In search of vicunas and other extraterrestrials in the clear thin air of Chile's high Andes...


High in the Andes mountains between 12,000 and 16,000 feet lies the altiplano, a region of dry bunchgrass and ice-fed bogs called bofedales, a land that freezes during pure starry nights and thaws slowly beneath the close sun. In the crystalline air below snow-covered volcanoes, Andean Indian cultures and remarkable creatures such as vicunas and viscachas have adapted to the harsh climate and scarce resources of this remote ecosystem.

The altiplano begins in southern Colombia, then sweeps through Peru and Bolivia into northern Chile and Argentina. One of the best ways to learn about this environment is to visit Lauca National Park, an isolated but accessible sanctuary in northern Chile, near Peru, 100 miles east of the Chilean city of Arica. The eastern edge of the 460,000-acre park abuts the Bolivian border.

Lauca was created in 1970 to protect the vicuna, a wild South American relative of the camel that never ventures below 12,000 feet. Unlike its African and Asian relatives the vicuna is a dainty, humpless, antelope-like animal with a thick coat of outstanding wool that shields it from the cold of the altiplano. This wool, one of the finest, softest fibers known, has nearly been the animal's undoing.

The Incas prized the wool: master craftsmen spun and wove the vicuna fleece into a fabric reserved exclusively for Inca royalty; commoners caught with vicuna cloth were put to death. Despite their lust for the wool, the Incas practiced what today would be called sustainable use. Five centuries ago, hunting of vicunas throughout the Inca realm was forbidden except during the chaco, or royal hunt, which took place once every four years. While the nobles watched, thousands of beaters drove the animals into vast stone-walled corrals where a few were killed for food or rituals, but most were sheared and released unharmed to replenish their wool and numbers.

In the 16th century the conquering Spaniards ushered in an era of indiscriminate hunting of vicunas. Back then the population was estimated at 2 million; by the middle of the 20th century, fewer than 10,000 vicunas remained. In the late 1960s and the '70s, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina signed legislation banning the hunting, possession, or trading of vicunas and established preserves to ensure their survival. Their numbers have now swelled to more than 160,000 throughout South America.

Lauca played a significant role in the recovery of Chile's vicunas. At the park's inception, only about 400 of them were found there; today at least 10,000 graze in Lauca's bofedales, more than a third of the country's entire vicuna population.

Lauca is a four-hour drive on a paved road from Arica, a dusty seaport caught between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific. Along the drive the road climbs from sea level to about 14,000 feet. Starting at the coast, it travels inland through the Lluta River valley, where irrigated fields of corn, squash, and alfalfa defy the surrounding dunes. Ancient road signs left by pre-Inca wanderers decorate the parched hills: large petroglyphs of vicunas, dogs, condors, and humans, they are reminiscent of Peru's Nazca plain figures, but on a smaller scale.

After a few hours of winding ever higher through the steep slopes, you approach Putre with its fields of oregano, asparagus, and potatoes. The town, 11,500 feet up, is a good place to acclimatize to the thin air at high altitude before continuing to Lauca. If you stop there, watch for the rare huemul, which resembles a small mule deer, wandering among the stunted, tortuous quenoa trees. Sharing this terrain is the brown llama-like guanaco, another South American member of the camel family. Guanacos, bigger than vicunas, can live in a wider range of habitats, from sea level to about 13,000 feet. Despite their adaptability, guanacos have diminished in numbers due to hunting since the beginning of the century, when there were 7 million. Today the total population in all Andean countries barely exceeds 500,000.

Five miles beyond Putre, you finally rise above the maze of precipitous hills and enter the open expanse of the park and the altiplano. It feels as though you've climbed to the top of the world, the curve of the earth a giant ball beneath your feet. The only things between you and the immense sky are the sharp snowy tips of mountains that until now had seemed remote, as distant as the planets and the stars.

Soon after arriving in Lauca, you catch sight of herds of vicunas grazing in the bofedales. To me they are not like camels but like large flightless birds, perhaps ostriches, yet infinitely more graceful. Maybe it's the delicate skull atop the thin sinuous neck. The fluffy cinnamon-colored wool could easily conceal a pair of useless wings. I find it only vaguely troublesome that they have too many legs.

Although visitors are permitted to hike in the park, it's easy to observe the vicunas' interactions from the roadside. Family groups consist of one or several females with young and one dominant male, an irascible individual, zealously on the alert for intruders. He establishes a large permanent territory and marks the boundaries with dung piles. Males with family groups claim the best properties, but other vicunas, particularly bachelor bands of juvenile males forced to graze on inferior land, do not hesitate to invade. So the dominant male spends much of his time screeching and chasing interlopers at speeds up to 30 miles an hour.

In a heap of boulders beside a bofedal near the Las Cuevas ranger station, one mile past the park entrance, watch for mountain viscachas, relatives of chinchillas, sunning themselves on the rocks. A viscacha is about the size of a jackrabbit, with drooping whiskers, big ears, and a long fluffy tail; they live in colonies of up to 80 animals.

Viscachas politely overlook your humanness, allowing you to approach within three feet. If you sit still among the boulders, two or three will join you to bask in the warm sun. To my oxygen-deprived mind, it seemed I had stumbled into my wildest childhood fantasy and that my beloved stuffed animals had finally invited me to their private tea party. At any moment, I expected the nearest viscacha to lead me to her burrow, where I would meet the family and learn the secrets of their animal lives.

Those bright green lumps strewn about the hills near the viscacha colony are alive. They appear spongy, but are as solid as a bowling ball. Ranging in size from a birthday balloon to a two-person dome tent, they are llaretas, a relative of the parsley that has adapted to cope with the temperature extremes of the altiplano. Each plant has tiny succulent leaves and long roots that grow together into a hard dense mass. Each lump is made up of thousands of individual plants. Locals burn llaretas for firewood; in the nearly treeless altiplano, they are an important source of fuel. Unfortunately, the slow-growing plant cannot recover from harvesting; it is listed as vulnerable by Chile's forest service.

About 12 miles from Las Cuevas stands Parinacota, a tiny village of stone and adobe buildings inhabited by the Aymara, an indigenous people of the central Andes. The church, built in the 1600s, is a wonderful example of traditional Andean architecture. Its interior walls are adorned with naive frescoes of biblical scenes painted in 1699. Alpacas and llamas graze in the bofedales nearby. In the chill evening, villagers herd the animals into stone corrals for the night, just as they've done for centuries.

In the Aymara cosmography the summits of the Andes represent the mallcu, the highest spiritual beings who are the true owners of all the animals born in these mountains. The Aymara must respect the altiplano's wild creatures or risk offending the powerful mallcu.

Near the Bolivian border, about 11 miles east of Parinacota, lies the cobalt-blue Lago Chungara, a piece of fallen sky. At 14,800 feet, it is one of the world's highest lakes. Reflected in its surface are the faces of two snowy volcanoes known as Payachatas, or the Twins. Many altiplano birds gather around the freshwater Chungara, including the Chilean, Andean, and James flamingos, three of the world's six flamingo species. They do not breed in Lauca, but nest in the salars, or salt lakes, found sporadically throughout the altiplano. Poor water management and mineral mining jeopardize the salars and the survival of these flamingos.

Another altiplano bird at Lago Chungara is the giant Andean coot. Not as glamorous as a flamingo, it is black, about the size of a turkey, with a red bill, legs, and feet. The black-headed Andean gull, as well as various geese, cormorants, and ducks, also squawk and paddle on the lake while magnificent Andean condors soar above.

Lauca National Park provides a rare chance to see at close range some of the most extraordinary creatures anywhere. After being lifted up so close to the sky, you leave with a deep respect for the people and animals who have the stamina to live here, and also with an awareness of something the Aymara have always known: the world's animals belong not to us but to higher beings.

You can rent cars in Arica at American (559 General Lagos; 011 56-58/25-22-34; $58 a day) or Budget (Chacalluta Airport, 21 de Mayo; 800/527-0700; $47 a day) for day trips to Lauca National Park. Four-by-fours are not necessary, unless you plan on making an extended loop through northern Chile. The paved road from Arica to Lauca turns to gravel just before reaching Parinacota. Because the environment is fragile, off-road driving is not advised. Arica also has several tour agencies — Turismo Payachatas and Jurasi — running daylong bus trips to Lauca; tours cost about $22 per person. For more information, contact the tourist office (375 Arturo Prat, 2nd fl.; 011 56-58/23-21-01).

Camping is permitted near Corporacion Nacional Forestal (CONAF) facilities in Parinacota and at Lago Chungara. There is also a simple but comfortable CONAF refuge in Parinacota ($8 a night). Bring your own food, bedding, and warm clothing. The CONAF office in Arica (216 Camino Asapa, 3rd fl.; 011 56-58/24-17-93) has brochures about the park and maps of the region.

Beware of altitude sickness during the drive to Lauca. It often kicks in at about 9,800 feet and may cause shortness of breath, lassitude, headache, nausea, or nosebleeds. The best acclimatization strategy is to ascend slowly; stop in Putre for several hours, or overnight, before going on to Lauca. If you experience any of the above symptoms, head down to a lower altitude.

LYNNE BORN MYERS's book on the Galapagos, a children's book written with her husband, will be published next year by Hyperion.