15,000 Feet

24 07 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel date: 5.13.08

Drinking and altitude are similar in that if you have too much of either, you feel the effects as soon as you stand up. Lauca National Park in Northern Chile is located in area of land known as the Antiplano, Spanish for high plain. This plateau of the Andes mountains sits 15,000 feet above sea level, an altitude roughly equivalent to 3 miles high. Please keep in mind that Denver is the mile high city, as in 1 mile. To give you another example, you can skydive starting at 13,000 feet. Even though we took altitude medication, it didn’t keep me from getting sick.

Since we weren’t planning on camping in the park, we decided to take a one day tour. Our tour guide picked us up and drove us into the park. Our first stop was to climb up a short steep hill to see a cave. Everyone in the group was breathing hard because of the altitude, but I hoped the nausious feeling I had would pass. Relieved when we reached the top, I sat down on a green rock which our guide informed us is actually a plant that grows at a rate of one millimeter per year. I reluctantly stood up, not wanting to sit on something that grows at the pace of a snail, but our guide told us it was okay to sit or even walk on it. So I sat back down.

After we saw the cave, our guide was about to take the group on a short hike when my stomach had decided it had enough. I got sick and decided to wait in the van while the rest of the group walked. By the time they returned, I was feeling better. When we stopped at a marshy field to see a huge flock of grazing alpacas, which thrive at these altitudes. They are a staple for the Incas who use them for wool and food. Of course Chris’ first question was, “What do they taste like?” When we got back to town, we found a restaurant serving Alpaca steaks and had them for dinner. “Very gamey,” as Andrew ZImmern, our favorite Travel Channel host would say. And a little tough I would add.

Next we met Lolly the Llama. She lives at the ranger station. Being quite tame and very curious, she stuck her head through the window of our van. We watched her for about ten minutes before heading to lunch. Our guide insisted that I drink a cup of cocoa tea to help with the altitude sickness. The tea is made using cocoa leaves (which is completely legal). I don´t know if my system started adjusting or if the tea worked, but after lunch I felt much better.

I decided to walk the short hike after lunch where we passed by the highest lake in the world. It looks like a lake, but the volcanoes in the background make for a nice picture. While Lauca is not the most impressive scenery of our trip, it makes for a nice day trip. While I was feeling better by the end of the day, I was glad to head back to the town of Putre, which is only at 11,000 feet.

The town of Putre has a population of 1900 people. This number includes a military base. Since there`s not much to do in Putre at night, we were surprised they had an internet cafe. When we went to check our email, we were more surprised to find that it was full of the military guys playing Counter Strike. Next we are leaving Chile and headed to Peru.

Click here to check out our pictures of Lauca at flickr***

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