Snow-capped volcanoes, lots of alpacas and vicunas and the bluest of skies – all things you can expect to see if you make the journey up to Parque Nacional Lauca from Arica in Chile. Read on for more about this intriguing but little visited corner of Chile.
There’s a place on the Arica-La Paz highway where a strong magnetic phenomenon can be observed. Stop your car at a certain curving downhill spot, then turn the engine off. You’ll start to roll slowly, but unmistakably , back up the hill. It’s said this is due to electromagnetic fields – I’ve no idea if this is the actual reason but it makes a good story! It’s not the only slightly supernatural element in this region of far northern Chile. Stories abound of alien sightings and UFOs. Maybe it’s the high desert air, but up here at 13,000 feet, anything seems possible.
Lauca is a land of dramatic valleys and perfectly conical volcanoes, dusted with snow as if waiting for their photo opportunity. The irony is that this road is mostly driven by convoys of truckers transporting their mineral cargo across the border and into Bolivia, who’ve seen the views a hundred times or more. There’s no crowds of tourists here; truckers aside, you and the vicunas will have the altiplano to yourselves.
Once you make your way out of the initial valleys from Arica, dotted with green oases where lots of Chile’s fruit and vegetables are grown, you wont see much sign of human habitation. There is plenty of chance to stop and take short walks among the wonderful scenery and local wildlife. If you know the right spots, you might be lucky enough to see some vizcachas, a dopey-looking curious blend of rodent and rabbit, basking in the strong sunlight on the rocks. They sunbake all day to retain some heat at night, when the temperature drops from 30C to zero.
The highlight of any journey through Parque Nacional Lauca is Chungara lake. Almost on the border with Bolivia, the twin volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerape are reflected in the lake. Local Aymara legend has it that the volcanoes are really two lovers, a prince and princess turned to stone.
How to visit Parque Nacional Lauca from Arica, Chile
There are two ways to visit the isolated Parque Nacional Lauca. It’s worth noting that this area has very few settlements; technically you can ask a bus driver to set you down in the Parque if you take the long distance bus from Arica to La Paz, but there aren’t many places to stay overnight.
We took the second option and found a local tour company that would take the two of us up to the Parque and back to Arica in a day. Bear in mind it’s a full day trip, leaving early and getting back to Arica about 6pm. You can also stay in the traditional Aymara village of Putre which has a handful of hotels, restaurants and souvenir stalls and book a tour into the park from there.