Atacama Desert

Made it up to Arica, a costal city in Chile’s Atacama Desert and the pathway to the precordillera and the altiplano of Bolivia/Peru/Chile, with half of the SIT program (the other half is down south in Temuco with a Mapuche community). The weather is pretty consistent on the coast year round at about 18 degrees Celsius during the day and night making for a very calm and pleasant climate.

After resting a bit at the beach and hotel on Wednesday upon arrival, we immediately picked classes back up on Thursday morning- consisting of Aymara Cosmovision and Cultural Patrimony. Through being taught by local community members and Aymara people, it’s been very intriguing learning about the Aymara’s way of life and their incredible respect for mother nature (Pachamama), a sense of balance (equilibrio) in all aspects of life- material and spiritual, and expectation of reciprocity in all encounters. On Friday morning, our classes consisted of Chilenization (basically the history of how the State has discriminated against the indigenous Aymara people and how the Aymara still persist in preserving their culture and human rights) and Aymara medicine (two Aymara women came in to show and explain to us a bunch of different herbs, flowers, remedies that are used in the Aymara methodology of health treatment- all so natural and pure).

On Thursday afternoon, as our gift of reciprocity to the communities that will be receiving us during our time in the precordillera, we began preparing for a small theater play to present to the children of Putre, a small pueblo west of Arica in the precordillera at around 3800 meters above sea-level, where we will spend the second half of our excursion before heading out to other small pueblos in the region to live with Aymara families. On Friday afternoon, we went to a textile-producing community of Aymara women outside of Arica in the Azapa Valley, and were graciously welcomed by the women, who create beautiful ponchos, scarves, and bags out of alpaca wool. We were taught about the entire process and actually got to try it out! It was extremely wonderful to be taught the techniques by these women who were so friendly, generous, and excited to teach us how to make the yarn from the raw alpaca wool, prepare the weave and finally realize the clothing- all of which is a very tedious process that requires much patience and cariño. A truly beautiful interaction with this community ended with a spectacular sunset over the desert hills- a great complement to the sunrise that a friend and I saw earlier that morning after hiking to the top of the cliffs overlooking Arica.

Later on Friday night, we gathered in Arica to join an Aymara community would had traveled to the coast from their pueblo, Guallatiri (close to the Bolivian/Argentinian border in the Altiplano), to share some special traditions of the culture. First, the night started with a common Pawa ceremony, a way to ask permission, give thanks and respect to the Pachamama, los Mallku (spirits living in the hills), the sun god, ancestors, and to welcome the participating members of the gathering. Following the ceremony, the people of Guallatiri had prepared two traditional Aymara dances for us which we reciprocated by singing them Marvin’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to the best of our abilities. The night ended with more dancing and conversing together over a rico spread of traditional food of the altiplano including multiple types of potatoes, avocado, llama, altpaca, choclo/maiz, olives, cheese, and chicken soup. A beautiful and special experience that all of us are extremely grateful for.

Saturday was spent climbing 3800 meters in altitude to Putre. We took the trip very slow a to avoid altitude sickness and thus were able to take in all the dramatic, stunning landscape through out the entire day. Now being high above the ocean in the driest desert in the world, the sunset is stunning, reminding me of Colorado’s mountain sunsets, and the temperature significantly drops (good thing I forgot my long-johns back in Valpo!). I’ll hopefully find a warm pair of pants and moccasins tomorrow to wear this week. We’ll be here in Putre until Wednesday morning before our short homestays (10/23-10/27) and will take Tuesday to travel up to the altiplano, visit one of the highest lakes, have a picnic and swim in hotsprings. Should be another great day.

These past 4 days have already proved very distinct from the past 8 weeks in Valparaíso, now drinking Mate, chewing coca leaves, and learning some of the Aymara language. The SIT staff is so wonderful, warm, welcoming, and caring wherever we go and I’m extremely thankful for their incredible organization that’s gone into these trips to make sure us as students can get the most of out our time in Chile, and now specifically in the desert (even if it does mean falling asleep in our alpaca and chicken soup at the end of the day).

 

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