Friday, October 11, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Bus To Putre Via Arica

***This post is part 12 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

To be honest, I was a little nervous about this part of my journey through South America. I had been traveling with my two friends the entire way up until now, but our paths were to diverge here in San Pedro de Atacama. My plan was to head up to the northern tip of Chile to see Lauca National Park, near the small town of Putre, while my friends' itinerary took them further south to the Lake District and Puerto Montt.

Since there were no regular flights available between any of these Northern Chilean cities, my only option was to make the nearly 520-mile journey by bus. In San Pedro de Atacama, both Tur Bus and Pullman had offices where we could purchase tickets. Only Tur Bus, however, offered an overnight direct route to Arica. As with all things in Chile, prices weren't cheap. I ended up splurging a little and booked a first class seat for the 10-hour bus ride, thinking I would be able to get better sleep that way.

Bus route from San Pedro de Atacama to Putre via Arica

I later regretted that decision when I realized that there really wasn't a significant difference between the first class and regular coach seats. Both were simple recliners, with the upgraded version slightly wider and more cushioned. I found the first class cabin, located on the lower level, to be small and claustrophobic, and would have much preferred to sit in the larger coach cabin upstairs. Sadly, the ticket cost me 26,000 CLP, which was quite a bit more expensive than the 18,000 CLP for a regular seat. Live and learn I guess.

The departure point for Tur Bus in San Pedro de Atacama is not at the main bus station, but rather around the corner from their office in a large parking lot. I walked there from the hotel and arrived approximately 20 minutes before departure. After confirming my tickets and loading my large backpack, I stepped on board and took my seat in the first row.

Tur Bus to Arica

First class was almost completely full, which made an already small cabin feel even tighter. And unfortunately, the bulkhead seat made it impossible for me to stretch out, despite a decent pitch. I was exhausted though, having woken up before 4:00 am that morning, so I reclined my seat and quickly fell asleep. About an hour and a half later, we made a scheduled stop in the city of Calama, where some passengers disembarked and others got on.

First class seat

Bulkhead legroom

There was an attendant on the bus the entire way, and he would periodically check in on our cabin to make sure everything was okay. Shortly after boarding, he came around and handed out a snack pack to first class passengers. I was too tired and not very hungry, so I saved the contents for later.

First class snack pack

From Calama, it was a straight shot to Arica, and I ended up sleeping for most of the way there. It definitely wasn't very deep sleep though, because I remember waking up probably every half an hour. Finally, we arrived at the domestic bus terminal in Arica at around 6:15 am. It was still pitch black outside and I wasn't feeling terribly good, but there was no time to waste.

Having done all of my research beforehand, I knew that the bus from Arica to Putre was operated by a private company called La Paloma and departed at 7:00 am every day. However, it did not leave from the main station as expected. Instead, they operated out of their office in a quiet neighborhood several miles away. Thus, the challenge was to find a taxi to take me to the La Paloma office in time for the Putre departure.

While Arica is not a dangerous city, I was still weary of hailing a random taxi off the street by myself in total darkness. So I walked around the perimeter of the domestic bus terminal with all my belongings until I found a legitimate-looking radio taxi office across the street. I knocked on the window, and a portly woman came out to help me. I told her that I needed to get to La Paloma, and luckily, she knew exactly what I was talking about. Since it was so early in the morning, she had to radio one of the few working drivers, who arrived after a long wait.

The taxi ride there took about ten minutes, and I was relieved when we finally arrived and I was sure I wasn't going to miss the departure. I paid the 3,500 CLP fare in the office and then boarded the surprisingly well-maintained bus.

La Paloma bus to Putre

I was a little surprised at how empty the bus was when we departed, but I soon realized that we would be making more than half a dozen stops before even leaving the city of Arica. By the time we finally got on our way, virtually every seat was taken. I noticed that there were many young men in army fatigues on board as well, probably owing to the large military base near Putre.

There was not much to see in terms of scenery on the way up (Putre sits at 11,500 feet). From the moment we left Arica all the way until we reached the outskirts of Putre, I don't think I witnessed a single tree. The landscape is dry and desolate here, but strangely beautiful at the same time. 

Landscape on the way to Putre

This is a route taken mostly by locals, so no announcements were ever made on the bus. As we approached what looked to me like Putre, I had to ask the passenger seated next to me if I should get off here. Luckily, the town is tiny, and there are pretty much only two stops. Even if you get off at the wrong one, walking from one end of the main road to the other only takes about 15 minutes. I believe the second stop is mainly for military personnel getting dropped off closer to the base.

Welcome to Putre

La Paloma bus

Feeling disoriented after almost 14 hours of bus rides, I was at a complete loss as to where my hotel was. I wandered around the eerily quiet town for a while, then poked my head inside a restaurant and asked the lady working there if she knew where Terrace Lodge was located. She was extremely helpful, and even walked me to the entrance of the property. Later in the day, I returned to the restaurant for lunch, and then again the following day for dinner.

Sign to Terrace Lodge

Terrace Lodge in sight

It was a very long journey to get from San Pedro de Atacama to Putre in one shot, and I was thankful I made it there without any issues. Overall, I would have to say that buses and roads in Chile are very well-maintained, and independent travelers should find it fairly easy to navigate as long as you know some basic Spanish. Just be sure to do your research beforehand, and be aware of the approximate departure and arrival times.

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