There is lot of spectacular scenery in Chile, and the northern area near the Peruvian and Bolivian borders, high up in the Andes are particularly beautiful. It takes some effort to get there, as it involves a few hours’ drive across part of the Atacama Desert from Arica in the far north, and up into higher levels of the Altiplano (or high plains) of the Andes.
Not only is it quite a long journey by road, it is one that needs to be done at a leisurely pace as the national parks sit at over 4,500m (15,000 ft.) altitude. There are plenty of places to stop and admire the views along the way, including the lovely villages of Poconchile and Socorama. There is also a region of mountainside dotted with massive Candelabra Cactus which curiously, only grows at 2,200m – 2,600m altitude.
We were advised to make an overnight stop part way up, which allows the body to properly acclimatise to the high altitude to minimise the risks of altitude sickness. We stayed overnight at the only really practical stopover point – the village of Putre, which sits in a little green valley in the High Andes at around 3,700m (12,000 ft.). Here, under the watchful eye of the snow-capped Taapaca volcano, is a large but attractive village with unpaved roads, and a few basic hotels and restaurants. We stayed at the hotel Qantati, a basic but pleasant small hotel run by local Aymaran people.
After a decent evening meal in a local bar and a fretful night of oxygen starved sleep, we were ready to continue our journey high up into the Altiplano.
Along the way, there is some fascinating scenery and as the altitude increases, the air temperature drops, although the bright sun makes it feel much warmer. The effect of the two is that in sunny areas there are lush areas of wetlands with freshwater streams glistening in the bright sun. In the shade though, it remains cold and with no warming effect form the sun, the water is deep frozen. It is a very strange contrast and we passed at least two small waterfalls on the roadside where the water was completely frozen through.
Once up in the Altiplano the full beauty of the Lauca National Park comes into view. The two stand out landmarks here are the very pretty Lake Chungara and the huge snow-capped and perfectly symmetrical Parinacota volcano. The area is spectacular and very photogenic under the deep blue desert sky.
Because of the large and fertile wetland areas, there is also a good variety of wild animals in the Lauca National Park including vicuñas, llamas, alpacas and vizcachas. There is also over a hundred species of bird including ibis, the Andean goose, coots, suri, crested ducks and Andean condor.
If you are travelling in northern Chile, it is certainly worth taking a couple of days out to visit the Lauca National Park. It will not disappoint.
Check out the gallery of landscape photos from the Lauca National Park
Check out the gallery of the journey up to Putre