While the dramatic beauty of Atacama's dry Andean highlands is known throughout the world, the vast majority of visitors to the Chilean altiplano head straight for popular San Pedro de Atacama. If you'd rather experience those snowcapped volcanoes, fantastic blue lakes, and herds of fuzzy vicuñas without the crowds, however, consider coming north to Parque Nacional Lauca.
The iconic image of the park is that of the two perfect peaks of the Nevados de Payachata rising above Chungará Lake, among the world's highest - most of the park hovers at around 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).
Lauca is relatively rich with wildlife as well, so you may be able to frame your photo with wildflowers and vizcachas, a local long-tailed rodent. Adventurous trekkers will find hot springs, overlooks, and other hiking destinations to discover.
While you can arrange to stay closer to Parque Nacional Lauca, most visitors base themselves in the renowned surf town of Arica, 160 km (100 mi) southwest of the park. With a sunny Mediterranean climate, broad beaches, and wide range of hotels, restaurants, and outfitters, it's a convenient spot.
Arica is the last major Chilean town on Ruta 5 before the Peruvian border. Buses cruising up and down the coast stop in Arica, and an old railway still connects Arica to Tacna, Peru, twice daily (unfortunately, the portion of the rail line to Bolivia is out of service.) There's even Tiny Aeropuerto de Chacalluta (ARI), 19 km (12 mi) north of the city, with several daily flights to Santiago de Chile.
You can get to the park using public transportation; buses to the village of Parinacota pass the entrance. It's much easier, however, to traverse these distances in a rental car or with a tour.