11 Jun 2012
An expanse of wetlands and baked terrain rimmed by 5,000 meter peaks under a limitless sky, Salar de Huasco National Park is unquestionably a land of extremes.
Situated on Chile's border with Bolivia, this park contains a high elevation Ramsar watershed of global significance, fed by subterranean brackish aquifers and home to a variety of species of flamingos.
Come explore this region of arid hills and teeming wetlands, keeping an eye out for big-eyed, downy vicuñas sipping at the saline waters.
Wetland wildlife wonders
At 3,500 meters, the inland wetlands of Salar de Huasco National Park are home to an outstanding variety of nesting bird species, including the Chilean flamingo, Andean flamingo, James flamingo , great horned owl and rhea. Other fauna found in the park include vizcacha and cuye de la puna, or Andean mountain cavy, both common species belonging to the rodent family, as well as a variety of carnivorous species, including the zorro culpeo, or red fox, gato colocolo, or pampas cat (a small spotted mountain cat) and even the elusive puma.
The water table in these altiplano wetlands ranges in depth from approximately 4 to 18 cm, depending on the section of the wetland, with an extremely high rate of evaporation. This environment favors the growth of shrubby, sparse, grass-like plants able to grow in these briny lakes and flats.
Trekking the Salar
Salar de Huasco National Park's most sizable attraction is its heritage route, a 79-km long gravel road encompassing a large swathe of the park, marked by 34 designated stops of natural or cultural importance. Although the park does not maintain established trails, the heritage route offers chances to trek along mountain ridges and explore such natural highlights as the stunning wetlands near Collacagua, formed where the Collacagua and Piga rivers flow forth together.
Myths of an ancient culture
The pre-Inca Aymara culture of this altiplano region connected many of its most significant rites and myths with the Salar de Huasco, mainly due to cultural associations with fauna and flora that inhabit this salty territory. Visitors can observe firsthand remnants of the region's early inhabitants at the archaeological sites Cerro Charcollo, believed to be a site for rain ceremonies and prayers, and Cacovinto, a settlement complex dating to the Tiwanaku-Inca culture. Visit in February to witness the continuation of ancient Andean Carnaval animal rituals in the salt flats, and be sure to pass by Cerro Huailla Oriental, a 4,000-meter peak said to bring good fortune to travelers.
By public transportation, visitors can reach Pica, the nearest town to Salar de Huasco National Park. From Pica, visitors can arrange private transportation through a tour operator or join a tour destined for the park. Camping is not allowed within the park area, but visitors can inquire about rustic lodging in the nearby hamlet of Collacagua.
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