Yesterday, with some trepidation, I began the climb from sea-level at Arica – the last Chilean city south of the Peruvian border – to the Andean village of Putre (pictured above), the gateway to Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured below). This would be my first visit to Putre since in three years, and the altitude of 3,500 meters (11,482 feet) above sea level would be a test for both my bronchitis-ravaged lungs and for my aging Nissan Terrano, which suffered a blown head gasket last year.
The Nissan, despite the nearly 250,000 km (150,000 miles) on the engine, passed with flying colors. In the 125 km from Arica, the temperature needle never reached halfway and, while it uses more fuel at these altitudes, it arrived with nary a glitch. I wish I could say the same of myself but, while most of my bronchitis symptoms have gone away, I have a relict cough, and I know my lungs aren’t yet at full capacity in the thin atmosphere of the high Andes.
Most visitors spend a night in Putre, where the climate is mild enough to grow basic crops like potatoes and alfalfa, before continuing to the park, where altitudes are nearly 1,000 meters higher. I’m spending two, partly because I was concerned enough about my health to bypass the higher altitudes this time, and partly because the international highway to Bolivia, which passes through the park, is undergoing repairs and experiencing major traffic delays.
In fact, on arrival in Putre, I felt a notable dizziness as soon as I parked the car and walked around the village in search of lunch. Fortunately, I quickly found the Kuchu Marka pub, where I barely nibbled on a mediocre midday meal but, more notably, drank two large cups of mate de coca, an infusion made the notorious coca leaf (pictured below). In principle, the coca leaf is illegal in Chile but, in reality, it’s tolerated in small quantities, especially in small communities like Putre, most of whose inhabitants are indigenous Aymara people. It’s a well-known remedy against symptoms of altitude sickness.
When I first visited Putre, in 1979, the only accommodations were a simple refugio operated by Conaf, the agency in charge of Chile’s national parks. Today, if not quite unrecognizable, it’s dramatically changed, what with stylish accommodations like the Italian-run Terrace Lodge and the Aymara-operated Chakana Mountain Lodge (pictured below, owned by the founders of Talca’s Casa Chueca). Kuchu Marca, which set the pace for Andean cuisine a few years ago, has declined, but Cantaverdi has taken up the slack, as the best place in town to get a well-grilled llama steak.
Several Putre-based agencies run day trips and longer excursions to the park, with its snow-topped volcanoes, spectacular bird life in its deep blue lakes and lush marshes, and herds of wild vicuñas. The village also has modern services, including cell phones and easy Internet connections, and even a new ATM at its BancoEstado. Compared with three decades ago, it’s enough to take your breath away – in which case you may need another infusion of mate de coca.