Northward through Chile

Leaving behind Coquimbo and La Serena and their forlorn dogs, photogenic people, and fascinating early history, we looked forward to a day at sea before our next port.  On this cruise, we have the privilege of having three superb guest lecturers with us throughout our trip: Niki Sepsas, travel writer, guide, historian, and photographer; Dr. Herb Keyser, physician, musicologist and all-around renaissance man; and Dr. Norman Caisse, astronomer, professor, and member of the team that sent the first mission to the moon.  Each presentation is more fascinating than the preceding one, and each lecturer has his own unique skills.  Dr. Caisse also holds  star-gazing sessions on deck several nights during the cruise, acquainting his students with the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.


We love sea days, especially in the middle of a busy schedule – they give us the chance to recharge our energy and prepare for the next adventure.  And this first sea day was especially necessary for another, less pleasant reason:  As soon as we boarded the ship, what I had thought was just a nagging little cough resulting from seasonal allergies blossomed into a severe, bone-rattling cough and an upper respiratory infection that kept me from sleeping and sapped my strength.  When it worsened instead of improving, we began to be seriously concerned about my ability to handle the extreme altitudes we would experience in Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I went to see the ship’s doctor, an Italian physician who had formerly been a thoracic surgeon, and after an examination he strongly recommended that I cancel my excursion.  Reluctantly, I agreed when Gerry insisted that we do so, and we resigned ourselves to giving up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – at least for now.


So as we headed to Arica, Chile, we began to look for ways to fill the four days on board we would have missed during our land excursion.  Most of the tours on the cruise had been booked online in advance of our departure, and the more popular ones were already full.  But with polite persistence, Gerry was able to obtain places for us on two tours in which we were particularly interested, so nothing was lost.


DSC04518As we arrived in Arica, a long row of dozens of pelicans formed a welcoming committee and accompanied the ship as it pulled up to the dock.  I wondered if they had mistaken us for a very big fishing trawler and were hoping for scraps.  If so, they were sorely disappointed.


We knew nothing about Arica except that it was the northernmost port in Chile, that the city lay under the shadow of the imposing rock formation known as El Morro, and that it hadn’t rained in Arica in over 40 years.  But what a rich history this small city and its environs has!  Arica lies on the sea, between two river valleys carved through sand and rock from the Andes to the Pacific: the Valle del Lluta to the north and the Valle del Azapa to the south.  Thousands of years B.C., the people who lived in the “highlands,” in the Andes Mountains and their foothills, would regularly make their way to the sea to trade with the people who lived on the coast.  The people from the highlands came with their llamas laden with trade goods, such as wool, leather, minerals, dried grain, and handicrafts.  The coastal people had fish, shellfish, vegetables, and other goods to trade.  Since neither of these cultures had a written language, there was no way for them to communicate with each other by messages.  DSC04523Instead, there are geoglyphs on steep hillsides along the river valleys.  I had seen pictures of these remarkable drawings of llamas and small animals and adults and children, but I never knew what they meant.  I assumed they were intended as some sort of historical record of a civilization.  But they appear always on the same side of the mountain or hillside, with the figures always facing the same direction: toward the sea.  They were made by scraping away the sand and dirt from the rock surface of the hills, making a sort of nest surrounded by sand, and then building a multi-layered heap of stones to outline and fill in the figures.  DSC04527They are elegant signposts strategically placed on the hills to point the highlands people the way to the sea.


In this increasingly fascinating place, once again we found ourselves in one of the best museums we’d seen in all our travels: the Museo Anthropologie, near the small town of San Miguel de Azapa.  Here we learned the ancient history of the Chinchorro people, who populated this area from 10,000 B.C. until they were subsumed by the Incas in the 15th century A.D.  In beautifully presented glass cases backed with paintings depicting the life of the people during a specified period of time, we followed their steady progress from extremely primitive hunter-gatherers to skilled fishermen, weavers of finely-wrought cloth and baskets, and artisans who created pottery that was as beautiful as it was utilitarian.  DSC04551Most interesting was their practice of mummifying their dead, using very specific and intricate procedures passed down from generation to generation by having the entire family involved in the ritual.  Since the Chinchorro had no written language, this was their only means of transmitting their history and customs to their children and grandchildren.


Everyone was particularly struck by one exhibit: the skeleton of a young person, probably a boy 13 or 14 years old, with a full set of perfect teeth, straight and white and undamaged by use or time.  We reflected that by the time most of us were his age, we had a mouthful of fillings and were undergoing orthodontia.


Despite lying at the edge of one of the world’s great deserts (ostensibly the driest on earth), Arica is surrounded by a thriving agriculture, thanks to the miracle of irrigation.  Fields of corn, beans, tomatoes, and greens give way to orchards of olive trees; in fact, the museum was built in part around a massive ancient olive press.


DSC04614El Morro was the site of the battle that settled the War of the Pacific, fought between Chile and Peru (abetted by its ally Bolivia).  When Chile achieved victory, it took territory from its enemies: Bolivia’s only access to the sea and Peru’s southernmost portion were lost in their defeat.  Later, Chile gave land back to Peru, but not to Bolivia, which remains landlocked.  The view from the promontory is very impressive, and its topography makes it hard to imagine how anyone could have scaled its walls and captured it from an enemy, but Chile managed to dislodge the Peruvian army from the fortress in just 55 minutes on June 7, 1880.  (Legend says that a Chilean “nurse” – there is some dispute about what exactly she did for the soldiers in her care – made up bottles of strong liquor spiked with gunpowder and passed them out to the Peruvian soldiers in charge of holding El Morro.  Drunk and hallucinating, the Peruvians were no match for the sober and determined Chileans.  Something to bear in mind . . .)


Arica proved to be a very interesting city, in part because of its beautiful cathedral, San Marcos de Arica, designed by the same Eiffel of the Paris Eiffel Tower fame.DSC04613  But it also enjoys a temperate climate – it’s known as the “City of Eternal Spring” – and has a friendly population.  Whenever we asked if we could take someone’s photo, the response was always a nod and a smile.  No beggars, no one pressuring you to buy something you didn’t want, no sense of urgency, just pleasant, helpful people justifiably proud of their city and their varied, beautiful country.