Chile’s Route 11 winds for 190km through countless climatic zones from the Pan-American Highway at sea level to the dizzying heights of the Bolivian border at 4,500m.
For the first few kilometres the road passes along the green floor of the Lluta Valley and it is, frankly, rather tedious. Soon, though, hairpin bends lead up through sand-coated, pillowy mountains. The road almost chops off the tips of the barren peaks as it twists back and forth in a series of hairpin bends, eventually reaching a pale badlands that, in turn open out into a brief plateau. It’s a welcome relief from the intense curves but don’t relax too much. From this barren, taupe landscape, Route 11 ascends further into snow-capped volcanic peaks and a whole other world that teems with wildlife.
The road climbs until it reaches its zenith, in terms of both altitude and vistas, in Parque Nacional Lauca. Without a doubt, Route 11 is one of the best scenic drives in the world. Here’s what to look out for along the way.
The first 15km inland along the Lluta Valley are enlivened by the presence of ancient geoglyphs, believed to date from between 600 and 1500 AD. Look out for figures of humans, lizards, dogs and llamas carved into the slopes either side of the road. Modern totem poles placed alongside the road mark specific lookout spots.
As with the Nazca Lines (which are not far away in southern Peru), the original purpose of the geoglyphs is unknown. Interpretations vary from symbolic or ritualistic functions to playing a role in the transportation network of the ancient people of South America.
Candelabre cacti decorate the rock-strewn slopes a little further on. Found only at altitudes of 2,000 to 2,800m above sea level and reaching heights of over 6m, the cacti form impressive silhouettes. Consider yourself very lucky if you see one in flower – this only happens for 24 hours every year, usually in July and August.
“Apparently, the Termas de Las Cuevas, up a right-hand turn 22km after Putre, have anti-ageing properties”
One hundred and thirty five kilometres from the Pan-American Highway and 3,500m above sea level, the small village of Putre is the ideal place to break the journey for a night or two. Travel any higher without acclimatising and you run the risk of altitude sickness, the effects of which can be felt as low as 2,500m.
Putre is a charming, if earthquake prone, Aymara village, nestled below the mountain peaks. The centre of the village boasts colonial architecture and friendly inhabitants in traditional dress.
Thanks to its convenience as a base for exploring nearby Parque Nacional Lauca, Putre has a good range of hotels, hostels and restaurants. Browse the gift shops, take a few short walks into the surrounding countryside, or make like a gaucho and explore on horseback.
Apparently, the Termas de Las Cuevas, up a right-hand turn 22km after Putre, have anti-ageing properties. For 2,000 pesos (a few £s) you can bathe in a ‘rustic’ bath with a right royal view, smother yourself in mud and regain a few years. There are a further two baths (one very hot and one bearably so) inside a basic building with rudimentary changing rooms.
Parque Nacional Lauca
The climax of Route 11 is Parque Nacional Lauca. At 3,000m to 6,300m above sea level, the park stretches from just above Putre to the border with Bolivia. A visitor centre next to Lago Chungará, one of the world’s highest lakes at 4,500m, provides snacks, souvenirs and a toilet (for a fee). It also offers an incredible view, taking in the snow-capped twin Payachata volcanoes (Parinacota at 6,350m and Pomerape at 6,240m), the smoking peak of Guallatire and Bolivia’s highest volcano, Sajama (6,542m). Salty Lago Chungará teems with giant coots, Andean gulls and flamingos.
The best viewpoint though, is found near the 180km mark. Pull into the generous parking space and take it all in; the foreground of moss-covered rocks and puna gives way to a white-rimmed blue lake which, in turn, wraps around the feet of smooth grey mountains. These mountains, in any other landscape an attraction in their own right, are dwarfed by the twin giants of the Payachata volcanoes towering above the scene, snow clad and majestic.
Watch out for alpaca, llama, vicuňa (a rare relative of the llama and alpaca), flamingos, vizcacha (a bizarre rabbit-like animal with a squirrel’s tail), emu and Andean gulls as you drive through Parque Nacional Lauca. Most of these species are so abundant here that you’re unlikely to miss them, and the sheer numbers put most other parts of South America to shame.
This Aymara village, 5km from Route 11, has adobe houses and an 18th-century church, plus the opportunity to stretch your legs with a well-signposted 3.5km trek – don’t underestimate the effort this short walk requires at this altitude.
Refreshments and souvenirs are on sale in the village centre, next to the church.
4 Tips for driving Route 11:
- Acclimatise. Spend at least a day in Putre before driving to greater altitudes.
- Be prepared. Take plenty of water, sunblock and warm clothes.
- Drive carefully. In general, Route 11 is in good condition but there are many heavily loaded lorries plying the route to Bolivia and potholes can appear overnight. Accidents aren’t uncommon, as the many road-side shrines make plain.
- Hire a four-wheel drive. A rugged vehicle will allow you to explore some of the many tantalising dirt tracks leading away from the main road.