These are other interesting places to visit in the Lauca surroundings. The roads to these parks are notoriously bad, so do yourself a favour and consult the ranger's office before you go (if you are driving a rental car and are not with a tour) - the Ranger station at las Cuevas is on the way. Flooding of roads and snowstorms are not uncommon - in fact, in the supposedly best and dry season we could not go to these places because of a sudden snowstorm.
This park is one of the best places to see Vicunas, the more dainty relatives of the domestic llamas and alpacas. Vicunas live in the central Andes, and are prized for their wool. Nowadays they are protected. These are quite shy camelids, but the ones in this park seem to tolerate human presence better than those in other parts where they are found. They are usually seen in herds.
The viscacha is a weird and cute animal that specializes in living at very high altitude in the Andes. It resembles a rabbit with a tail, but in fact it is a rodent, and is more closely related to a chinchilla (which is also a South American native). Ideal habitat to find Viscachas are rocky terrains with boulders.
Las Cuevas is an ideal place to look for these creatures.
Around las Cuevas, especially on the road towards Parinacota and Lago Chungara, one can notice a special type of habitat known as Bofedal, which is basically high altitude bogs. Well worth closer observation for wildlife, especially Andean bird specialties.
Another impressive sight with the Parinacota & Pomerape Volcanos on one side and the lava flows filled with water on the other, forming a photogenic lake with tiny islands sprinkled in it. This is located on the way from Parinacota village to Lago Chungara, and you can either hike there on foot from the village or else stop with the car along the road at the lookout point.
This must be one of the most famous sights in Chile, used in books, adverts and postcards. The snow capped and perfectly conical Parinacota volcano towering above the altiplanic lake of Chungara is a sight not easily forgotten. The Parinacota vocano stands at a staggering elevation of 6350m and Chungara lake itself is at 4500m. The lake is quite shallow and at it's fringes one can find varied wildlife such as Andean seagulls, flamingos, waterbirds and Vicunas.
Lago Chungara marks the border with Bolivia, and in the distance one can see the peak of the Sajama volcano - the highest peak in Bolivia.
There is a CONAF office in the area, as well as a picnic place with a great view of the lake and the volcanos.
This tiny Aymara village with it's whitewashed colonial-style church is one of the highlights of the area. The jewel is undoubtedly the church, that apart from being gorgeous with it's white walls contrasting beautifully against the blue sky, is quite quirky. Inside they keep skulls of past priests, but unbelievable this is not the weirdest thing. Instead, the culprit is a little innocent-looking table with damaged legs, tied firmly with a rope to the walls of the church, just like a dog. The reason is that every once in a while the table used to wander around at night, stopping and jumping up and down in front of a house. The next day, someone in that house would die. So the people decided to tie up the table to avoid it's death-bringing wanderings.
In front of the church, in the little square, there are vendors selling some souveniers such as llama and alpaca products, llama stuffed toys, postcards etc.
This is one of the entrances to the park, and it already offers some stunning scenery. There is a ranger station, and it is important to consult it if you are travelling by yourself with a car as the road conditions to some parts of the park are not very reliable.
There is a walking trail around Las Cuevas which is highly recommended to take, not only to admire the scenery, but also to view wildlife. There is a good chance here to spot Viscachas which resemble rabbits with long tails. In the distance you can see the peaks of the twin volcanos Parinacota and Pomerape.
Putre is a small, attractive Aymara village at about 3500m of altitude, and is a great base for exploring the Parque Nacional Lauca. The Taapaca twin volcanos, usually covered in snow, serve as a pictoresque backdrop for the village. Putre is really relaxed, and is not as touristy as San Pedro de Atacama, though there are a few tour agencies, restaurants and accomodation options.
Apart from wandering aimlessly in the village visiting the few cafes etc, the only real attraction in the village is the Iglesia de Putre (the church). It has an attractive square in front of it.
If you would like a tour of the Parque Nacional Lauca, the tours here are cheaper than the ones you can get from Arica, and a night spent here helps with acclimatization for Lauca - otherwise going straight from sea level in Arica to Lauca is a surefire way to get altitude sickness. I cannot recommend any tour agents though, as we visited the park by ourselves in a rental car.