From the Top of Chile – part 2

Click here to read about our first few days in Putre before going to Lauca National Park.

Nov. 16 to 18, 2018

Feeling great, we jumped in our rented 2018 Nissan Kicks and headed towards Lauca National Park.  I’ll tell you, that spunky compact-SUV soon turned into an old 1986 Nissan Maxima the higher up we got.  The almost complete lack of oxygen up there wasn’t just effecting us, but our car accelerated at a pitiful pace, which made passing large and erratic trucks a bit more …exciting.

A short distance after passing the sign welcoming us to Parque Nacional Lauca, there is a place called “Las Cuevas” on the right-hand side of the highway.  It’s a small bofedal (high-elevation Andean bog) area with enough water for my lifer Crested Duck and Yellow-billed Teal to be hanging out. We parked and walking down the small trail towards the bog, right away finding 4 more lifers; Mountain CaracaraAndean GullWhite-winged Diuca-Finches and a Plumbeous Sierra-Finch! (Little did I know, but this was going to be the trend, not the exception.)

The Las Cuevas bofedal
Plumbeous Sierra-Finch

We scanned the bofedal with the scope, looking for a real gem.  The Diademed Sandpiper-Plover.  It’s a bizarre bird with beautiful colors and patterns that lives around these high-elevation wetlands. Its restricted range and strange shape (somewhere in between a plover and a sandpiper, great name, I know) make it a really sought-after species. 

An Andean Negrito made a brief appearance right before an Andean Flicker took center stage and pulled me from the Sandpiper-plover hunt.  Andean Flicker was one of my top target species for this area, and this one flew in and started poking around the ground in the bofedal, not caring as I tried to get as close as I could for a photo.

my lifer Andean Flicker

Almost 45 minutes had passed since we parked, and we needed to move onward.  I walked over to where Stephanie was trying to photograph a little lizard and shared with her my latest finds.  Heading back towards the car, I spotted a bird out in the green bog. Pulling up my binoculars, it hit me like a ton of bricks! 

“Holy fucking shit! DIADEMED SANDPIPER-PLOVER!” 

… I seem cuss a lot when I’m birding. Especially when we find such an epic bird!

We scrambled to get the scope set up and each took some time to admire this neat bird.  We even managed a presentable (although not high-quality) digiscope photo of it! 

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover!
my “holy shit we saw a Diademed Sandpiper-Plover!” face

We got our fill just before it flew off to the other side of the bog and disappeared. Great way to start our Lauca experience!

Not to be overshadowed, I must mention we also saw our first Viscacha! Something Stephanie was understandably more excited about than scope-views of a shorebird.  These not-so-little mammals look and act like a cross between a rabbit, a rat, and a wallaby, and are basically giant Chinchillas! They hang out in the boulder fields next to bofedals and sit in the sun or shade and sleep all day.  They are seriously the cutest animal I think I’ve seen so far. They sleep during the day because, as we found out later, they are nocturnal and feed on the green vegetation of the bofedales at night.

our first Viscacha

We drove higher up still, and turned down a dusty road leading us to the tiny indigenous village of Parinacota. The beautiful white-plastered church was at the center of town, and a spot that the guys on Departures visited. It was so surreal to see a place that I had seen on a TV show in real life! Also, it is one of the best places to see Andean Flickers!

the church in the middle of the village
Andean Flicker looking for a place to excavate a nest in the side of the old church!

Right before you enter Parinacota, along the dusty dirt road, is a big bofedal. We stopped and photographed some of the typical birds of the high-elevation bogs; Andean Geese, Crested Ducks, Yellow-billed Teal, and Puna Ibis among them. They were all so close to the road that I could not pass the opportunity to try to get some photos.

On the edge of the village, there is a small CONAF ranger station (Corporación Nacional Forestal: the Chilean version of the National Park Service) with 2 small campsites. We asked the rangers if we could camp for the night, and they were more than happy to show us where and said that it was at no cost.

We set up our tent and made a quick dinner of soup while we watch the sun set over the mountains. Viscachas were running all around us in the boulders on the hillside. We even had a few right by our tent!

That night wasn’t so pleasant. The altitude started to hit us hard. Camping at 14,000 feet above sea level was not going to happen. We both had head-splitting headaches and felt like we could barely breathe. Somewhere around 1:00am, we decided enough was enough. We carefully got up and shoved our tent into the back of the car and started the drive back down to Putre. On the dirt road between Parinacota and the highway, we saw DOZENS of Viscachas running about! They were feeding out on the green bofedal and running about between the bog and the rocks!

Using iOverlander, we found that we could pitch our tent in the gravel soccer field on the edge of town in Putre. By 2:30am we were happily falling asleep without headaches or trouble breathing.

where we finally camped, on the edge of a gravel soccer court in Putre.

We arose early and made our way back to Lauca NP as soon as we could. Our first stop was along the northeast end of Lago Chungará (the main large lake in the national park). There was a small dirt road that ran down the shore of the lake and to a small dock. We drove down to the dock and walked around, taking in the sights and the birds.

It was fantastic! We were finally birding in Lauca, at the shore of Lago Chungará, at the foot of Volcán Parinacota!

The birding was awesome! We picked up our first flamingos! A small group of Chilean Flamingos with one James’s Flamingo in the mix. Other great lifers were Puna Teal, Giant Coot, Andean Negrito, Andean Lapwing, Andean Swallow (there’s a theme here), and Silvery Grebe.

After spending nearly 2 hours around the little dock, enjoying our new andean birds, we drove to the CONAF ranger station along the highway right by the lake. It seemed like a few tour buses were stopped there, and a bunch of visitors were wandering about looking at the lake and the little tables selling trinkets.

We heard that you could stay the night at the ranger station if you ask the right person. They guys on Departures even stayed at this same ranger station while filming the Chile episode. Motivated by our terrible night trying to camp at that altitude, I nervously approached and asked the CONAF ranger in my broken Spanish if we could stay in the cabin.

“We are not a hostel!” He laughed in response to my question.
Sí, yo sé yo sé. Pero necesitamos un lugar para dormir ésta noche.” I replied: yes, I know I know. But we need a place to sleep tonight.
I told him how we tried to camp, and spending a night in the cabin would be much nicer. I showed him my photos and told him I am bird-watcher.
Luckily, once he realized we were not dumb tourists, but in fact, we knew that they had a spare room for travelers, he changed his expression and response.

Sí, claro claro. Siganme.” He agreed and told us to follow him inside.

Inside the ranger’s cabin, he showed us the bunkbeds in the spare room. Old, dusty, and wrapped in a very scratchy wool blanket, the mattresses seemed like they were the same ones from when Departures was there back in 2010! We rolled out our sleeping bags, not daring to use the blankets from the dusty pile in the corner.

Álvaro was his name. We talked with him the best we could, but even with our Spanish experience, his bewildering Chilean accent was tough to decipher at times.

While preparing dinner (we made enough for him, of course), we talked about Chile and the differences between it and the United States. Somehow, the conversation moved to police brutality. Álvaro told us how the national police, the Carabineros, disproportionately attacked, and even killed, people of Mapuche descent (the Mapuche are the majority of remaining indigenous people from central Chile). He even showed us a video, from a body camera on an officer, of the latest unjust killing of a Mapuche person.
It was sickening.

Much to Álvaro’s amazement, we told him that the same thing was going on in the US; police officers unjustly killing Black and other People of Color. Unfortunately, our Spanish (or lack of) hindered us from diving any deeper on the topic. We could empathize with his pain on the subject, and he could with ours. But we had no words to describe it.
It was almost better that way.
Words could not confuse us and misrepresent our thoughts and feelings. We only had our facial expressions and deep sighs. They said everything, though.

It’s not surprising that both, Chile and the US, reached a boiling point in the last year. In the fall of 2019, Chile erupted in riots across the country, with it’s capital Santiago falling into a war-like state not unlike Seattle or Portland did in July of 2020.
No matter who, no matter where, if the government pushes on its people, the people will push back.

After our dinner and our deep talks with Álvaro, Stephanie and I wandered back outside to look for more wildlife along the lake.

We found a few goodies, including our lifer Gray-breasted Seedsnipe! Seedsnipe are shorebirds, related to sandpipers, but behave almost like sparrows or grouse. They are really wacky birds, and I was so overjoyed to find my first seedsnipe!

We watched Chilean Flamingos chase each other, and Andean Gulls building a nest on the water. The sounds from the gulls and the Giant Coots filled the spaces between gusts of wind. It was an incredible evening.

Andean Gulls nest-building

Sometimes in my photography, I have a specific photo I really want to capture. Not just of a bird, but of a specific scene. Sometimes only a landscape, sometimes including a bird. This time on my targets list of photos to capture was sunset at Lago Chungará. Ever since we started planning our trip, I have been in awe of the sunset photos I’ve seen from Lauca National Park. This was my one chance to get “the shot”.

As the sun was dropping, the wind picked up and it got mighty cold. The sun was casting beautiful colors on the volcanos across the lake, and I had to run into position.
The thing is, running at 14,500 feet elevation is nearly impossible due to the lack of oxygen! It makes your head feel like a slow-motion explosion is happening in your brain!

So while fighting the wind, bitter cold, and effects of altitude, I managed to get into position to take the shot. I set up to get some of the tussock grass in the foreground, the lake, and Volcan Parinacta as the final subject.
I took dozens of photos as the sun fell below the horizon behind me. Once it was truly below the horizon and the colors on the volcano faded, I retreated to safety. Unsure if I still had fingers, I walked back to the cabin shivering the whole way.

sunset over Volcan Parinacota and Lago Chungara.

I did it! I got the shot! I showed Stephanie and Álvaro the photos as I started to warm up.
Mission accomplished.

We watched the Viscacha emerge from their boulder fields and start feeding on the bright green plants of the andean bogs as dusk turned to night.
It was time to get some sleep, or at least try to.

In the morning, we made our coffee and walked down to the lake. The cast of birds around us we pretty similar to the night before, but I had the chance to get a much better Puna Ground-Tyrant and Black-hooded Sierra-Finch photo!

Puna Ground-Tyrant
Black-hooded Sierra-Finch

Before we left to go back down to Putre, Álvaro asked if we could give him a ride. As it turns out, the rangers do 7 day shifts (7 on and 7 off) and last night was his last day of his shift. Happily, we made room for him in the car and headed back down the road.

We talked about music and cars and driving. He said I was a good driver, which I replied with describing Montana and where we live. One has to be a good driver to deal with the snow and mountain roads there. I asked what potholes where called in Chile, he said eventos because hitting one will cause a serious ‘event’!

As we approached Putre, Álvaro spots some deer over the hill. We pull over immediately and get out to get a better look. They were Taruca!

my photo of the herd of Taruca that Alvaro spotted from the highway.

Taruca, or North Andean Deer, are a threatened species of deer living only in the high Andean plateau of northern Chile, southern Peru, and parts of Bolivia and Argentina. After watching a show on the wildlife of Chile, I learned about them and how hard they can be to find. That made me want to see one even more, and I couldn’t believe we actually found some!

We thanked Álvaro for his hospitality at the cabin and he thanked us for the ride. We went our separate ways once we arrived in Putre.
With our great Lauca adventure coming to a close, we both felt tired, dehydrated, but so immensely happy.

Click here to read about our last few days in Putre!

eBird checklist for Las Cuevas:

eBird checklist for Parinacota village:

eBird checklist for Lago Chungara:

eBird checklist for Lauca ranger station evening:

eBird checklist for Lauca ranger station morning:

Cost and logistics

There are no entrance fees for Lauca National Park.

Getting to/from Lauca can be done by bus from Arica. We opted for renting a car because of the added flexibility.  Inquire in Arica for buses to Lauca NP.

There are several companies that offer a half-day tour of Lauca NP. This is a great option if you don’t have time to camp or money for a rental car.

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