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A missionary journey

24 January 2014

A new tourist route in northern Chile has brought life back to its adobe churches, and to indigenous Andean culture. Nicki Grihault takes a look

Nicki Grihault

Way of the Missions: a road shrine en-route to Belen

Way of the Missions: a road shrine en-route to Belen

AS WE wind down the narrow road to the tiny green oasis of Socoroma - a village surrounded by ancient stone terrace cultivations of oregano, once traded with the Inca - my eyes rest on the terracotta-painted church with its smart new paja brava (tall altiplano grass) straw roof.

The church of San Francisco de Asis was once a beacon of hope for mule trains on the "silver route" from the Potosi mines in Bolivia to the busy port of Arica, in Chile. Today, it is one of 31 Spanish-built adobe mission-churches in Aymara Indian communities that are being restored as part of a new sustainable tourism circuit - "Ruta de las Misiones" (the Way of the Missions) - to attract visitors to the seldom-visited far north.

It helps to have a head for heights to follow the circuit, which skirts lakes and volcanoes, and crosses desert hills and canyons to take in churches in villages more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Even after a night at Terrace Lodge, in Putre (an hour's drive from Arica), acclimatising at almost 11,500 feet, I still experience a touch of altitude sickness when I visit the church in Parinacota, in the Lauca National Park.

IN PARINACOTA, alpacas - some with red wool charms in their fur - graze on the bofedal (wetlands) beneath a snow-capped volcano. Nearby are high-altitude lakes, hot springs, and a dazzling white salt-pan, Salar de Surire, through which flamingos delicately pick their way.

It is spring when I visit, but a dusting of snow has covered Parinacota's pretty 17th-century Church of the Virgin of the Nativity, not yet restored, where black bin-bags cover cracks in the adobe walls caused by successive earthquakes.

We find the baby-blue painted door locked, but for those fortunate enough to see inside, Andean Baroque murals (so called because of the convergence of indigenous and Spanish influences) of shepherds herding llamas depict a life little changed in centuries.

Change has come over the past 20 years, however. Poverty, and lack of education and opportunity have driven many Aymara to the coastal cities. Some villages are now largely ceremonial, only bursting into life during religious fiestas - Belen has 40 residents; out of 50 houses in Parinacota, only 29 residents remain; and only two people remain in remote Pachama - although the hope is that the villages will come back to life.

IN SOCORAMA, the key to open the church proves less elusive. But it is perhaps the presence of Alvaro, from Fundación Altiplano, the Chilean NGO behind the church-restoration project, that prompts the smiling locals to produce the key.

Inside, Alvaro points out the bamboo roof-struts, authentically retied with llama gut; a wooden coffin-bearer, used to parade the dead around the streets before burial; and statues of saints repaired using original cactus wood.

Along the route, Aymara women have been learning to make replica statues of the saints, using plastic bottles rather than protected cactus, to provide new sources of income; other Aymara have been learning or refining traditional building skills so that they can maintain the churches.

In a side room, we stumble on a metal scuttle filled with ash from a pawa ceremony, where a small brazier is lit on a piece of traditional woven textile laid with spices, coca, and wine, as an offering to the earth (here, Roman Catholic faith has blended with an ancient world-view to create a unique Andean Christianity).

Until 30 years ago, the priest travelled to Socoroma, and other scattered Andean villages, by horse, where tarmac is being rolled out over the dirt and gravel. Newly whitewashed adobe houses now also line the cobbled streets, and geraniums fill the village square.

As we dip under passion-fruit vines to enter Casa Emilia, the town's only restaurant, we learn that Andean chefs from Peru have been working to train village cooks and rescue traditional Aymara specialities - such as calapurca (corn, llama/alpaca meat, and sundried potato), and guatia (food prepared in the ground using hot stones) - to put on the menu both here, and at other restaurants along the route.

BEAUTIFUL Belén ("Bethlehem" in Spanish), the capital of oregano in the 20th century, is the Way of the Mission's show village, with a re-modelled square and new religious museum.

We admire the portal of the Church of Santiago, carved with vines, pomegranates, viscachas (large rabbit-like rodents), puma-man, and monkeys, as theguardian and village lead singer, Beto Zegarra, tells us tales of past fiestas.

Apparently, everyone returns to the village for the patron saint's birthday, when Andean bands play traditional pan-pipes, flutes, and drums, accompanied by much singing and dancing, making it a good time to visit.

Alvaro leaves us watching the orange sunset slip down behind the mountains at Pousada del Candelaria, a B&B set up by Fundación Altiplano following a visit to Santiago de Compostela, in a whitewashed and thatched adobe building that was formerly used as a priest's house.

The accommodation here comes with an optional local chef for hire, to cook traditional dishes. It is also being used to teach other Aymara hostelry skills, in a bid to get other accommodation opening up along the route.

SAINTS, angels, and musicians with both indigenous and Hispanic faces stare out of the fresco above the door of St Andrew's, in remote Pachama, whose hillsides are scattered with ancient Incan tambos (places of rest).

A hair-raising crawl down a blasted canyon leads into the lush green valley of Codpa, at 6070 feet, where streams have defied the desert to produce a rich agriculture, including centuries-old vineyards that produce a legendary smoky red pintatani wine, celebrated at harvest festival.

Codpa's more modern church, an hour and a half from Arica, is one of ten churches still to be restored in time for the route's official launch in May. But it is still worth a stop. So, too, is a night at least at Codpa Valley Lodge. With its wooden cabins set around a swimming pool, Copa Valley Lodge feels like a true oasis in the desert.

Near to Codpa, at Guañacagua, the exquisite Arequipa-style restored stone San Pedro, set in an amphitheatre of mountains, is a reminder of the region's Peruvian past. In Ofragia, a rocky trail past petroglyphs of llama caravans is testimony to a cultural heritage stretching back 10,000 years.

Ultimately, travelling the Way of the Missions is so much more than just a holiday, and a cultural one at that; it may just help to ensure the survival of an ancient culture on the brink of disappearing.

TRAVEL Details
A ONE- to three-day all-inclusive trip, with Aymara guide, costs $US280-400 (excluding flights) with Fundación Altiplano (fundacionaltiplano.cl). To self-drive, download the free travel guide from rutadelasmisiones.cl, and rent a car in Arica, although access to churches is not always easy.

If booking places to stay, Codpa Valley Lodge (codpavalleylodge.cl) is the poshest. For a more rustic experience, book with church guardian Ana, at Hospedaje Domani (+56 58 222 6335) in Guañacagua, 10,000CLP pp. Book ahead for the double en-suite at Pousada del Candelaria, Belén (fundacionaltiplano.cl), 15,000CLP pp; or try rustic La Paskana, with family rooms and new spacious double. Casa Emilia's, Socoroma, offers simple but clean rooms 10-15,000CLP pp. Terrace Lodge, Putre (terracelodge.com), run by an Italian couple, offers doubles for 34,000CLP (approx. £40 per couple). Flights at LAN.com.

Patron saints' fiestas: Belén (Ch of Santiago) - 25 July; Parinacota - 8 September; Tignamar/Putre - 15 August; Socoroma -4 October; Pachama - 30 November; Guañacagua - 29 June; Codpa - 11 November.

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