Monday, April 23, 2012

Travels to Chile and Argentina

As many of you know, I took some time to vacation this winter.  I spent the bulk of the winter in Laramie, WY enjoying the wide open spaces and a little bit of snow at the local ski area.  I taught some snowboard lessons to guests as well as clinic’ing many of the other instructors which was super fun and a great way for me to review what I remember and get to challenge myself and them.  I also did some snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and general playing in the cold as well as catching up with some friends I have not seen in years and making some new friends.  My previous blog entry has some photos from a drive across Wyoming and some photos of a local rockclimbing area (Veedauwoo) on a beautiful sunny and snowy day (click the highlighted words for photo album links).

In mid-February I headed back to the Upper Valley (where I live and work in VT/NH), dropped my kitty with Don, my boyfriend, then headed South—to Santiago, Chile and beyond.  I was in South America for about a month and managed to take almost 1500 photos.  I have NOT uploaded them all, but I have uploaded many of them into 4 different albums to make them up a bit more thematic and less overwhelming.  Therefore, if you are more the photo-type than reader-type, read the quick overview, then skip down, and click on the photos for the photo links.
The quick overview of the trip is that I landed in Santiago, Chile and headed into downtown for a few hours of exploring.  The next morning I fly south to Puerto Montt and then boarded a ferry for a 4 day cruise down the west coast to Puerto Natales which is a gateway town to Torres del Paine National Park.  I spent one day in the park and hiked to the Mirado (overlook) of the iconic towers, then got on a bus the next morning for Ushuaia, Argentina:  the southern most city in the world.  A couple days there, then I fly to Buenos Aires, overnighted, and flew to Túcuman, in northwest Argentina.  There I joined the Pacific Biodiversity Institute personnel and spent about 10 days traveling in northwestern Argentina—mostly in the province of Cartamarca—assessing plant diversity and counting some megafauna: specifically guanacos, vicunas, and flamingos.  After that I spent 3 days in Tafí del Valle, near Túcuman, and then headed home. 

For those who like a bit more detail read on--and click on the photo for the related photo album whenever you want.

I hit Santiago mid-morning and got a taxi to my hotel, somewhere near the University of Santiago which was near a bus station and the metro.  So, I headed into downtown for a couple hours of sightseeing.  I found the main shopping district with a pedestrian only street and wandered about.  I took some photos of the main plaza with some cool old buildings, a large cathedral, and some newer buildings.  I wandered through the fish market--very interesting--bought some stamps and post cards and headed back to my hotel.  I took a bus back to the airport early the next morning--only ~$3 instead of ~$30 for a taxi-- and headed south to Puerto Montt.  There I hopped into a taxi and headed right for the  harbor and my ferry ride.  The boat was pretty good size ( and was hauling a few trucks as well as cars and about 150+ foot passengers.  Apparently, the ferry used to carry only those folks who were in the vehicles, but people kept asking about riding along, so they refitted the ship with more passenger space.  There were several cabins to choose from: 2-4-6 or dorm size rooms, with and without windows.  I took a 4 berth room with a window and ended up with only one other person.  Some  bathrooms were shared, mine was within our room.  It was very nice, though would have been a bit crowded with 4 people.   There was a dining room with a cafeteria-like serving line, but I thought the food was pretty good--definitely not gourmet, but certainly OK.  There were some other public spaces like the bar-salon area, outside benches, and the back deck.  The passengers were from some 10-15 different countries including Canada, Australia, Israel, Germany, England, New Caledonia, etc. There was a naturalist on board and various talks, movies and such to do.  All announcements were given in English and Spanish. I met some fun folks, a few of whom I saw later in the trip, and really enjoyed the trip both from a scenery and a social point of view.  It was a four day trip--Friday afternoon through Monday afternoon-- and the only stop was for a small, indigenous, village called Port Eden on an island far from the mainland.  The weather was a bit overcast when we set sail, but it cleared as we got further south.  We landed on a beautiful afternoon in Puerto Natales.  I stayed over night there in a little hostel that was quite comfortable, and headed out early in the morning to catch a shuttle to Torres del Paine National Park.  I had originally intended to spend quite a bit more time in this area, but came across an opportunity to participate in a biodiversity  assessment in NW Argentina (more on that later on).  So, I ended up being in the area only the one day.  However, the folks there have made it easy to see the famous Torres (towers) and a bus took me to park headquarters early the next morning.  From there was another smaller shuttle that took me (and others, of course) to the trail head. Then it was a lovely (6-7 hr round trip) hike up to the Mirador (overlook) of the famous Torres del Paine.  I was told that Paine means "blue" in an indigenous language--they did not look blue to me, but perhaps I got my translation wrong.    Some of you may have heard that there was a fire in the park earlier in the summer--I was not in that area, but they were letting folks hike the "W" circuit again.  Back at the trail head, there was a shuttle back to the headquarters and my bus back to town.

Early the next morning I headed further south and to Argentina by bus.  It took about 14 hours, a crossing of the Straits of Magellan on a ferry, and an international border crossing to finally get to Ushuaia--often considered the gateway to the Antarctic Peninsula and the Falkland (or Maldive) Islands.  Along the way, the land was very wide open, wind swept (see the blown trees) and looked a lot like the high plains of the US West.  There are HUGE sheep ranches (called stations) and cattle ranching. There were also guanacos and rheas (birds that look like ostriches--sorry no photos of them though).  Ushuaia is on the island of Tierra del Fuego (island of fires), is a busy port,  is the largest town around, and booming right now, though there are a some smaller towns and villages further south.  However, they belong to Chile and are south of the Beagle Channel.  Cape Horn is obviously further south as well.  Ushuaia was full of tourists, many heading to Antarctica, others just seeing the "Fin del Mundo" as Ushuaia likes to call itself.  I stayed only a few days here as well, but I spent one day hiking from sea level to a saddle in the nearby mountains that was over 1000 meters (3300 feet).  Not too bad for a day's adventure.  The mountains there are ridiculously steep--see one of the photos of looking down the back side of the saddle!  The next day I took a boat ride to see cormorants, sea lions and a Gentoo and Magellanic penguin rookery.   We got lucky and got to see a king penguin as well.  The kings are not typically found there, but sometimes hang out for bit.  I have now seen 8 of the 17 or so species of penguins--I am hoping to see them all sometime--only in the wild counts though.   The boat ride was really quite nice and the weather was perfect.  The next day I  hung out in the morning then headed to the airport for a flight to Buenos Aires.  I was there only overnight, then headed out early the next morning to Túcuman.  Other than the taxi driver went to the wrong address at first and I ended up paying about double what I should have, and that the youth hostel had some really loud and atonal music playing when I got there which immediately gave me a headache--it was a pretty uneventful journey from the farthest south to nearly the farthest north.

 Túcuman: I met Peter of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute at a lovely hostel off the beaten track--Casa Calchaqui-- which is in Yerba Buena, a suburb, but I highly recommend it.  The proprietors, Martina and Fermando, were great.  Another person, Barbara, joined  the trip, but decided not to continue on the trip after the first evening.  So Peter and I continued on into the province of Catamarca. I took hundreds of photos, even more with the camera for the assessment project, but I uploaded only a limited number.  So, you won't find photos for every place we went.  We visited Belen briefly to get fuel, then headed off into a lovely valley of walnut trees and desert shrub.  An impressive storm rolled in that night and lightning flashed around us for longer than I can ever remember being in a storm.  I was in a light coloured tent that did not block out any light--or sound--and the thunder was so loud it made me jump every time.  I tried to read for a while, but the flashes were so bright that my pupils would contract and then I could not read, by the time they re-dilated, the lightning flashed, so I gave up and just lay listening to the storm and the rising water in the river behind our camp area.  We were far enough away that I was not worried, but I was impressed by the sounds of the rolling boulders considering that the river was dry when we put up our tents.  I finally had to plug my ears from the thunder so I would stop jumping every time.  Finally the storm moved on and I fell asleep only to be woken a few hours later by a full moon shining in my tent.  It was quite the evening.  In addition, by the time the sun came up in the morning, the river was again dry.
From there we headed south on the famous Rt 40 and met up with a mountain guide, Ursala, who would do a great job of heading us to interesting places over the next several days.  We then headed northerly on Rt 60 for Coraderas where there is a lovely new hotel which literally in the middle of nothing--except stunning landscape!  We spent a few days exploring a very high elevation area that had several salt lakes and lots of flamingos.  We also saw more guanacos and vicunas on the way.  They are the wild cousins of llamas and alpacas with the guanacos being a bit larger, darker, and lower elevation dwellers.  The vicunas a bit more slender, lighter in colour and live at ridiculously high elevations eating I am not sure what.  They were not quite as shy as the guanacos, who are hunted quite a bit, and we got to see some at close range.  We also saw a lot of flamingos, of 3 species, and several other shore and water birds.  We also got to see lots of flowers.  We had quite the adventure when we went to the Mt Pissis area which lies in Argentina, but is in something of a no man's land between the official Argentinian and Chilean customs borders.  However, it all worked out in the end.  There was a warm spring, that I soaked my feet in, which flowed out to a salt lake, but it was amazing how much more lush the plants were in the warm, fresh, water than the much cooler salty waters.  Several shore and water birds were present.  We also saw a few flamingos and vicunas--bear in mind that this area was above 13,000 feet and we were not yet in the high Andes.
After the high elevation adventures, we headed down a bit and spent an afternoon wandering through a lovely canyon--see all the red rock photos--and then another day exploring along a river near Tinogasta.  The areas that we explored are part of some very large roadless areas.  The lower elevations were like the deserts of the American Southwest with lots of creosote and mesquite like shrubs, palo verde and other related plants.  There are certainly some differences, but cacti and other spiny plants abounded.  It was all quite spectacular, and I was again amazed at how steep all the mountains were.  We eventually had to head back to Túcuman and Yerba Buena.  We passed through the city of Catamarca--actually called San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca-- and dropped off Ursala.  We had a great lunch of asado--grilled meat where they just keep bringing you more pieces until you tell them to stop.  And back to the hostel.  Peter and I went visited the herbarium at the University in Túcuman the next morning for a bit, then I headed out to see the Natural History museum and then caught my bus to Tafí del Valle.

The night before, at the hostel, I met some folks who had done a two week bike tour from Salta, I believe, to Túcuman.  The company, Two Wheel View, is Canadian and does some cool non-profit stuff as well as running bike trips in Argentina and Norway--check them out.  In any case, Rick the leader knew a couple folks in Tafí del Valle and suggested I look them up--so I did.  I ended up staying with Beto, the jewelry and metal sculpture maker for the 3 days I was there.  He lives a bit out of town, so it was definitely a situation where you get up and go for the day, and return late, after dinner.  However, it was great to have a place to stay and practice my Spanish as Beto does not speak English.  I got to meet some of his friends for dinner two different nights and bought a really lovely silver  bracelet.  During the days, I walked everywhere: to the old Jesuit missionary, now museum.  Up to the water fall where I again was amazed at the steepness of the hills. Up to the cross in the middle of the valley on top of a hill.  I did a lot of walking, the weather was great, even though the clouds kept rolling in from the south, and I enjoyed the little town.   The bus ride back to Túcuman was interesting as the road follows a steep and winding river valley and many hairpin turns.  A huge boulder had fallen down and, fortunately, had landed not on the road itself, but they were worried about how stable the road was above where the boulder had come out.  Part of the road had collapsed and there was lots of work pouring concrete to re-stabilize the road.  On the bus, though, we stopped and unloaded, then the bus drove very slowly over the area, then we got back on. A bit of an adventure and nice to get out and stretch the legs a bit.  I also got to meet up with Barbara again (from the beginning of the trip) and have lunch before I headed back to Buenos Aires for another over night.  The next morning it was on a plane again for Santiago, then Dallas, then Boston, then a bus to Hanover.  My final little adventure was that I had a subletter in my apartment, so I got to couch surf for a little over a week until I actually moved back in and got my cat back from Don.

All in all, a great time!  I hope you enjoy the photos and that spring  (or fall for those in the South land) finds you well.  Thanks for reading my blog and checking out the photos.


P.S. I have the feeling that there are some typos in here, so I will probably be doing a bit of editing, but you are welcome to let me know if you find them first.

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