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Chile’s Route 11: one of the world’s most scenic drives

Route 11 & Parinacota volcano © Emma FieldChile’s Route 11 winds for 190km through countless climatic zones from the Panamerican 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 continues to climb 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.

Geoglyphs
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.

Geoglyphs © Craig FastAs 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

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

Putre
One hundered and thirty five kilometres from the Panamerican 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.

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Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010