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Clinging precariously to the dizzying Andean heights of the northernmost region of Chile’s slender 4,300 kilometer-long mainland, the pueblo of Putre (POOH’-tray), 140 kilometers east of oceanside Arica, is one of Chile’s gems, albeit a raw one. Ramshackle and unkempt, it quietly proclaims its status as Chile’s northernmost town—although a handful of miniscule hamlets and military outposts might challenge that claim. Above all, it is the gateway to the stunning Parque Nacional Lauca (LAO’-kah).

Putre and Parque Nacional Lauca bask in air that is cool and clean—and thin. Climbing steadily into the mountains directly from sea level in a well-maintained vehicle along Ruta 11 from the coast into Bolivia seems effortless, but high altitudes reached swiftly can be treacherous for many. Putre sits at 3,500 meters (11,480 feet) above sea level; the nearly 138,000 hectares of Parque Nacional Lauca lie between 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) and over 6,000 meters (19,600 feet) above sea level.

The focal point of  Parque Nacional Lauca, now a World Biosphere Reserve, is the dazzling Lago Chungará (choon-gah-RAH’). At 4,500 meters (14,750 feet) above sea level it is one of the highest lakes in the world. On a clear day, the sight of the snow-covered cone of still-active Volcán Parinacota reflected in the mirror-like surface of Lago Chungará, vicuñas like four-legged ballerinas feeding along its shoreline, is worth a trip to Chile from anywhere. This is also the realm of the vizcacha (chinchilla); the ñandĂş, a flightless, ostrich-like bird; and the majestic condor. Small herds of domesticated alpacas and llamas meander everywhere.

Tucked deep in the highest altitudes of the Parque Nacional Lauca, a few kilometers west of Lago Chungará, is the almost-deserted altiplano indigenous village of Parinacota (pah-ree-nah-COH’-tah). The 17th century Iglesia de Parinacota—rebuilt in the late 19th century—is another sobering reminder of the long religious arm of the early conquistadores.

Busloads of passengers off cruise ships calling into Arica routinely visit Lago Chungará on single day trips. The tour operators carry oxygen as a matter of course, but unwary visitors are regularly afflicted by altitude sickness, known locally as soroche. For your head, an overnight in Putre is highly recommended. Quickie tours from Arica into Parque Nacional Lauca (via Putre) are not very rewarding, “windshield tourism” at its worst. True travelers to the area too often return with the nagging feeling that their visit was interrupted. You’re best to spend some time on your own, ambling about and exploring this remarkable area.

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