Saturday, February 18, 2012

wet wet wet in the chilean altiplano

Parque Nacional Lauca
so, it's the wet season. 100kms away it's as dry as a bone, but up here in the altiplano, it's cold, raining, foggy and just alltogether quite wet. at 3500m where we are at now, each day roughly goes like: grey skies with patches of rain from 6am to 11am, 11am the fog rolls in, the light dustings turn to more of a steady patter, and by 4pm it's raining steadily. sometimes you get treated to a reprise in the rain in the evening, but not usually.
1 hr later - the fog has rolled in
But once you go a bit higher and rise above the fog and cloud, and hit the altiplano proper, the skies in the morning tend to open up more. you still get steady rain, rolls of thunder and lightening in the afternoons/evenings, but the mornings are glorious. Altiplano translates as high plains, and refer to the where the Andes mountain range is at it's widest and highest. It's 2nd to the Tibetan high plateau, and has an average of 3750m in altitude. (Thank you Wikipedia). Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru all partake in the wide scrubby immense landscapes, with towering snow capped volcanoes and mountains that preside majestically over everything.
Rising up onto the Altiplano
Stunning dusting of snow!
Up here in Chile's Parque Nacional Lauca, it's true to form. The two brothers, Volcan Parinacota (6348m) Volcan Pomerape (6282m) keep a knowing eye on the vicunas, llamas, alpacas, vizcachas (little rabbit/wallaby-esque runners), and many bird species including pink flamingos. for us though, we only saw the feet of these brothers - as their full height was being kept secret by the low cloud. it's pretty amazing to be riding along, seeing the mountain ranges grow bigger, and then you realise that those are not the mountains, but just the foothills of something humongous!

I love that you can't really see the whole mountain... 
Just mainly these frozen waterfall foothills
Pink flamingo at Lago Cotacotani
There are also 2 lakes - Lago Chungara and Cotacotani where the birds congregate around. It was alongside Lago Chungara that we stayed one night at the Refugio run by Conaf - the Chilean national parks authority. A welcome relief from the cold and wet outside (we were then up at 4580m - so it's getting pretty cold at night even though it's summer. in winter it gets down to -20-30 celcius. brrr). Philipe and I played a card game and then cooked up some food on their stove, then tried to get some sleep.

The Conaf refugio
At 4580m you're high. The air density is lower which means there's less available oxygen for the body. From 3500m people can suffer altitude sickness, and even though we'd been acclimatising by ascending slowly for the previous 4 days, even I didn't have my normal, wonderfully resting, heavy, constant sleep. You tend to wake up intermittently, sometimes even your breathing becomes so shallow that it  stops - and then you jerk awake gasping your much needed oxygen in. it's impossible to say who will be affected by altitude - it's not about fitness; even an olympian athlete can be cut down by it. i remember when trekking up to everest, there was an ex army colonel in our group -- who was a bout a pack and a half a day smoker. at about 3500m he was really suffering, but after many cups of xo beef stock, sleeping and resting for a couple of days, his sheer determination pushed him onwards and he ended up summiting up to over 5500m a week later.

i guess i'm pretty lucky - i don't seem to suffer too much, and acclimatise well. my heart rate keeps pretty low, and my oxygen high. Philipe however is not so lucky - his heart rate is much faster, and oxygen lower, and takes him a lot longer to acclimatise. this evening after not showering for 3 days, and being quite cold and wet, we thought we'd um. go to the hot springs. but coming out of that water, at 3700m, does make even me woozy! it reminds me of my father - we were at about 3000m near arequipa - and there he is doing butterfly in the hot springs... crazy!

Getting some of the local history of the parque from Jorge - the Conaf Guardaparque
Inside the parque
but back to the altiplano... we were pondering whether the sidecar could make the 4x4 roads, and about to give up and head back to Putre, when we asked the Conaf guardaparque if we could accompany him on his daily inspection round! and so, we got a personalised tour of the parque - with the history, local animals, stories of the moutains, and all within a warm and dry 4x4. Jorge also took us into Parinacota, where we saw an original adobe pre-inca church. This route is one of the old pre Inca and Inca trade routes, and it is very rich in history.

Adobe church (1500s) in Parinacota
We were very lucky with the weather, although by the time it was 1pm and we were making a hasty drive back down to Putre, we ended up being soaked through, slipping and sliding down muddy tracks with visiblity of about 10m. Not fun when you're on the edge of a hill with the odd truck coming at you!

On our way out of the parque - still 4000m
Navigating the 30km diversion - with oncoming truck traffic on 1 lane

Tomorrow we head back down to hot and dry Arica. Someone is coming to see my bike as I am trying to sell it, so fingers crossed I can pass on to someone good! After 1 week, i'm happy to be going somewhere dry and sunny, though... well I guess after 1 day I'll be thinking fondly of the lush green hills of slushy red landsides!

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