A short 90-mile ride took us back into the mountains to the lovely little town of Putre, an ideal place to stop for a few days to acclimatise to the severe altitudes we would now enter on our way into and through Bolivia. Putre sits at 3,500 metres and it is literally a breathless place to be. We found superb accommodation at the Hostal Pachamama for less than ten quid a night, with a large room just off a spacious sunny courtyard. The entire town sits under the Nevados de Putre, an awesome snow capped mini mountain range providing a tasty backdrop for photography. There are limited facilities here with a few basic café restaurants and at one of these we ate our first Alpaca steaks (an Alpaca is a small llama) and they were excellent. The altitude is severe, we were utterly breathless just tying up bootlaces and it can cause nausea and light-headedness in even the fittest of folk but fortunately we were spared this discomfort.
The other advantage of stopping at Putre is its proximity to the Lauca National Park, where I was to spend one of my best ever birthdays. The short ride into the park took us up another 1000 metres to 4500 metres (15,000 feet) and into a wildlife and volcano wonderland! As we climbed higher and higher we saw 2 phenomenal white tops peer at us over the chilly brown landscape, eventually revealing themselves as the volcanoes – Parinacota & Pomeranes. Eventually we crested a rise to drop us into the park and there they were in their full glory – the twin volcanoes, both of them at over 6000 metres and fully bedecked in snow. The road wound on around the two peaks to Lago Chungara, which offered fabulous mirror shots of Parinacota and views of the far off but even larger Volcan Sajama in Bolivia. We also saw Gualatiri – an active but less spectacular peak with a small vapour stream spouting out the top. The whole place was teeming with wildlife – Giant Coots, Ducks, Andean Geese and the odd Flamingo out on the lake whilst on land, herds of Vicuñas roamed the grasslands and we saw our first Vizcachas – giant long tailed Andean Rabbits – living in some of the rocky outcrops near the park entrance. To end our visit to this high altitude wonderland we had a hot soak in a natural thermal spring – very invigorating, especially when we got out to dry off! Back in Putre we dined with a pair of Geologists, up surveying in the area for Gold & Silver for one of the large mining companies and enjoyed a pleasant evening listening to their tales of life in the field. We hit the hay early as tomorrow we leave Chile for the last time and head into new territory – Bolivia.