One of Chileâ€™s most impressive and beautiful national parks is Parque Nacional (PN) Lauca. Snowy volcanoes embrace dry altiplano plains where Ã±andÃº and vicuÃ±a roam. The multitudinous bofedales, or wetlands are filled with birds. Its Aymara name, Lawquia, means aquatic grasses.
The park, originally founded as a reserva forestal in 1965 and upgraded to a parque nacional in 1970, covers 137,883 hectares. Altitudes range from 3,200 meters (10,400 ft) to 6,342 meters (20,612 ft). The highest peaks are Parinacota (6,342 m / 20,612 ft), Pomerape (6,282 m / 20,417 ft) and Guallatire (6,060 m / 19,695 ft). It has two distinct ecosystems: the Precordillera (3,200-3,800 m / 10,400-12,350 ft altitude) and the Altiplano (over 3,800 m / 12,350 ft).
The precordillera is characterized by such cacti as the chastudo (old man of the Andes, Oreocereus leucotrichus), guacaya (Corryocactus brevistylus), perrito (Cumulopuntia sphaerica), puscaya (Cumulopuntia boliviana), scrubs chilca (Baccharis Latifolia), tola supu (Baccharis boliviensis) and others. Living in these Andean foothills are the guanaco (lama guanicoa), llama (Lama glama), taruca (North Andean huemul, Hippocamelus antisensis), puma (Felis concolor) and zorro culpeo (Patagonian fox, Pseudalopex culpeus).
The altiplano has dry plains awash with wetlands. Two major rivers flow through it: the Lauca, which empties into Salar de Coipasa in Bolivia, and the Vizcachani, a tributary of the Lauca. The largest bofedal is near Parinacota village and other wetlands surround Laguna de Cotacotani. Lago ChungarÃ¡ is one of the highest lakes in the world. Flora of the altiplano include the tuna (Indian fig opuntia, Opuntia ficus-indica), llareta (Azorella compacta), a hard, green, moss-like plant that grows in cushions, queÃ±oa de altura (Polylepis tarapacana Phil.), the stiff golden grass, paja brava (festus, Festuca spp) and chachacoma (Senecio eriophyton), a low bush. The vicuÃ±a (Vicugna vicugna), alpaca (Lama pacos) and vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia), a small rodent once prized for its fur, are denizens of the plains, as are the Ã‘andÃº or Suri (Puna Rhea, Pterocnemia tarapacensis), perdiz de puna (Puna Tinamou, Tinamotis pentlandii) and Condor (Vultur gryphus).
The lakes, lagoons and bofedales provide homes and nesting grounds for the Blanquillo (Silvery Grebe, Podceps occipitalis juninensis), Huairavo (Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax), Flamenco Chileno (Chilean Falamingo, Phoenicopterus chilensis), Guallata (Andean Goose, Cloephaga melanoptera), Pato Juarjual (Crested Duck, Lophonetta specularioides alticola), Tagua Gigante (Giant Coot, Fulica gigantea), Pato JergÃ³n Chico (Brown Pintail, Anas georgica spinicauda) and other birds. In total, about 140 endemic, resident and migratory bird species rest in PN Lauca.
Bring warm clothing, as weather conditions change quickly. Have a parka, heavy jacket, sweater, hat, gloves and other such items to protect you from freezing temperatures. Use a high-factor sunscreen and UV sunglasses. Much of the park is at over 4,500 meters (14,625 ft) altitude. Acclimatize to the high altitude and descend if you exhibit signs of soroche. During the winter months (January-March) roads may be impassable. Check with Conaf in Putre and at the ranger stations within the park about road and trail conditions.
Conaf in Arica and in Putre have good, self-guiding pamphlets of the interpretive trails at Las Cuevas, Lago ChungarÃ¡ and the Parinacota wetlands. These free brochures are only available in Spanish. No park entry fee is charged. You may camp at the ChungarÃ¡ ranger station. Lodging is also offered in Parinacota, where there is also a basic shop. Bring all the food that you will need. In Putre you can find hostels, general stores, restaurants and most basic services.
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