Last week we spent several days in Lauca National Park. This area includes without doubt the most stunning landscapes we’ve seen in northern Chile, with the twin Payachata volcanoes rising above two broad lakes, all surrounded by well watered altiplano full of grazing vicuñas, llamas, and alpacas.
I had one of those special moments of awe late one night when I walked to the shore of Lago Chungará, seeing the volcano’s black silhouette reflected in the calm water, with millions of twinkling stars all around, while listening to the chorus of Andean coots, geese, and flamingos that live at the lake.
Though Lago Chungará is generally considered the gem of the area, I thought that the neighboring Lago Cotacotani is really the most special and unique part of the park. Supposedly about 7,000 years ago, Parinacota erupted and the entire bulge of the volcano collapsed in a massive landslide, leaving all the debris that later eroded into the convoluted maze of hills seen above. Lago Cotacotani is located amongst all these volcanic hills, and its numerous islands, inlets, and lagoons create a highly unique landscape that I would consider to be amongst the most special on the planet.
Unfortunately, not everything is postcard-perfect in Lauca National Park. Since 1962, before the area was designated as a national park, the water of Lago Cotacotani has been drained through the Lauca canal for hydroelectricity and irrigation for the Azapa Valley. This has significantly lowered the water level of the shallow lake, leaving entire lagoons barren and dry, causing irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem. It is difficult to appreciate the remaining beauty of the lake without feeling a deep sense of shame and disappointment about how it looks now compared to how it might have looked before the plunder. The scale of the tragedy would be like draining Lake Tahoe or Crater Lake in Oregon… unthinkable!
Worse yet, Lago Chungará, the jewel lake of the park, has also been on the chopping block. Plans were made to drain that lake as well, even so far that the giant pumps were already installed. Fortunately in 1985 the supreme court forced the project to be abandoned in a landmark environmental step for Chile. But with the ever increasing thirst of Arica, it sounds like the fate of the lake still remains in a precarious situation, despite its national park protection.