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In Chile’s high Andes, a search for a rare bird

In Chile’s high Andes, a search for a rare bird

Posted by Juan Gavasa on April 29, 2014

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, although that’s not Charles Darwin’s fault. Subsequent generations of hunters reduced the suri’s numbers; farmers and miners encroached on its habitat.

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.

In and around Lauca you’ll find rare wildlife, bubbling hot springs, a conical volcano mirrored in a shimmering lake, a bright green plant that you can use as a sofa and pearly-white salt flats teeming with pink flamingos — but I’m getting ahead of the story.

To the high Andes

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.

Still, it was worth it. La Paz is even higher than Putre; starting there instead of sea-level Arica helped us adjust to the altitude ahead of time.

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.

Throughout the day, you can observe woolly alpacas grazing at the edge of the lake. Or you can watch web-footed giant coots tending the nests they build on the surface of Chungará, using vegetation from the shallow lake bottom. The effect is astounding: At times, you’d swear the birds actually walk on water.

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.

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