Parque Nacional Lauca

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Having picked the hire car up in Arica, we drive up, up, and up. On the way to the Altiplano we pass a tiny village of Poconchile where the oldest church in Chile, Iglesia de San Geronimo, dating from 1580, is. It is remarkably simple with its whitewashed adobe walls and twin bell towers. Inside it has a wooden floor and an array of doll-like statues depicting the saints. Out the back is the most desolate graveyard I´ve ever seen. Most of the graves are marked by simple wooden crosses in various states of decay. There is not a bit of green in the stark white landscape, and flowers placed on one grave are bleached brown from the relentless sun.

The road into the altiplano, although paved, is extremely hazardous as there are some drop offs down steep scree slopes that look really frightening. Rachel watches my driving like a hawk, thinking about the minibus that went over the edge a few days ago killing ten American tourists.

On the road we pass the odd articulated vehicle, belching black fumes, and going at a snails pace up the long inclines. Downwards the trucks are going even slower, using their noisy engine breaks to avoid a runnaway. The air smells of brake-dust and diesel fumes.

As we continue to drive up, we see some curious cactii growing on the arid mountain slopes. Apparently these are called Candelabra Cactus due to their characteristic shape, and since it never rains here they get their water from trapping moisture from the coastal fogs that occasionally permeate this far inland.

After about four hours on Highway 11, we arrive at the tiny village of Putre at 3,500m altitude. Our idea is to spend the night here to acclimatise to the altitude before driving through Lauca National Park the next day.

At Hostal Cali we negotiate 9,000 Pesos (about GBP9.00) per night for a double ensuite room and kitchen privelidges. Knowing supplies are somewhat limited in these parts Rachel has decided to bring most of the food we need from the well-stocked supermarkets in Arica. We chat in stunted Spanish to the friendly owner and shopkeeper and his small plump wife in the kitchen, whilst making dinner. Their son, who happens to be a tourguide, arrives and it transpires he speaks English well so we finalise our plans for the next day with his advice.

That night its hard to sleep smoothly because of the sudden increase in altitude. Rachel complains that I am panting and snoring in my sleep. My regular breathing frequency when sleeping doesn´t deliver enough oxygen. My brain wakes me up periodically to remind me, resulting in bouts of panting and the feeling of being suffocated. Its a bit like being at Everest Base Camp again (see entry July 12th 2005, Shigatse, Tibet), although not quite as serious.

We wake up bright and early and drive into the park, which amazingly for Chile, has free entry. Mind you, Highway 11, which cuts right through the middle of the park, is also the main road to Bolivia so it would be a bit difficult to gather entry-fees.

Once in the park we are on the Altiplano around 4000m altitude. There are signs of green up here as afternoon thunderstorms usually occur in the summer and into the autumn. This allows rough scrub and grasses to grow which in turn support a population of animals.

The first ones we spot are cute fluffy viscacha at Las Cuevas. Like a extra-furry rabbit with a long tail, they seem remarkably at ease with us as we meander amongst them and take photos. The backdrop of tiny bubbling streams and giant white-topped volcanoes makes the setting highly photogenic.

We drive on to our highest point of the day at 4500m on the shores of Lago Chungara. Behind the lake is perfect snowcapped Volcan Parinacota at 6530m. In the foreground are herds of white, brown, and black Alpacas grazing on the sparse vegetation. On the lake we see lots of giant coots gathering up water-weed to make floating nests; when walking on the shore they look strange because of their disproportionately gianormous webbed feet.

We pause on the lakeshore for a while in the warm morning sunshine. When there are no trucks passing this could be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. The landscape feels primaeval and abundant in wildlife despite the harshness of the climate. I imagine myself as a caveman come to hunt on the plentiful herds of prehistoric mammals on the high plains.

We drive up to the Bolivian border post, turn round, and head back into the park driving down a side road to Parinacota village. This tiny village with a population of only 25 apparently has a 17th Century Church worth looking at.

Our guidebook advises us to ask for Señor Cipriano Morales who holds they keys to the church. We ask one of the local ladies, who is dressed traditionally in black hat and bright woollen garments, of his whereabouts. We gather from her reply that he´s dead (and buried in the ground) and the man who now has the keys is in a village far away.

We make do with a tour around the exterior. The adobe walls of the church look warped and are cracked from its very great age. I see a bird calling from inside the church taunting us that we cannot see the paintings inside. I climb the bell tower outside in a corner of the peripheral wall and itch to ring the green corroded bells. The thatched roofs of the church building and the walls are badly in need of repair.

We make a small circuit walking through the countryside around the village. Its really tough to walk without feeling exhausted at 4000m altitude (especially with less than 24hrs acclimatisation). I see ominous black clouds gathering above volcane Pomerane, and we decide to increase the pace to avoid being caught in a thunderstorm. We are just back into the village, sitting in the car, when lightening violently strikes one of the buildings, making Rachel jump.

We take a short snooze, letting the shower pass. We are feeling quite groggy so we decide to see if we can drink some The de Cacao, to help relieve the effects of altitude, at a little booth in the corner of the town square. The tea certainly wakes me up, and chewing some of the cacao leaves leaves me with a numb tongue. Its strange to think this is the raw material for cocaine.

A lone female Dutch cyclist rolls in to the village to the amazement of the handful of locals the four tourists (there is also a French couple). It turns out Liz has been cycling for 5 months, covering over 3000km, through some pretty desolate country in Patagonia and the Andes carrying everything she needs for survival. I see a rough welded repair on the front forks of the bike. Apparently the forks ´failed catastrophically´ when she was going full-speed downhill causing a pretty major wipeout. All our adventures pale into insignificance compared to the wild endevours of this lonely dutch girl.

Rachel has a headache and is feeling nauseous; a sure sign of mild altitude sickness. We head back to Putre for the night feeling some benefit at lowering our altitude back to 3500m. Fortunately Rachel´s symptoms abate, but she doesn´t sleep well that night.

In the morning, we get into the car and drive back down to Arica. Francisco from Klasse car rental collects the vehicle from Sunny Days hostal and we say goodbye to Ross, the owner, jumping on a bus heading south to Iquique.
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Comments

fcomby4
fcomby4 on

Great place!
Hi,

really nice post and beatiful places.

I am looking forward to go to the Lauca NP this summer and do more or less the same selfdrive you have done.

An adivce... what car would you suggest us to rent? Is a 'normal' car enough or is a SUV o 4x4 car really needed?

Thanks
Filippo from Italy

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