GETTING THERE IS HALF THE BATTLE
ok. so i last left off in arica, where i was getting ready to head up to the altiplano with eliana belmonte, expert in the workings of the atacama, and marisol, our dependable driver. eliana borrowed a camioneta (pick up truck) from the university museum, and we lit out into the desert. as we drove out of arica we were soon in some of the baddest bad lands i´ve ever seen - most assuredly the absolute desert. not a single thing growing. the roads where steep and windy, and we were climbing pretty quickly into higher and higher altitudes.
we stopped along the way at some delightful friends of eliana´s, who run a sort of DIY desert tour and education program. the outside looked a bit like a bright hippie compound, and inside there were all sorts of treasures - fossils, arrowheads, old pottery, star maps, a picture of einstein, and what at first looked like a dialysis machine which was actually oxygen. we were already at 10,000 feet, and i felt my heart pumping faster than usual. i had some oxygen and was taught a breathing exercise: take one hand, cross it in front of you, and hold the opposite nostril shut. breathe deeply. switch sides and do it again. repeat 10 times. after that, some oxygen, and some tea prepared from coca leaves and various twigs from plants retrieved by the kids from right outside, i was feeling right again.
that afternoon we made it to putre, a little town even higher in the altiplano, to acclimate before heading further up and out in search of the llareta. we all stayed in one room at the hotel kukuli, in clean, plain room with 3 beds taking up most of the floor space. after walking around town a bit in the late afternoon light, we headed to la paloma for dinner. its the kind of place that has one thing on the menu for the day, so since i don´t eat meat this posed a bit of a problem. i asked if they could fix me some vegetables to which the reluctantly agreed. eliana suggested they make some pasta as well -- verduras con fideos. what i got was a plate of spaghetti noodles. with nothing else. not so much as some salt and pepper. i tried adding what ever condiments were on the table; salt, salsa picante. it just wasn´t worth it. once back in sanitago i learned that la paloma has all sorts of businesses in putre - the restaurant, the hotel, and store, a postal service...but their primary focus is drug running over the near-by bolivian border. hence their lack of concern about my dinner.
THE LLARETA & PARQUE LUACA
the next day, after a good night´s sleep, it was time to look for the llareta. we drove out of town and further up into the mountains, now onto gravel roads. the landscape had changed significantly on our drive from arica to putre -- we started with the driest area nearest to the coast, eventually reached some candelabra type cacti that reminded me to the quiver tree (actually an aloe) found in namibia, and then into desert shrubs, some even green. when i saw the llareta for the first time i recognized it from photos i had seen immediately. it´s a rich green and as strange as i had imagined. many of them dotted the hillside, some more strangely formed than others, sort of like mutated topiary on steroids. i scrambled up a steep incline to get a better look and had to catch myself. we were up around 15,000 feet, and altitude sickness is nothing to take lightly. i did the breathing exercise and my equilibrium returned.
after i had taken it all in, we drove back to the main road and then on to the amazing parque lauca. as we entered the park flamigoes strolled around in a mountain lake, llamas and alpacas grazed, and enormous snow-topped mountains jutted from the high plains. after a walk along one of the lakes, home to many species of birds, eliana and i went up to the ranger station to ask about more llareta. the ranger agreed to accompany us to a rather steep and rocky site which he said was home to the oldest llaretta. we bounced along a rough road down to a lovely spot. the llareta were big, but probably not so much as the ones i photographed earlier. like many species, the are a number of factors involved in dating them, and a single plant has not yet been declared the oldest. so here´s to the educated guess.
pleased as punch at the successful day of shooting, we drove back towards putre and made our planned stop at the termas, natural hot springs which can be found in the area. while there are some proper pools, my favorites by far were some pits dug into the earth, filled with varying degrees of hot water. better still was the mud pit, where you could add a little more hot water and take a shovel full of mud. exactly what a mud mask was meant to be. unfortunately the scene was slightly spoiled by some locals drinking in the pools. there´s a reason they tell you not to drink in hot tubs. it had definately gone to their heads.
i almost forgot to mention -- there are a lot of earthquakes in the region, sometimes as frequently as every day. apparently i experienced a couple while there, but i didn´t feel a thing.