Chile is a country where dramatic nature comes more to mind than dramatic culture for most people. Yet, if you go to some of the museums, housed in buildings or in-situ in the North, that perception of the cultural part will be greatly altered.
Chile's national boundary is arguably the most unusual in the world. Basically on the west side of the Andes continental divide stretching from about 16'S to 56'S, Chile has a length of 4300 km but a width of no more than 350 km. Thus the country consists of radically different climate regions at non-mountainous altitudes, from the bone-dry north, to a California-like Mediterranean climate in the centre, to the lush temperate rainforests of the south. Typical Chilean tourist brochures prominently feature the mountains, fjords, forests and vineyards of the centre and the south, and that is why people associate Chile with nature. Only recently has the tourism department started to pay a bit of attention to the cultural artifacts of the north.
Various peoples lived in Chile, with the earliest evidence currently found dating from about 35,000 years ago. While there were north-to-south expansions such as the Incas from what is now Peru reaching into Central Chile by 15th century AD, many groups spanned across the mountains to the east into what is now Argentina and Paraguay or Bolivia. The mighty Andes, some with passes reaching 18,000 feet, were not a frontier barrier at all.
The most visible and best preserved cultural artifacts lie in the desert north. The geoglyphs of Atacama are not well known yet are most impressive. Scattered across several hundred kilometers north from near Calama, they are patterns of stones or sand that are deliberately placed or etched on prominent hills rising from the largely flat Atacama desert. The patterns range from geometric forms (circles, squares) that have figurative meanings such as agriculture, human figures showing ordinary activities to godlike forms, llama trains, animal figures, and whale hunting that are visible from miles away.
Two major sites are Chug Chug near the copper mining town of Calama where there is a mandatory tour guide from the indigenous community who operates it (go in the morning for better light), and Cerro Pintado about 100 km south of Iquique which is a national monument with explanatory panels in a small building. There are others that are in open land, either right next to the Pan American highway or just a bit off of it, like Tiliviche or the Atacama Giant (pictured above).
So why did people bother to decorate a mountain, so well, in what is largely a lifeless desert? While the guides and panels at the sites provided some good answers, the whole picture really started to make sense when I visited the excellent University of Tarapacá Museum in Azapa just outside of Arica, not far from the Peruvian border.
After I parked my car on the side of the road, I walked into the pleasant well-manicured grounds that housed a number of moderate sized stately buildings. It felt like a royal compound of a small principality. Upon entering the main museum building, the lady at the desk instructed me to turn to my left and followed the path, as the exhibits were displayed in time progression of the Tarapacá region (which Arica is a part of). It showed how the region was settled by the Chinchorro hunter-gatherers some 9000 years ago, then gradually developed agriculture and ceramics, becoming absorbed into the great Tiwanaku Empire headquartered in the highlands near Lake Titicaca and which lasted for almost 1000 years, how it then broke up into local fiefdoms, and finally with the arrival of the Europeans radically changing the scene. Very well selected artifacts as part of the narration.
Being part of the Tiwanaku Empire, Arica and other coastal towns in northern Chile have always been oriented toward the highlands. The highlanders always needed things from Chile and the sea – minerals, fish, shells.... Chilean roads in the north today follow this east-west ancient trails. Even the north-south Pan American Highway follows the Loa River trail originating from the mountains for almost 100 km.
The geoglyphs now made more sense. They were waypoints and guideposts for the trips up and down the mountains. They recorded thoughts, activities and achievements. They served ceremonial and religious purposes. People making those trips definitely saw them. Instead of being the middle of nowhere as it might feel today, we need to see them as major truckstops on the busy Tiwanaku highways, with llama trains hauling potatoes from the highlands and fish from the ocean.
The best part yet is situated in the building across the gardens. There lies some of the Chinchorro mummies, the oldest in the world, and an excellent exposition of their culture. Not only are the Chinchorro mummies older than the better known Egyptian ones, they are made by a hunter-gatherer people who lived in the area, rather than by an advanced agrarian society. The mummies are always buried with the head facing due south, organs have been removed for better preservation.
You can go to see the mummies in-situ in downtown Arica at Museo de Sitio Colón 10 museum. They were discovered by a utility company in the 1980s, and they were considered to be too fragile to be moved, so they were studied by the university, and the residential building in which it is found was converted to a museum. You literally walk over the mummies on the glass floor above.
Back at the Tarapacá, there are many Chinchorro objects on display, from elaborate fish hooks ground from shellfish and beautifully polished stone weights, to spears and figurines representing the mummies. It provides a fascinating view of the lives and capabilities of a people from 9000 years ago. They go into detail about the different mummy burial methods – red, white and black that evolved over the years. Life is not easy for the Chinchorros. Many of the skeletons show deformations caused by malnutrition or parasites, or broken bones that are signs of violent confrontations, and there are a large number of children. Yet, they feel the need to perform such elaborate funerary rites.
I rented a vehicle and traveled to the sites in the region at my own pace. I also traveled up and down the roads right to the Bolivian border, onto the Altiplanos and salt flats dominated by towering volcanoes in the distance, and drove by villages that are still predominantly Aymará. Though their permanent populations are dwindling as the younger generations move away to the urban areas on the coast, festivals are still held in those villages, and I luckily stumbled upon one in Isluga. Spanish is necessary if you are going on your own. There are day tours to these areas and sites if you don't have a vehicle and / or need an English-speaking guide, but the days will be very long since you will have to return to the city since there are no facilities of any sort in between.
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I started my first solo backpacking trip right after school and I have never really stopped. The world is one gigantic onion, and I wander both on the surface and to the infinite layers beneath. Museums are the inukshuks that guide me through that immense beauty and fascinating richness, through time, by connecting places, and focusing on themes.
I have visited many museums, and these serendipitous experiences have left an indelible mark on me: the dazzling glitter of the Treasury of National Jewels and the fine craftsmanship on display in the Carpet Museum in Tehran; the engaging curation of the Smithsonian in both the American History and the Air and Space museums; the fascinating artifacts in the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara that traces the course of history from the Neothlic to the Bronze Age with cuneiform tablets detail treaties and invoices between the Hittites, Assyrians and other peoples far beyond; the MoMA in New York in which modernist designs from 80 to 100 years ago remain elegant and avant-garde today; the outstanding collection of bronze works in Shanghai Museum that reflect Ancient Chinese history; Topkap? where the East meets the West; the National Museum where I saw Lucy and the Ethnology Museum just up the road in Addis Ababa with masinkos, water-tight baskets and beekeeping history that shaped the Highland Cultures of Ethiopia; the Gold Museum in Bogotá and the Anthropology Museum in México City that tell the other side of the story of the richness of the Americas...these are just a few of the many top of mind. But many smaller, lesser-known museums can be equally fascinating in immersing me in the place, such as the Anthropology Museum in Azapa, Chile that displays the world's oldest Chinchorro Mummies and the evolution of the region into part of the Tiwanaku federation high in the mountains, or in-situ museums such as the abandoned nitrate mining town of Humberstone in Chile and how resource extraction and rigid class structure shapes Chile till this day.
I will undoubtedly keep adding to the list. Many more miles, many more museums, yet to go. Virtual is a helpful brochure, it is not a substitute for the immersiveness of the physical. Go everywhere in the onion.