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Chile: Lauca National Park

November 22, 2009

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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The road from Tacna, Peru to the Chilean border traverses barren ground, flat and lifeless.  The Atacama Desert, one of the planet’s driest regions, exists here because of the cold Humboldt Current that flows from the Southern Ocean northward and the barrier of the Andes Mountains to the east.  Somehow the combination prevents rain from falling in the coastal plains.

Just before the turn of the millennium I traveled from Tacna to Arica, Chile with Davarian Hall and a fellow eco-tourism professional named John.  We wanted to rent a car in Arica and drive into the high Andes to Parque Nácional Lauca and view its astounding collection of rare wildlife and also the legendary beauty of the park’s high volcanoes, several of which approach 600o meters in altitude.  The road through the park itself climbed to nearly 5000 meters, so we figured we would be in for some rarified vibes.

But first we had to survive the trip to the border.  Our tour company had thoughtfully provided us with an early 1970s Chevy Impala.  Unfortunately the driver, a tall thin man, presumed his real calling should have been as a professional race car star.  As soon as we left town he pushed the accelerator to the floor and kept it there.  We whirled along the pot-holed highway at 100 miles per hour.

Now, I used to own a 1975 Impala myself, and these Chevrolets were solid, well-built vehicles.  But as good as they are, Impalas are not impervious to the climate of southern Peru.  They require regular maintenance in peripheral areas like the suspension, steering, and tires.  The specimen we were given had bald tires, dead shocks, and a tendency to oversteer at high speeds.  If we’d hit a hole or a rock during the hour-long drive to the border, the car would have lost control and we would have ended up in tiny pieces scattered about the desert, one more puzzle for future archeologists to decipher.  There were already plenty of those; humans had lived along this coast for 10,000 years or more and had mummified their dead during ancient times and drawn countless petroglyphs that have yet to be understood.

Checking out of Peru was an easy task, but the Chilean side of the frontier was manned by humorless guards who held grudges against every foreigner who wished to enter their country.  We were made to go behind curtained cubicles to be searched.  One Customs Man dropped a Peruvian’s laptop computer on the concrete floor and I heard the distinct sounds of hundreds of tiny components smashing into bits of plastic and metal.

But we were eventually granted permission to enter Chile, and a much calmer driver took us into Arica, a beautiful, small, ocean-view city of maybe 170,000 residents and more civilized than its neighbor to the north. The restaurants certainly served better food and the women looked gorgeous and more fashionably dressed.  On the other hand, the cops seemed less personable than their Peruvian counterparts.  Funny mix of things that a few decades of fascist rule will impart to a society.

For reasons I no longer remember, we determined that I would be the sole driver of the expedition into the Andes.  We rented a puny little sedan, maybe a Hyundai, and left Arica after spending one night in a modest hotel.  We follwed the coast a short distance, turned inland and began to climb almost immediately into the Andean foothills.

1) The road to Lauca begins its ascent from the coast.  The valleys here were irrigated but had limited crop production.

The scenery became more spectacular with every hairpin turn of the road.  The highway was a major engineering project, for it ran all the way to Bolivia, and was built to very high standards, with guard rails, shoulders, even yellow lines to divide the traffic flow.  Amazing.  You’d never get anyone to spend money on such frills in Peru.

3) Another view, not far from the coast.

We had one final human obstacle to overcome.  At a four-corners major intersection stood a patrol of motorcycle police, there to stop and question passersby.  I considered slowing my speed and smiling at them with a wave of the hand, indicating that as a gringo I was too dumb to know I was supposed to stop.  The tactic had worked in Peru when I’d used if once or twice there when driving.  But an inner voice told me that the day would turn out better if I halted for this inspection.

The cop who stepped beside my open window was overweight and gruff.  He demanded my driver’s license and the passports of my friends.  At first I handed him my Florida driver’s license, hoping that would prove sufficient, but he was not interested in such a trivial document.  No.  He wanted to see an international driver’s license. Well, of course I had one of those, but the thing was expired and I had never bothered to return to a Triple A store in the States and get an updated version.  But the booklet – for that is what it resembled – contained instructions and details in so many languages as to be virtually impossible for an ordinary policeman to interpret.  The cop never noticed, right on the front page, that the date of expiration was written plainly as 1996, about three years previously.

He handed us back our various documents and waved us on.  So we were free to continue.  I made a note to myself to pay the damn ten bucks when I got back to Florida and get a new international license.  Aiming for less stress was always a good path to follow.

We soon reached an altitude where the air was moister and the landscape changed. The sun disappeared and we didn’t see much of it again.  But the mists held promises of secrets to come.

3) Higher up, the clouds take over

We made our way to the small village of Putre at the edge of the park to check out and stay at the only suitable hotel that catered to upscale tourists.   Apparently the place had been originally built to house mining interests, and the hotel was dark and gloomy with few guests, although hospitable enough.

Early the next day we drove into the park, and into another continuum of life.  Lauca has been compared favorably with the Serengeti in Africa and although I had thought that a dubious claim, it holds a certain justification. We saw herds of guanacos and vicuñas.  Herds, mind you, of animals that were nearly extinct in the rest of their original native Andean ranges.

4) vicuñas grazing

Vicuñas had been hunted to near extermination in Peru, because traditionally the only method for harvesting their fine fur was to kill them.   Programs now exist near Arequipa to shear the animals –  a small scarf of vicuña wool costs nearly a thousand dollars – but you don’t often see them in the wild.  In Lauca they are plentiful, and we soon became jaded.  “Oh, look, there’s another bunch,” became a common remark in the car.

We even saw a couple of viscachas, furry little rodents that look like a cross between a bunny and a rat. They knew where to find the sun and warm themselves on rocks near the road.  This species, too, had been mostly hunted for its fur, and I’d never seen one before.

5) Viscachas basking in a rare patch of sunlight

We gasped for air as we reached the height of the altiplano at over 4000 meters or 13000 feet above sea level.  And the weather turned cold.  But soon we reached a series of high lakes, famous for their flamingo populations.  Flamingoes?  In the snow?  What a concept!  Three species of the bird – a synonym for Florida in the USA – thrive in remote parts of the Andes Mountains: the Andean, the Chilean, and the James.

6) Flamingoes at 13000 ft.

Meanwhile the volcanoes seemed to appear and disappear in and out of the clouds.  They were everywhere. The land was geologically active to an extreme point.

7) Volcano rising over the altiplano

Other tourists had braved the weather to come up here; we were not alone.  But we didn’t see any other gringos or Europeans, only South Americans.  They were brave people who may have only been passing through on their way to Bolivia or had come into Lauca for the scenery and wildlife.

8) You can’t see the evidence in this photo, but it’s actually snowing lightly.

The countryside became more magnificent with every turn of the road.

9) High lakes and salt pans.  This land used to lie underwater.

Although originally a part of the Inca Empire, the area was home still to a small population of Aymara.  Most of the natives who hadn’t been exterminated in the old Spanish silver mines had moved on and migrated to the cities.  We stopped in one tiny hamlet where we’d heard you could buy locally-knit sweaters.  (I purchased a beautiful sweater of baby alpaca fur for my son, but it never did fit him; the garment was the right size but the hole for the head was too small.)

When we returned to our hotel in Putre at the end of the day , we were exhausted but exhilarated.  In the restaurant we  met an improbable character, an Australian guide who had lived in Chile for years and who looked like Paul Hogan of “Crocodile Dundee” fame.  He had two Germans in tow, who had hired him to show them the park, but he abandoned his clients for our more genial and English-speaking company.  He pounded back a thicket of beer bottles that soon turned into a grove of primary forest, and told us some history of northern Chile.  When I mentioned to him that we almost hadn’t stopped at the police checkpoint on the way into the mountains, he expressed shock.  “If you hadn’t stopped they’d have shot at you,” he told us.

“What?” I said.  “That would never happen in Peru.”  Of course, I had no way to be sure of this statement.

“This isn’t Peru, mate, it’s Chile. And don’t forget the difference.”

So we kept that useful advice in mind for the rest of our stay in Lauca and cautiously observed the traffic laws, reminding ourselves that we weren’t in Peru anymore.

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