Monday, October 14, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Lauca National Park And Putre

***This post is part 13 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Although I had already booked my stay at the Terrace Lodge in Putre for two nights, I hadn't done any additional planning in terms of getting to and seeing Lauca National Park. I figured as long as I could get myself to Putre, it would be very straightforward to book a day trip with a local tour agency. Boy was I wrong.

First things first, I got settled in at the Terrace Lodge. This quaint little property on the edge of town is owned by a polyglot couple from Italy who are also extremely knowledgeable about the Chilean Altiplano. While slightly more expensive than the few other options in town, the quality here is quite high. There are only five rooms at the lodge, and mine was the last unit.

Terrace Lodge

The bedroom was nicely decorated and spotlessly clean. A small portable heater was included, but I still found it to be rather cold at night. Luckily, the thick duvets were sufficient for keeping in the warmth. The bathroom was modern and had plenty of hot water throughout the day. A standard hotel safe in the closet area was also much appreciated.

A complimentary continental breakfast was served between 8:00 and 9:00 am. While portions weren't huge, I really enjoyed the delicious bread and fruit pancake. They also served ham, cheese, cereal, juice, coffee, and tea. In the lobby/common area, there were two computers for guest use during open hours. Free WiFi was also available throughout the property, though I found the signal to be a bit weak in my room.

Complimentary continental breakfast

After checking in and unloading my belongings, I headed back into town to look for a day tour to Lauca National Park. Strangely enough, most of the streets and shops were completely deserted despite being the middle of the day. There were only two or three tour agencies scattered about town, and the ones that were even open told me that I was the only one inquiring about a tour, so I would basically have to front the entire cost, which is usually split among multiple people. The price I was quoted ranged from 60,000 to 90,000 CLP, which surprised me, even for Chile.

Putre and the Taapaca volcano

Deserted streets

One of the few tour agencies in town

I returned to the Terrace Lodge and asked the owner, Flavio, about the day tour that he runs, and he quoted me 65,000 CLP. Unfortunately, without any other travelers interested in joining me, I was stuck with paying these sky-high prices on my own. I decided to go with Flavio since his tour had good reviews online, and I knew exactly what I was getting. Ironically, if I had stayed in Arica instead, I probably could have found a day tour to Lauca National Park for around 25,000 CLP, albeit with a large group and a tight schedule.

Flavio's tour of Lauca National Park the next day was indeed excellent. He was extremely knowledgeable about the area, and knew exactly where and when to view specific locations for the best photographs and wildlife sightings. Hiring a personal guide definitely had its benefits, like being able to stay at one place a little longer if I wished, or doing some hikes that would not have been possible with a large tour group.

We started off the morning at the star attractions of Lauca National Park: the twin volcanoes of Pomerape and Parinacota towering majestically behind Lake Chungará. And what a sight they were to behold. The perfectly symmetrical Parinacota reflecting in the beautiful calm waters is perhaps the most iconic image of the Chilean Altiplano.

Parinacota volcano and Lake Chungará

Afterwards, we headed further west of Parinacota to see Lake Cotacotani, a unique body of water left behind after the last eruption some 7,000 years ago. The debris field is still clearly evident, with piles of convoluted volcanic rock forming islets, inlets, and lagoons in and around the lake. From here, we went off-roading for a bit in search of local birds and wildlife.

Lake Cotacotani

Debris field

We stopped in the tiny hamlet of Parinacota for lunch, and I saw a total of maybe four people there. Flavio had to specifically order food for us the day before, or else there would have been no one there to cook! The meal was a simple but hearty soup, along with some bread and herbal tea for the high altitude. There was a melancholy beauty to the desolation here, and I found myself feeling completely at ease with the serenity.

Herbal tea in Parinacota

Colonial church


After a brief walk around town and a look at the famous colonial church, we continued on our way, off-roading to several locations, where we saw lakes filled with Andean flamingos, herds of vicuñas, and even a number of viscachas hiding among the crevices of a rocky cliff face. A short hike featured some truly stunning scenery of the wide open plains. Finally, he took me to a fascinating recreation of an ancient vicuña hunting trap constructed by a local university anthropological department.

Ground-dwelling Andean Flicker

Andean Flamingos




Reconstructed vicuña trap

On the way back, we stopped at a lookout point high above town, where we had a panoramic view of Putre and the Taapaca volcano. We arrived back at the lodge around 4:00 pm, where I took a brief respite, and then headed into town to grab an early dinner. Overall, the tour was excellent, and Flavio was amazing with his encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain and native species. Would I recommend paying 65,000 CLP for a private tour? Probably not. But even with just one additional person, I'd say it would be highly worth it.

View of Putre and Taapaca volcano

I purchased my bus ticket back to Arica for the following day, also with La Paloma. The price was identical to the journey up at 3,500 CLP. Since the bus departs at 2:00 pm every day, I had plenty of time in the morning to relax, and explore Putre some more. The town seemed just as deserted as the day I arrived, with only a few people milling about in the main plaza. The requisite Catholic church stood just off to one side, next to the information office.

Still deserted

Main plaza

Catholic church

Herding cows

The La Paloma bus was once again virtually full when we departed Putre. I had a better opportunity to observe the scenery on the way down since I wasn't half-asleep, and I must say, I almost wished I had my eyes closed. We clung to the edge of some stunning slopes, winding our way down from the heights of the Altiplano all the way to sea level at Arica.

La Paloma bus

View on the way down

It was late afternoon when we arrived back at the La Paloma office. After a few days of peace and quiet in the Altiplano, I found myself rushing again at a frantic pace since I only had a few remaining hours of daylight left to explore Arica. I grabbed my belongings and headed towards my accommodation for the night at Hostal Jardín del Sol.


  1. HI! This is Flavio from Terrace Lodge.
    I wish to update this blog with some news.

    Wi-Fi at terrace Lodge. The local Internet communications have been improved and we can now offer a much stronger signal. Sometimes we have guests complaining about the Wi-Fi until we discover the problem is often in the guest's device.

    Some guests find the price of excursions expensive. Expensive compared to what and where? Could these excursions be cheaper? Yes, but not in a semidesertic area at 150 km from the nearest populated place, which for us is Arica. Anything we need (included fuel, tyres etc.) must be bought in Arica and this is a huge cost in money and time. Punctures and damaged tyres are common in this area. One single tyre for a 4x4 costs at least EUR 150. During 2013 I hade to change 3 tyres and repair 5. this is why I travel with 2 spare tyres. When the vehicle has to be repaired it must be taken to Arica and sometimes you can't work for days because the spare part has to arrive from Iquique or Santiago.

    It is not easy, nor cheap to work here, believe me.

    Now I have to be the lawyer of myself and say that other guests told me that I'm cheap for what I offer. What do I offer?

    The best and safest guiding in the area, in 5 languages, with a new vehicle equipped with air-con, oxygen, first aid set (I know I to use it because I have participated in a first aid course) and satellital phone. Guests who want to take nice photos (almast everybody) are taken to the best places at the best time -when possible- and get help to improve their photos since I was a pro photographer. Does your camera stop working or it runs out of batteries? I can take photos for you with mine.

    To make a long story short. quality and safety have a price, especially in remote areas.

    All the best with your next tours around the globe.

    1. Greetings Flavio, thank you for the clarification on the Lauca tour price. It is definitely important to understand that Putre is very isolated and it is indeed expensive to run a high-quality operation there. As I mentioned in the post, I felt like your tour was excellent, and offered a very thorough experience with top-notch information. Seeing Lauca this way was definitely a highlight of my trip!

      Regarding the price, it was expensive for me personally as a single traveler. I think for most people, maybe there are usually 2-3 people or a family traveling together, so the tour price will be much cheaper per person.

      Thus, for a single backpacker who is traveling with a budget in mind, maybe a more economical way to see Lauca would be to take a day tour from Arica. However, I did warn readers that those tours typically have a large group and are lower in quality. The schedule will also be very rushed. Of course, that is the trade-off in price.

      Thank you again Flavio, and send my regards to Patrizia. Take care!