Posts Tagged With: guanaco

The Answer is Hikin’ in the Wind

Today was mostly a riding-in-the-bus day as we made the several-hour semicircle around the mountains to get from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile to the Argentine town of El Calafate. This involved driving back across the park in conditions that were noticeably gloomier and windier than yesterday. We passed by the mountain range again, past scenes like this:

Torres del Paine in the wind

The wind was ferocious today, clocking in at 56 mph. You can see the ripples and some whitecaps on the lake in the picture above. But hey, they don’t call it adventure travel for nothing, and Julio promised that the threatened hike would be through a valley that was sheltered from the wind. Uh huh. And so it was that we found ourselves hiking through a high valley that, if this was what they call “sheltered”, I don’t want to see “exposed”, as we were basically sandblasted every inch of the way. Here we are making our way through the valley, looking for our lost Sherpas:

We paid good money to do this. Auntie Em’s house blew by a few moments later.

It is possible that at some time in your life you have wondered what it would be like to hike through a hurricane in the lower Andes mountains. If so, you probably concluded that it would not be physically pleasant. You were right. 

This guy should not have hiked on this path

It did have its rewards in the form of the view, the proliferation of interesting plants and rock formations, and the occasional gaunáco carcass such as the skull and fur at left. There were forensic artifacts like that all over the place: rib cages, vertebrae, mostly-intact bodies.  Seems that there is a population of pumas in the area, and we were walking through their happy hunting grounds. Happy for the pumas, anyway. For an awful lot of guanácos, not so much.

The hike was blissfully short — less than an hour — and we gratefully re-boarded our bus at the far end for the trip across the Chile-Argentina border, both sides of which were manned by bored-looking guards who stamped our passports. The Argentine guards in particular looked pretty miserable; their station was a windowless shack whose only power source was a generator that had failed, leaving them to inspect our visas in the cold and drafty dark. (Julio had cautioned us to say as little as possible if they asked us any questions at all, not because they were hostile but because they were starved for human contact and would keep us their for hours for the sole purpose of engaging in conversation.)

By the time we reached the border, an hour or so after our hike, the weather had gone full-blown (and I do mean blown) Patagonian Nasty, with the previous intermittent cold drizzle replaced by a hard blowing snowstorm that rocked the bus as we drove. We nonetheless stopped for a few minutes at yet another shrine to Gauchito Gil (remember him?), it being an OAT tradition to thank him for having had non-miserable weather during the trip, at least up to this point. This was more than a little ironic since both we and the shrine were being torn apart by gale-force winds and blizzard-like snow at the time.

We continued on to the 20,000-person town of El Calafate, whose primary economic base is tourism for the Perrito Moreno glacier, our destination for tomorrow. That will mark the end of the Patagonia leg of the trip; on Tuesday we return to Buenos Aires for a day before heading up to Iguassu Falls, where, mirabile dictu, it will be tropically warm.

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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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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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