Introducing Parque Nacional Lauca
It's not just the exaggerated altitude (between 3000m and 6300m above sea level) that leaves visitors to this national park breathless. Lauca is home to some breathtaking altiplano scenery, snow-sprinkled volcanoes, sparkling lakes and isolated hot springs. It also shelters pretty highland villages and a huge variety of wildlife. The nimble-footed vicuña and the rabbitlike viscacha are the star attractions, but you're also likely to see other South American camelids and a variety of bird species (there are more than 150 species in the park, including the occasional condor and fast-footed rhea).
Lauca's most spectacular feature is the glistening Lago Chungará, one of the world's highest lakes and particularly abundant with bird life. Looming over it is the impossibly perfect cone of Volcán Parinacota, a dormant volcano with a twin brother, Volcán Pomerape, just across the border. These pristine white-capped volcanoes could almost be painted onto the landscape, but the ominous Volcán Guallatire puffs up dark fumes a short distance to the south.
Situated 160km northeast of Arica, near the Bolivian border, Parque Nacional Lauca, comprising 1380 sq km of altiplano, is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve rich in wildlife. It nuzzles close to two more protected areas, the Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas and Monumento Natural Salar de Surire. Once part of the park, they now constitute technically separate units but are still managed by Conaf. A trip that combines these parks is well worth the extra time and energy.
Rainfall and vegetation increase with altitude and distance from the coast; it can snow in the park during the summer rainy season, known as invierno boliviano (Bolivian winter), when heavy fog often covers the precordillera approaches to the park.