From the dusty, coastal resort of Arica some three hours’ flight north of Santiago, the paved Highway 11 zigzags through rocky canyons and barren desert landscapes high into the Andes to reach the breathtaking Lauca National Park on the border with Bolivia.
Encompassing some 1,379 km² of picture postcard altiplano, Lauca sits at a dizzying height of 4500m above sea-level and is one of Chile’s most spectacular and least visited national parks. The towering snow-capped volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerape loom high over huge turquoise lakes and lagoons while herds of llama and alpaca seek shelter from the wind in the shadow of age-old colonial villages. At its heart, the immense Lago Chungará, framed by volcanoes, is one of the highest lakes in the world and provides safe haven to three species of flamingo.
Just outside the park at 3300m, the pretty white-washed village of Putre provides an excellent base to explore Lauca and offers a number of simple hotels and restaurants. Further afield, the dazzling Surire salt-lake and national monument harbours hot springs and a wealth of bird life and was designated an UNESCO world heritage site in 1981.