Arica likes to call itself “la ciudad de la eterna primavera” – “city of everlasting spring”. Chile’s northernmost city, only 19km south of the Peruvian border, is certainly blessed with a mild climate, which, along with its sandy beaches, makes it a popular holiday resort for Chileans and Bolivians. Although a lingering sea fog can dampen spirits, in the winter especially, just head a few kilometres inland and you’ll usually find blue skies.
The city’s compact, tidy centre sits proudly at the foot of the Morro cliff, the site of a major Chilean victory in the War of the Pacific (and cherished as a symbol of national glory).
It was this war that delivered Arica, formerly Peruvian, into Chilean hands, in 1883, and while the city is emphatically Chilean today, there’s no denying the strong presence of mestizo and Quechua-speaking Peruvians on the streets, trading their fresh produce and artesanía. This, added to its role as Bolivia’s main export centre, makes Arica more colourful, ethnically diverse and vibrant than most northern Chilean cities, even if parts of it look somewhat impoverished.
The liveliest streets are pedestrianized Calles 21 de Mayo and Bolognesi, the latter clogged with artesanía stalls, while by the port you’ll see the smelly but colourful terminal pesquero, where inquisitive pelicans wander around the fish stalls. Though far from beautiful, Arica does boast a couple of fine pieces of nineteenth-century architecture, pretty squares filled with flowers and palm trees, and a young, lively atmosphere. It’s a pleasant enough place to spend a couple of days – or longer, if you feel like kicking back on the beach.
The Aymara people are the second-largest indigenous linguistic group of South America (after the Quechua). The culture flourished around Lake Titicaca and spread throughout the high-plain region, known as the altiplano, of what is now Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Today there are around three million Aymara scattered through these three countries, with the Chilean Aymara forming the smallest group, totalling some forty thousand people. Following the big migrations from the highlands to the coast that took place in the 1960s, most of the Aymara people of Chile now live and work in the coastal cities of Arica and Iquique. At least thirteen thousand Aymara, however, remain in the altiplano of northern Chile, where their lifestyle is still firmly rooted in the traditions of the past thousand years. The main economic activities are llama and sheep herding and the cultivation of crops such as potatoes and barley.
Traditionally, the Aymara live in small communities, called ayllu, based on extended family kinship. Their houses are made of stone and mud with rough thatched roofs, and most villages have a square and a small whitewashed church with a separate bell tower – often dating from the seventeenth century when Spanish missionaries evangelized the region.
Nowadays many of the smaller villages, such as Isluga, are left abandoned for most of the year, the houses securely locked up while their owners make their living down in the city or in the larger cordillera towns like Putre. Known as “ceremonial villages” they’re shaken from their slumber and burst into life when people return for important religious festivals or funerals. Andean fiestas are based on a fascinating blend of Catholic and indigenous rites. At the centre of Aymara culture is respect for the life-giving Mother Earth, known as pachamama, and traditional ceremonies – involving singing and dancing – are still carried out in some communities at sowing and harvest time.
The Aymara also believe that the tallest mountains looming over their villages contain spirits, or mallku, that guard over them, protecting their animals and crops. Once a year, on May 3 – Cruz de Mayo – the most traditional communities climb up the sacred mountains, where a village elder speaks to the mallku, which appears in the form of a condor. Today’s young Aymara go to local state schools and speak Spanish as their main language, and while traditional lifestyles continue in the altiplano, it’s with increasingly closer links with mainstream Chilean life.
Three or four companies in Arica regularly offer tours up to Parque Nacional Lauca. The problem is that the most commonly available tour takes place in a single day, which means rushing from sea level to up to 4500m and down again in a short space of time – really not a good idea, and very likely to cause some ill effects, ranging from tiredness and mild headaches to acute dizziness and nausea. In very rare cases the effects can be more serious, and you should always check that the company carries a supply of oxygen and has a staff member trained to deal with emergencies.
Altitude aside, the amount of time you spend inside a minibus is very tiring, which can spoil your experience of what is one of the most beautiful parts of Chile. Therefore it’s really worth paying extra and taking a tour that includes at least one overnight stop in Putre; better still is one continuing south to the Salar de Surire and Parque Nacional Isluga. However, it’s worth noting that the availability of these longer tours can be frustratingly scarce during the quieter low season months.
Top image: Old native american woman wearing authentic aymara clothes © Ruslana lurchenko/Shutterstock