The tiny town of Putre is located at about 11,500 feet in the high desert of Northern Chile. One afternoon after boarding a bus in Arica, we found ourselves standing in the blazing sun on the side of the highway with our backpacks looking down into the valley at a town about five kilometers away that appeared to be Putre. Let me back up just a bit.
When we went to the bus station in Arica to buy our tickets in advance, we were told by the nice man at the counter that we did not need to buy tickets in advance, we could just show up at 9:30 and we could buy our tickets then. So the day of our departure from Arica, we showed up to buy our tickets and another man at the counter said, “You realize that the bus doesn’t actually stop in Putre, right?”
DOH! I had read about this. The buses that are going to Bolivia will drop people off at the crossroads of the highway and the road to Putre. We didn’t have much choice. “How do we get to the town?” I asked. I had also read that there are no taxis there.
“You can walk,” he said. “It’s only about three kilometers.”
Sure I can walk three kilometers, but I was wondering how I was going to do that with a giant backpack when we were going directly from sea level to 11,500 feet. I figured that there would at least be a little bus station where we could find out where to get a ride.
When the bus stopped on the side of the highway, Adam and I were the only people who got off. As the bus roared away, I looked around to find not a bus station, but an empty aluminum bus shelter that would accommodate two people. It was just us, our bags, and the road. I felt a bit like we were in a Mad Max movie.
We began walking along the road towards the sign that said “Putre.” As we found out, the town of Putre is about three kilometers as the crow flies, but more like five kilometers as the exhausted tourist walks. Adam, who is used to high altitudes, was unperturbed, but anytime we encountered the slightest uphill grade I felt as if my lungs were going to explode. I yelled to Adam between taking the deepest breaths that I could, “Next time…a car passes…I’m going to…flag it down.”
Well there were plenty of cars leaving Putre, but not any coming in. Finally two guys in a truck who are probably quite used to silly gringos walking along the road stopped to pick us up and take us into town.
We walked a little way until we came to the place where we had rented a cabin. La Chakana is located just on the outskirts of town overlooking a lush valley. Generally I don’t bother listing the names of the places that we stay, but La Chakana is one of the best places that we have stayed ever. Here are the facts:
La Chakana is owned by a couple named George and Marisol. George is from Germany, Marisol is from Chile, and they are the kind of people who inadvertently make you feel as if you have done absolutely nothing of value with your life. Between them they speak four languages. George is a former pro soccer player. They own several businesses. They farm alpacas (which Marisol insisted were just like humans). On the weekends George welcomes disenfranchised, troubled teenage boys to his ranch and he mentors them and pays them for their work while Marisol clucks around them and feeds them. And on top of all this they are the kindest, most accommodating people you could ever hope to run into while traveling.
Case in point: There was a slight misunderstanding when it came to getting money. Although George had told me over the phone that there was an ATM in town, it turned out that the one ATM in town only accepted Mastercard which we did not have. Besides, due to some obscure holiday, the bank was closed anyway. Luckily we had enough cash to buy necessities, but if we wanted to eat, we weren’t going to be able to pay the full amount for our stay. After conversing with George about it, he instructed us not to worry, that when we went back to Arica we could stop in at the other hostel that he owned and leave the money there. Furthermore, one night he knocked on the door of our cabin because he had not seen us go out at night and he was making sure that we had enough money to eat. I even saw him lend some money to people who weren’t even staying at his place.
The other reason to stay at La Chakana is the food. Breakfast comes with your room and we aren’t talking your typical hostel breakfast of bread and watered down juice. Every morning Marisol was in the kitchen making pancakes, eggs to order, and fried bananas to add to the fruit baskets and cold cut trays piled up in the dining room. Not only that, but every morning George would encourage all the diners to take food for lunch—make a sandwich, take some fruit. Essentially, we were getting two full meals a day for free.
On our first full day in Putre, we took a walk from our cabin through the valley below to some cave paintings. It took a little longer than I expected it might because A) walking at that altitude is hard for me, and B) we had only written directions that went like this: “You cross the whole city of Putre, walk past the Plaza with its old church and take the path which leads downwards from the school and the military compound to the West. You leave more and more populated area behind you. To the left and to the right only some grazing areas are to be seen. Next you follow the path towards Puquios which is lined with two old stone walls. After about 3.9 km the path splits in both directions, up and down. Here we take the north-western side of the valley downhill. We walk a narrow path which leads along tall cliffs and let us gaze into deep canyons covered by meadow foxtail. To the right a veritable cacti paradise opens up. 4.5 km further we discover an old shepherd hut.”
Wha? At a crossroads we looked in vain for a “path lined with two old stone walls.” We would walk a ways up one path and then go back and up the other path wondering exactly how we were supposed to be defining “old stone walls.” We finally asked a guy on the side of the road and he said that we were going in the right direction. Unfortunately we had accidentally asked him if this was the way to the geoglyphs rather than the cave paintings, but fortunately they were in the same direction.
After traipsing past the scrub brush and the cactus, the goats and rocky cliffs, we finally made it to the Wiakahuranny rock paintings. These were mostly paintings of animals, unprotected from the weather and from idiots who carve their names into the stone, defacing the paintings in the mean time. But looking out from where we were perched, looking out over the vast canyon bottom, I got the sense that not a lot had changed in the time that had passed since those paintings were made. And that night when we looked up into a black and cloudless sky and had a dazzlingly clear view of the Milky Way I hoped that this place would remain like this – an unspoiled beauty for all times.