For three days, we had roamed Chile’s Lauca National Park searching for wildlife, and our efforts had been abundantly rewarded with sightings of soaring condors, graceful vicuñas and cute chinchillas.
Even so, I felt disappointed as I stood at the foot of Guallatiri Volcano, just outside the park boundaries, and watched puffs of cottony smoke rise from its snow-covered peak.
Our South American safari was almost over, and I hadn’t glimpsed the creature at the top of my must-see list: a rare flightless bird known in the indigenous Aymara tongue as the suri, and in modern ornithological parlance as Darwin’s rhea.
The latter appellation memorializes the great naturalist who identified — and ate — one of the ostrichlike beasts during his second voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. Only a few hundred remain in the wilds of northern Chile. Subsequent generations of hunters reduced the suri’s numbers; farmers and miners encroached on its habitat.
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I turned my binoculars from Guallatiri, scanning the area around the mountain’s base. All I could see were the brown-and-yellow grasses of a broad bofedal, as the Chilean north’s high-altitude marshes are known.
I had to content myself, for the moment, with the colorful landscape. Situated in a remote corner of Chile bordering Peru and Bolivia, Lauca National Park definitely requires the visitor to venture down some of the Western Hemisphere’s least traveled roads. With an altitude often exceeding 14,000 feet, the place is breathtaking in more ways than one.
But those intrepid enough to make the trip — and prudent enough to make appropriate preparations against altitude sickness — will be rewarded with an experience that can only be described as otherworldly.
The entry point to Lauca National Park is Putre, a village of about 2,000 souls, most of them members of Chile’s indigenous Aymara minority. About 11,500 feet above sea level, in the shadow of two massive snow-covered dormant volcanoes, Putre is picturesque and friendly but otherwise offers little in the way of culture or sightseeing. What it does have, however, is an array of safe and clean accommodations, as well as several tour operators offering guided trips into the park.
Most people reach Putre by car or bus from Arica, a large beach town on Chile’s Pacific coast, just south of the Peruvian border. The Arica-Putre trip takes three hours, along a winding road that’s just as spectacular as you would expect a rapid ascent from sea level to the high Andes to be. The hard part is getting to Arica; by air, you have to fly to Santiago, Chile’s capital, a thousand miles to the south, then take a 2 1/2-hour flight from there.
My 16-year-old son and I, however, got to Putre by taking an early-morning bus southwest from the Bolivian capital of La Paz.
Though the ride costs only about $10, be warned: Bolivia imposes a stiff $135 visa charge on U.S. citizens. It’s roughly a six-hour trip, depending on how long it takes to get through the border formalities on both the Bolivian and Chilean sides. The bus leaves you not in Putre’s tiny downtown but about a mile’s hike away.
Also, the ride offers a bus-window view of Lake Chungará, which the authors of my tourist brochure billed as “the highest non-navigable lake in the world” — perhaps because not even a more elegant superlative would have done justice to this gorgeous body of clear blue water.
In the morning, Chungará’s waters reflect the shapely 20,000-foot Mount Parinacota, a Mount Fuji look-alike that marks the Chile-Bolivia border, along with its snow-capped sister peak, Mount Pomerape.
About two miles northwest of Chungará lie the Lagunas de Cotacotani, a sprawling field of lava hummocks interspersed with pools of crystalline water or, if you prefer, one giant pool of crystalline water punctuated by lava-hummock islands. No matter how you look at it, this is an excellent spot from which to appreciate Pomerape and Parinacota, as well as several other peaks that rise on Cotacotani’s shores.
Cotacotani was also where we encountered Chilean high-altitude plant life, most notably the yareta, which looks like some sort of fungus-covered boulder but is actually a colony of tiny individual plants that protect themselves from the harsh Andean climate by growing together into compact masses scattered across the landscape like so many bizarre green bubbles.
So solid are yareta plants that local people harvested them for kindling until authorities intervened to prevent the plant’s extinction. When my son and I tired from hiking around in the thin air, we simply sat down on a couple of yaretas and caught our breath. If we’d felt like stretching out for a nap, some of the larger ones would have worked for that, too.
In Putre, our base of operations was Terrace Lodge, a European-style hotel run by an energetic couple from Italy, Flavio and Patrizia d’Inca.
Terrace Lodge’s five rooms are basic but tidy, equipped with plenty of hot water and big, fluffy comforters to stave off the mountain chill, which can drop to near-freezing at night — even in the August high season, when we visited.
Patrizia serves breakfast, which is included in the room price and typically consists of fresh bread, cheese and one of her homemade oven creations, plus what surely must be the most authentic Italian cappuccino between La Paz and Arica.
Flavio’s job is to guide you through the national park and its surroundings — and it’s a task he performs both capably and enthusiastically. For a separate fee, ranging from about $100 to $150 per person, he offers a variety of day trips, each limited to no more than four passengers and focused on a particular selection of the region’s natural wonders.
Our first jaunt with Flavio took us to the Quebrada de Allane, a deep canyon of red and yellow rock, through which the chilly Lluta River flows on its way from the high Andes to the Pacific. After exploring the canyon rim, we made our way down to the river, where Flavio showed us how to paint our names on some flat rocks using the strange yellow-covered mud that lies along the Lluta’s banks.
We continued from the Quebrada de Allane to Suriplaza, a broad plateau ringed by red-and-brown mountains nearly 15,000 feet above sea level. The odd coloring of the rocks, coupled with the overall barrenness of the place, made us feel like visitors to Mars. Despite its name — “place of the suris” — we saw no Darwin’s rheas at Suriplaza.
We did find a herd of vicuñas grazing in a bofedal. Once hunted almost to extinction for its precious silken wool, the vicuña has returned to abundance since being placed under government protection by several South American countries in the late 1960s, and Lauca National Park is one of their favorite habitats.
Flavio taught us to distinguish vicuñas from the taller, more robust guanaco, a similarly tawny camelid, which is thought to be the wild progenitor of the domesticated llama — just as the vicuña is the ancestor of the smaller, woolier alpaca.
Spectacular as they were, the Quebrada de Allane and Suriplaza could not quite match the majestic sight that Flavio had in store for us the next day: Salar de Surire Natural Monument, a 44-square-mile expanse of shallow salt lakes, ringed by dazzling white salt flats along the Bolivian border at 14,000 feet above sea level.
I’d never seen anything quite like the contrast between the blue of the lake water and the pure white of the salt flats, set off by the extinct Arintica volcano looming in the background. All across this stunning landscape, wildlife played: guanacos, chinchillas, and — as Flavio somehow managed to see from hundreds of yards away — a young Andean fox, stalking a vicuña.
The main inhabitants are flamingoes — flocks of them.
Magnificent as they were, the flamingoes could never be my favorite Andean avians. That title could only belong to you-know-who.
Before reaching Salar de Surire, we’d paused at the Guallatiri volcano. And it was in that spot, you’ll recall, that I found myself scanning the horizon, in vain, for Darwin’s rhea.
I had almost given up when suddenly, there they were: a whole flock of suris, seeming to materialize out of nowhere at the far edge of the bofedal.
I’d missed them, apparently, because their shaggy, dun-colored plumage had served its evolutionary function — camouflaging them to make up for their inability to escape predators through the air.
But now I could descry no fewer than eight of the 3-foot-6-inch vegetarians, strutting on their spindly but powerful legs, stretching their long, curved necks first skyward as they watched for enemies, then earthward as they nosed about for food. No African ostrich ever effected googly-eyed grace more wondrously than these South American equivalents.
“Mission accomplished,” I whispered.
After Salar de Surire, Flavio had one more geological marvel to show us. Just beyond the southern end of the salt flats, at a place called Polloquere, a bubbling hot spring fills a shallow pool with an endless supply of 150-degree water.
As my travel companions spread out lunch on a nearby picnic table, I stripped down to a pair of shorts, lowered myself into the steaming water and squished therapeutic mineral mud between my toes.
Luxuriating in nature’s bathtub, I mused contentedly on my suri sighting, gazed at the purple mountain range on the horizon, and realized that I didn’t have a care in the world — except that our trip was coming to an end.