Lauca National Park

Chile extreme north

Chile extreme north

I was up early in the morning to catch a tour bus departing to Lauca at 7:30. It would fill the entire day, returning at approximately 8:00 in the evening. I had a bus to catch south immediately following this tour, so I had to pack all my stuff and bring it with me on the tour. The tour-goers were mostly foreigners as I suspected they would be, but a few Chileans were mixed in as well. There were about 15 in all, which made for a nice little group, not too big and not too small.

The early portion of the trip took us through the desert of Arica, a barren wasteland devoid of just about anything. This was nothing like Arizona, where there’s all sorts of shrubbery and cacti poking their way up through the sand and making a meagre living on what little sustenance they could. I could hardly see any signs of life at all around us.

After an hour of traversing the desert we began a slow ascent up into the Andes, at which point the landscape slowly began to change, becoming greener and more pleasant on the whole. As we continued up and up, I again considered the possibility of altitude sickness, which I’m sure was on everyone’s mind. We’d be going from sea level to nearly 4500 meters above sea level in the span of just 4 hours.

Vicuña near Chungara Lake

Vicuña near Chungara Lake

By the early afternoon we were in Lauca and nearing Lake Chungara, the highest lake in South America. There was now plenty of life around us, including llamas, alpacas, and vicunas. The lake itself was very pleasant, with ducks and birds flitting all about, drinking and playing in the water. A couple of us did get altitude sickness by this point, though most of us got along okay.

We left the lake an hour later and drove to the small native village of Parinacota. As I explored the village, I was shocked to see there was a refugio here. I desperately wanted to explore this area, and would be leaving soon if not, so I decided to break my travel plans and stay here for a night or two. A few of the other members of the tour seemed interested in the refugio as well, as they seemed to be unaware of its presence up here also. We all checked it out and were notified that 4 bunks were available as well as plenty of floor space should the bunks get snatched up. I decided to stay, as did a few of the others.

I wasn’t in great shape as far as food went, so I dumped my gear off and headed back to the bus station to catch a ride to the closest town to get supplies. The bus continued on its way back to our starting point, and I waved goodbye to those that would be returning with it. The store didn’t have much in the way of supplies, but I managed to get some canned peaches, tins of sardines, and some sweets. There was also a restaurant here where I ate (and ordered a bit of extra food to take back with me also).

As I left the restaurant, I got caught up in some sort of local festivity, as there was much dancing and music playing going on. It was a fun little performance that went on for some time, and I clapped heartily when it ended. I now set out on foot back to Parinacota, a short walk of maybe 5km or so. I took it easy though, considering my body must still be adjusting to the altitude, even if it hadn’t yet vigorously told me so.

Salar de Surire

Salar de Surire

The walk back took about an hour and a half at my laboured pace, and I returned to the refugio immediately, where I chatted with some of the other guests for a bit, then went to bed.

I headed out to explore the wilderness around Lauca the next day. I still moved rather slowly, but felt much more energetic now than yesterday, despite not getting a tremendous sleep. The first thing that surprised me about life at this altitude was just how much life there was. I was expecting it to be rather scarce, with maybe some birds and other scattered animals around, but you couldn’t even tell we were 15000 or so feet up here. There wasn’t much plant life, but some shrubs and other stranger plants did show themselves from time to time. In the distance was a large peak, rising about 2000m up, which I was tempted to climb, but I really didn’t think it was feasible, especially being alone as I was. I also didn’t want to risk getting lost in the area on my own. Even the paths around here were not always easy to follow, though I knew the general direction of the main road, so I knew I could head towards it if I got lost.

The next day I was nearly out of food and wasn’t sure if I should now try to get back to Arica on a tour bus. I packed up my things and headed to the bus station, not even sure if a tour bus would show up at any point. One did, but it was completely full, so luck was not on my side. I hung around some more but no more buses came, so I decided to hang around the village and refugio for the rest of the day and try my luck tomorrow.

I was now at the point where I wanted to get out of here, and would hitchhike if I had to. At the small town 5km away was a police checkpoint where all cars had to stop, so I figured that was my best bet. I had to wait 4 hours, despite a fairly steady stream of cars, as many weren’t going my direction. Finally though I hitched a ride, and the ride was much more enjoyable going down than it had been coming up with a bus full of people and little visibility.

Lauca had been a great place to visit, and if supplies hadn’t been so tight, I would like to have stayed longer. I’d love to return with a friend some day and rent a 4×4, so I could really get out there and experience its full majesty.