Thursday, January 12, 2012

Parinacota / Arica, Chile (NGS Waitt Grant 5)

On Tuesday, the weather suddenly changed from this:

To this:

We took advantage of the blue skies by looking for llareta on the highest and best slope that we could - the nearby mountain Larancagua.  We found a young plant at 5250 meters, which was over 100 meters higher than Catherine had previously observed - there are undoubtedly plants higher on the mountain that we could not see due to the high snowpack.  My GPS put the mountain at 17,870 feet, which set our literal and metaphorical high point for the trip:

(although we couldn't always read the signs).

By this point, we were quite acclimatized, and therefore able to hike from about 15,000 feet to the summit and back in about three and a half hours (noting what what may be an altitude record for the Cumulopuntia ignescens cactus, as well as the high llareta plants):

(llareta at 5216 meters).

The better weather also allowed us to camp, lessening the time we spent driving to transect sites in the various parts of Lauca National Park - and providing us with views like this:

We left the high country for Arica this morning, taking time to note the altitude range of the outrageous browningia cactus:

As well as some other surprises, like a baccharis sp. living in the extreme arid zone at about 5,000 feet:


Later, we arrived in Arica with a fierce wind whipping off the ocean, dust flying everywhere, and ironically feeling the effects of the altitude for the first time - (very) tired, and (very) hungry.  Ross the hostelier welcomed us in, and we set about eating whole chickens.  One more day in Arica, and then it's back to work in Denver (although as they have internet here, we are working already). 

As I mentioned in the last post, the "work" portion of the trip was intense such that the days flowed together in our attempt to gather as much data as we could, stay healthy while living at 4,500 meters, and observe whatever else we could of such a beautiful place.  We attempted to start discussing what happened on the drive back down the mountain, but not only were we tired (and hungry), but we were still enveloped in this eye-popping landscape of extremes.  I'd mention something about ecotourism, and then I'd look out the window at what looked like a 7,000-foot tall sand dune - and completely lose my train of thought.

So maybe this is the first and main thing to say about our time in Chile - we experienced a giant land, a land that lacks (at least our) accustomed boundaries of geology and spatial relationships.  We climbed (at least what we considered) a large mountain, and looked down on the fantastically-large Choquelimpie mine:

And it turns out, people were mining gold and silver in this area for perhaps 400 years, and it's one of the larger mines of its kind in the world (this history of the mine is a worthwhile read - it has been taken down, but take the time to view a cached version).  And not only that, but we couldn't even see the massive Volcan Guallatiri only a few kilometers away - there were too many other huge mountains, snowstorms, fog, etc. in the way.  Only later were we able to view the volcano - appropriately, it only revealed its smoking summit when we stationed ourselves a suitably huge distance away.  For our hike/climb up Larancagua, I couldn't find a climb account online, and a local guide couldn't recall another summit party - there are so many big mountains to climb, people don't have to bother with views like these:

(Nevado Sajama in the clouds).  

This general thought leads directly to our second main thing, which is our broad concern over the future of Lauca, as well as Chile's outsized landscape generally.  That giant mine, scheduled to reopen this year, is right in the national park.  The A-11 road really is a disaster - the Gobierno Chile apparently thought it was a good idea to tear up fifteen miles of highway, and then ineptly herd massive caravans of container-trucks over an alternately dusty/muddy rutted track.  We were sitting there in the endless (and logic-defeating) "pare/siga" gridlock looking simultaneously at vicuna grazing in a sensitive bofedal wetland area, and a hundred trucks bouncing along trying to supply Bolivia.  Where does this lead?

The road project, and others, are having a dramatic effect on the local economy.  Far fewer people are visiting Parinacota than in 2000.  CONAF is operating with a skeleton crew - good rules are in place, but it's unclear if people are following them.  Certainly we had the run of the place - measuring plants, climbing, camping, etc., without anyone knowing/caring what we were about.  More people are staying in Putre and driving up to the high country for the day.  Which may be a good thing, depending on who you ask.  

(Minor aside along the lines of outsized-Chile: we consistently spoke of "going down the mountain" to Putre. As in, "it will be great to go down to Putre where it's warm and you can breathe easier."  But Putre is 11,500 feet - and only a 2-3 hour drive from sea level!)

For now, Catherine's (and Dr. Rundel's and Dr. Graham's) data is locked in spreadsheets and notebooks - they will tease out the information in the months to come.  Our other thoughts on outsized-Chile will likewise be a work in progress.

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