40. Arica, Chile

XL. Arica, Chile 8-9 August

Chile is narrow. From the seaport, Arica, to the high mountains at Putre and Lake Chungará is hardly more than 100 kilometers’ drive. (The gain in altitude is 3500 meters to the pueblo of Putre and 4500 to the lake.) For a week we enjoy both – most of the time.

We arrived in Arica after dark, because of our paperwork and other problems in Tacna and the care with which Peru strives to prevent us from selling the car in Chile and the care with which Chile, which doesn’t give a damn about the car, examines our luggage for drugs.

sm-08-2823-church-in-aricasm-08-2789As it turns out, there’s a great deal to like about Arica [ah-REEK-ah]. Not only the church but the old customs house were designed by Eiffel. There are beaches, and beautiful high waves which look as if they deserve their reputation with surfers, although nearer sm-08-2821-customs-house-side-viewsm-08-2793-arica-sutoms-housethe city, as befits a port, the waves are much lower. There are many birds, and a fine, working harbor where we encounter photogenic pelicans all around us, as well as lazy but irritable sea lions [called lobos, or wolves, here] who sometimes seem to be preening for the camera, or perhaps for lobos of the opposite sex.

sm-08-2674-sand-patternThe first day we laze around the hotel, then wander around a bit.  We drive south of town a ways, pausing here and there to photograph birds or rocks or huge waves.   There’s an inviting-looking restaurant, La Maracuyá, that sits right out over the edge of the water.   We spend too much of the afternoon shopping for a new hair-dryer Ragna needs.  Although the store’s moderately crowded, it doesn’t take too long to choose the one she wants, but from sm-08-2677-sthat point until we actually walk out of the store is excruciatingly long.   As in Peru, we do not just pay the salesperson and leave.   We go up to the second floor to wait in line and then pay some woman up there, and get a ticket which we then take to a warehouse room out back, where sm-08-2757-ragna-in-aricathere’s only one couple ahead of us but they are angry and frustrated and the young man is taking a long time figuring out how to solve their problem, whatever it is; and then when they finally leave, it takes him a long time to find the hair-dryer Ragna wanted.  All of which might be irritating, but as I stand there I study a little Spanish by watching a day-time TV show in which women are being interviewed about their encounters with the ghosts of their dead husbands.

As in Perú, we often see walls decorated with slogans or wise advice — and with more personal sentiments:


"Our character is a result of our conduct"


"Alita, my wife, I love you"

And a smaller sign, in the window of the shack where you pay 5,000 pesos for an hour’s parking, is just familiar and thought-provoking:

sm-08-2781-carta-de-un-negroWhen I was born, I was already black.

When I began to grow, I was black.

When I go to the beach, I am black.

When I am cold, I remain black.

When I feel panic, I am black.

When I am sick, I am black.

Even when I die, I will continue to be black.

On the other hand you, my dear white friend, when you are born, are pink.

When you begin to grow, you become white.

When you go to the beach, you grow red.

When you are cold, you become blue.

When you feel panic, you grow yellow.

When you are sick, it makes you green.

When you die, you turn grey.

And still you have the balls to tell me that I am of color!

— An angry black man

It recalls old memories of talks and friends and thoughts from several places in my past, and leaves me wondering how things are here, who has placed the sign here and just why, and how life is for him or her, but I lack the Spanish or the time to ask.

In the evening we do have a late supper at La Maracuyá.   It’s a dark, pleasant place with views of the water.  Eating there is a delight.  The pisco sours are marvelous. Ragna keeps raving about the olives. The bread is warm and the butter soft. Plus a wonderful ambiance and excellent service – and, when the entrees arrive, very good everything. Prices $10-14 per entree – but total price got up there, to $80 or so, what with wine and pisco.


In the morning I sit in the dining room with the computer set up for writing and the Olympic opening ceremonies from Bei Jing on TV.   After Ragna joins me, we watch the opening march.  Seeing all the national costumes is fun.  I react especially to seeing the athletes from countries I’ve spent time in, ranging from China itself to Iceland, Perú, Chile, and Mexico.  Among other things, it strikes me how spoiled we are as U.S. citizens!  Other countries wait several four-year cycles between medals.  Some, including Iceland, have never won a gold medal.

The hotel is bland but convenient.

sm-08-2662-ragna-in-aricaThe next day is a long, quarrelsome day.   We wander around various quite pleasant beaches and streets, but don’t enjoy them.

sm-08-2797-customs-house-clockWe do visit the Customs House, the other building in town designed by Eiffel.   It’s a museum now.  There’s a thin circular staircase that I presume was part of Eiffel’s design, and it looks so sm-08-2818-customs-house-interiorsm-08-2820-customs-house-interior-crslender and delicate that I wonder whether we’re allowed to climb it or are meant just to look at it.  I climb on up to the second floor, where I find a display of paintings by local artists.

I snap pictures of these two.  Because they’re the two I most like, but also because of the sm-08-2811-painting-glassescontrast between the two of them.   I shoot the pictures not so much because I’m in this unusual place for perhaps the only time in my life, and won’t see them again, as because I want some day to place them next to each other  on sm-08-2814-painting-beacha table and look at them.  I imagine a relationship between these two women, whom I assume to be young citizens of Tacna.  Sisters?  Neighbors?  Perhaps they are the same person, at two different stages of her life.   Or is the second a painting by the first, of her dream self?  Or the first a painting the second has done of her self-image?  (Or her dream self, though to my small mind it seems unlikely.)  Or — and this seems certainly to be it (as I will see clearly in a new friend months later in another country) —  the second woman has painted the first, in frustration: tired of men chasing her for her looks, she dreams of a man who enjoys her body but would love her mind and heart and spirit even if she wore always the mask she has just painted, which is also so much a part of her.

sm-08-2843-pelican-crWe also stop at the harbor.   It’s an appealing place to walk, perhaps making for the big old ships we’d seen from a distance, but Ragna is on the phone with Iceland most of the time, dealing with problems at home.     I do manage to wander a little, and shoot a few photographs of pelicans and children and small fishing boats, but we don’t take a long walk and as soon as she finishes her phone calls we go somewhere else.

The incident in Tacna stays with me. Both the lost money, which isn’t the end of the world, and the irritating feeling of having been taken. At odd moments when driving or showering or just sitting and waiting, I replay the scenes in my mind, as I might a lost trial or the final days of an exploded relationship, trying to understand it a little better and chastising or defending myself for my handling of different moments. I did see clearly that I was being taken, and tried desperately to call Mitsubishi and get a fix on the real prices of part. Initially I should have been less passive, and should have had Ragna drive the car a few moments so that I could see the problem for myself. And why, as we drove to an ATM near the Plaza de Armas – which I could see wasn’t entirely to his liking – did I not say, or even think about saying, “Listen, if this is more or less the right price for this stuff, I’ll pay what you’re asking. But first I need to call Mitsubishi on my own phone and verify that. Sorry to be suspicious, but if you have a problem with that, we can discuss it with the police.” Fact is, by then I’d said I would pay him the amount, and didn’t even think about going back on my word now that the car was back together again. Dumb!

Suddenly Ragna decides we should leave for Putre.   Because we’ve been quarreling, I’ve never gotten a chance to pick up a local map or check with anyone about anything, or make plans for the drive.  We rush to a large gas station and buy gas.  Doubting we’ll see a gas station up there, I also buy a gas can, extra gas to fill the gas-can, and snacks.   And off we go, into the unknown, a two or three hour climb through mostly unpopulated hills.

What we can see of the country is barren and dramatic.  A lot of hills, a lot of sand, reddish in the late afternoon light, which is muted by mist or fog or clouds.  “I feel like an ant in a huge sand-box,” Ragna says.  We are.   Sunset comes and goes, and we rush through the darkness.

We stop in an isolated mirador from which we can see nothing except the headlight beams dissipating in the darkness, and the stars.  The air is cool, and the remoteness is refreshing.   We have a clear view for miles of darkness below us, and see not a single light.  The silence is overpowering.

We stop again at an overlook from which we can see a few lights from Putre, with white-clad peaks guarding the sleepy village.   (I sm-08-2976-night-shot-of-peaks-above-putretry a couple of shots with a makeshift tripod, but they don’t work out.)  When we enter the pueblo, it’s dark, no one is about, and it isn’t quite clear which way we’re meant to go.   We follow a sign to the left for a hotel, but never find that hotel and eventually turn right, back into what there is of a town, and find live people, a store, a restaurant, and eventually a hotel.

Putre feels like the high-mountain outpost it is: lonely, simple, real, and accustomed to all sorts of folks.   Brisk, clear night air.  White peaks.  Dirt roads, wooden-plank floors, the goods for sale in the store somewhat limited.   Surrounded by rugged, unpopulated land and cold winds as we are, lights and the warmth of other human beings give Putre a certain coziness, although in fact it’s cold in our hotel room too.

The hotel is surprisingly nice in such a remote location.   22,000 pesos, I think, for a matrimonial room which boasts an outdoor balcony with a table and chairs, though the balcony overlooks the cochera.   (And there’s at least one classier-looking hotel.)

The nearby restaurant – to which I wander out alone to bring supper back – is warm and welcoming, and prides itself on being the only bar-restaurant in the world that’s been operating so long at such a high altitude. While I wait for our food to go, I check e-mail on the bar’s computer, and also try to puzzle out whether I believe their claim. 3500 meters is 10,500 feet.  I can’t recall how high Lhasa was, but think it was higher, and feel sure that Xigatse was higher, and I know there were places there to eat and drink, although I doubt either the culinary skills or the wine lists matched up too well with those here.   In any case, I like this place. 

The hotel room has a TV, too.  So, eating supper in our room, we watch the Chinese and Rumanian gymnasts, then root for a Chilean fencer who appears unlikely to beat his Japanese opponent, but hangs in there and wins to reach the round of 32.

Travel Notes:


Arica: Hotel Costa Pacifico, 35,000 pesos per night, desayuno incluido.   Perfectly ok.  Clean, bland.  Wouldn’t be my choice in Arica either for character or for saving money.  (See Post 42 for a recommendation.)


Hotel     .    22,000 pesos.   Simple matrimonial room with shower and a bit of a balcony.  Breakfast included.

The hotel is surprisingly nice in such a remote location.   22,000 pesos, I think, for a matrimonial room which boasts an outdoor balcony with a table and chairs, though the balcony overlooks the cochera.   (And there’s at least one classier-looking hotel.)


Arica boasts at least two very fine restaurants, one looming over the small movie theater from a hillside perch in the city and the other buffeted by waves a kilometer or so south of town, reminiscent of La Rosa Nautica in Lima – although the food here seems better. We try that one first.  Restaurante Maracuyá.  Eating there is an old-style pleasure. The pisco sours are marvelous, and so is everything that follows.  There’s also a wonderful ambiance and excellent service.   Prices $10-14 per entree – but total price got up there, U.S. $80 or so.

The other restaurant, Tierra Amado, is in town, not far from the Eiffel-designed church.   It has a brighter, more modern feel, but the food is good there too.

sm-08-3720-the-restaurant-in-putre-crIn Putre, the _______ is warm and welcoming after a long, cold drive.   Stays open fairly late.   Cheerful, mountain-town ambiance.  Internet.   Bar.   A little courtyard that might be real nice during the day or on a summer evening.   It also claims to be the longest-operating bar-restaurant in the world at such a high altitude.  Maybe it is.  

Other Points:

1. If you drive to Chungará and back in a four-wheel drive vehicle, take extra gas.  (You don’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle.)  We went no further than Lake Chungara, so I can’t say how far you’d go on that road toward Bolivia before seeing a gas station.   (There were gas stations a short ways up toward Putre from the coast, but not deeper into the mountains.)
2. Putre and Chungará are wonderful, but be prepared for the altitude.   They shouldn’t have a devastating effect on anyone, but are high enough — the latter in particular — to make a sizeable minority of people quite uncomfortable.   Have soroje pills, or something similar, with you, and plenty of drinking water; and drink coca tea.

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