Posts Tagged With: chile

The Whole Shebang: South America Photos and Videos

I’ve now culled and edited all the photos and videos from our Chile and Argentina sojourn and posted them to the web. You can see the whole set at http://www.isaacman.net/southamerica2014/sa2014.htm. Enjoy! (I hope.)

Next stop: Italy, next April.  Watch this space!

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The Windiest National Park Anywhere (Oct 11)

A few hour bus ride brought us to Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, and we spent a good part of the day hiking around, so this post will be longer on pictures than words…lucky you.

The park is pretty big, a little under 900 square miles, and is dominated by a spectacular craggy mountain range that looks like it should be part of the Andes but actually isn’t. (It’s a younger range than the Andes and runs east-west instead of north-south.) Here’s the view as we approached the park; the buildings in the foreground are a ranch.

The big peak is called Almirante Nieto

The weather today was uncharacteristically sunny, at least to start out with since conditions in Patagonia are astonishingly and notoriously changeable. (The locals like to say, with unfortunate accuracy, that weather forecasts are useless here since every possible weather condition representing all four seasons will occur at least once every day.) But the clear skies brought out some very exotic visitors: Andean condors, the second largest flying bird in the world. (The “flying” codicil excludes ostriches, which of course are enormous but flightless; the largest flying bird is the wandering albatross.)

One of 36 Andean condors that we saw today

Andean condors are normally sighted in small numbers, but we saw groups of up to five of them soaring all over the place, a glorious and exciting sight. In the end we counted 36 of them including a juvenile, a huge number that amazed our trip lead Julio. Here’s one of them at left.

Although the weather was sunny — a condition that son changed, as promised — the winds were gale-force. Stepping out of the bus was stepping into a wind tunnel, and the was at least one viewpoint where the driver would not even let us out of the vehicle for fear that we would be blown off the lookout and into the valley below. Sounds unlikely but his concern was not unwarranted; during our long hike later in the day the woman I was walking with — a fellow photo hobbyist who like myself lingered behind the rest of the group — literally got blown over onto her back by a strong gust. In short, winds are a seriously big deal here.

(I asked Julio whether any serious efforts have been made to capitalize on wind power to satisfy Chile’s energy needs. The short answer is no: though very strong on average in this part of the country, they are also unreliable, and nearly disappear altogether for about half the year.)

The wind also ensures that fires can get very quickly out of hand, and there have been a couple of serious wildfires that have damaged the extensive beech forests in this part of the park. One fire, set by a careless Czech backpacker who knocked over a camping stove in 2005, burned 20,000 acres. A second, started by an even more careless Israeli camper who decided to burn some trash, burned 40,000 acres in 2011. Both accidental arsonists were fined $200 and kicked out of the country. Interestingly, both became very active in the reforestation effort, raising money and planting trees (and eventually being allowed to return in order to help, and to educate the public to the dangers).

“Hey, I ordered by beech trees rare. These are well done.”

The upshot of all this is that our hike took us through some seriously blasted landscapes. The burnt areas used to be the home of herds of guanácos, who,love to eat beech bark. You may remember them from my posts for the Atacama desert: they are camelids, closely related to llamas. This is about as far south as they are found, and we saw large numbers of them grazing on the hillsides as we drove into the park. To our surprise we encountered one moving hesitantly among the burnt-out beech trunks; I left the hiking trail to stalk him for a couple of minutes to get the shot that you see at right.

The park has a number of lakes of various sizes, and they host large concentrations of Cyanobacteria. Those are very ancient and primitive organisms which back in the day (the day being billions of years ago) helped convert the Earth’s atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen. The other thing about them is that they are a striking blue color, and so the lakes practically glow with a deep cerulean blue. There are a number of small waterfalls in the area too, so the effect is striking, as you can see in the three photos below.

Blue lake, happy non-campers

Striking contrasts in the terrain

Postcard scenery amidst devastation from wildfires

The happy skies in the above pictures did not last; they never do around here. The clouds rolled in and we got the authentic Patagonian variable-weather experience, which is to say that it started to snow. Not very hard, and not for very long, but…c’mon. The temperature eventually climbed to about 50 but the clouds stuck around, and of course the wind never left.

We arrived at a hiking trailhead at about 2 PM and set off over an occasionally rocky path through the burnt out beech forest, towards some peaks collectively called Cuernos del Paine. (“Cuernos” means “horns”, from the shape of the peaks.) the goal was not the peaks themselves, which are high and forbidding and many miles away, but rather a lookout point from which to view them. We covered about 4.5 miles in total, fighting a howling wind for much of the time. The clouds moved in and swirled around the jagged peaks, giving us the sense that we had undertaken some quest through Mordor that no one had told us about. Here’s a scene from along the way:

Did someone lose a ring?

Notice how the branches on the tree have grown: the wind blows pretty much all the time here, and it is never a gentle breeze.

We are spending the night at one of a small number of rustic but comfortably appointed hotels (with wonderful mountain views) that are within the park boundaries. They’re hard to get into because the total number of rooms is small and so reservations must be made far in advance. But thank you, OAT, and here we are. 

Tomorrow is mostly a travel day. The are no roads over the mountains so we will be taking a lengthy roundabout bus ride on a counterclockwise semicircular route around them, south to north, to reach the city of El Calafate where we will be spending the next two nights (hopefully with wifi again so I can actually post this).

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Penguin Extravaganza (Oct 10)

Postscript to yesterday’s entry: the ship’s navigation map went at auction for $400 to a very determined elderly Australian lady. She started the bidding at $200 and the room went silent for about five minutes as every other potential bidder cowered under their respective chairs. Finally, after repeated pleading by the auctioneer one brave Chilean gent tentatively hazarded $220, at which point the Aussie iron lady leapfrogged her own bid all the way to $400, and that was that.

“Marvin, is that you?”

Today is our last day aboard ship, heading into port at Punta Arenas. This morning was our visit to Magdalena Island, a gently sloped windswept rock occupied by a small lighthouse, a carpet of short dry grass and sand, and about 8 billion Magellan penguins, or so it seemed. The things were literally underfoot so the cuteness quotient was astronomical. It is moreover mating season so we saw them in various courtship displays, nest building, burrow digging, and what appeared to be the occasional lover’s quarrel that involves much pecking and one of the parties (hard to tell which one) storming off:

Her: “You call that pathetic pile of dried grass and stones a nest? How are we supposed to raise a family here?” 

Him: “Hey, gimme a break! That is top quality dried grass!” 

Her: “I don’t care! The Goldbergs have kelp!”

And so on. She then goes on to say that she should have married Marvin like mother wanted, and it turns out that he is Marvin and she never realized it because they all look alike. In any case, here’s the crowd on the beach (above right).

16″ tall and 9 lbs of domesticity

And here is Marvin, at left. Or at least, I assume so. There is in fact no easy way to differentiate male and female penguins unless you are either an ornithologist working up close, or another penguin.

I should mention the sounds of the island. First and foremost, as you might guess, is howling wind. But competing with that sound for attention was the vocalizations of the tuxedoed sea of penguins: they hoot, they squawk, and — in a bit of déjà vu for us — they bray. Almost exactly a year ago we saw the Boulders penguins of Cape Town, South Africa, which for good reason are informally called “jackass penguins”. Much like them, the Magellan penguins make a loud and unmistakeable HEE HAW, pointing their beaks straight up to the sky, swelling their throats, and letting loose.

The island, like most of Tierra del Fuego, has a fragile ecology. To protect it, i.e. to avoid an Exxon Valdez kind of disaster and countless petroleum-covered penguins, the Chilean government forbids tanker ships from using the Strait of Magellan. They have to sail to the southwest in the open Pacific, where weather conditions are even harsher.

We stayed on the island for an hour or so, exposing every uncovered inch of ourselves to the gale-force freezing wind. The Zodiac ride both to and from the Australis was choppy and wet, and based on that experience we are both able to testify from personal experience that the Strait of Magellen is filled with very salty water.

This having been a sunrise excursion, we were back on the ship by about 8:30 AM and enjoying the very good breakfast buffet just a few minutes after that. The Australis weighed anchor while we were eating, and we docked in Punta Arenas about two hours later, bringing the sea leg of our trip to a close.

“OK guys, the tourists are gone now. Back to the poker game.”

(By the way, that out-of-focus gnat-like cloud seemingly surrounding the penguin’s head in this photo is in fact an enormous flock of seagulls hanging around the ship in the distance. We picked them up an hour or two before our arrival at Magdalene Island.)

We cleared customs in Punta Arenas — remember that we boarded ship in Ushuaia, Argentina and are now re-entering Chile — and boarded a bus for a brief city tour before lunch. Punta Arenas is Julio’s home town, though his job as a tour lead does not give him much time at home. He introduced us to our local guide who, remarkably, turned out to be his father!

Punta Arenas is an attractive medium-sized town with a population of about 180,000. It has a small, pleasant central square surrounded by wind-twisted trees, and whose main feature is a statue commemorating Magellan. Many of the buildings are quite elaborate, colonial-style mansions that were once private residences of the wealthy but are now mostly government buildings and museums. Its glory days are somewhat past; up until about 1960 the region was dominated by a small number of robber-baron-type families, notably the Menendez family that at its peak owned fully 10% of the land in Patagonia. But the real slide began well before then, with the completion of the Panama Canal. Up till then, of course, every cargo and passenger ship moving between the east and west coasts of North America had to go around Cape Horn, and Punta Arenas was a major stopover point on that route. When the canal opened, Punta Arenas’ raison d’être pretty much evaporated.

But the port town still has its wind, and lots of it. Already situated in a place that pretty much guarantees a permanent hurricane, the effect is amplified by the existence of the town itself, whose buildings deflect and focus the wind down the streets. Walking down the street is like taking a stroll behind a jet engine, and we saw a few street corners where the authorities have strung rope along the sidewalks for the purpose of giving pedestrians something to hold onto lest they get blown into traffic as they walk. (Yes, really.)

Our bus took us to a rustic-looking but actually modern and comfortable asador (wood-smoked barbecue) restaurant located next to a small horse farm at the edge of town. Lunch was an excellent mixed grill of chorizo, chicken, all cooked over a wood fire in the same room in which we ate. 

We hit the road at about 3 PM (meals are a leisurely affair here) for the two and a half hour drive to our hotel. The terrain is flat and mostly empty — we are in the pampas now — but giving way to rolling hills in the distance. There are few people; this part of the country has an average population density of fewer than 5 people per square mile. The ground cover is yellowish grass, low bushes, and very small trees. This vegetation is of poor nutritional value, hard to digest because of a high silica content, but nonetheless hosts an interesting variety of life. Within the first hour of the bus ride we saw a flock of sheep and, far more interestingly, a flock of Chilean flamingos like the ones we saw in Atacama; a caracara, which is a puffin-like raptor about 16″ tall; and several rheas, which are very large brown emu-like flightless birds about two-thirds the height of an ostrich.

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Blue, Blue, My Glacier Is Blue (Oct 9)

In our continuing series of Glaciers of Patagonia, today we bring you Piloto Glacier located at the head of Alacalufe fjord here in not-so-sunny Patagonia. But first, we had to get there.

Late last night we exited the Beagle Passage on the Pacific side of Tierra del Fuego. We were warned at dinner that this would be the windiest part of the passage with the highest waves — this part of the Pacific is anything but pacific (with a lowercase p) — and that for this reason the passage would be made late at night when we were safely tucked into bed. They elaborated that it might be hard to move around the cabin during this time, which turned out to be spectacularly true.

Up to this point the seas have been quite calm, and the motion of the boat correspondingly gentle, even soothing. But I awakened in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and it took me about a minute to get to the bathroom, which is about eight feet from the foot of the bed. I could hear the wind howling outside the window, and even lying in bed felt like a roller coaster ride, with momentary periods of near-weightlessness followed by an abrupt thud and crash as the bow of the ship pitched down from the crest of a wave into the trough. It was remarkable, and after navigating back to bed from the bathroom, a journey that took another minute or so as I weaved around the pitching and rolling floor, I opened the curtains to watch the show outside for a while. (I chose not to wake Alice, who was still sound asleep.) The boat has running lights on the side so it was possible to see the waves from the window, and there was faint moonlight filtering through the heavy clouds, illuminating the island on our starboard side. It was quite the display.

At this point a number of you might be saying, “I’d never make it through the night because I get seasick really easily.” But the powers that be have thought of you, and it is not for nothing that the passage was in the middle of the night: you don’t get seasick in your sleep. In the event, by morning we were back in calm seas at the mouth of the fjord.

Ernest Shackelton, call your office

This excursion would not involve landing the Zodiac; we would remain in it to motor up the glacier and approach as close as we safely could to the face of Piloto while the Australis remained at anchor at the mouth of the fjord. Since we would not be doing much moving around we are advised to layer up as much as we could; the weather would be cold, wet, and raw, and absent any hiking we would not be keeping ourselves warm. So we suited up like brightly colored Michelin Men. The air temperature was about 40 F, and the water temperature about the same. The wind was modest and it was raining lightly but steadily.

Apparently in anticipation of our arrival, Piloto glacier had a major calving event a few hours earlier, and the fjord was choked with ice to the point that it appeared as though you could practically step out of the boat and walk down the channel. (We were advised not to try this.) The Zodiacs struggled against all the ice; you can see two of our four boats in the photo at left, practically locked in the ice. There were, needless to say, the expected Shackelton jokes.

It took about 20 minutes to negotiate the ice floes and make our way up to the glacier. It was spectacular, the most striking one we have seen because of its unearthly opalescent blue color throughout, as you can see below. (I should emphasize that I haven’t done any color enhancement in these shots.)

Piloto Glacier, bringing new meaning to the term “ice blue”

As in yesterday’s photos of Pia Glacier, the perspective in this shot is very deceptive because the boat is much closer to the foreground than the glacier, which is several hundred feet high. We maneuvered around the floating ice to get as close as we could, ignoring the pelting rain and trying to avoid being hemmed in by the floes that completely surrounded us. And while we were ogling the blue giant, it put in another show for us, calving once again with a lightning crack and thunderous explosion, and bringing our calving record to 3-for-3. I caught part of the event on camera; you can see it right in the middle of the picture below, resembling a waterfall on the glacier face. But it is actually a huge “icefall”, a good 100 ft high.

You do not want to be much closer than this when this happens


Nesting crested cormorants, scavenging each other

We lingered for a while longer to see if any more would fall, but only a small amount did so we turned around and made a short stop to admire the bird life: gulls, skuas, and lots and lots of crested cormorants, the latter perched in rows on the cliff sides among their nests and squawking and dancing (mating dances) at each other. Here they are at left.

One peculiarity of their behavior is that they steal building material from each others’ nests in order to improve their own. This tactic works pretty poorly, because while Joe Cormorant is off stealing some sticks from Bob Cormorant’s nest, his nest is in turn being raided by Harpo Cormorant. So when not out hunting for fish these guys basically spend all day either dancing to woo women or picking each others’ pockets.

A very not-tropical waterfall

In part because of the rain and also because the (barely) above freezing temperatures cause a lot of glacial melt, the dark granite walls of the fjord were decorated with a multitude of waterfalls. As we motored back up the channel towards our starting point,mew stopped along the way to get close to a couple of small cataracts (whose waters, were, well, as cold as ice). They ran in rivulets of varying width from all the way at the tops of the cliffs down to the sea.

After returning to the Via Australis we were warmed with a cup of hot chocolate (with optional whiskey added, which we declined). A few minutes later we were offered a tour of the engine room, which of course appealed to the geek in both of us. It was pretty unprepossessing, far from the cavernous space housing rows of diesel behemoths that you would find on a big cruise ship. This was far more modest,mid deafeningly loud; they gave us earmuff-style ear protection while we we in there. And of course they gave us statistics: two 850 horsepower Diesel engines, two 385 kW main generators plus a 120 kW backup, ship is 237 ft in length, etc., etc. It was interesting and enjoyable enough, I suppose, but suffered from comparison to the one-hour adrenaline rush we had just experienced.

Aguila glacier and two wet tourists

Our afternoon shore excursion was to the Aguilar glacier, which unlike either the Pia or Piloto glaciers empties out onto a small alluvial plain, meaning that we could walk nearly right up to it. The Zodiacs dropped us off on the rocky beach, and we hiked along it for about 45 minutes until we came to the mouth of the plain; the glacier was perhaps a quarter mile inland from there. It does not have a recent history of calving and so viewing it was a somewhat more passive experience than the others, but it was nonetheless gratifyingly blue and carved into arches and spires.

The weather for this afternoon excursion was not quite as cooperative as it had been; though the temperature was not horribly cold (low 40s), there was a steady pelting rain that made the Zodiac ride and subsequent hike very wet affairs. We were well equipped with all the requisite layers of clothing that we had brought for the trip, notably our happily waterproof top-to-bottom rain gear. Even so, the hot post-excursion shower in our room was a little slice of heaven. 

And here’s a panorama of Aguila just because. For scale, it’s about 500 ft high.

More ice!

Tonight is our last night aboard ship, with a farewell dinner and some late night activities, notably auctioning off the ship’s official navigation map showing our route and the various waypoints. In the past this has gone for insane amounts of money, the highest that Julio can recall being $800. So we won’t be bidding. We have a morning excursion to a Magdalena Islland, home to a large population of Magellanic penguins. Be on the lookout for excessively cute photos as we then proceed to Punta Arenas to resume the land portion of our journey.

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Nice Ice, Baby (Oct 8)

We are in glacier country now, for real, and today was a two-glacier day. Even more excitingly, it was a two calving glacier day, as we were lucky enough to see both of our target glaciers explosively shed office-building sized chunks of ice sufficient to keep you and all your friends in piña coladas for the rest of your life. (By the way, since we’ve been on the subject for a couple of days now, I highly recommend the documentary “Chasing Ice”, which is about glaciers and has some truly amazing and beautiful photography.)

The weather has been cloudy with some light misting rain all day, the mountaintops shrouded in fog. But the glaciers are down at the sea and our visibility is unimpeded. The Australis is working its way down the Beagle Channel into the ice fields, and as we approach the glaciers the sea around us is densely littered with floating chunks of ice ranging in size from “cantaloupe” to “minivan”. Many of the larger pieces have been sculpted by wind and water into gently curving baroque shapes, and some of them have football-sized chunks of rock embedded in them. We push slowly through them, and since our cabin is on the bottom deck we can hear frequent thumps as the larger pieces brush against the ship’s hull. The water is dark gray and the floes range in color from light gray to sky blue…glacier blue, I suppose, a striking and incongruously cheerful hue against the cold and light drizzle.

The Zodiacs have pretty tough hulls themselves, the inflatable rubber sides being thick enough to repel collisions with small objects. Even so, a scout crew always goes out first to ascertain the safety of the surroundings before we board our own boats. You can see one returning, below. Note that the boat has a rope mesh at the front. This serves two purposes, one being a hand grip for beaching and shoving off, the other being a wave-breaker-upper (for lack of a better term); waves that splash into the front as we motor forward get dissipated on the mesh, which thus minimizes the amount of water splashed into the boat.

“Is it safe?”

We had come in sight of our first destination, Pia Glacier, an hour or two earlier. It’s a massive thing whose scale is difficult to appreciate against the mountains that surround it. Here’s the approach to the glacier from abovedecks. You can also see all the ice “debris” in the water around us.     

Approaching Pia Glacier (just right of center) on the Via Australis

To give you an idea of the scale, the mouth of the glacier is about 3/4 mile wide, and it is about 1000 ft high.

Storming the beaches at Pia Glacier

Today was not quite such an early day, and we set off in the boats at about 9 AM, motoring first directly alongside the  Australis and then powering out into the open channel. The driver steers clear of the larger floes but we run straight over the little ones, feeling the bumps and thumps as they run across the bottom of the craft.

The beach landing is easy once we navigate the ice; the slope of the beach is gentle and the crew is waiting with a little aluminum gangplank that they hoist onto the bow of the Zodiac for us. We exit the craft one-by-one with striking efficiency and then walk up the sloping granite “beach” to an assembly point.

The granite is interesting in itself. Nearly black in color and striated with gray and white, it’s surprisingly skid-proof even when wet; we can walk on it very easily, even on a slope. There are patches covered with white, green, and occasional orange lichen, and there are large exceptionally flat areas maybe 20 ft on a side that are covered with scratches and striations all running parallel to one another — scars on the rock from the glacier’s ancient retreat. 

(While contemplating this I notice Alice ambling slowly across the granite, peering straight down in evident concentration. She sees me observing her and explains, “I am researching kitchen countertops, ” stating it in such a strikingly matter-of-fact tone that it takes me a moment to realize that she is a total loonball. Kitchen countertops, of course! What else would we be doing at the foot of a thousand foot tall glacier, 600 miles from Antarctica?)

We walk along the granite beach to a point that is perhaps a quarter mile from the face of the glacier, so the view looks like this. (The perspective is very deceiving in this image: bear in mind that our cohort in the orange life vests at left are a quarter mile from the ice; the central formations in the middle of the face are 1000 ft high.)

Ice the height of a skyscraper

And there is sound, lots of it. Loud cracks and pops like gunfire, and the occasional small explosion as some unseen mass of ice breaks off and falls somewhere onto a jagged surface, also out of sight. A lot of the cacophony seems to emanate from the cavelike formation that you can see on the left side of the picture. Every now and then we can see and hear a piece fall from the roof of the arch into the water; the smallest of these is about the size of a car and it makes a deep and thunderous >>FOOM!!!<< as it crashes into the sea. These events seem to occur with increasing frequency even as we watch, making us wonder whether there will be a larger calving event later (answer: yes).

“I’d like to buy a vowel and 2 billion tons of ice, Pat.”

There’s a viewpoint at an elevation of a few hundred feet on the hillside, and so we set out along a hiking trail. The weather is holding: heavily overcast and cold but not too raw, with the barely-there drizzle kind of coming and going. The hiking trail is as steep as yesterday’s, but not as long; there are short muddy stretches but tree roots are a bigger impediment, and there are uneven hunks of granite interspersed with the roots and the mud, so we have to pick our way. There are a couple of particularly steep stretches with rope strung along the edge of the path, such as it is; we use the ropes to help haul ourselves up, and we reach the lookout in about 20 minutes. And so here is Alice at the lookout, doing her best Vanna White imitation to present the glacier to you.

Even as we watched from the lookout, the rate of explosive pops and crackles from the left part of the glacier seemed to be increasing. So we waited — I’d like to say patiently, but we were anything but — and were rewarded, as the entire ceiling of the arch came loose with the crackling sound of a dead tree being splintered by a lightning bolt. This was a slab of ice bigger than a football field, and it seemed to fall in slow motion. Perhaps 4 seconds in free fall, it hit the water like an earthquake, sending a tiny tsunami towards the Zodiac and washing dozens of boulder-sized floes up onto the beach. We all clapped and cheered. Alice had been on the ball and caught it on video; we’ll post it upon our return.

Not everyone in our party had made the hike to the lookout, so when we returned to the beach we regaled the unfortunates with what we had witnessed. We were still hopped up on adrenaline by the time the Zodiac came to ferry us back to the Australis, though we had passed the time productively by drinking hot chocolate and variously chewing and licking a hunk of glacier that had washed up onto the beach, and which I had picked up and brought back to the group for inspection. After all, how could you not want to taste a glacier? I can report that it tastes a great deal like a hunk of ice, quite cold and fresh with no chlorine or additives of any kind. It was kind of neat to both hold and behold, though: you could see strata in it from various formative snow depositions over the years, and it had a lot of suspended air bubbles. This particular chunk was not blue, however.

We dodged floating ice all the way back to the ship and enjoyed a buffet lunch (assorted Italian dishes today, quite good) in preparation for the afternoon excursion to our next glacier, called Garibaldi. Most of our group, including ourselves, elected not to go ashore for this one since we were told that the hike was quite arduous and the reward at the top (a waterfall) not altogether commensurate with the effort. This was a wise choice,mat least for us: while the shore party(only 7 people, including the father and daughter from our group) was doing the hike, the captain took the Australis further up the channel nearly up to the face of Garibaldi itself, an enormous ice wall much bluer than Pia though slightly smaller in size. It is about 1500 ft wide and 500 feet high. The channel was practically choked with ice, which we pushed slowly through for a spectacular view. 

Garibaldi is bifurcated by a vertical moraine; it is essentially two glaciers merged together with a visible seam, a jagged brown channel that runs down the face. And while we were observed this, Garibaldi calved too! We had seen some large pieces falling off so in anticipation I was more or less at the ready with my camera set in burst mode (3.6 shots per second for three seconds at a time), and managed to capture a few thousand tons of ice as it hit the water with just a bit of a splash:

Kersplash! Garibaldi Glacier calves. 

That’s the impact billowing at the waterline just to the right of center. You can also see how very blue Garibadi is, and how very clogged the channel is with small ice floes. And of course you can also see the moraine making a dark S-shaped channel through the glacier. 

We spent most of the rest of the day congratulating ourselves on our glaciological luck. At 6 PM there was a knot-tying demonstration at the bar/observation deck, which was a lot more entertaining than it sounds. The lesson was given by the boatswain, a beefy guy with a shaved head who could probably have a second career as a nightclub bouncer. He was a hoot, at least in translation by another crew member since he himself spoke little English. And I am proud to say that for at least the next 24 hours until I forget how, I know how to tie a bowline knot as well as a “novelty” knot called a “devil’s staircase”. This is a sort of a trick whereby with a few economic motions you simultaneously create multiple knots at a time strung along the length of rope like beads on a string. As nearly as I can tell its practical application is for wowing guests at very dull parties. But I am confident that I will be able to amaze the kindergarten crowd at, say, our grandson’s fifth birthday in 2 1/2 years.

 

 

 

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Reaching the Bottom: Cape Horn (Oct 7)

End of the Earth

The big unknown about our reaching Cape Horn was whether we would actually be able to stand at the fabled point itself or merely view it from the boat, the determining factors being weather, weather, and weather. (More accurately, the factors would be wind, waves, and beach conditions. Rain and snow are not considered unless extreme.) From the Australis we could already see the Cape Horn monument atop the island, silhouetted against the dawn: a 15′ tall metal square, standing on one corner, with an albatross-shaped hole in the middle. 

But we got lucky, as the day dawned partly sunny and the swells, though very noticeable, we’re not too high for safety in the Zodiacs. We were warned about a number of things, starting with clothing: wear every layer we had (we were told); the weather is ferociously changeable. Truer words were ne’er spoke.

And so we bundled up in five or so layers, the outermost being rain slickers and waterproof pants and boots, and our life vests on top of that. The life vests had been hanging in the closet of our cabin, each one with a red tag clipped to it displaying our room number. Adjacent to the Zodiacs was a pegboard with corresponding numbered hooks: the idea is to hang up your tag on the hook before barring the Zodiac and collect it when you return, thereby giving the crew an immediate heads-up if someone is still on the island. (This is a a rare to nonexistent occurrence.)

We received our instructions for entering and exiting the Zodiacs, climbed in when instructed, and away we went though the chop and into the wind. There was uncharacteristically no rain, though that would change as predicted; the weather here is spectacularly, dramatically volatile.

First the waves, then the stairs

We motored through the chop and beached at the bottom of a very long flight of precarious wooden steps up the cliff side, something like 156 of them as you see at right.

It was a long, steep way up, exciting not only for the reality of where we were but for the more prosaic fact that the steps were rickety and slippery, and it was an awfully long tumble down to the rocky surf below.

The Chilean navy station at the top marked the prelude to another climb, this time much shallower over a long wooden boardwalk with a few step risers along the way, wending its way over scrubby grass and stunted trees and up some hillocks to a vantage point fro which we could get a view, not only of the sea and snowy peaks behind us, but of the monument itself and a small lighthouse on a promontory nearby.

Getting closer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene was striking in its own right, amplified by the increasingly hellacious wind that tore into us now that we are atop the unprotected bluff. It is fortunate that our trip leader Julio had managed to pull a few strings to get us out on the first Zodiac, because we and the other ten folks in our Zodiac thus had the place to ourselves for a few minutes, and it was kind of exciting to realize that we were nearly alone at the this very point, which is the well-and-truly actual southernmost anything outside of Antarctica itself, about as close to the actual end of the Earth as you can really be. No doubt about it, it was more than a little cool. And so here we are (photo below) being awesome at this particular bucket list location.

“Bottom of the world, ma!”


Hail in a 40mph wind…travel at its finest

Speaking of “pretty cool” the weather — already more than pretty cool in the literal sense — almost immediately turned to “hideous” with genuinely remarkable speed at just about the moment we stepped away from the monument to allow the newcomers to have their pictures taken. Clouds moved in, the temperature dropped like a stone, it started to hail and snow, and in short order we looked like the picture at right.

You haven’t really appreciated hail until you have had it driven into your face by a 40 mph wind in near-freezing temperatures. It was like being stung continuously by about 200 angry bees, and it disinclined us to linger too long at the top.

But first we had to see the lighthouse. And who, you might ask, is the lighthouse keeper? Who could possibly have a life in this ridiculously remote location with no newspapers, cell phones, or indeed much of anything at all? And the answer is: a young Chilean naval officer who, in full dress uniform, mans the tiny gift shop at the base of the lighthouse, along with his wife, teenage son, and little dog. He cheerfully signs “I visited Cape Horn” certificates in the gift shop, no doubt wondering exactly who in the Chilean Navy he offended that caused him to draw this particular assignment. His wife and kid no doubt think the same thing. (“Dad, I hate my life!”)

In fairness I should say that this assignment is actually considered an honor, or at least that’s what they tell everybody. But regardless, it seems to me that you better get along with your wife and kid really, really well to avoid thoughts of throwing yourself off the cliff.

We made our way back down the rickety and now ice-covered cliffside stairs, squinting against the hail and biting wind while trying not to slip and tumble down all 156 steps. (Our waterproof Wellington boots by this time were doing more harm than good, offering virtually no traction on the rime. Alice slipped and fell 4 times along the way, none of them seriously.) but we were high-fiving to hell and gone by the time we reached the Zodiac for the windy trip back to the Australis, and there were plenty of stories to swap at breakfast at our return (but first…remember to clip your red room tag back onto your life vest!).

The storm passed, and the afternoon was markedly milder. During breakfast and lunch the boat had moved a few tens of miles back up the island towards the Beagle Channel, and our afternoon Zodiac excursion was at Wulaia Bay along the way. This was one of the areas where Darwin did some of his research, and it is a striking setting ringed by mountains and dotted by a number of small islands. The island that we docked at (their was a small pier that could accommodate the Zodiacs) was dominated by a ridge about 600 ft above the bay, and we undertook a real workout of a hike to the top of it. We had had three options: an easy hike along the coast, a very strenuous “fast hike” to the the top, or a “moderate to difficult” hike, also to the top. Most people, including ourselves, chose the last.

It was no walk on the park. Though we took about 45 minutes to make the ascent — including a couple of pauses for nature talks by the guide — there were parts that were so steep that it was necessary to use a rope strung alongside the trail for assistance.  One of the nature stops included a beaver dam, of all things. Fun fact: in 1947 someone who had never heard about rabbits in Australia, mongoose in the Caribbean, or rats in Hawaii had the brilliant idea of importing 25 pairs of beavers from Canada and releasing them in Ushuaia, figuring that in the absence of any local predators they would reproduce without interference and create a whole new industry of lucrative beaver pelts. They got it half right: there is now an out-of-control population of 100,000 beavers living throughout the archipelago…. whose pelts are worthless because it is the hormone-laden oils secreted in fear of the predators that gives them their valuable sheen. For a while the government was paying a $10 bounty on them, but it didn’t help much. Truly, we are in the Golden Age of Invasive Species.

Rampant beavers notwithstanding, we huffed and puffed our way to the top — not everyone made it — and our reward was this view.

This is why we travel

That’s the Via Australis on the water about halfway up and two thirds of the way to the right. Here’s another view, with the ship at lower left.

Ditto.

Upon our return to the ship a crew member with a power washer hosed off the bottoms of our shoes. This is done after every island visit to keep our hallway and cabin floors mud-free.

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(Fire) Truckin’ Back to Santiago

Yesterday was our last day in Santiago, and today our first in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t a huge touring-around day, but it had its share of ups and downs. First the downs:

The oldest member of our group — June, age 83 — has with some gentle encouragement from Julio pulled the metaphorical ripcord and decided (correctly) that she has bitten off more than she could chew in selecting this trip. She has traveled around the world multiple times on QE2 cruises, but the physical rigors of this trip were way too much for her; she’s the one who nearly fainted on the street on our first day in Santiago, last Sunday. A stout, grandmotherly woman, she was a real sweetheart but always a few steps behind the rest of the group both physically and conversationally. (She does not have a cell phone or email, and asked Alice what the simplest smartphone would be for a techno-naïf. Alice suggested an iPhone and she responded, “What’s an iPhone?” So you know what we’re dealing with.)

Julio spent a fair amount of time scrambling around yesterday getting her booked on a flight out of Santiago today. She flies home this afternoon (Friday), to her own — and to be honest, everyone else’s — relief.

Our second bump in the road was a delay in our flight from Calama back to Santiago, due to heavy fog at the latter airport. (Which was strange to hear, since Calama is up in the Atacama desert and the skies were cloudless there when we were informed of the problem.) But one of the virtues of this kind of group travel is that once you write the check you magically transform such glitches into Somebody Else’s Problem. We had nothing waiting for us in Santiago yesterday afternoon, any logistical rearrangements were Julio’s job, and so we took the news with Zen-like equanimity. The airline shuttled us all to a nearby hotel where we had a nice buffet lunch. So no biggie.

But in between those two events we enjoyed one of those offbeat experiences that are the rewards of traveling with an open mind. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut (in Cat’s Cradle): “Unexpected travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And in the words of Julio Llamos, our tour lead: “You gotta bring the magic.”

It happens that Mario, our driver in San Pedro, is a volunteer firefighter in that tiny place. He is rightfully proud of that, and asked (via Julio, since he speaks no English) whether we would like to see the fire station en route to the airport in Calama. The collective sentiment was sure, why not? And this turned out to be quite the gem of an experience.

When I asked for a pole dance, this wasn’t what I had in mind

The fire station was small but modern and well equipped, thanks to a government grant and a number of fund raisers. Mario showed us the break room (complete with pool table), the crew quarters, and the garage with the trucks. And then the real wonderfulness started, for the entrance to the garage was on a mezzanine overlooking the engines, which you could get to either by walking down a ramp or — and who among us has not wanted to do this — sliding down a fireman’s pole. And so like screeching 6 year olds we slid one by one down the fireman’s pole, thereby checking off a bucket list item that we didn’t even know we had. It was great. See Alice in action at left.

Mario next marched us into the equipment room, where we got to try on the stuff. This was also cool in the extreme: I got to don the whole ensemble: boots, coveralls, coat, oxygen tank, and mask. Here I am in full regalia.:

Burning building, anyone?

Finally we climbed onto one of the fire trucks, and Mario ran the siren for a few moments to complete the experience. The whole thing was a like a decades-buried childhood fantasy, and everybody loved every minute of it. We all donated some money to the station as we left, which was very gratefully received. We definitely brought the magic.

We arrived at our hotel in Santiago at 6:30pm or so, about three hours later than originally planned. No matter. The hotel desk gave us a list of recommended nearby restaurants, and at about 8:00 — people eat dinner here very late — Alice and I struck out on our own to find a seafood restaurant that was on the list. We failed; turns out the place was no longer there. So we ambled around the area looking for someplace suitably inviting, and eventually settled on a tiny and very authentically local place where no one spoke a word of English but where we were heartily welcomed. We had a perfectly nice seafood dinner for about $30 for the two us and, feeling very self-satisfied, retired back to the hotel.

I am typing this on our flight to Buenos Aires, about a 90 minute hop from Santiago. But that 90 minutes takes you straight across the spine of the Andes, and the view is dramatic. Here is a shot that I took with the iPad a few minutes ago while typing this:

The Andes from above

When we arrive in Buenos Aires we will meet up with the rest of our group, another 13 people, for the main leg of the trip. That’s sort of a shame, since it’s been really enjoyable having an intimate 8-person group this far, small enough that everyone gets to know each other and Julio very quickly. But I will at least no longer be the youngest person in the group: Julio informs me that the larger group includes a couple traveling with their 43 year old daughter.

I have not said much about the our fellow travelers, so I’ll belatedly introduce them now. (This isn’t going to be very travelogue-y and is more for my own mental record, so feel free to stop reading here.)

I have already described Julio, our tour lead, who as it happens turns 34 today. (I am planning on exhorting the full group into singing a doubtless painful rendition of Happy Birthday at dinner tonight.) He is a real gem, and addresses us as “team”. Every briefing begins with the words, “Okey dokey, team…” When I return home I plan on having an “Okey Dokey Team Julio” tee shirt made for him as a belated birthday gift. On the back it will say “Bring the Magic”

I also described poor June, who bailed out this morning. In addition, we have:

  • Dick (75) and Jean (75), from near us in Maryland. Jean is compact and bustles around, and by virtue of their long history (22 trips, as I mentioned earlier) often has some interesting anecdote to contribute from their own experience. Dick is tall and fit-looking and appears to be filming practically every moment of the trip on video. He speaks almost not at all — it’s so extreme that we actually tease him about it — but is genial and knowledgeable on the rare occasions when he actually opens his mouth.
  • Christie and Becky (~65, inferred from a conversation about high school classes), close friends from Boise whose husbands/significant others declined to make the trip. Becky has about the same physique as Alice, while Christie is taller and thinner. Both have short gray hair and glasses, and since I am genuinely lousy at names and faces it took me two or three days to tell them apart. Before my prosopagnosiac brain (look it up) finally sorted them out, I simply referred to them as “the Boise girls”. They’re lively, good-humored, and outgoing, certainly the ones we’ve connected with most strongly so far. Christie is a dedicated diarist, always writing in a notebook and always asking for details to include. (Last night after firelding a bunch of questions about an observatory in the mountains that we passed in the van — the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA — I commandeered her notebook and wrote a 4-page treatise on millimeter-wave astronomy and how ALMA works. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on our trips.)
  • Lynn, mid- to upper 60’s at a guess. She’s divorced, with short curly gray hair and a wry sharp tongue and an appealing (to us) “do not suffer fools gladly” outlook.

So that’s who we are. It’s a good group, and I hope the remaining 13 click as well. We’ve arrived in Buenos Aires since I started typing this (weather is upper 50’s and cloudy with some light drizzle) so I guess we’ll find out tonight.

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Who Is Geyser Soze?

We had an ethereal display early Wednesday morning, as we arose at 4:30 AM — an hour I was heretofore unsure even existed — to make another long drive, this time up to the El Tatio geyser field, way up at 14,000 ft into the mountains. We met up with our group at 5:00 AM and first made a short ride outside of the lights of town so that we could admire the night sky. Which was incredible. With no lights at all for many miles around, the Moon had set and the sky was crystalline: the Milky Way shone brightly enough to admire the dust lanes; the Large Magellanic Cloud (a small irregular companion galaxy to the Milky Way, for you non-astronomers) floated like a glowing cotton ball the size of the Moon; and the Southern Cross had just broken the horizon. It was breathtaking, yet another reminder of why we make trips like this.

The reason for the insanely early hour is rooted in the geophysics of these particular geysers. As Julio explained it to us, these geysers, unlike (say) Old Faithful, are in continuous rather than periodic eruption (as we would shortly see) and their strength depends on the temperature difference between the surface temperature and that of the underground superheated water. The bigger the temperature difference, the more vents are in eruption, and the better the display. Hence it is best to arrive at or before sunrise when the air is nice and cold.

Yeah, nice and cold. As in 20 @$$(#{#*ing degrees. We drove through the predawn darkness up, up, up the steep mountainside over unlit invisible unpaved roads, jarred by the washboarding and the ruts, till the sky began to lighten behind the peaks and we found ourselves on a flat plain dotted with steaming fumaroles. We stepped out of our nice comfy heated van and BAM! Welcome to lung-searing mountaintop cold. We had been forewarned, of course, and had dressed in about five layers of shed-able clothing in preparation for the later warmth of the day ahead, but for now every layer was a blessing.

There was only light wind, thankfully, but the cold on our hands and faces was bad enough, amplified by the oxygen deprivation of the 14,000 ft elevation. It was a weird sort of homecoming for me, the surroundings reminiscent of my Mauna Kea days (coincidentally the same height); I had about 5 minutes of lightheadedness, then stopped noticing it. I was lucky never to be significantly affected by the altitude at Mauna Kea, nor here, but others in our group (including Alice) felt noticeably uncomfortable and impaired. My biggest problem was my hands; my fingers were numb with cold but of course I needed them ungloved to operate the camera.

Andean geysers at dawn (blue tint courtesy of iPad camera)

We were on a flat volcanic plain a few miles across, settled in a smaller area about a half mile on a side with scores if not hundreds of steam vents, many spewing boiling water in a suitably geyser-like way. The ground was dark as basalt and smooth enough to walk around easily, crisscrossed with frozen rivulets of groundwater and dusted with salt crystals. The steam vents were everywhere, their perimeters painted with so-called thermophilic algae, primitive orange and green organisms that thrive in the boiling, mineral-laden water. The scene was lit by orange breaking dawn and the still-indigo sky, and walking among them was a stroll on some hellish planet. To my surprise there was little very smell of sulphur.

We wandered among the vents and through the clouds of steam, some merely curling wisps at our feet, others majestic swirling towers ten or fifteen feet across. There were some marked walkways — they’ve lost a few tourists to the boiling pools, invisible underfoot in some of the steam columns. But there would be no parboiled visitors today.

…and an hour later

The sky continued to lighten, saturating the surrounding peaks in orange and revealing adjacent rock-strewn fields of clumpy, straw-like grass. After an hour or so the sun had completely cleared the peaks and warmed the geyser field, and as promised the multitude of steam columns started to diminish noticeably. Our driver Mario and our local guide Camillo had by this time prepared an outdoor breakfast for us, so we made our way back to the van to enjoy warm toast (prepared on a gas grill), ham, cheese, cake, avocado, and — most welcome of all — hot drinks. I am not sure which part of me enjoyed the hot chocolate more: my mouth and stomach as I drank it, or my chilled dry hands, simply from holding the mug.

We were in full daylight as we made our way back down the mountain, and now we could see how treacherous the drive up had been in darkness, the road rutted and boulder-strewn, and serpentine with hairpin turns. Our return trip, Julio explained, would be marked by several stops to search for birds and wildlife.

This seemed unlikely to me, my view of the Martian landscape being informed by three years at the nearly-lifeless summit of Mauna Kea. But things are different here. We were not 20 minutes underway when we encountered a herd (flock? pod?) of vicuñas, sending us into a picture-snapping frenzy that a short while later would feel silly in retrospect, as the damn things were all over the place.

The vizcacha, which you do not dip in your coffee (Google photo)

Other than a herd of domesticated llamas — and I had not known this, but all llamas are domesticated — the other mammal of interest that we encountered was one that I had never heard of: the vizcacha. (Points for you if you’ve ever heard of it.) With a name like an Italian breakfast pastry (the leading V is pronounced like a B), the vizcacha looks like an oversized rabbit at the front — with pronounced long rabbity ears — and some kind of mutant lemur at the back, with a long furred tail. It is a rodent, not a lagomorph, and thus despite its appearance more rat than rabbit. It’s about 16″ long plus the tail. We encountered a group of several of them, and one ran behind the van and up the hillside, an unexpected sight in itself because when they start to move you instinctively expect them to hop, which they do not.

The bird life was also (to me) surprisingly abundant and diverse. We stopped at a small lake, covered in parts with a thin layer of ice. There we saw crested ducks, giant coots, Chilean teal ducks (bright blue bill!), and more, all greater in number and variety than I would have expected, and quite the sight against the near-frozen lake nestled in the blasted landscape.

We arrived back at the hotel a little before noon, in time for lunch and a nap before heading out on our late afternoon outing to the nearby Valley of the Moon. (You better believe that this trip takes stamina.) I think that in our travels that this is the third or fourth desolate venue that we have visited that is named after the Moon. I suppose that at some time in the historical past it became de rigeur the world over for hardy but unimaginative explorers to gaze upon their desert discovery and declare that it looked like the Moon. If I were their trusty but intolerant native guide I would have said, “Can’t you do better than that? This is the fourth frigging volcanic desert valley that we’ve named after the Moon. Doesn’t it look like anything else? Mars? Detroit? Anything?”

Apparently not, and the Moon it is despite the absence of any craters. But it is suitably alien, the rock formations and trackless grey sand dunes resembling the most remote parts of the American desert southwest. With one major exception: the salt. Smooth mica-like salt incrustations and quartzy crystal outcroppings define the surface of the rocks on every scale, anguished-looking formations and even whole cliff sides coated with patchy white grains as though dusted in powdered sugar. It’s a paradoxical sight, making some of the craggy formations look like some kind of Pastries From Hell.

Valley of the Moon. That’s salt, not snow! (Google image)

Rivulets of rare rainfall erode pencil-wide channels down the rocks as they dissolve the salt, giving many of the formations a fluted appearance as though their surface was the fusion of bundles of narrow stalactites. But the really cool part is that some of the walls talk.

Not in English or Spanish, of course: they whisper in, I dunno, Rockish I suppose. But in one canyon there were whole walls tiled in sheets of transparent salt crystals, whose thermal expansion and contraction in the cycle of the desert day is different from the underlying rock itself. And so there is mechanical stress as the sheets and incursions of crystals try to pull away from the rock to which they are fused, and you can actually hear the battle taking place: faint whispery crackles and deep hollow pops, every second or two. It’s ghostly and a little eerie, like the rocks are talking to you. We stayed for a few minutes and listened, and I would happily have stayed longer. (Not so Alice, alas; even with hearing aids her poor hearing prevented her from hearing the geological conversation.)

We drove to high ground afterwards to strategically position ourselves for the sunset display, and while we were there our driver and guide set out a charming little wine and cheese table for us. This was last night in the Atacama, and so it was a little celebration of the few days that we had.

The grand finale, of course, was the sunset, an atypically colorful one due to the presence of some unseasonal clouds. The clouds burned furious orange and pink, the rugged valley below and the distant volcanic peaks turning color in synchrony. You will have to wait till I process my photos later this month to see what it looked like — the iPad’s lousy camera could never capture it — but it put quite the exclamation point to our visit thus far.

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I’ll Have a Trillion Margaritas…with Salt, Please

 

I mentioned earlier that San Pedro de Atacama is very tiny; the population is about 7,000 (not the 1,400 I mentioned earlier). This is to be compared with the number of tourists who visit here, which is 150,000 annually. So it is fair to say that tourism is kind of important here. “Here” being a somewhat wishful term, there not being a whole lot of here here (so to speak).

Those 150,000 tourists include a whole lot of ridiculously fit people, judging by the number of spandexed legs pumping bicycles. You know the demographic: skintight outfit, neon-colored helmet, scraggly hair, 40 lb backpack strapped to the bike. They’re everywhere in town, and I can only assume that they are all googly-eyes crazy, because we are at 8,000 feet elevation in the driest desert in the world, and practically every direction out of town is UP, steeply, into the Andes. Long distance biking around here is about the least fun thing that I can imagine. But bike they do: every single business establishment in town is a craft store, restaurant, or tourist lodging, and I am not exaggerating.

To give you a flavor of the place, here is one of the major intersections:

Rush hour in San Pedro. The guy in green is our local guide Camillo, warning Alice about the heavy traffic.

Our local guide Camillo has lived here for 22 years, on the outskirts of town. (How a town of 7,000 in the middle of a desert has outskirts is not clear to me.) Needless to say, he knows everyone. About 30 seconds after I took this picture he chatted with a local woman who was walking by with some shopping bags. Turns out that was the mayor.

Your go-to place for blankets and herbal Viagra

There is a central square, off of which radiate the Big Four of every small town in this region: a church, a small anthropological museum, a police station, and a craft market.  The craft market was small, crowded, and lively, as you can see at left. The collection of goods for sale had its idiosyncrasies, to say the least. Along with the expected good quality woolen hats and blankets, and the kitchshy stuffed llamas and refrigerator magnets, you can also purchase (1) crystalline salt in lumps the size of grapefruits (“Care for some salt on your food?” CLUNK); (2) coca tea and hard candies; and (3) brightly-colored packs containing extremely sketchy herbal remedies allegedly for high cholesterol, diabetes, and, um, inadequate bedroom performance. The first two featured pictures of busty girls in microscopic bikinis, which of course is the image that springs to mind when you think of cholesterol or diabetes. The third featured a poorly-lit sweaty couple demonstrating the efficacy of the product.  OK then, I’m convinced!

We had an excellent lunch (a local corn and lamb stew) at another off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Camillo inevitably knew the owner. It included a new (to us) culinary discovery: merken, a wonderfully smoky —  and very hot — spice made from dried smoked chili peppers. (We’re bringing some back for you, Jon H, and we expect to sample however you use it.) Later that afternoon we were off to the Atacama salt flats. You knew that salt was going to show up again, didn’t you?

Margaritas, anyone?

The salt flats are about two hours from San Pedro and occupy an enormous area: about 1200 square miles. They are spectacular, ringed by the mountains and surrounding a shallow briny (very briny) lake. But they did not comport with my mental image of a salt flat, which is the highway-smooth Bonneville flats in the US. These are anything but smooth: the crystallized salts are in rough flaky lumps about the size of oranges or as big as footballs, thrown together and stuck to and on top of each other to a height of about a foot and a half. You could not drive on this salt flat; were it not for the prepared path, you could not even walk on it. You wouldn’t make it six feet before falling and/or twisting an ankle. Here is Alice at right, contemplating how many Margaritas you could make out of 100 million tons of salt.

But here’s the thing. The salt flats encompass a number of briny lagoons, wherein live lots of very hardy brine shrimp, who in turn are the favorite food of (drum roll) flamingos! Yes! This seemingly inhospitable place is home to large numbers of pink flamingos, and we saw them strutting, preening, and even flying around in large kitschy numbers. It was a spectacular, memorable sight, and became more so as the sun went down, bathing the surrounding mountains in orange and exaggerating the flamingos’ natural color. We stayed for hours until shortly after sunset, wandering among the salt formations and ogling the flamingos parading around the lagoon. It was otherworldly, a real gift.

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Atacama Llamas

We had been warned that Santiago’s weekday morning traffic combined with Byzantine procedures at the airport would conspire to make our departure from Santiago to the Atacama desert a major headache. This proved not to be so: 50 minutes after the van pulled away from our hotel (admittedly in very heavy traffic) we were sitting at the gate waiting to board.

Nothing to see here, folks. Welcome to the Atacama.

We flew two hours northward over featureless dun-colored desert, with no obvious vegetation and the bleakness broken only by the snow capped Andes in the distance (photo at left). It resembled more the most desolate parts of the American desert than the Australian outback, the latter being far more generously vegetated and famously red in color. Not this place: it was big and hostile looking, like Death Valley with the color saturation slider turned way down.

We landed in the copper mining town of Calama, which is very much the image of a 21st century company mining town, which is to say spare and blocky-looking, comprising large blocks of prefab company-owned houses that the employees can buy for themselves. And that is what they do, since there is no place to commute from. Calama has a population of 200,000, virtually all of them mine employees and their families.

At this point you may have done a quick mental calculation along the lines of, let’s see, if every mine employee is married and has 2 children, that means that 50,000 work at the mine. How the hell can 50,000 people work at one mine? And the answer is: it’s one flabbergastingly big mine. Calama is the home of the Escondida mine, the largest copper mine on the planet, an open-pit mine that you could probably see from the Moon if you squinted real hard. Escondida processes 40,000 tons of ore into 1,000 tons of copper per day. That’s a whole lot of digging and refining.

And it uses a whole lot of power. Calama is adjacent to a field of 43 wind power stations, insectoid behemoths pretty much identical to the ones you see in California and the American southwest. Each unit produces 2.5 megawatts, for a total of about 100 MW, all of which is for the mine. Which sounds like a lot until you learn that it’s barely a marginal help, providing only 5% of the mine’s energy needs. In other words, Escondida gulps 2 gigawatts of power, about the same as — wait for it — San Francisco. Urp.

If you’re not employed at the mine then there really is no earthly reason to remain in Calama, and we didn’t. We were met at the airport by our local guide, Camillo, and our driver, Mario. The eight of us plus tour leader Julio climbed into the van and we trundled off into the wasteland, driving past the wind farm and for mile after miles seeing not much of anything at all, not even a blade of scrub vegetation. Just brownish rocks and dirt, and the ubiquitous Andes in the distance.

The guanaco, when you’re too hip for llama and can’t afford vicuña

We did, however, encounter an animal that we had never seen or even heard of before, three of them in fact. That would be the guanaco, and you can see my shot of it at right. It is one of four members of the camelid family (or genus, or whatever it is) that are found in Chile, the four being the llama, the alpaca, the guanaco, and the vicuña, in increasing order of how expensive their wool is. Guanacos are found mostly in the southern part of the country, down in Patagonia, and it is unusual to see them here, so we were lucky. The other important fact that I can tell you about them is that they are delicious. More on that shortly.

After an hour and a half we stopped at an outdoor museum featuring a short walking trail past some rock formations decorated with quite ancient petroglyphs. The original inhabitants, the Atacameños, were nomadic and moved around here some 5000 years ago. Eventually they figured out how to domesticate llamas, which enabled them to eventually transform into first a semi-nomadic and later sedentary culture. So llamas were a real big deal to them, and depictions of them account for a good half of the petroglyphs. As the Atacameños settled down their petroglyphic subject matter became more diverse: we saw depictions of people, foxes, and even a flamingo. (I am guessing that the flamingos marked their final steps into a sedentary culture: “Hey, why don’t we stand up this dead flamingo in front of the hut? It’ll really add some class to the neighborhood.”)

We climbed in elevation after that stop, and our next destination, at 10,000 ft elevation, was the aptly-named Rainbow Valley. Paradoxically, as we approached it the terrain, while hardly more inviting, became incrementally less bleak as some spare sage-like vegetation appeared, fed by underground springs. Adjacent to the Rainbow Valley, in fact, was an anemic little river. You would not want to drink the water or bathe in it though: the source spring waters percolate through all the volcanic rock, causing the mineral content of the water to be spectacularly high. So high, in fact, that the rocks in and around the stream, and even the soil, are limned in white salt and gypsum deposits.

The Rainbow Valley gets its name from the deposits of assorted reddish, green, and white minerals that color the rocks. (The “Italian Flag Valley” would also be an apt name. )

Rainbow Valley, molto bella!

The reddish stuff is clay, the white primarily gypsum as I mentioned, and the green stuff some mineral I had never heard of. (I was guessing olivine, which turned out to be wrong.)

We lingered and walked around for perhaps 45 minutes, pausing for a moment at Julio’s suggestion to savor the silence, which but for the wind was total. No cars or industrial sounds, not even any birds or insects… Literally just the wind. It was an odd and unexpectedly satisfying sensation.

Another hour or so of driving brought us past a few scenic viewpoints (“Look! More blasted wasteland!” Good thing we like deserts.) and a steep downhill drive to about 8000′ elevation. By now we were approaching the small town of San Pedro, and about 20 minutes outside it we stopped for dinner at a beautiful rustic family restaurant that was about as far off the beaten path as any restaurant could be and still exist. It was situated literally at an oasis, with a small green vegetable and livestock farm out back among the trees. The dining room had a high ceiling made of woven bamboo, secured to rough word cross beams with leather straps, some of them with the original owners’ fur still attached.

The menu was genuine local family fare, meaning that at least some of the ingredients were unfamiliar to us, and others presented in unusual form. For starters we were served some kind of sweet biscuit made from the flour of a locust-like nut; then a fresh tomato, onion, and quinoa salad, followed by a main course of guanaco and rice. Guanaco, it turns out, must be slow cooked for 4-6 hours in order to not taste like leather, but the result is a lot like good brisket. (The universe will now pause for a moment while my mother reads that last sentence and comments, “It’s not as good as MY brisket!” You’re right, Mom, it wasn’t. But it was really good.)

I do not even have the vocabulary to describe desert. At first glance it appeared to be chocolate mousse with chopped nuts on top. Wrong on both counts. The “mousse” was actually a mousse-like purée of a seed called chañar, which I have never heard of but which I can report does taste sort of chocolatey; the topping was not chopped nuts but rather puffed quinoa. They were like little tiny popcorn pieces, crunchy and fluffy. I’d buy a bag to snack on if that were possible. (And now that we’re in San Pedro, maybe it is.) Anyway, it was a wonderful meal, and afterwards we went back into the kitchen to chat with the family members — mother and two daughters — who made it.

San Pedro is quite small, with a population of about 1500 who make their living off tourism. The town itself is a several-block maze of narrow, winding streets between high red adobe walls, each one of which appears to sequester some kind of tourist lodging. Everything is only a single story tall, and the most striking thing about the town is that it is overlooked — from what one hopes is a safe distance — by a very tall, snow capped Andean volcano, quite perfect in its classic conical symmetry. (If you ask an artistically inept person like myself, or a 7 year old, to draw a volcano, this is the one they would draw. I will try and get a photo tomorrow.)

Our hotel is basic but attractive and comfortable, equipped with a swimming pool and (as you know since you are reading this) wifi. Tomorrow, more exploration of the Atacama.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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