I’d like to write little bit more about our adventure in Lauca national park. We wanted to visit that place because it appeared in multiple blog-posts as one of the must do’s in North Chile. It should have had beautiful lakes, rural villages and salt flats. Tana and I wanted to see the lake and villages and do some hikes, salt flats were not part of the plan as we saw them already in Bolivia.
Little bit of preparation
We were already in Arica, town where adventures to Lauca usually starts. After some research we decided that renting a car would be best option how to get to the park. On the morning of 29th December we packed our stuff and left hotel. We knew that there were two well known car rental companies nearby – Herz and Europcar. We also knew that they were quite expensive. This did not stop us and we visited them anyway. In both of them they offered us big 4×4 pick-up truck (I think it was Toyota).
Price range was between 90.000 and 120.000 for 24 hours (both of the companies actually added 3 hours on top of that so 27 hours in total). That was much more than what we were willing to pay. Decision was made to visit last rental company (last one we knew about) in town – Econoautos. Cars were starting at 25.000 on their website. Problem was that they were located at the other end of town. Even though Arica was small town it was still more than 5km to get there. We did not want to walk, instead we wanted to try a local bus.
We walked little bit to get to the main road which was going out of town in a direction of the company. There were some bus stops and we hoped that there will be information about bus routes and schedule. We were (obviously) wrong. There were only some adverts and that was it. Busses passing by had some numbers and when we were lucky there were even some street names (probably places they were going through). It was not very useful as the street we wanted to go to was not there.
We decided to ask at the nearby newspaper stall. There was old gentleman who did speak only Spanish. After few minutes we managed to explain where (and why) we want to go. He was very kind and patient, even went to nearby shop to ask someone about possible transport. When he returned he told us that we need to take bus number 1, it was the only bus heading that way. We thanked him, made few steps to get back to the bus stop and waited. Waiting was long, there were no busses number 1 going around on that Saturday morning. But what we saw were taxis with numbers on top. Numbers were matching bus numbers and there were some taxis with number 1 passing by. We went back to the gentleman at the stall and asked about them. He told us that these “taxis” are local cheap colectivos.
They really were going to the desired destination but he told us that they probably won’t take us, because we had big backpacks. Shortly after that, one pleasant local lady appeared. She talked for a while with gentleman from the newspaper stall and decided to help us. When taxi number 1 going went by she waved at it madly and asked the driver if he’ll take us on board and drive us to our destination. First one passing by was empty and agreed to take us. Few handshakes and thanks later we were on board and on our way to rental company.
We arrived shortly, paid 1.000 pesos and that was it (busses cost little less in Arica – 300 per person). However there was a little difference between normal taxi and these colectivos. These cars don’t deliver you all the way to your front door. They have defined roads they are going through and drop you off at the corners or bus stops where it suits you the most. Luckily for us it was not far from our destination.
Renting a car
Local car rental was a garage with a desk at the back. We entered the place and looked around, little bit confused. Manager / owner was on the phone so we just stand there and waited. After few minutes he finally had time for us. We asked about a car and told him we wanted to go to Lauca National Park. He told us (in Spanish) that we’ll need 4×4 and the one he usually rents is currently not available.
We asked him if the 4×4 is really necessary as we didn’t want to go out of road to salt flats. He looked like he was thinking and told us that there might be one car available. Some 4×4 Suzuki, little older but also little cheaper – 45.000 per day. He even showed us some pictures he had stored on a computer and told us that this car is not available on their website. We were little hesitant but agreed in the end, it was cheapest offer we got. He told us that it will take 30 minutes for car to arrive and we can do paperwork in the meantime. We had to pay in cash because payment by card would include roughly 10.000 pesos price increase. On top of that we had to let him pre-charge our card for 200.000 pesos insurance deposit.
Not a good deal
There was one more thing that was not very good – return time. We had a car for 24 hours without additional 3 hours that other companies offered. That meant we had to be back next day at 1 in the afternoon. We were little worried but manager told us that two hours should be enough to get from the lake back to town. Shortly after that car arrived. It had few scratches but it looked like it was in working order (they even demonstrated how to use AC and electric windows).
One handshake later we were sitting in the car. Little bit nervous as it was more than 3 months since we drove a car. To make it even more challenging this one had a gear shift (previous one did not). I waited for the guys from rental company to return to garage, so they won’t witness my skill in stalling a car. Surprisingly we managed to start and leave on first attempt.
Long way to Putre
We made a short stop at the supermarket (where a lot of stalling was happening) and were on our way to Putre. It’s a small village where we planned to spend a night. It was only 140km long ride, but we had to go from sea level to 3.500 meters. It was a long ride, very long. Not only because the car had problems in keeping the speed but also because many trucks were blocking the road.
We got to Putre after three hours, when we arrived it was finally clear why they were telling us we’ll need a 4×4 drive. No asphalt, just dirt road and some stone “tiles”. We stayed at Hostal Pachamama. They had hot water, WiFi (slow), kitchen and very nice rooms. It was not even that expensive, if I remember well we paid 10.000 pp.
Next day in the morning was time to get to the lake Chungara. Situation on the road was similar to previous day, we were going up all the time and there were lot of trucks on the way. It is only 60km ride but it took us quite a lot of time (around 2 hours). One of the reasons was long wait caused by road repairs, almost 15km stretch of the road was being renovated near and around the lake.
We waited for almost 30 minutes before it was our turn to get through. Also for that reason it was not possible to stop at viewpoints along the lake. Two way traffic was renewed almost at the end of the lake. That is where we stopped and went for a short walk and took some pictures. Lake is beautiful and is framed by snow-capped peaks in the distance. One of them is volcano Parinacota (highest volcano of Bolivia).
We did not have time for longer walk (on Maps.Me it looks like it is possible to walk around the lake) so we turned the car and were on our way back. Another 30 minutes wait and we were leaving the lake.
Short stop at Parinacota village
We made a stop at small village Parinacota as we read on some travel blogs it is a must do on the way to the lake Chungara. There is very old church in town (Iglesia de Parinacota) and some more old buildings. On the way to town was nice small lake where we stopped to take pictures, there was another car with two tourists and a guide. They were watching a llama who just gave a birth. It was more interesting than the village itself.
It was pretty much the end of our trip, time was running and it was almost 11 o’clock so we were on our way back to return the car. Again there were loads of slow trucks on the way and not many places to overtake. The return journey took us almost four hours (included short stop at a gas station to refill fuel tank). It was much more than predicted by the manager in rental company. When we arrived they were already closed. We left the car in front of the garage and returned keys to their secured mail-box (as agreed on previous day).
Almost happy ending
We got message from the company manager next day, that they charged our credit card another 40.000 pesos for late return. So in the end it was more expensive to rent bad, old car with gear shift issues from local company than renting nice car from more expensive global rent agencies.
Sadly I must say that this trip was not worth it, lake and the mountains around are nice, but we saw many views like that in previous weeks (even volcano Parinacota from the Bolivian side during our trip to Sajama national park). Too much time in the car and not much to do in the park. Four day trip through Uyuni salt flats was much better than this.
One more thing, in the Pachamama Hostel in Putre were some guided tour offers to Lauca national park (lakes, villages, salt flats). We did not use them, but it is quite possible it would have been better to take a bus from Arica to Putre, spend two or three nights there and take some of the tours.