A Day On The Altiplano – High Plain Desert Lakes, Smoking Volcanoes, Ice Mummy’s and Coots

The Altiplano (Spanish for “high plain”), in west-central South America, is the area where the Andes are the widest. It is the most extensive area of high plateau on Earth outside Tibet. The bulk of the Altiplano lies in Bolivia, but its northern parts lie in Peru, and its southern parts lie in Chile and Argentina. The dominant vegetation consists of grass and shrubs. The region’s wildlife originally included the Guanaco the wild ancestor of the domesticated Alpaca and the Llama, and with the Vicuña (known for having the finest wool fiber of any animal and costs around $600 USD per kilo. The southern half of the Altiplano falls within a zone of deficient moisture, while the northern half receives rainfall adequate for the cultivation of crops without irrigation. Its height averages about 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), slightly less than that of the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike conditions in Tibet, the Altiplano is dominated by massive active volcanoes of the Central Volcanic Zone. I’ve spent many hours driving, riding and walking across this starkly beautiful terrain and it can change from baking hot dry as a bone sun with such high solar radiation you burn to a crisp if not properly prepared, to freezing blizzards and rain storms in matter of minutes. I once asked a Quechua companion I was travelling with what the weather would do this day. I have never asked anyone since. His reply was “never trust a limping dog, a women’s tears or the Andean weather” His words not mine!

The Dry Altiplano
The Horned Coot has a fleshy proboscis or horn on the top of the bill

The computer pinged and there it was – an eBird Alert that Horned Coot had been seen by Pedro Eduardo Allasi Condo at a lake between the southern Peruvian City of Arequipa and the much-visited tourist destination of the Colca Canyon – famous for its Andean Condor lookout and in fact a great area for other birds. Now this is only the second record for Peru of a bird that lives and nests in an inhospitable lake region of the tripartite boundary of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. I had made a pilgrimage some years earlier to see it on the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia (I must say one of the most fantastic places I have every been for scenery and wilderness). I decided to fly down to Arequipa from Cusco where I live (only 40 minutes) and Pedro kindly agreed to meet me and accompany to Lake Janococco in his car. The flight got in around 8:30 am and about an hour later there I was with Pedro at 4300 meters above sea-level watching 3 Horned Coots amiably feeding with the slightly larger Giant Coots and the smaller Slate-colored Coot (two varieties – the Yellow billed form and the White-billed form). The presence of 6 Andean Avocets, 4 Puna Plovers, 35 Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, 2038 Chilean Flamingoes and c.1200 Wilson’s Phalaropes, gamboling herds of Vicuña plus domesticated herds of Alpacas and Llamas added to the show.

Like the closely related Giant Coot, the Horned Coot is a massive coot, although smaller than the giant. This coot has a more restricted and southern range than the Giant Coot, and it is found in lakes in more arid desert Puna. The most impressive feature of this bird is the large fleshy proboscis that lies on top of the bill, the “horn.” The role of this feature is not clearly known although it is reported that the horn can be raised during display.

Here the Horned Coot (left) and the Giant Coot (right)
Here a Slate-Colored Coot (left) with a Horned Coot

Another curious feature of the behavior of this little-known coot is that its nest tends to be built on a large mound of stones that allow the nest to be placed away from the shore, but above the water’s surface. This mound of stones may be several feet wide at the base, and estimated to be composed of up to 1.5 tons of material! The coots themselves create the mounds, although they may be used for many years in a row.



The Horned Coot is a tricky species to see anywhere and very rare in Peru. You can see more of Pedro’s excellent photos of these Coots at Pedro’s blog site https://pedroallasi.blogspot.pe/2017/08/gallareta-cornuda-en-la-rnsab.html?spref=fb

Watching the Coots – there were a few Wilson’s Phalaropes too as you can see

Whilst I was watching these Coot’s Pedro was somewhere behind me and after a while I turned around and he was gone! Only after careful scrutiny did I see a camera lens sticking out from under his very efficient camouflage. Pedro later told me he had done some special forces commando training in the Peruvian army and what he had learned about camouflage he now applied to bird photography hence his superb photos.

Pedro with his equipment

On the way, back to Arequipa we saw many commoner high-altitude birds and Volcanoes such as Chacani, Misti and the smoking Sabancaya Volcano.

One of the collateral effects of the Sabnacayo Volcano eruption was ice melt on the nearby Ampato peak which effectively led to the one of the most astounding mummy discoveries of the 20th century. Juanita (also known as “The Ice Maiden”) was discovered on the top of Mount Ampato near Arequipa, Peru, on September 8, 1995 by my old acquaintance Johan Reinhard and his assistant, Miguel Zarate. She was 12 to 14 years old when she was sacrificed and is believed to have died about 500 years ago. Although she was frozen in the frigid temperatures on Mount Ampato, her body was discovered because the Sabancayo volcano had caused Ampato’s snowcap to melt. Her burial site, which had collapsed and cascaded down the mountain slope, also revealed many items left as offerings to the gods. Two other children’s bodies were discovered on Ampato during a second expedition in October 1995. Another mummy was found on a subsequent expedition in November 1997; it was buried approximately a mile from the site of Juanita’s discovery. Juanita was wrapped in a brightly colored burial tapestry (or “aksu”). Her head was adorned with a cap made from the feathers of a red macaw, and she wore a lively woolen alpaca shawl fastened with a silver clasp. She was fully clothed in garments resembling the finest textiles from the Inca capital city of Cuzco. This, in addition to evidence of excellent health, suggests that she may have come from a noble Cuzco family. These were almost perfectly preserved, providing valuable insight into sacred Inca textiles and how the Inca nobility dressed.

The Mummy Juanita
The Sabancaya Volcano
The Misti Volcano that dominates the city of Arequipa

We stopped for a sandwich and a cup of Mate Inca (Inca Tea) – a local concoction reputed to help with the altitude – a brew of Coca Leaves, the aromatic Muña herb – a plant that grows in the regions of Ayacucho, Puno and Cusco and has a pleasant flavor often compared to mint, plus leaves of the Chacahcoma Tree. It Combined well with an egg sandwich!

Sadly, I left the altiplano and saying my farewells to Pedro, he dropped me at my hotel and early next morning I flew back to Cusco.

Quite an adventure for a 24-hour trip and so close to home

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