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
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
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
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
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
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