Lauca National Park covers 1,379 km of high plains (Alitplano) and mountains in the extreme north east corner of Chile. Just across the border lies Bolivia’s highest peak, Sajama (6,542 m). Most people who travel through the region only get a sleepy glimpse of the scenery on their way through to la Paz or Arica. However if ever there was a place where it’s worth taking a short detour off the beaten track, this is it.
The altitude in Lauca National Park is around 4000 meters above sea level. Snow-capped volcanic peaks tower over bright blue salty lakes and vegetation which is probably like no other you’ve seen anywhere else. The weird and wonderful “Yateta” plant resembles something you’d see scuba diving rather than trekking in the high plains. It is used by locals as fuel, causing it to be endangered in some regions. Despite the high, harsh conditions the area is home to a huge variety of birds and mammals. There are over 140 species of birds, making it a great place for birdwatching.
Despite the remoteness of the region it has been home to human beings too for many years. In the Putre valley you can see Incan geolyphs and 16th Century adobe churches. In Lauca, man’s existence is mainly evident in the herds of alpaca and vicuna, who lazily graze on the tough “ichu” grass, oblivious to the fact they’re providing the perfect photo opportunity for any intrepid tourist who might happen to pass by.
I first visited the area a few years ago with a friend. She was living in Santiago, I was living in Cusco. We looked at a map and decided that La Paz, Bolivia was about half way between, so met up there. We spent a few days poring over maps and researching possible destinations for an adventure out into the wilderness and decided on Sajama and Lauca, it was somewhere I’d had my eye on visiting for a long time. We took local transport out of La Paz and crossed the border into Lauca smoothly enough. Just a little way into Chile there is a small refuge which was to be our home for two nights. We spent the next day walking through the weird and wonderful landscapes, weighed down with plenty of water to stave off the effects of the harsh altiplano sun and thin air.
The following day we decided it was time to back track to Sajama. Whether it was crossing the border back into less developed Bolivia, or just plain bad luck I can’t be sure but suffice to say it took 4 hours to make a 10km journey by 2 different buses, foot and taxi. After that 10km we were left unceremoniously at the entrance to a dusty adobe village that at first sight appeared to be deserted. It was around 4pm and the air began to chill, a sure sign that darkness wasn’t too far away and our destination was a blur in the far off distance, a good 4 hour walk with heavy back packs which we had been hoping to avoid.
We eventually spotted a car, and even better its owner, or at least he said he was. We negotiated a lift to a small village at the foot of Sajama, and found a cute little traditionally built guest house. There was still enough light to get some great photos of the haunting adobe church before the sun went down.
The next day we set off in search of geysers and hot springs that we had heard about. We paid a local chap and his son to guide us to the geysers, from there he waved his hand vaguely towards the horizon and gave us “directions” to some hot springs. Perfect we thought, a few hours of hiking then hot springs. So we walked, and walked. The landscape is flat with no paths, few landmarks and no big signs or people to ask, just the occasional herd of alpaca, so not the easiest place to navigate. Eventually after several more hours than we’d expected we stumbled across the small pool and sank into it to watch the sunset on the mighty Sajama mountain.
You can visit Lauca from either Arica (Chile) or (La Paz) as I did. In our Chile and Peru Tour, we’ve combined it with Machu Picchu to make for an off-beat trip giving you a real flavour of the true beauty of the Andean high plains which is not always easy to experience in the more touristy routes.