Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park is one of the smallest, highest, most remote, and least visited national parks in Chile. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ample reasons to visit including shimmering salt flats, soaring peaks, and all three species of flamingos found in Chile.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces

Welcome to Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park in Chile.

Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park was founded in 1994 and was named after the three-summited Nevado de Tres Cruces (Volcano of the Three Crosses) that reaches 22,139 feet (6,748 meters). This volcano can be seen from many vantage points in the area, though, ironically, it’s not located within the park’s boundaries.

Nevado Tres Cruces sunset

The three peaks of Nevado de Tres Cruces (Volcano of Three Crosses) reflected on the surface of Laguna Santa Rosa in Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park.

Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park protects just 228 square miles (591 square km) of high-altitude desert, salt flats, and brackish lakes that attract all three species of flamingos that can be seen in Chile: Chilean flamingos, James’ flamingos, and the rare Andean flamingo.

Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park

When we made the journey, the final 20 miles to Refugio Maricunga were rough and slow.

The park is divided into two sectors including the larger Laguna Santa Rosa sector in the north and the Laguna Negro Francisco sector in the south.

Exploring Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park

Don’t expect vast trail networks or tricked-out campgrounds. Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park does not have a lot of park infrastructure. Travelers who want to spend a day or two taking in the scenery and wildlife of this region should book a stay at the privately-run Refugio Maricunga which is located within the park in the Laguna Santa Rosa sector near the Maricunga Salar salt flat and on the shore of Laguna Santa Rosa.

Laguna Santa Rosa boardwalk

The boardwalk around a portion of Laguna Santa Rosa in front of Refugio Maricunga protects a delicate ecosystem including shoreline bird nests.

Refugio Maricunga offers basic and remote accommodation at more than 12,400 feet (3,780 meters) including a dorm and camping sites with stone windbreaks that may or may not do the trick against the often high wind here. There are also a few private rooms with rudimentary kitchens (think terrible hostel kitchen or great campsite kitchen).

Refugio Maricunga

The administration building, dorm room, and camp kitchen (top) and a strip of basic private rooms (bottom) make up remote and peaceful Refugio Maricunga inside Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park.

We stayed in the Guanaco II private room which was very comfortable and spacious with bunk beds (can sleep four) and a patio facing the lake. A very large wood-burning stove is also a welcome amenity at this altitude (even in summer the temperature dipped to near freezing overnight). The presence of mice means that all food must be secured in a metal locker.  The whole place is on solar power and there is no running water. Oddly, there are plumbed sinks and a flush toilet in the private rooms but they must be used with pitchers of water from a large barrel. A shower stall is fitted with a camping shower bag. Weak Wi-Fi is available in the common area/camp kitchen/administration building.

Maricunga Salar meets Laguna Santa Rosa

This is the dramatic view from the blufftop vantage point near Refugio Maricunga.

Though basic, this off-the-grid refugio seems like a miracle in this spectacular, high altitude, cold, and windswept location with barely another human within 50 miles (80km). Refugio Maricunga is open year-round except when snow or rain closes the access road. While you’re there, it’s worth walking up to or driving to the nearby lookout point on a bluff for views over Laguna Santa Rosa including the point where it drains into the Salar Maricunga (pictured above).

nevado tres cruces flamingos

Flamingos frequent Laguna Santa Rosa and can easily be seen by guests of Refugio Maricunga.

People may be scarce in the area, but birds are plentiful because Laguna Santa Rosa attracts many migratory and resident bird species. This includes 7% of the world’s population of Andean flamingos which is considered a vulnerable species. We also saw James’ flamingos and Chilean flamingos are also seen here. We’ve seen a lot of flamingos in a lot of places, but this is one of the rare spots on the planet where these three species of flamingos can be seen together.

flamingo red shoveler duck

A red shoveler duck shares the water with an Andean flamingo.

This area also attracts other waterbirds including ducks and a hook-beaked bird. Posthumous research revealed that we were able to see red shoveler ducks and Andean avocets on Laguna Santa Rosa.

andean avocet

A pair of Andean avocets on Laguna Santa Rosa in Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park.

The shoreline of the lagoon was favored by a few grazing guanacos (the wild camelid cousin of the llama) which spent all day nibbling away at the meager offerings of this salty high altitude desert landscape.

jamses and andean flamingo

All three flamingo species present in Chile can be seen on Laguna Santa Rosa. We saw just two species including rare Andean flamingos (pictured above left with yellow legs) and more common James’ flamingos (pictured above right with darker legs).

andean and jamses flamingo

Another way to tell the difference between James’ flamingos and Andean flamingos is the beak. Andean flamingos (left) have an almost entirely black beak while James’ flamingos (right) have a beak with just a black tip.

In addition to the short boardwalk around the lagoon, a 1 mile (2 km) trail will take you from the refuge’s common building to some nearby archaeological remains. If you’re feeling acclimatized, there’s also a trail you can take up the hill behind the refuge.

flamingos Nevado Tres Cruces

Forever foraging flamingos rarely raise their heads as they filter the water in search of food.

We did not visit the Laguna Negro Francisco sector of Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park because we were scared off by tales of how brutal the 50-mile (80 km) road into this sector is. But we are told that there is a basic refuge in the Laguna Negro Francisco sector as well if you’re willing to brave the access road.

flamingos chile

Sunrise on Laguna Santa Rosa stirs the flamingo population into action.

Getting to Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park

Getting to Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park from Tinogasta, Argentina is very much part of the adventure as you travel along paved Ruta 60 through some of the most scenic sections of the Andes. As you climb up, up, up from Tinogasta, you enter a section called the Ruta de Seismiles (Route of the 6,000s) which passes a stretch of the Andes that ranks as the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas.

flamingos maricunga Salar

A mix of James’ flamingos and Andean flamingos enjoy the bounty of Laguna Santa Rosa in Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park.

This scenic drive gets its name from the 19 peaks over 19,685 feet (6,000 meters) that exist here including Ojos de Salado which, at 22,519 feet (6,864 meters), is the second-highest peak in the Andes after Aconcagua.

Adean flamingos sleeping

Yes, that’s how flamingos sleep.

The Ruta Seismiles eventually takes you over the Paso San Francisco border crossing where you enter Chile. After completing Chilean border formalities, tell border officials that you plan to drive into Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park and then double back on the paved road for six miles (10 km) before turning onto a dirt road and driving 20 miles (32 km) more to reach Laguna Santa Rosa. When we did this drive, the first half of the dirt road was sandy, deeply washboarded, and extremely rough. Then the road climbed off the salt flat and improved as we got closer to Refugio Maricunga.

Andean flamingo Tres Cruces

An Andean flamingo in Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park.

Just before arriving at the refuge, you’ll pass a park ranger station. If manned, you will be charged 10,000 CLP (about US$11) per person to enter the Laguna Rosa section of Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park (no one was at this ranger station when we were at the refugio).

leaving Nevado Tres Cruces

Our truck on the road again as we begin the drive out from Refugio Maricunga to Copiapó, Chile.

To get to the Laguna Santa Rosa sector of Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park from Copiapó, Chile take paved Ruta 5 to Ruta 31 which begins with a smooth hard-packed dirt and clay surface which allowed us to average about 35 mph (56 kmph) before the road turned to gravel with some embedded rocks and some washboarding which forced us to cut our speed to about 20 mph (32 kph). This route is about 95 miles (150 km) each way. Allow at least three hours. There are no services along the way.

You may notice numerous lithium mines on the edge of the national park border. We were told that this extremely thirsty surface mining process is contributing to lower water levels in the salt flats and lakes within Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park with predictably dire consequences for those flamingos and other species.

 

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about National Parks in the Americas

 

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