While looking out over a massive mineral deposit – a scarred gorge that looks like it has been eaten out of the arid Andean altiplano by acid or a particularly virile species of termite – you will notice one thing above all else: silence. You were brought here by Justino Jiron who found this place some years ago while exploring new tracks through the virtually inaccessible back country of Vicuña National Reserve, one of three marvelous parks contained in the UNESCO Biosphere reserve centered on Lauca National Park in Chile’s norte grande. Justino, born and raised here at Chile’s northern tip, will tell you that he was the first guide to take travelers through these parts – but only the first of many.
Talk to anyone in tourism in Chile’s otherworldly north and they will tell you that the town of Putre, where Justino’s company Tour Andino is based, is set to become the next San Pedro de Atacama. Several hours to the south and set inland amongst some of the Atacama Desert’s most stunning scenery, San Pedro has become one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations. And while the adobe town remains charming, it has been all but devoured by Chile’s ascendant tourism industry.
Justino has spent time in both towns and says that Putre can offer virtually anything that San Pedro can (though not, of course, without some bias inspired by hometown pride). Isolated adobe towns, smoking volcanoes, high altitude lakes, wildlife spotting, salt flats, geysers and hot springs are all on offer within the bounds of the three contiguous parks strung along the Bolivian border just a short drive inland. True, tourist infrastructure is less comprehensive here, and navigating the dirt tracks through Lauca, Vicuña National Reserve, and the Salar de Surire National Monument is nigh on impossible without a guide, but the payoff – extraordinary vistas and total solitude – is enormous.
More importantly, Putre has learned a lesson or two from its neighbor to the south. Tourism hit San Pedro with the sudden power of the volcanic eruptions that shaped this landscape millennia ago. In a matter of a few short years the town’s handful of narrow lanes were flooded with hostels, tour operators, and international backpacker restaurants. Residents of Putre, mostly descendants of the reserved Aymara indigenous people, are reluctant to see their town go the same way, despite the opportunities for economic gain associated with the growth of tourism. Thus, while the town now has an ATM, several good restaurants, and a range of accommodations, it remains the quiet adobe village it has always been, isolated high in the mountains, at the doorstep for the breathless plain that runs from northern Chile as far as the Bolivian city of La Paz.
The few accommodation options within the parks – one or two simple hostels in the slowly revitalizing town of Parinacota, and several park service refugios – are extremely basic, but within the town of Putre one or two more luxurious options have made this rustic village a hospitable destination for rugged adventurers who enjoy being pampered once in a while.
One of these is the Biosphere Responsible Tourism-certified Terrace Lodge, a small group of adobe-style buildings on a short bluff just a minute’s walk from the main square. Small, but very comfortable rooms here are simply decorated using regional handicrafts, and in the quiet, solar-powered dining room the Italian owners prepare dishes from their homeland – a welcome break from the meat and potatoes the preponderate in altiplano cuisine.
A trip to Putre will likely begin in the Chilean coastal city of Arica, also the border post for southern Peru. From here, a stunning three-hour bus ride climbs into the Andes to reach Putre, which sits 11,400 ft (3,500 m) above sea level. Give yourself a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude before pushing on to the dizzying heights of Lauca and the Surire salt flat, both set around 14,000 ft above sea level. To organize your trip, contact Tour Andino for tours through the parks or volcano trekking (don’t expect luxury; do expect careful attention and a unique glimpse of the region), or the Terrace Lodge for accommodation in Putre.