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) 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 Vicuna National Reserve, one of three marvelous parks contained in the UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Justino, born and raised here at Chile’s northern tip, started Tour Andino. He will tell you that he was the first guide to take travelers through Putre – but only the first of many.
Isolated adobe towns, smoking volcanoes, high altitude lakes, wildlife spotting, salt flats, geysers and hot springs are all within the bounds of the three contiguous parks strung along the Bolivian border just a short drive inland. Infrastructure is less comprehensive here, and navigating the dirt tracks is nearly impossible without a guide. The payoff of extraordinary vistas and total solitude makes the difficult trek worth it.
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 the landscape millennia ago. In a matter of a few short years the town’s handfuls of narrow lanes were flooded with hostels and tour operators. 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.