Entering Northern Chile from Peru will most likely lead you to the coastal town of Arica. Check out our article on discovering Arica to find out what adventure lies there, but for this article we are jumping right into Northern Chile’s great Altiplano!
Northern Chile’s Altiplano is filled with varying landscapes including snow capped volcanoes, desert mountains, small adobe villages, salt flats, flamingos, vicuñas and pre-Inca ruins. Arica will serve as your base camp for settling into the new country and planning your exploratory road trip. Several vehicle rental companies exist in town with 4×4 vehicles. Between the cost of your rental truck and all the gas you have to purchase, this adventure will definitely cost you additional money.
The route you choose will also determine your fuel strategy. There isn’t any places to fuel your vehicle beyond Putre, which is typically the first night’s location. Some tours out of Arica take you to Parque Nacional Lauca to see Lago Chungara near the Bolivian border for a 12 hour round trip. Another park, Reserva National Las Vicuñas, is south Parque Nacional Lauca and will require another day to visit. At the southeastern most point of the Arica and Parinacota Region, you will find Monumento Natural Salar de Surire, a salt flat which lies furthest from Arica. If you plan on visiting all three of these parks, you can possibly choose a loop route back to Arica. The roads leading to Lago Chungara are good gravel roads, but beyond the lake it gets challenging. If it’s been raining, your 4×4 might run into flooded dirt roads that are impassable. If you are looking for a tremendous adventure, where you sometimes feel lost and wonder if you are going to make it out with enough gas and a running truck then drive the entire loop for 3 days.
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Our drive began at Arica, Chile where we rented an older 4×4 Nissan pick-up truck. We were both excited to have such an independent adventure and to drive a vehicle again. Typically we ride on buses from town to town. The drive west on highway Chile 11 was incredibly unique to us. The views of dessert hills extended for miles inland as we climbed steeply into the high plateau.
The highway is very well marked and mostly used by large trucks transporting goods to and from the Chile-Bolivia border. A road trip means you have to stop and explore along the way. One stop was to take a picture and attempt to climb the Cactus Candelario, a tall cactus tree. Another was at the tiny village of Socoroma. During our visit the town was having a festival where we enjoyed watching the people, covered in flour, dancing and singing in the roads between houses.
After 167 km we arrived to Putre (3,500 meters) our destination for the night at round 4 pm and found a tiny hostel to stay in. Although, at $28 per night we found it incredibly expensive in comparison to the previous places we’ve stayed at outside of Chile.
If you begin to feel any altitude sickness, be sure to spend an extra day or two acclimating in Putre. The altitude will only get higher.
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By 9 am the next morning we were on our way to Lauca National Park and Lake Chungara. After driving for just under 45mins, we found wild vicuñas and guanacos (camelids) all around the hills. Although we’ve been in South America for a few months we’ve yet to see these. Llamas and Alpacas, which are both domesticated have been everywhere, so it was exciting to see these new animals in the wild. After stopping for pictures we continued our drive.
Next we took an hour break at the town of Parinacota (4,400 meters) to see an old white colonial church that represents the transformation of region in the area. One and half hours later we arrived at our destination for the day, Lago Chungara (4,500 meters). The clouds had moved in and the sky was completely white, but it was a beautiful landscape with the twin snow capped volcanoes of Payachatas reflecting in the steaming lake. We spotted beautiful pink flamingos and tried taking pictures, but they didn’t seem to like us being around them much. You will need a strong telephoto lens if you expect to get some good pictures.
On our drive back to Putre Aracely spotted a large condor flying close to the highway and yelled for me to stop the car. The great bird flew around the top of the hills so gracefully, scanning the landscape repeatedly with only a flap or two of its wings.
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This was by far our most exciting day of the road trip. When we left our hostel in Putre that morning destined for the Salt Flats of Surire, we didn’t know exactly how we would return to Arica. We had read in Lonely Planet and heard from locals that there was a dirt road from the Salt Flats directly towards Arica that we could take instead of backtracking all the way back to Arica via Putre. However, this road floods often and we were advised to ask the park rangers for some advice.
During our drive towards the Salt Flats we encountered some rangers and they told us that we should be able to make the journey to the flats if we used the 4×4 and never hit the breaks through the flooded road portions. Feeling confident after speaking with rangers, we continued on.
Either the rangers underestimated the bad conditions of the road or maybe overestimated the capability of our older 4×4 vehicle. We arrived at our first flooded area. I activated the 4×4 capability on the truck and went for it. Half way through the 20 yard long pond of muddy water we felt the truck slowing down and getting stuck . At this point we were 2 feet deep. I revved the engine further and we made it past the second half safely. It was a great relief.
Just another few miles later we reached our second and hardest challenge. I took one look at what was in front of us and thought to myself, “There is no way we are making it through that, we have to go around.” But, we couldn’t find an obvious exit from the road leading around the deep, long flooded road in front of us. I decided to go for it. I was feeling a bit nervous. With the throttle to the floor we began to race through as quickly as possible. Within 15ft of entering the road lake the water was splashing over the hood and the vehicle began to stall. I quickly steered the vehicle off the road, up over the edge onto the muddy park grounds. This was unfortunate, but there is no way we would have made it through the 50 yards of flooded roadway.
This was the scariest moment of the trip. After stopping the car on the higher ground, I realized it still wanted to stall. I continued to keep my foot on the gas pedal in fear that if the truck stalled, we wouldn’t be able to start it again. At this point, the severity of the moment began to set in. I continued on the throttle until the truck finally began to move. We cheered aloud in excitement. The kind that would have looked really cheesy had someone been watching. We were not out of this mess yet. The area was still muddy and several small rivers had been created from the flooded roadway. We sped alongside the road as fast as the truck would go bouncing around kicking up what seemed like bricks of mud from under the truck until we found a safe area to reenter the road. After driving full throttle for 5 minutes the truck was back to good form, except for the extra 50 pounds of mud that caked our chassis.
Monumento Natural Salar de Surire
Avoiding further flooded roads, we arrived to the Surire Salt Flats and were rewarded with wild scenery including salt lakes, flamingos, vicuñas and snow capped mountains in the distance. After getting directions from other rangers hanging out at the nearby salt mine we decided to take the direct road from the Salar de Surire to Arica. The most important advice given to us was, “Look for a sign that reads something Hotel and turn left there. It’s a small sign and if you miss it, you will get lost.” I wondered how small was this sign and how risky was the drive. It would be the most remote off the road drive we have ever experienced. We were 6 hours from a town that would have fuel for our vehicle. Driving through the mountains and canyons of the altiplano became the coolest video baja driving game I have ever played. This was real!
The road led us down to a gravel river bed. The water was never more than a foot deep and didn’t pose any threats, but the river bed was wide enough that we couldn’t see where to pick back up the road on the other side. We slowly drove through, excited of the adventure, but questioning our map reading skills.
We climbed back out of the canyon up to the tops of the high plateaus where wind and endless flat mountain tops dominated the landscapes. We were driving on top of the world. A nasty looking storm quickly moved in and darkened the sky, creating fear of flash floods. We only caught the edge of the storm so the rains weren’t too bad. Had this storm began before we crossed the river bed, I would guess we wouldn’t have been able to cross it. That’s a scary thought. We found the aptly described small sign and turned left with a great sigh of relief. We were headed back home, or at least back to Arica.
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This was also the road trip that would end with Aracely and I engaged. I felt it was the furthest from civilization that we had ever been, and for us, who were escaping the day to day monotony of our modern busy lives, this seemed perfect. Sister Golden Hair was playing on the radio, which in itself was peculiar out in this desolate area where only 1 or 2 stations were received. I pulled off the road where a clear landmark might be remembered 10 years from now. It was a giant rock on the side of the road.
Jason Proposed to Aracely Here!
We took some unsuspecting pictures and then I turned on the video camera and sat it on the hood. I returned to the front of our beat up rental truck and knelt down on one knee and proposed. Aracely said, “Yes.” We hid a necklace under some rocks near the giant rock and mapped our GPS coordinates. We will return someday in celebration.
Our weekend included 450 miles of some of the most unique scenery we have ever seen in a 3 day journey.
As we drove back down the sand mountains headed to the Arica coast we felt a sense of accomplishment and excitement. This adventure wasn’t a physical challenge, but still one filled with fear, panic a sense of being lost and most of all, a sense of complete freedom.
For Budget Travelers
At $90 USD per day plus $100 for gas, renting a 4×4, believe it or not is the cheaper option. A 3-day tour that includes a visit to the village of Putre, the National Park Lauca, Lake Chungara, and the Surire Salt flats costs about $300 per person with an organized tour. When renting the vehicle consider renting from the local companies rather than the global brands that charge twice as much. But, if you end up with a beat up, old, green Nissan, be worried, because we beat that truck to sh*t.