of the figures.
The Gigante de Atacama is well-known because of its massive size and its very clearly humanoid shape. As in many of the rock carvings I saw in Yerbas Buenas, near San Pedro de Atacama, the figure looks like a shaman. This shape could represent an important meeting or could be a signpost signaling a particular travel route (speculation found here). In any case, I was struck by the fact that the sun rises directly over the top of the head of the Gigante de Atacama; like many ancient Andean cultures, whoever carved this figure into the mountain was well aware of the path of the sun.
It is no accident that the sun rises directly over his head; the visual impact of illumination appearing slowly and strongly above this giant figure could represent spiritual or intellectual insight. According to our guide, other geoglyphs in this same “family” also appear to have been designed in connection with the sun, coordinated with the sunset and movements of this and other celestial bodies over the course of the year. Fascinating stuff. Near the Gigante de Atacama, there are other intriguing shapes and figures, as you see above.
At this point in my tour, our guide was encouraged because a number of us showed serious interest in the ancient cultures of the Atacama and the speculations about the origins and reasons behind these figures. As a reward, he decided to take us somewhere not usually included on the tour.
As we returned to Ruta 15, we passed a road very clearly carved into the desert, just a faded outline, but very distinct. This was the Camino del Inca, the Inca Trail, passing through the desert. Less impressive than the stonework found in the Andes, it rarely catches the attention of people passing by, but there it remains, cut through by modern roads, passed over by off-road vehicles, but still there.
Ruta 15 continues up into the high Andes all the way to the Bolivian border. I was surprised to see this isolated bus stop in the middle of the desert, but with all the mining in the area and transit to and from Bolivia, this shelter provides some shade from the sun for whoever ends up waiting.
Asterisk in the Atacama Desert
We parked near the bus shelter (hence the photos) and got out to walk through the desert to our special destination. As we walked through the sand, we glanced down our feet and saw shards of pottery just about everywhere, preserved by the relentless sun. This simple pottery was not painted in any way, which our guide said suggested that it was used for ceremonial purposes, and these were likely pieces that fell off the loads being carried along the way.
After a short walk, we arrived at this incredibly curious geoglyph: a giant asterisk carved into the desert. Like the geoglyphs and the desert section of the Inca Trail, this asterisk was created by digging into the earth and turning up the lighter layers of sand, and using the darker rocks to create a contrast visible in the desert.
Similar to the Nasca Lines of Peru, this desert asterisk is more visible from above, and this is exactly how they found it. According to our guide, Google Earth led those curious about the mysteries of the Atacama to discover this intriguing shape. There is a section that was run over by an off-road motorcycle, whose rider probably had no idea he was passing through what seems to be a ceremonial site.
In this photo, you can see the textures and colors of the rocks used to mark out the desert asterisk. This is inhospitable landscape, and at some point in the past, there was a reason to mark this location or record this shape.
That’s the fascinating thing about traveling through the Andes, and the reason I was so inspired by my trip. There are many things we know, but so many things we don’t know, and will probably never know. It’s just part of the mystery of the region, of our past as humans. Some people have reported seeing flying objects in the sky flashing lights in this configuration, so one theory among the curious is that this may have been a symbol indicating a landing pad. I’ll leave it up to them to debate. 🙂
After sufficiently appreciating the asterisk, we headed back to the tour van and continued along Ruta 15. Of course, we spotted many other geoglyphs along the way. These appeared to be a little more traditional, shapes relating to animals and other figures of daily life. As you can see from the photo, unregulated offroad vehicles have damaged the desert around the geoglyphs, turning up the rocks surrounding them. It’s hard to convince people that rocks and sand are part of Chile’s national heritage and need to be protected.
Mirador Alto Pachica & Quebrada de Tarapacá
Our next stop on the climb up Ruta 15 into the high Andes was the Mirador Alto Pachica, a viewpoint that offers a broad view of the Quebrada de Tarapacá. Down below in the valley, there is more vegetation around the rivers, so farming villages still persist. (For Spanish readers, there is some interesting information about the various towns of the area here.)
Personally, I was most fascinated by the views of Inca terracing. Ever since my trip to Peru back in 2007, I have been intrigued by how the Incas (and their predecessors) carved out ways to grow crops in seemingly impossible locations. Our guide explained that engineers have studied the way water was moved from one place to another in this valley and still don’t fully understand how the ancient system worked.
Of course, this kind of view requires posing for pictures. Our guide took lots of photos of us from the best vantage point, and promised to send them along. Unfortunately, this never happened, but I have this shot of me posing for the pictures taken by one of my fellow tourists.
We continued our climb into the higher altitude of the Andes, watching the landscape change from brown and beige to the rich reds and oranges from the mineral-rich mountains. One glance at these colors makes it unsurprising that mining is big business in the area!
Finally, we reached the highest point in our climb, 4351 meters above sea level. This is quite the climb in altitude in one day, and can be tough on your body, but at this point we were all feeling good and ready to continue the journey.
Entering the Chilean Altiplano
At this point, we were high in the Chilean altiplano (highlands), and it was time to go off-roading. While Ruta 15 continues towards the Bolivian border, the interesting sites lie on the dirt roads running parallel. You start to see another type of traffic, animals like llamas, vicuña, and other cameloids making their way across the high altitude vegetation.
And then there were the views. I loved seeing the volcanos and snow-covered mountains appearing and disappearing as we rounded corners and headed deeper into the altiplano. Without any lakes around, the landscape was colored in sun-toasted earth tones.
Geisers de Puchuldiza
Our next stop after admiring the landscape and wildlife was the Geisers de Puchuldiza. These geysers are not naturally occurring; the holes in the earth were left open after some sort of mining activity and the water forces itself out due to the pressure beneath the earth’s surface.
Selfie at the Geisers de Puchuldiza
There are several spots where the boiling hot water rises to the surface, and the most interesting is where the water comes out with such force and heat, but freezes into this large ice formation in the winter cold of the high Andes. The ice surface glows bright white in the sun, and if you stand close to it you might think you are in Antartica.
Watching the steaming water spring out of the ground is entertaining for a little while, appreciating nature’s force and reminding you that there is more going on beneath us than we usually consider.
From there, we walked over to the Termas de Puchuldiza, a very basic thermal bath built in the middle of nowhere in the Chilean altiplano. At this altitude, the air is cold, but even still I was convinced to change into a bathing suit and get into the healing waters.
I have to say, after this trip, I am now a big fan of thermal baths, whereas before I didn’t quite understand their appeal. While I’m not sure if the stories about the healing properties of the mineral waters are true, it is relaxing to hang out in a hot pool in the middle of winter. I was especially appreciative to spend some time talking with the other people on my tour and learning their stories.
After leaving the thermal baths, we got back in our car, and before long, we hit a road bump – other trucks passing by signaled at our tires, and it turns out that we had a flat.
Appreciating the Active Volcano in the Chilean Altiplano
Good news is that our guides were prepared and were able to change the tire quickly. In the meantime, I wandered into the landscape a bit to take the pressure off them and snap some shots of the beautiful scenery from another angle.
Tire replaced, we continued our route to Mauque, one of the traditional Aymara towns located near Parque Nacional Isluga. Mauque is notable for its very old, traditional church and the old-fashioned construction of its houses.
Unfortunately, for some reason, the local government decided that the old-fashioned plaza of Mauque needed to be modernized. Take a look at the tire marks on the ground. On the morning of our visit, the Chilean authorities bulldozed the plaza to make room for a new one.
The town already has a steel monstrosity of a soccer field in the middle of town. Imagine that – a traditional Aymara town being forced into modern buildings and structures. When we arrived, two of the older townspeople were sitting in the plaza, shocked by the destruction of their plaza. As our guide said, a modern plaza would completely throw off the feeling of the town, and even reduces its appeal to tourists.
Unfortunately, this kind of “development” is fairly common throughout Chile. Character and history give way to uniformity.
In any case, there are artisans in Mauque who offer their hand-knit and woven alpaca products to tourists, if you’re interested in purchasing directly from the makers. After Mauque, we also made a stop in Enquelga, where we saw one of the artisans at work, spinning alpaca yarn. She offered a number of beautiful shawls at low prices; you can see what I ended up purchasing in one of the photos below.
Ceremonial Village of Isluga
Finally, in late afternoon, we arrived to Isluga. Isluga is a ceremonial village, which means that its houses are only inhabited during religious events (more information in Spanish here). It’s a little strange to see so many streets filled without houses, but no people.
Hanging from the crosses are pieces of fruit which appear to have dried in the sun and cold. These types of offerings are commonly seen throughout the Andes, although I am not exactly sure what they represent.
It was quite peaceful to take in the picturesque location of the town, so close to the mountain which plays an important role in Andean philosophy (cosmovisión).
Laguna Arabilla in Parque Nacional Isluga
Our final scenic stop was the one that originally drew me in: the promise of high altitude lagoons. I was not disappointed. This is the sector protected by Parque Nacional Isluga. Because these lagoons are the habitats of flamingoes and other native species, the Chilean national park service has constructed an educational walk around the lagoon, restricting you to the path in order to protect the ecosystem.
Due to the late hour, we didn’t have much time at Laguna Arabilla, but it was quite lovely. Coming from the desert mountains of the Valle de Elqui and a week spent on the coast, this landscape was a big change and I had more appreciation for its beauty than I may have if I had come directly from a tour of the Salar de Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama.
In any case, I enjoyed the drastic change from the desert and expanding my knowledge and understanding of the geography of Chile. The Andes are amazing.
After covering so much territory in one day, it was time for an extremely late lunch at Colchane, the last Chilean town before the Bolivian border. Of course, we couldn’t resist taking pictures of the distances to the nearest Bolivian cities!
After finally eating a real meal, we piled back into the van for the long trip back to Iquique. As night fell, our guide began to tell us about his experiences with the supernatural at oficinas salitreras like Humberstone. It was almost like being around a campfire, swapping stories, where everything seems a little more possible at night than you would believe by the light of day.
I arrived back in Iquique feeling inspired by my visit to the highlands, intrigued by all the history I know so little about, and motivated to keep on exploring and keep on sharing what I learn. I am very thankful to our tour guide for having so much passion for his home region and sharing it with us!
As you can see, I highly recommend heading out on this tour, not just for the beautiful landscapes, but for the opportunity to get a glance into ancient history encoded in the desert, the lives of Aymara villagers, and to just appreciate how different life is at this altitude.
Recommendations for Parque Nacional Isluga Tour, Tarapacá, Chile:
- Take the tour! This tour is absolutely worth the money, especially if you are visiting from other parts of Chile where the landscape is really different. The tour uses an off-road readyh vehicle that allows you to visit the more out of the way sites, like the geysers. I booked my tour through the hostel I stayed at in Iquique, who work with Show Travel. I really appreciated the insight of my guide, but he was working on starting his own agency and may no longer work there. Fair warning: most tour guides do not speak much English in this region, and you will get the most out of the tour if you make an effort with your Spanish. The tour cost $45000 CLP in July 2015.
- Keep in mind that you go from sea level to over 4000 meters above sea level in a very short period of time, which can be hard on your body. To avoid altitude sickness, the tours serve only cookies and crackers on the tour until about 6PM, when you reach Colchane and have a real meal. You may want to bring some fruit if you want some healthy sugar rather than the processed cookies, but I was advised several times not to eat too much as altitude sickness in this particular region can be especially brutal.
- Make sure to bring some extra cash to buy any of the woven goods sold in Mauque and Enquelga. I bought a hand spun and woven alpaca shawl for $25000 CLP, which is incredibly inexpensive for the quality of the weaving and the material. You can see the shawl in the border photo above. It is one of my favorite souvenirs ever and is incredibly warm due to the alpaca wool and the tiny, tight woven stitches.
- If you are a vegetarian, the hotel/restaurant in Colchane can serve you a vegetarian option but make sure to tell your travel agency and guide that you need a special meal.
- Be sure to bring your bathing suit for the Termas de Puchuldiza. Having just visited Mamiña, I chose not to and immediately regretted it. Luckily, one of my fellow tourists had an extra outfit that they lent me.
- Be prepared to spend the entire day in the tour van – I was picked up at 6:45AM and returned to my hostel at 10:00PM.
- This video, made using Google Earth, gives a really interesting view on the Gigante del Atacama.
[Parque Nacional Isluga, Chile: July 24, 2015]