Birding trip report N Chile Oct 2000

Part 1. Logistics and sites

John van der Woude, 

See also:
part 2. Pictures of sites
part 3. Species list

From 15 to 19 October we made a side trip to northernmost Chile from our main birding trip to Bolivia. For an introduction, see the report of the main trip. Also for the waypoints/GPS.

The LanChile flight from La Paz to Arica is only 30 or 40 minutes and goes daily at about noon. In Arica, the coastal town in the Atacama desert, we drove in the airport taxi (10 US dollar) to the car rental office Americano at the hotel of the same name (they have an office at the airport but this was not open on this Sunday). Here we made a reasonable deal for a Nissan Sunny, a bit older than their other cars but it was a good one. Their e-mail is or or (the hotel itself, at the same desk), and the address is General Lagos 559, phone 252234, fax 252150.
We did some shopping at the big food store nearby (Supermercado Azul, 18 de Septiembre 799, credit card accepted), and we filled the gas tank. We were not sure if this gas would be enough for the whole trip up and down to Lauca National Park so we lent a reserve tank from a friendly local inhabitant and filled that tank up as well. Afterwards this appeared unnecessary, because the Sunny is an economic car and the road is asphalted all the way. But indeed we saw no fuel station anywhere outside Arica. Should you venture onto the long dirt roads in Lauca NP then this may be different, but I think that the bird species can 'all' be seen from the main road, and you need your time for that. (BTW this friendly man of the reserve tank has an apartment for rent in Arica, just in case you want to stay there a while for the seabirds or so. His name is Rene Domingo Aguilar Parra, phone 213127.)


Putre is the little town from where you normally operate for the birding at Lauca, and around Putre itself the birding is also very good. It is situated at about 3400 m, way up into the dry shrub zone above the coastal desert. We easily drove up from Arica to Putre in the late afternoon hours, nearly without stopping however. In Putre we found the reception at the only real hotel very inhospitable (with a big sign telling that it is for sale) and we think it is too expensive (80 dollars). So instead we drove into the village itself and found the hostal El Cali acceptable enough although we had the only room with private bath. The rooms are at a cozy courtyard where you also park the car for the night. If there are more cars for the night, see that yours is parked in front if you want to get out early. But the first morning we just walked to the small gorge at the North side of the village (best reached via the road along the post office and the plaza). This small site, so near to the village, gave us one of the best birding experiences of the whole trip to Bolivia and Chile, with three earthcreeper species (Straight-billed, Plain-breasted, and the range-restricted White-throated), esp. near the side-gorge bifurcating at a small group of Eucalyptus trees. We found the birds rather tame here, in contrast to such situations in Bolivia, where we often met boys with catapults (slingshots) looking for birds. Although Putre had the look-and-feel of many other Andean towns, it is clearly part of a richer country than Bolivia. However, we did not find any good restaurant here, all are a bit shabby, but it seems that the hotel Las Vicuņas can provide meals too. In Putre is also the office of

Lauca NP starts soon above Putre and the birding in this splendid natural habitat is as easy as it is impressive. It's just roadside birding along this quiet road to Bolivia, asphalted all the way to at least the end of the Chungara lake, which is the farthest you would normally go (and where we had a substantial colony of Andean Avocet with many young birds). The whole area above Putre is a nice mixture of small bogs and stony puna slopes, and puna grass plains of a quality that reportedly is not seen in Bolivia. We only took two side roads from the main road. The 3 km road to the hamlet Parinacota is essential, especially the lower, most western one along the marsh plains, although the upper one is of better quality but both are easy for non-4WD. Just before the village are two small streamside bogs on the hillside and these were good for Grey-breasted Seed-snipe and Puna Snipe, amongst others. Reportedly, and the main reason for our search here, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover occurred here but we found none, neither at a few of the spots that have been mentioned for it more recently. Never mind, because of this search we did see other interesting species. Walking at this altitude (4400 m) is slow, even on level ground like these bogs. Hence it may take a very long time to find a DSP which has the habit of hiding in small gullies and not moving then. The general area below the majestic Parinacota volcano was good birding all day long. We went up to this altiplano basin on both days. See the list for the species, marked LC.

On the way back from Putre down to the coast we did some additional birding in the beginning, in the shrub zone (at WP21) and the transition to the semi-desert. This is worthwhile even after having birded in the direct vicinity of Putre. Strikingly, we were too early for the bird life here, so we had to wait until I think an hour after the first light when it soon became warmer. At a creek in the semi-desert at WP22 we saw nothing special. Further down, you can't miss the very typical candalabra cactuses around 2500 m altitude, in the desert zone (at WP23). From the winding road through the pure and blinding desert you often see the green Lluta valley far below. When you reach the bottom of the valley there is a line of tall and broad eucalyptus trees in front of you, and in these trees (but not often afterwards) we saw several Slender-billed Finch. This species is restricted to the Atacama desert region. In the rest of this valley we ticked a few other species, like Peruvian Pygmy-Owl (a bit to the right after entering the valley) and Chestnut-throated Seedeater, but there were no blossoming trees or shrubs so we had to place our hope on the hummingbird specialties of this region on the other valley, called Azapa, which is near Arica itself. The comfortable hotel Americano gives discount to guests who also rent a car and I think we had a reasonable price for such a good room in a rather developed country. There are plenty shops and restaurants nearby and in this seaside town we decided for the fish restaurant El Rey del Marisco. This is a few blocks walking downtown from the hotel. You are seated upstairs with a good view on the cosy evening street life, and food and service were excellent.

Apart from the hummers (see below), seabird watching is the specialty of Arica and this is normally done from the so-called Alacran peninsula, pier-like protruding into the sea, at about 1 or 2 km South of Arica, and clearly South of the harbour business. You can drive up to the very end of the peninsula and park there. In the morning hours we had a nearly constant flow of Guanay Cormorants and Peruvian Boobies close by (apparently returning from their roost), as well as some good other seabirds like Humboldt Penguin swimming around, and waders like Blackish Oystercatcher feeding on the rocks at your feet. We left here at about 9 a.m. in the hope of being yet early enough to get those hummers inland in the Azapa valley. Many signs lead you here. The valley is situated right inland from Arica, see the sketchy map. There are several garden centers all along the (only) road in this Azapa valley and we drove on till near the village called San Miguel. And there we got them. Peruvian Sheartail and Oasis Hummingbird were well visible at the profusely flowering hedgerow at Km 11, at about 150 m before the turn-off to Las Maitas (all on the right). This turn-off is about 1 km before San Miguel. At the start of this village is a road to the left indicated with Museo, and on this side road, after 150 m or so, is another good hummer spot on the right: the garden of that museum and university branch, with large trees. We hoped for the other hummer specialty here, the Chilean Woodstar, but found none (only another Oasis Hummingbird), now nor the following morning. Slender-billed Finch was calling most of the time from a small tree opposite the museum entrance, so on the other side of this road. In the late afternoon we had a different composition of the seabirds at the Alacran peninsula: more Red-legged than Guanay Cormorants, whereas in the morning it had been nearly only Guanay. The stunning Grey Gull and Inca Tern regularly came along as well. On one occasion we drove the coastal road about 10 km further down South beyond the turn-off to the Alacran peninsula, but this produced nothing. When leaving the country we now could drive to the airport ourselves, saving another costly morning hour (which gave us a few more ticks at the Alacran, like Cape Petrel and Franklin's Gull). The airport is far out into the desert, and the small park opposite the hall looks attractive as a trap for migrant or stray birds but a quick look only gave some very common birds.

Please mind that for Arica itself a rental car is not necessary. You could walk to the Alacran peninsula, or be dropped off there after a short taxi ride. The hummers are a bit further away, but along this only valley road many shared taxis and minibuses pass by. Putre and Lauca NP could be done by bus but this requires more planning, and Putre, the only regular place for the night up there (maybe the hamlet Parinacota is also possible), is a few kms from the main road. At the turn-off to Putre you have to be for the buses and trucks to Bolivia. However, at this point along the main road (the turn-off to Putre) you may have to wait quite a while, as we learned from the teacher who we gave a lift to her school in Parinacota. I also don't know what the bus would cost, as you are having a ride in an international bus then, and if they do stop at all. In short, do some thorough research in order to prevent disappointments on this remote park at 4000+ m altitude. Should you read this in let's say 2007, then you would not have to worry about the infrastructure of Lauca NP, because I cannot imagine that this park still would be such a hidden treasure by that time.