From the Top of Chile – part 1

Nov. 15 & 16 – 18 & 19, 2018

If you haven’t watched Departures, go do it now. Well actually read the rest of this blog then go watch Departures.

spoiler alert In the second season, they travel to Chile and one of the first places they go is Lauca National Park. The landscapes looked otherworldly, the altitude seemed staggering, that experience had to be incredible and it became the place in Chile that I wanted to go the most. A great bonus is that there are some incredibly cool birds up there too! As it turns out, the high elevation bogs and lakes are home to Giant Coots and 5+ species of ducks, 3 Flamingos and more Ground-Tyrants and Sierra-Finches than you can count (on your fingers, at least).

Doing our research before our trip, we decided we’d need our own car and about a week to check out the area properly. The plan was to get the rental car in Arica, drive to Putre (11,300ft elevation) and stay one night to acclimatize. Then drive to Lauca NP (14,300ft elevation) and camp for 2 or 3 nights, then descend back to Putre for a night before returning to Arica.
What really happened was a little different.  Our first night in Putre was fine, with a bit of altitude-induced headaches but nothing too bad. The second night we tried to camp at 14,000ft in the tiny indigenous pueblo of Parinacota.  It was beautiful there, but the altitude hit us hard. After 4 hours of trying to sleep with little success and KILLER headaches, we packed up our tent and drove back down to Putre. We found out that we could camp in a gravel soccer court at the edge of town. We set up the tent and actually slept for the last 5 hours of the night.  The lower elevation helped to relieve our headaches and we got some sleep before waking and heading back to Lauca. We headed right for Lago Chungará and talked to the park ranger and convinced him to let us sleep in the ranger’s cabin that night. Sleeping was at least possible, even though we had pretty strong headaches all night.  The next day we enjoyed some morning views of the lake, birds, and the volcano and headed back to Putre for 2 more nights before going back to Arica.  So, not quite as many days up there as planned, but it sure was an adventure!

Now for the birds!

The blog is split into 2 parts to make it easier for me to write, one for Putre (both before and after Lauca NP) and one for Lauca NP.

Putre

The drive to Putre was gorgeous. A little sketchy, but awesome! Chile Route 11 is a relatively smooth and paved highway that goes from Arica to the Bolivian border in Lauca NP.  It winds through the desert and mountains and every turn reveals incredible views of what seemed like an alien landscape.  It’s also the main (and only) route for Bolivia to ship, by truck, any goods to the coast. So there are dozens of semi trucks driving back and forth on the highway, often a bit too fast and even passing each other on blind corners. But hey! That’s South America!

Putre

Putre is a sleepy town that functions as a base-camp and overnight stop for a lot of travelers visiting the national park or surrounding areas. We rolled into town and went straight to Hostel Pachamama.  We read some good review and it seemed to have the best prices. First impressions were wonderful! A lot of open air space and big common areas surrounded by a lot of decent sized rooms.  I’m pretty glad we didn’t have to look for any other accommodations, because I wanted to get birding!

Putre sits in this neat zone, just below the high Andean plateau and above the desert, it has a unique selection of birds. For the afternoon of birding, we just drove to the west (downhill) end of town and walked around. We found this little vantage point behind what seemed like the elementary school’s gymnasium that had a lot of birds moving about.  It was maybe 2 minutes before we already had seen several lifers with great looks at Hooded Siskins, Andean Hillstars, the range-restricted White-throated Earthcreeper, and the wacky-looking Bare-faced Ground-Dove!  The birds kept moving through and by sunset, we had 13 lifers for the day! A pair of Creamy-bellied Canasteros were definitely a highlight for me, but I loved the unexpected moment when a Blue-and-yellow Tanager and Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant passed through! For just an hour and a half of birding, it was an incredible afternoon!

Creamy-breasted Canastero
Hooded Siskin – male
The ravine on the north edge of town. Great birding spot!

The following morning, before we drove up to Lauca, we birding down a dusty road west of town to the river that forms the north edge of town.  There was a lot of great habitat with a lot of fun birds. Most of the species we had the afternoon before, and a few new ones.  We figured out that I was 3 lifers away from hitting 700 total species wordwide.  So quickly finding my lifer White-browed Chat-Tyrant and Streaked Tit-Spinetail was pretty exciting!  Poking through the dry scrub and walking to the bluff above the river was all it took. There it was! My lifer #700, a Cream-winged Cinclodes feeding along the river!  I got some digiscope shots of the bird, and off we went to Lauca! Of course, after some high-fives, hugs, and a celebratory blueberry muffin.

Streaked Tit-Spinetail
Greenish Yellow-Finch
Cream-winged Cinclodes! Lifer #700

To read about our wild experience in Lauca National Park, click here!
We spent 2 days birding in the national park before returning to Putre, which is where the rest of this blog picks up.


For the evening following our return from Lauca NP, I drove down the dusty road we birded early that week. 
The evening was a bit slow compared to the last time I was there. I guess this was a good thing, because I was able to watch at length 2 male Andean Hillstars!  They were moving around these large shrubs that were covered in small hanging purple flowers.  It dawned on me that those are what the Flowerpiercers feed on too! In the Birds of Chile book, it mentions that the Black-throated Flowerpiercers use the purple flowers of the Solanum bushes as their main food source around Putre.  Score! I made the plan to be there early the next morning and maybe I could find a flowerpiercer.

Andean Hillstar – male
Andean Hillstar – male

Coffee, loaded oatmeal with dried fruit and seeds, and of course some cookies has been our staple breakfast.  It’s delicious, decently nutritious, and quick to make. The perfect pre-birding breakfast! The cool and crisp morning heated up pretty fast in regards to the birds and the temperature.  Almost immediately after getting out of the car, a Canyon Canastero popped out of a dense shrub just meters away! The last Canastero I could see in the area and a really range-restricted species.

I had some good luck getting photos of some other species that I hadn’t had the chance to photograph earlier.  A White-browed Chat-Tyrant and Mourning Sierra-Finch were a couple I wanted to get some shots of and finally did.

White-browed Chat-Tyrant
Mourning Sierra-Finch

I walked back uphill along the little road and scanned all the Solanum bushes for nectar-feeding species.  The Band-tailed Seedeaters seemed to be the birds making the most use of the flowers, along with a few more Andean Hillstars. A lot of birds were moving around that morning. Buff-breasted Earthcreepers and more Creamy-bellied Canasteros than I had could have expected.

Band-tailed Seedeater
Bare-faced Ground-Dove

The best thing about birding is how the unexpected can happen at any moment.  Any bird could show up and totally make your day.  I heard a couple odd shrieks across the ravine and turned to see 3 Aplomado Falcons dive-bombing a Variable Hawk! All the searching for lifers can make you hyper-focused on “getting the next bird”.  In reality, it’s all about the birds and experiencing and witnessing any part of any birds’ life that is the true joy of birding.  Watching those 4 raptors interacting and getting some of the best looks I have ever had of those 2 species really helped put it into perspective.  I was standing on a hillside, at 11,200 feet above sea level, in the Andes mountains watching the birds and creatures of the valley wake up.  It’s what I live for!

Variable Hawk

Funny how life works. Still smiling about watching 3 falcons mob a hawk, I was walking toward a collection of Solanum bushes and a bird started singing from inside the thicket.  I ran to get closer and just then it hopped into view! It was my Black-throated Flowerpiercer!  I watched this absolutely stunning bird forage around in the flowers as it sang continuously.  I finally was looking at a bird I had hoped so much to see in Chile.  The only thing that could have made the experience better would be to have snapped some photos of it, but with such a great moment of solo birding, I was actually perfectly happy to not have that chance.  I just soaked it in.

I got 3 lifers that morning: Canyon Canastero, distant looks at a Golden-billed Saltator, and the Black-throated Flowerpiercer.  A great end to our time exploring the high mountains of northern Chile.

In part 2…

We bird the spectacular Lauca National Park! Click here to see part 2.


eBird list for Putre evening 1: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49965845

eBird list for Putre morning 2: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49968534

eBird list for Putre evening 3: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50034791

eBird list for Putre morning 4: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50046569


Cost and Logistics

Getting to/from Putre can be done by bus from Arica. We opted for renting a car because of the added flexibility.  Inquire in Arica for buses to Putre.
We chose to stay at Hostel Pachamama in Putre. They seemed to have the lowest prices and the most recommendations and reviews.  There are definitely a number of other places to stay in town, and even free camping outside of town if you feel adventurous.

Pachamama Hostel  https://www.pachamamahosteltours.cl/en-us    +56 9 6353 5187

Food: We cooked a lot of our meals because the couple restaurants that we visited didn’t have much in the way of good vegetarian dishes.  There are several ‘’minimarkets’’ that sell all the staple fruits and veggies for pretty cheap.
Canta Verdi was our favorite restaurant.  It’s pretty fancy for the area, but had delicious food. Plates ran from 3,800 to 8,000 CLP ($5.60 – $11.80 USD)

Expenses are listed as total for 2 people

Hostel Pachamama PER NIGHT
–  large double room                            $22,000 CLP        |  $32.60 USD

–  standard double                                $20,000 CLP        |  $29.60 USD

Rental Car for 7 days                           $467.00 USD  or  $66.70 USD per day

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