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The region is already attracting curious travellers wielding the foundation’s useful Ruta de las Misiones map (available to download from the foundation’s website), and the plan is to attract more. Although the churches will soon be finished, Fundación Altiplano is helping the Aymara people learn traditional skills -- from tending livestock to producing the region’s famous queso de cabra (goat cheese) -- and teaching villagers how to renovate their homes, using the beautifully restored parish house in Belén as an example, in the hope that they will be able to host travellers in the future.

“We are not changing the area,” Heinsen explained. “We are just trying to wake it up. We have to convince people that they have a treasure here.”

While tourism is important to the future of the altiplano, Heinsen said the most satisfying effect of the project has been the surge of pride among the Aymara people when they see their beautifully repaired churches and return home to participate in the region’s colourful religious festivals.

Some of the best festivals for travellers to experience are those honouring the patron saints specific to the different villages, especially the Virgen de los Remedios in Timalchaca Sanctuary (21 November), San Pedro de Guañacagua or Esquiña (29 June), Santiago de Belén (25 July) and San Francisco de Socoroma (4 October). “These festivals connect the people to their ancestral traditions,” Heinsen said. “And for the Aymara, one’s old church is like one’s old heart.”

The best way to explore the villages and churches is to rent a car in the city of Arica, about 125km away, although there is a twice-daily bus service between Arica and the village of Putre, which is the hub of tourist services in the altiplano. There is excellent hiking and wildlife viewing in the region, with 130 species of birds including flamingos and guanaco in the nearby Parque Nacional Lauca, as well as cave paintings, volcanoes and salt lakes. Many travel agencies and hotels in Putre offer tailor-made tours and arrange 4x4 transport to the villages; a top choice is the eco-friendly boutique hotel and tour operator Terrace Lodge.

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