When we arrived in Arica we had never heard of the Azapa Valley. However, the first thing the owner of the Sunny Days hostel told us when we asked what we should do was to visit the valley. He began telling us stories of the oldest mummies ever found, the ancient Chinchorro culture and animal figures etched onto the side of hills. We were amazed and immediately made the decision to visit the mummies of the Azapa Valley.
Nowadays the main use of the Azapa valley is to produce fruit and olives for export. However this valley has an incredible history. Home to the Chinchorro people over 7,000 years ago, not much remains other than the fossils and jewellery.
After a little research and planning we decided to spend a day exploring the valley. On the agenda was a visit to the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum to see the mummies, a stop off in a desert cemetery and finally a hike along the hills looking for the amazing animal geoglyphs.
The Ancient Mummies
Before the arrival of the Incas, a more ancient civilisation roamed these lands. Little is known of the Chinchorro people except that they lived here over 7,000 years ago. In 1918 archaeologists unearthed the oldest mummies every found and with this discovery found a civilisation that worshiped the dead. Future excavations have exposed a practice of mummification, which antedated the Egyptians.
This practice involved the burning of bodies, extracting the brain and then replacing it with feathers. After this, the mummies remained among the living for years. A truly creepy history which has been perfectly summed up by one of the first archaeologists on site, “the mummies reflect the savagery that these aborigines were still steeped in”. The finding of these mummies also helped with the timeline for the first inhabitants of South America, a history little of which is known.
San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum
In the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum, which is run by the University of Tarapacá, it is possible to see four mummies on permanent display along side jewellery, weapons and tools. It is pretty amazing to be standing in front of mummies dating back over 7,000 years…
The museum is modern, well organised and a real bargain for only CLP 2,000 for adults and CLP 1,000 for kids. Also in the museum entrance fees is a short exhibit about farming techniques but we skipped this as we were first worried we paid to enter the wrong museum. Link to the museums website – http://masma.uta.cl/
The Mysterious Geoglyphs
Similar to the animals of the Nazca Lines, the Azapa Valley geoglyphs depict animals and men etched into the side of the valleys hills. Whereas the purpose of Peru’s Nazca Line remain a mystery the geoglyphs in the Azapa Valley have a very specific purpose. The animals are a sign to tired travelers that they are getting close to the area where llamas and alpacas could be bought and traded. Other animals can be found, like snakes and lizards, and these are thought to be warnings to be careful of such animals.
It is possible to see animals throughout the valley however, the best place to see the geoglyphs is from Cerro Sagrado (Sacred Hill) located near Pampa Alto Ramírez. The geoglypse are easy to spot with your own eyes but binoculars would have come in handy to see the details. Unfortunately, the closer to Arica you go, the more they’ve been vandalised.
For some strange reason humans are drawn to cemeteries, and we are no exception. We have visited some at home and in many other countries and after hearing about the unique desert cemetery we made our way. It is probably the most unique we have seen.
Being in a desert means the graves are in the sun all day. Families have decided that this is either not good for their loved ones to lay in rest in the sun, or they want shelter when paying their respects. Whatever the reason, roofs and shelters have been made to cover the graves.
It has resulted in the creation of an eery, empty shanty town.
How to get to the Azapa Valley
The town of San Miguel de Azapa is located only 13km outside of Arica and can be accessed by taxi, collectivo (shared taxi) or by bike. We chose the collectivo as the taxi was too expensive and it was way too hot to cycle in a desert valley.
To get the collectivo, just go to the main bus terminals. In Arica there are two terminals: the national and international. The collectivos wait outside the international terminal and have a sign showing they will be going to San Miguel. The collectivo costs 1,000 CLP per person, but will only leave when the car is full. Because it is a shared taxi, they will bring you in and around the whole area on the way into the valley. We asked to be dropped off at the museum, not in the town, to save a little walking and money.
After the museum we walked a couple of minutes into town, to the the cemetery and for lunch. From here you have choices. The route to see the geoglyphs is different to the route back to Arica. You can try to get a collectivo going this route but they are less frequent or you can try to get a taxi all the way. We decided to get a taxi to the first geoglyph, then hitchhike and walk our way into the next village. From here, after we saw all of the sights, we hopped on a bus back into Arica. It was all very easy and ended up being quite cheep.
Cost and Useful information
Exchange rate (as of May 2017): €1 = 714.20 CLP
Collectivo to San Miguel de Azapa (museum): 1,000 CLP (€1.40)
Taxi / Collectivo to first Geoglyph: 750 CLP (€1.05)
City Bus Back To Arica: 400 CLP (€0.56)
Museum: 2,000 CLP (€2.80)
Lunch – Pastel de Choclo: 5,000 CLP (€7)
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