A desiccated and surreal world: Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and Laguna Verde

The Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces is a stunning collection of high altitude lakes, bright white salt flats and multi-coloured mountains. It is a beautiful and enigmatic landscape of constantly changing colours, and unlike the better known area around San Pedro de Atacama or Bolivia’s Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the park sees very few visitors.

It is so remote and there are so few visitors that its difficult to get there without your own transport, and with the exception of a couple of CONAF refugios there is no tourist infrastructure in the park. The ‘road’ (I use the term loosely) that runs closest to the park is in theory an ‘international’ road to Argentina, but it is in terrible repair for much of its length, there is no public transport and, apart from the occasional mining vehicle, little in the way of passing traffic.

The sun rises over the mountains en route to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

The sun rises over the mountains en route to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

In the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces it is possible to be apart from the rest of humanity – and from almost every other living thing. One of the reasons I wanted to visit the park was to go to Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde isn’t in the park itself, but is a must see if you are going to come this far from civilisation.

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Driving around a bend on the dirt road the sudden sight of Laguna Verde is a special moment.

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Thanks to the geo-thermal activity in this region there are a couple of hot springs right on the shore of Laguna Verde. Despite the stench of sulphur they are lovely places to soak weary feet while soaking up the magnificent scenery.

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Even though we live in Bolivia at an altitude of 2700m, at over 4500m the park was having an unpleasant effect on us and I frequently found myself short of breath. I wasn’t alone…two young German travellers who were camped by the lake asked if they could get a lift back towards civilisation. They had arrived the day before with the intention of spending a week in the area and climbing the 6893m Volcan Ojos de Salado. Unfortunately they were suffering badly from the altitude and just wanted to descend.

Mineral lake close to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Mineral lake close to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

With our new companions we headed back towards the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and the dramatically located Laguna Santa Rosa, home to a population of flamingos – I’m not sure there is a more unexpected sight in this landscape than these bright pink birds. Before we left Laguna Verde we saw another extraordinary sight – a fully desiccated adult cow. I’m not sure where it came from since we didn’t see any other cows, but it provided warning of the dangers of this region.

Desiccated cow by the shore of Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Desiccated cow by the shore of Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Much better adapted to this landscape are the rare camelids, guanacos…

Guanaco roaming freely in the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Guanaco roaming freely in the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Flamingos at Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Flamingos at Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

We had lunch at an unmanned CONAF refugio on the shore of the lake before driving into a vast, flat plain that seemingly extends for ever and contains a salt flat.

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Our journey out of the park was a little fraught. The authorities haven’t put any directional signposts or distance markers anywhere in the park. This leaves you driving down dirt tracks hoping you are going in the right direction and that you have a enough diesel left to get you to civilisation. This isn’t because they don’t want unnecessary signposts in the park, there are signposts, just none with any useful information.

Luckily our map reading skills were proficient enough to get us out of the park and back to asphalt.

Road to nowhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to nowhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to somewhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to somewhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

One final peculiar sight awaited us as we exited the park – a desiccated horse. I don’t know where these things come from, or if they are in fact placed there by the park authorities as visual warnings to careless travellers, but they are quite ghoulish.

Desiccated horse, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Desiccated horse, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile