Weather: Hot and Sunny!!
Day 13, another exciting day on our voyage of discovery along the western shores of South America, and our first day in the country of Chile. Captain Peter Stahlberg and his officers on the Bridge brought the Prince Albert II expertly alongside in the port of Arica.
Jumping out of bed I sprint… walk to the Observation Lounge for my morning coffee and plate of fruit before making my way onto the pier, binoculars and camera in hand, in great anticipation of our trip to Lauca National Park in the high plateaus of the Atacama. Boarding the bus just before 0800, Juan Carlos, Brigitte, Hans-Peter and I were joined by thirteen of our guests for our ten-hour tour.
Driving up the Lluta Valley towards the park we passed vegetable farms that produce corn, onions and tomatoes 365 days a year in the perfect climate. Our climb would take us 4,500 meters or approximately 4,764 feet before reaching the park and more specifically Lake Chungara – the world’s second highest lake, surpassed only by Peru’s Lake Titicaca.
Making the transition from sea level to 14,000 feet and back down all within ten hours is not something recommended every day, of course. However, with chances of such great wildlife and the scenery alone, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was to be taken. With this in mind, a support vehicle with oxygen followed our lone bus in the event that one of us would begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness, and would also be able to return to sea level with anyone who seemed to be feeling adverse effects.
Making a few short stops along the way to give us a small amount of acclimatization, we made some Browningia Candelaris (cactus) the center of our world for 10 minutes before also making a stop at a small restaurant for Coca Tea and a bathroom break.
Back on the road climbing the switchback mountain roads, we passed guanacos, vicuñas and Andean geese while our local guide, Santiago, filled us in on local history and the stories of this region’s people.
Arriving at Lake Chungara, we were given an hour to slowly make our way around taking in the scenery and abundant birdlife. When I say slowly I mean that moving much faster than a snail’s pace left you feeling a little off. A few times I expected that I was tripping over a rock but upon looking down I noticed I was dragging my feet!
Regardless of this, I made my way down to the lake’s edge, joined by several keen birders, to basically “shoot fish in a barrel” when it came to identifying the avian fauna. Chilean flamingos, giant coots, silvery grebes, puna teal and puna ibis and Andean gulls to name a few filled the water’s edge in front of us while the scenery stopped us in our tracks.
Before we knew it, the time had come for our return voyage. Thankfully we had been keeping an eye on our watches and were already in the process of making our way back to the bus. Otherwise we might have been slightly late.
We stopped on our way down in the small farming community of Putre for a lunch of tasty empanadas and fruit salad, and took some time to visit some local vendors selling their goods before continuing our decent.
It had already been a long day. After a nice lunch many sat back in their comfortable seats and dozed away the afternoon drive while others continued to keep their eyes glued to the passing Chilean landscape. Every once in a while I would hear an excited yell, as someone would spot something of interest.
While those of us on the full-day tour to Lauca enjoyed ourselves, many guests chose to spend some time in Arica. Others joined a half-day ‘Highlights of Arica’ tour visiting the Arms Museum and the San Marcos church. This church, made of prefabricated iron with a wooden door was the replacement for the original, which had been swept away in 1869 by a tidal wave.
Just after 1800 we pulled up in front of the awaiting Prince Albert II. Boarding with smiles after a wonderful excursion we quickly dropped off our gear, showered and made our way onto the back deck for sail-away cocktails and canapés. Joined by Captain Peter and our Hotel Director Martin the excitement of the day was evident. Small groups gathered and chatted as laughter filled the air.
Basically, it was just another average, amazing day here on board the Prince Albert II.