Lauca National Park is situated in the northern part of Chile in the Andean Chain. The Lauca Biosphere Reserve comprises three protected areas: Lauca National Park, Las Vicuñas National Reserve and Salar de Surire Natural Monument.
Lauca National Park
Lauca National Park is located in Chile's far north, in the Andean range. It encompasses an area of 1,379 sq km (532 sq mi) of altiplano and mountains, the latter consisting mainly of enormous volcanoes. The park lies within the Central Andean dry puna ecoregion. Several species of animals and plants can be found in the park.
One of the main attractions of the park is the small lacustrine area formed by Chungará and Cotacotani lakes, which lies at the foothills of the Payachata volcanic group. Other majestic volcanoes forming part of the national park are the Guallatiri and the Acotango.
Lauca National Park features include archaeological sites, lava fields and volcanic calderas. Within the park is located the town of Parinacota with its colonial church. The headwaters of Lauca River are also found within the park and bordering it to the west is Lluta River.
Mammals in the area include vicuñas, llamas, alpacas, guanacos, tarucas, cougars and vizcachas. There are over 140 bird species, making it one of the best national parks for birding in Chile. Those include puna ibis, Andean goose, giant coot, puna tinamou, silvery grebe, crested duck, puna teal, Andean condor and Chilean flamingo.
Over 400 species of vascular plants grow in Lauca National Park. The park's vegetation is adapted to the harsh puna environment, as are the bofedales, llaretales and Andean steppes.
Lauca Biosphere Reserve
The Lauca Biosphere Reserve is situated in the Puna biogeographic region, in the northern part of Chile in the Andean Chain. The area comprises three protected areas:
- Lauca National Park
- Las Vicuñas National Reserve
- Salar de Surire Natural Monument
The Lauca Biosphere Reserve has high floristic value, representing a large part of Andean biodiversity in Chile. The vast plateau of the Altiplano consists of meadows, crossed by deep gorges, dotted with lagoons, dark lava outcrops and occasional white sparkling saltpans, with a number of permanent fresh, brackish and saline lakes, marshes, as well as fast flowing mountain rivers and streams.
There are three principal plant formations:
- tolar: characterized by shrubs with the tree Polylepis tarapacana and the cacti Opuntia spp.
- Andean steppe: comprised by perennial Andean grasslands and wet meadows as well as grass species
- llaretal: characterized by Laretia spp. with cushion-like specimens
Although not very abundant, the fauna is diverse. Mammals include lama (Lama glama), alpaca (Lama pacos) and vicuña (Vigugna vicugna).
Noteworthy birds are puna ibis (Plegadis ridgwayi), huallata (Chloephaga melanoptera) and Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).
Only 200 elderly people (2000) of the Aymara tribe are living in the area in a traditional fashion with sustainable use of the natural resources.
The following plant formations can be found in the reserve:
- Low "Tolar" scrub land: characterized by shrub-like plants with resinous leaves and branches, with stunted growth forming relatively dense scrub land with dominant trees reaching up to 1 m (3.3 ft) high.
- High "Queñoal" scrub land: small trees of up to 5 m (16 ft) high, growing on the slopes of the mountain ranges;
- Humid "Bofedal" steppe: this comprises the vegetation above 4,000 m (13,000 ft) above sea level where running water exists. It includes the association of Oxychloeandina characterized by its marshy cushion form.
- Pulvinate plants: at altitudes of 3,800 m (12,500 ft) above sea level and above, includes the association of laretia compacta — parastrephia quadrangularis. Its mainspecies, "Laretia", grows in a very compact cushion, and may measure up to 2 m (6.5 ft) diameter and 1 m (3.25 ft) high.
One of the most important habitats are the "Bofedales" or highland wetlands as they are a source of food and water for both wild and domestic fauna.
The native fauna is a very important resource making it attractive both ecologically and as a landscape. There is a great variety of bird life, close to 150 species, that is to say about 30% of the total number of species in this group in the country.
Las Vicuñas National Reserve is a nature reserve that lies immediately south of Lauca National Park and in its southern portion is contiguous to Salar de Surire Natural Monument, all of which form Lauca Biosphere Reserve. The major elevations are Arintika and Pukintika.
This Puna ecosystem preserves high-altitude wildlife, including Vicuñas, for which the reserve is named. Much of the reserve consists of extensive Andean steppes cut by rivers and quebradas, being Lauca River the main one.
Typical vegetation includes pajonal, tolar and llaretal formations. In some areas is possible to find specimen of Polylepis tarapacana.
Salar de Surire Natural Monument consists mainly of a salt flat and a number of small salt lakes, sheltering several Andean species of wildlife and plants. Arintica volcano towers over the salt flat.
Salar de Surire is one of the Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention signed in 1971.