East of Copiapó, this desolate high-Andes park offers snow-tipped volcanoes, chartreuse lagoons and a few lonesome guanacos. Hard-to-reach Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces has all the rugged beauty and a fraction of the tourists of more famous high-altitude parks further north. Apart from pristine peaks and first-rate climbing challenges, the park shields some wonderful wildlife: flamingos spend the summer here; large herds of vicuñas and guanacos roam the slopes; the lakes are home to giant and horned coots, Andean geese and gulls; and even the occasional condor and puma are spotted.
The 591-sq-km park is separated into two sectors of the high Andes along the international highway to Argentina via Paso de San Francisco. The larger Sector Laguna Santa Rosa comprises 470 sq km surrounding its namesake lake at 3700m, and includes the dirty-white salt-flat Salar de Maricunga to the north. There’s a basic shelter on the south side of the lake.
The considerably smaller Sector Laguna del Negro Francisco surrounds a lake of the same name. The shallow waters are ideal for the 8000 birds that summer here, including Andean flamingos, Chilean flamingos and few rare James flamingos. The highest quantity of birds is present from December through February. Conaf runs the Refugio Laguna del Negro Francisco here, cozy with beds, cooking facilities, electricity, flush toilets and hot showers. Bring your own bed linen, drinking water and cooking gas.