Oct 22, 2013 in Chile 2013
Oct 15, 2013 in Chile 2013
Oct 14, 2013 in Chile 2013
Oct 13, 2013 in Chile 2013
Aug 20, 2012 in Pucón 2012
Apr 21, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country.
With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight.
And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was going to the Falklands. “There’s nothing there, right?”, he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, never met anyone from there.
The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I’d been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.
Apr 14, 2012 in Chile
After my interrupted sleep I wasn’t looking forward to my first night unsupervised at the controls, but in the end it was postponed again. Early the next afternoon the decision was taken that the telescopes would not open at all that night, to avoid any possibility of water getting in. The “domes” have flat tops and any standing water could spell disaster for all the sensitive mechanics and electronics.
So we went up to the control room anyway but no astronomy would be done tonight. It was a pity, because the skies after the storm were stunningly clear. With the luxury of having no observatory work to do, I went out on the platform late in the night to appreciate the view.
I moved here in October, at which time the centre of the Milky Way is setting and can’t be seen very well. Now, for the first time, I got a good look at it. It’s stunningly bright and you can only see it well from the Southern Hemisphere. This is a real shame for the 90% of the world’s population who live in the Northern Hemisphere – their view of our home galaxy is completely inadequate in comparison. I hadn’t really seen it properly since I was in Zambia, 11 years ago. So I was really happy to see it again tonight, rising behind the telescopes in the small hours. It will be visible for the next few months, and I will be taking a lot more photographs of it.
Apr 13, 2012 in Chile
After four nights of this shift, one had been completely lost and three partially lost to bad weather. The fifth was my first night as a trained night astronomer. Crunch time. Would I mess it up? Would I break the telescope? Fortunately it turned out I wouldn’t, because the night was also completely lost, with thick clouds and high humidity ruining any chance of doing any astronomy. I was slightly relieved.
I went out on to the telescope platform a few times. Lightning was flickering some way inland, but I assumed the storm would not come out our way. Since I moved to Chile in September 2011, I had hardly seen any rain at all. There was an evening of drizzle in October, and I felt a few spots, literally no more than 10 or so, in January. Otherwise, nothing, and my English soul was in need of watering. But up here in the Atacama, I didn’t think it was going to get any. So when I went out on to the platform again at 5am and actually felt spots of rain, I didn’t really believe it was rain. I just thought it was extreme humidity.
We gave up a couple of hours before dawn when it was obvious the weather wasn’t going to improve. I went to bed at about 7am. Then, at 9am, I was woken up by thunder. Blearily I got to my feet. Thunder? Surely not? And what was this sound, something like rain battering on the window. In disbelief I rolled up the blind and saw that it was true – an epic downpour was in progress. Still half asleep, I went out into the corridor of the residencia and found rain pouring through the roof. The building appears not to be even slightly waterproof.
I was just stunned. I hadn’t expected to see anything like this here in the driest desert on Earth. They tell me it does rain here, sometimes, but the last time had been only eight months ago. I’d thought, during the long dry summer, that when I did finally experience rain again, I might go out and stand in it and enjoy it. But after two hours sleep I was so tired that I just went back to bed, and slept through the rest of the storm once the thunder had stopped.
For a couple of days afterwards, water was still dripping through the ceiling.
Apr 09, 2012 in Chile
I’m at Paranal right now, undergoing my final training before they let me fly solo at the controls of the world’s premier optical observatory. My training so far has been seriously affected by weather – of the 11 nights I’ve done, five have been completely lost and most of the rest have been partly lost. Last night the telescopes were closed a couple of hours early, and tonight we didn’t open at all. The telescopes have to be closed when the humidity goes above 60%, and tonight it was nearly 100% and there were clouds right on the peak.
Before the clouds came in, though, I went out to take a photo of the night sky. The moon was rising, and Orion was setting. When I took the photo, I couldn’t see the shadow the moon was casting, so I was pretty amazed when I looked at the camera screen to see the shadow of the telescopes, cast on to the clouds below.
Mar 26, 2012 in Chile
Chile is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the great tectonic band where about 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes happen. Before I moved here, I’d experienced four earthquakes, one tiny one in Guatemala, two moderate ones in the UK, and one on a previous visit to Chile. Since I arrived here six months ago I’ve felt five more and I’m starting to get used to how often they happen. I felt two at Paranal on my first shift there, and then in January I felt my first one in Santiago, when my building wobbled startlingly.
Every earthquake feels different. On Saturday morning I was woken at 4.30am by the building shaking again, and it felt like all the motion was vertical. The previous quake had felt completely side-to-side. There were two distinct pulses of shaking, and the building creaked eerily in the quiet night. I got up and went out onto my balcony, and all around I could see lights coming on in apartments. I tried to check sismologia.cl but found that the website was down. This happened in January as well. Any earthquake large enough to be felt triggers a wave of people wanting to know how big it was and where it happened. Eventually the website came back up and I found out that this had been a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, centred just 30 miles from Santiago. No damage reported, no casualties, only a slight irritation to be woken up so early. That evening I met up with some friends, some of whom had been here in 2010 when Chile suffered one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. We all talked about what we’d felt.
Then on Sunday evening after a quiet day, suddenly I felt the familiar shaking starting again. At first I could hardly believe it, coming just a day after the last one. We’d been talking about how long earthquakes seemed to last, and as the shaking started I looked at a clock because I was curious to know how long it would go on for. The shaking and noise grew, and as I looked out of my window I could see all the windows in other nearby buildings wobbling crazily. Car alarms started going off, and dogs started barking. But I didn’t feel worried or inclined to hide under a table or leave the building, until I heard some of my neighbours hurrying out into the corridor. If they’re panicking, I though, then perhaps I should. But then, after a full minute of shaking, the quake stopped.
Once again, sismologia was down, and it stayed down for a while, but soon enough I found details on the USGS earthquake page. This one had been greater than magnitude 7, and was one of the largest earthquakes of 2012 so far. It was easily the strongest earthquake I’d felt, and for some time afterwards I kept thinging that the building was shaking again.
The earthquake was centred near the coast and the next concern was whether there would be a tsunami. Before 2004 I guess most people wouldn’t have thought too much about this risk, but now we’ve all seen terrifying footage of what they actually are. In Santiago there was obviously nothing to worry about, but a friend on the coast in Viña del Mar was having her relaxing weekend away ruined by trying to work out whether she should head for the hills or not. I did my best to help but found that my vocabulary had crucial gaps in it. “Coastguard (blank) tsunami along the coast of Chile”, I read on one news website. What might that blank mean? Fears? Flees from? Washed away in? I looked it up, and fortunately found out that it meant “rules out”. A couple of hours later the sea was apparently seen to recede dramatically and an evacuation was ordered, but it turned out to be a false alarm.
So we were all safe, and despite the size of the quake there was little damage and no deaths, although an elderly woman died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.
Of course it’s only a matter of time until the next quake. As long as there is no damage and no casualties, I think earthquakes are quite cool. I like the weirdness of feeling the very ground below shaking violently. I find it incredibly impressive and awe inspiring. But magnitude 7 is probably about the limit for this. The 2010 quake released more than 300 times as much energy as this one. That, I will be happy not to experience.
Nov 20, 2011 in Chile
One thing that I really notice here is how dry it is. The humidity is always low, my clothes dry in minutes when I take them out of the washing machine, and in the two months since I arrived, it’s only rained once in Santiago – a slightly drizzly evening in early October. London in comparison is damp and dank and I wonder how I didn’t have permanent prune skin when I lived there.
Today it rained for the second time. I was in the centre of town, going up Cerro San Cristóbal and then walking around Bellavista and Recoleta, and enjoying another hot sunny day. But in the eastern suburbs there was some kind of shower. I got back to Las Condes to find that the sun was shining but the streets were wet, and clouds were roiling over the mountains. I headed back up to my apartment and watched the retreating rainclouds being lit up by the evening sun.
Nov 02, 2011 in Chile
Apparently when the first site tests were being carried out at Paranal, almost thirty years ago, the dryness was so extreme that it was sometimes thought that the instrument measuring the humidity was stuck on zero. As soon as you arrive there you feel like the moisture is being sucked out of you and into the endless desert. The desert is almost completely barren; red rocky terrain as far as you can see with no hint of green anywhere.
It’s not a place where human being should live. But it’s amazing for astronomy. The sky is almost always clear, the atmosphere is very stable, and it’s a better place to observe the night sky than almost anywhere else on Earth.
Oct 25, 2011 in Chile
All of my stuff arrived from the UK today. It had made the journey much more quickly than I’d expected it to, arriving in Chile before I’d even got around to trying to work out where on the high seas it was.
On a cool autumn day in London, I’d seen it all disappear into the bowels of a huge lorry, and as I watched it drive away from my flat I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever see any of it again. Then there was a story on the news about a container ship sinking off New Zealand. So when it actually arrived I was extremely happy. It seemed quite strange to see all my familiar old possessions again, on this hot summer day in Santiago.
The two things that I most wanted to arrive intact were my coffee machine, and a kilogram of Marmite that I’d packed in. I was a bit worried that the Marmite could get confiscated, as Chile has very strict rules about food import. But it made it, and with great joy I cracked it open.
I ate so much that I got stomach ache. I don’t think I’ll eat any more for a few days.
Oct 23, 2011 in Chile
My previous attempt to see the Cajon del Maipo had been a bit half-arsed, relying on public transport and ending up in the nondescript hamlet of San Gabriel, instead of actually out in the mountains hiking.
So I tried again this weekend, with a couple of other ESO people. We hired a car, and left reasonably early. Having your own wheels definitely makes a big difference, and instead of spending hours on the bus chugging through all the distant Santiago suburbs, we were in the valley in less than an hour.
But we didn’t get everything right. We stopped in Baños Morales for a lengthy and tasty lunch, planning to hike to a glacier afterwards. But by the time we rolled up to the national park entrance, sated and sleepy but none the less keen to hike, we were told the trail had closed 20 minutes earlier.
So we had to find something else to do. We randomly ended up spotting a large red rocky outcrop, high up in the hills above Lo Valdes, and decided to go there. It was a good hike, scrambling up some steep and precarious scree slopes. The skies threatened but only delivered a few spots of rain. We made it to the outcrop without getting wet, and from it we got awesome views over the valley.
After we headed back down, the heavens finally did open, but we were safe in our car by then, and we drove down the valley as the sun broke through the rain clouds again.
Oct 15, 2011 in Chile
I moved into a new flat yesterday. I was perhaps a bit rash, as it was only the second place I looked at, but it was more or less the kind of thing I was looking for and I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in my temporary accommodation.
What really persuaded me was the views from the balcony. London is not a high-rise city, and I’d almost always lived in houses while I was there. The one time I lived in a block of flats I was on the first floor. So this flat, up high on the 15th floor, was something new. And it faces east towards the mountains, so the height is worth having.
Oct 09, 2011 in Chile
With a couple of other ESO people, I made a plan to explore the Cajón del Maipo. It’s a famous Andean valley, just outside Santiago, and I’d heard many good things about it. We didn’t have a car so we decided to tackle the valley by public transport.
Being lazy types, we arranged to meet in the early afternoon, and got a metro to Bellavista de la Florida. From here we could get a bus into the valley, and we bought a ticket to San José de Maipo. The bus rumbled off into the suburbs of Santiago, travelling extraordinarily slowly for a very long time. In the end its route took us not far from where we’d got onto the metro, hours earlier.
The bus chugged and rumbled and clattered along, eventually leaving the city and winding its way up the valley of the Maipo river. Before very long at all we were in San José, but before we could work that out, we were out the other side and off up the valley. So we decided we’d get off at the next interesting-looking place. On we went, and each settlement we got to never quite looked promising enough to be worth getting off. Eventually we’d stayed on miles and miles past our destination, and we randomly got off at San Gabriel.
The bus driver had noticed our transgression, and told us we’d have to pay the extra. We said that would be fine, and he said he would be coming back through San Gabriel in half an hour. We decided we’d get back on the bus then. In the meantime, we found that San Gabriel was a very small, very quiet village, but it was surrounded by impressive mountains, and it did have an awesomely local bar. We went in to have some drinks, and people stopped what they were doing to give us suspicious looks. But really they were very friendly and we enjoyed the vibe of the place. The bus did pass through, but he must have forgotten about us because he sailed past without stopping, and so we hung around in San Gabriel for another hour before the next bus to Santiago came by.
The valley is a very popular place, and the bus back down was overcrowded. It was a long journey, standing up while the bus moved in the slow flow of the heavy traffic going back to Santiago.
Oct 03, 2011 in Chile
I’d submitted my ESO job application just a little bit less than a year ago and it was already ten months since I’d been offered the job and accepted it. And finally it was time to actually start. Wanting to make a change from my notoriously poor time-keeping in the UK, I got up very early and arrived at 9.30am.
The first day was a bit anticlimactic though. A spot in an office will become mine, in due course, but for now I’m in a visitor’s office. No-one else was visiting today, so I sat in the quiet office on my own, didn’t meet anyone, didn’t speak to anyone, until 6pm when I went home. At least I caught up on all the e-mails that had been piling up since I left the UK.
Oct 02, 2011 in Chile
Cerro San Cristóbal is the highest point inside Santiago and it’s always nice to go up there and see the views of the city surround by the mountains. I went up again, late on a Sunday evening, taking the lazy route to the top on the funicular railway. The place is always crawling with cyclists, and as soon as my bike arrives from Europe I can’t wait to tackle this hill. It’s about 300m from street level to the peak, a bit more of a challenge than my cycle up Highgate Hill used to be.
I like the atmosphere at the top of San Cristóbal. You can hear the noise of the sprawling city but it feels very calm and tranquil. I sat and watched the sun set and the lights of the city come on, then headed back down to the streets.
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.
It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.
But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.
At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.
We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.
We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.
Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.
That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.
Sep 20, 2011 in Chile
I first visited Chile during an epic four month journey around South America in 2005-2006. I travelled from Patagonia to the Atacama and had an incredible time. I came back in 2009 to use the telescopes at La Silla. And yesterday I arrived in Chile for the third time.
This time I’ll be here for three years and possibly more. In a little over a week I’ll start work at the European Southern Observatory, doing a job that I have coveted for years. I’m pretty excited at the incredible opportunity, and I can’t wait to get up to the finest optical telescopes in the world at Paranal.
My time here started very smoothly, being met at the airport by someone from ESO and taken to a comfortable apartment where I can stay for up to five weeks while I get myself a permanent address. The only problem was that having been dropped off, I had no idea where I was. I had the same problem when I stayed at the ESO guesthouse in 2009, and I solved the problem in the same way, by walking randomly and finding an extremely inefficient route to the nearest metro station.
Having worked out where I was, I headed into the city, to the Plaza de Armas and then to Cerro Santa Lucía. I climbed the hill and looked out over the city, slightly melancholy as I thought of everything that I had left behind, all the friends and family who were now thousands of miles away.
I came down, headed back to my apartment, and thought ahead, to some of the things I want to do while I’m in South America. These include: climbing Aconcagua and Ojos del Salado; eating a penguin; remaining a vegetarian (apart from the penguin); visiting Easter Island, the Falkland Islands and Antarctica; and learning Spanish properly.
First things first, I’m planning a trip to Pucón, to climb Volcán Villarrica if the weather permits. I’m hoping to see lots of volcanic eruptions over the next three years, and at Villarrica I’ve got a good chance of seeing some lava.
Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005
Over the previous month I’d travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia.
The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it’s more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just how boring it must get here on a slow day, with absolutely nothing here but the border itself – no town, no shops, no scenery.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca, just a short distance from the border. It’s a deep green mineral lake, which sits at the base of Volcán Licancabur. San Pedro was just on the other side of the mountain, hardly any distance at all, but it felt like we were in a different world, here in the thin air and harsh terrain. I walked down to the chalky muddy shores of the lake to take some photographs before we drove on to Laguna Verde, a little bit higher up and further on. Here we found hot springs, and we took a warm bath in the hot Altiplano sunshine. I made a huge tactical error in not putting on more sun cream – somehow, although I’ve spent a lifetime getting sunburnt even in the Arctic, I thought I would not get burnt in the midday sun 4,000m above sea level in the tropics. Within twenty minutes my shoulders were a terrifying red, and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable few days.
It was a great place for a dip, though, in fantastically warm water and surrounding by vast wild high-altitude desert and a horizon dotted with volcanoes. None of us were yet feeling the effects of the altitude and the mood was good as we headed yet higher, to Sol de Mañana, 5,000m above sea level and apparently the highest geothermal area in the world. A few roaring holes in the ground were spattering mud, and steam was rising from everywhere. At this altitude there is barely half the amount of oxygen you get at sea level, and I was beginning to feel a bit spaced out. I tried to take some video footage of the mud geysers, but didn’t even notice until later that I was taking stills by mistake. I was glad that our destination for the day was 700m lower than here.
Dec 12, 2005 in South America 2005
In an ideal world, after a day of cycling in the desert I’d have had a lie-in to recover. But I’d booked myself onto a trip to El Tatio, northern Chile’s most famous geyser field, and for reasons I really can’t begin to understand, these geysers only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. This meant that seeing them required a 4am start. My guide book said that the lights of San Pedro were off between midnight and dawn, so I thought I might see some good skies, but they’ve obviously got some better electricity since the book was published, and I waited for my minibus under a lit streetlight. The bus arrived shortly after 4, and we drove off into the night. After about half an hour we stopped to have a look at the sky, and it was absolutely stunning. It was absolutely filled with stars, and the Milky Way blazed overhead.
I dozed during the rest of the journey. The air was getting thinner and colder, and even though I’d been at about 2000m above sea level for almost a week, the sudden rush to over 4,000m was quite taxing. As dawn began to break, we were passing through the village of Machuca, and half an hour before dawn we were at the geysers. The temperature outside was almost -10°C, and we were on a plain 4,300m above sea level, surrounded by mountains a few hundred metres high, with steam rising all around and a deep velvet blue sky overhead.
I set off to explore straight away. The ground was frosty in places but hot in others. Having seen geysers in Iceland, at first I thought these ones were not too impressive. The most powerful was only throwing water up a couple of metres, compared to Iceland’s finest, Strokkur, which jetted out columns of water up to 15 metres tall. And all of these geysers were in almost constant eruption, rather than the occasional jets from Strokkur. But these were more impressive in their own way, especially because they covered such a large area. And the biting cold of the Altiplano dawn meant that each droplet of water left a trail of steam behind it, and everything was wreathed in mist.
As soon as the Sun came up, I liked El Tatio more. The warmth was tangible and the light on the geysers was impressive. Also fun was the breakfast provided by the people I’d come with – they put a box of eggs in one hot pool, and a carton of chocolate-flavoured milk in another, and within a few minutes we were eating delicious soft-boiled eggs and drinking hot chocolate. But we had to explore quickly now, because the geysers would stop erupting within an hour or so. Overhead, the interplay of sunlight and ice particles was creating a circumzenithal arc, a fairly rare sight.
It was quite eerie when the geysers began to die down at about 8am. It seemed like someone was turning off the heat, and that perhaps the whole thing was somehow artificial, generated only for the tourists. By 9am only a few wisps of steam still rose into the warming morning, and it was time to head back down to San Pedro. I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude now, and was glad to be descending again. We drove to Machuca and stopped there for lunch. It’s a spectacular place, a tiny village lost in the brown Atacama, but with a glowing white church to make it stand out. They were selling empanadas at a fairly extortionate price, but it was clearly a poor village and I didn’t begrudge them this revenue source. Besides, by now my head felt like it was about to explode any minute, and I was hardly able to convert from Chilean pesos into pounds anyway.
We drove for a long while on a plain about 4000m above sea level, spotting herds of vicuña well camouflaged in the brown background. As we began to descend, we got a puncture, and stopped for about half an hour to fix it, which seemed like forever given my pounding high-altitude headache. I was incredibly relieved to get back to the relatively dense atmosphere of San Pedro at 3pm, and spent the afternoon recovering lazily.
Dec 11, 2005 in South America 2005
I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.
I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn’t seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It’s the central problem of travel really – I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don’t really want anyone else to.
I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I’d hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, an impressive hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.
Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don’t know how far I went down it – I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I locked up the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place – just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.
After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn’t go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish – there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I’d taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I’d almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.
This was far less fun than the morning’s cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn’t been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again with renewed ferocity when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.
But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn’t cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I’d just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world’s driest desert.
Dec 08, 2005 in South America 2005
I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile’s wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn’t quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn’t even try to explain – he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do.
We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon – we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great height. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a giant hand reaching up from the desert, a little way away from the road, but it turned out to be La Mano del Desierto, a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal. We continued up the Inter-American Highway to Antofagasta, and it seemed strange to me that, nominally at least, this was the same road I’d travelled on five years ago in Central America. The misty mountains of Guatemala seemed like a very long way from this arid place.
By 10am we were in Antofagasta, and my first mission was to get coffee. Inexplicably for a South American bus, they’d only served tea for breakfast, and so I set off under the tropical sun to the nearest cafe. Unfortunately, they served me a cup of undrinkable filth, so I went to the next cafe where I got a better one. A third cup at the next cafe along was better still, and now I was ready to look around. I spent the day strolling around the pleasant streets before getting a bus deep into the desert to Calama, a spectacular journey in the late evening sun. I arrived in Calama at 10pm, and set off briskly for the centre of town, which was about a mile from the bus station. Very quickly I remembered that the road here from the coast had climbed precipitously, and I was now 2,400m above sea level. Gasping for breath, I walked slowly into town.
Calama is a mining town and it has a slightly rough feel to it. Apparently since the Spanish colonisation, 400 years ago, it has rained once, and that was in 1972. The aridity and altitude gave me an unquenchable thirst, and I also gave a lot of business to ice cream sellers around town while I was there. I’d wanted to go and see the copper mine at Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had seen the foreign exploitation of Chile’s natural resources in 1952, but I’d arrived on a Friday and there were no tours over the weekend. So I just spent a day relaxing in the unforgiving sunshine, watching life on the main drag and buying occasional viciously cold cokes and amazing cakes from a friendly cafe over the road from my hotel.
Dec 06, 2005 in South America 2005
Before I headed towards northern Chile I spent a day in Valparaíso, Chile’s premier port city. On a blazing hot morning I got the bus there from Santiago and spent a fantastic day wandering around its colourful streets. I’ve rarely been to a city so atmospheric as this one, and I felt that the air was somehow heavy with history. The city sprawls over cliffs which rise incredibly steeply from the wide blue Pacific Ocean, so steeply in fact that roads are often impossible and the only way to ascend is via clanking ascensores, miniature funicular railways a hundred years old that feel like they might crash back down to sea level at any moment as they laboriously climb to the heights. I wound my way from one end of the city to the other, alternately ascending and descending. Up high there was a rarefied, serene atmosphere; down low it was non-stop bustle and activity, with just a hint of hostility.
At the top of Ascensor Espiritu Santo I found Cerro Bellavista, where the houses reached new heights of colourfulness, and bright murals covered many walls. I found a cafe with a terrace, and enjoyed a long slow coffee looking out over the finest city views I’d found so far. I wished I was spending longer here, but I had to get back to Santiago for a night bus heading north, and so I slowly headed back to sea level, along the tree-lined Avenida Brasil and through a slightly run-down part of town to the bus station. As we climbed out of town the sun was setting out to sea and the town was basking in the deep red evening light.
Dec 05, 2005 in South America 2005
The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I’d been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn’t manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me “Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one”. Knowing about how South Americans describe steak, I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate. It turned out to be horribly tasty.
Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago’s Estacion Central at 7am the next morning. There were not many people in the huge airy station building, and it didn’t feel anything like as dodgy as big city train stations often do. I liked Santiago straight away when I found a cafe on the station serving real, delicious coffee and good cakes as well. Suitably caffeinated I set off to work out the metro system, get into some accommodation and then explore.
After a pleasant afternoon ambling around the pedestrianised streets of central Santiago and sitting under the palm trees in the Plaza de Armas eating ice cream, I walked later on to Cerro San Cristóbal, an Andean foothill rising high over the city to its north. A funicular railway runs to the top and I headed up there, staying to watch the sun set. It was a beautiful warm evening, and I found it difficult to get my northern hemisphere head around the fact that it was early December.
I spent two more days in Santiago, and I didn’t really do very much. The next day was a Sunday, and the centre of town was tranquil and quiet. There was a market along the pedestrianised streets, where I found some english-language paperbacks. I had long since read all the books I’d brought with me at least twice so I was glad to find something new to read, even if the least trashy book I could find was by Michael Crichton. And on the Monday I managed to buy a whole Saturday Guardian, for not so much more than it would have cost in the UK.
While I was in Chile, political activity was intensifying in advance of upcoming presidential elections, and Santiago was humming with demonstrations, leafleting, campaign stands and speeches. Having failed to stand up for the late Salvador Allende against Carlito in Chaitén, I was pleased to find a Communist Party campaign stand doing vibrant business in Santiago. I bought a Communist Party mug, made a small donation, and felt that my conscience had been assuaged slightly. But it took another blow when I got into a lengthy conversation with a dapper old gent in the Plaza de Armas, who was if anything more pro-Pinochet than Carlito had been. “Just another few years of the dictatorship would really have sorted this country out”, he said. His view was that socialism had failed because the people hadn’t really believed in it, and that most people were relieved when the military took over. But he was without any doubt from the wealthy classes, and I wondered if the majority of people really had been relieved when the air force bombed the presidential palace and Allende died in the ruins.
Dec 01, 2005 in South America 2005
Pucón is a popular place to go in Chile, with all sorts of adventure sports happening in the surrounding areas. For me, the big draw was Volcán Villarrica, a perfect Fuji-like snow-capped conical mountain to the south of town, which has an active lava lake in its crater. I wanted to climb it, and get closer to lava than I’d managed on previous trips to active volcanoes in Sicily and Central America. I’d seen lava fountains at Etna, watched glowing house-sized boulders tumble down the mountain side at Arenal in Costa Rica, and listened to the roar of Volcán Santamaría as I camped on its summit in Guatemala, but here I had the opportunity to stand on the rim of an active crater.
Disturbingly, I was woken on my first morning in Pucón by wailing air-raid sirens. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked out of my window half expecting to see a cataclysmic volcanic eruption underway, but Villarrica was just gently steaming and the sirens stopped as soon as they had begun. They went off several times during my stay, and I never worked out what they signified. Around town there were various signs detailing the procedure should any volcanic emergency occur, but they didn’t mention air-raid sirens at all.
At 7am the following morning I was in the offices of a climbing company, kitting myself up along with two Germans and four Spanish women, getting ready for the climb to the top of the 2,850m mountain. I’d watched an amazing sunrise over the volcano, and the weather looked like it was perfect for climbing. By 9am we were at a ski station at the edge of the snowline, getting on our crampons and setting off for the top. Wearing heavy rigid boots suitable for ice climbing made the going slow at first, but I soon got used to them and wanted to up the pace a bit. Unfortunately the Spanish women proved to be appallingly unfit, and although we had two guides with our group of seven and could have split up, our guides kept us all together at the slow pace. I got more and more frustrated, to the point where I started talking to the Germans in German to slag off the Spanish women. The three of us agreed that they shouldn’t have been allowed to climb, and united in our anger we trudged on up the ever-steepening slopes.
I could see clouds coming in from the east, but we continued at our interminably slow pace. The Germans taught me useful insults and we cursed our way up. By 2pm we had only a few tens of metres to go, but had to wait while one of the Spanish women overcame terrible laziness to motivate herself to carry on. At about 2.30pm we finally made it to the crater’s edge, at the same time as the clouds, and for a few minutes I was speechless with rage as visibility was reduced to zero. Luckily it was patchy cloud and soon after the summit was uncovered, revealing a small patch of glowing lava, steaming away. Soon a small explosion sent lava spattering around inside the crater, and then a much larger explosion hurled glowing chunks to some height above the crater rim. We could feel the heat strongly, and despite my annoyance with the Spaniards I was enjoying this.
We walked a little way around the crater to a better viewpoint, and I took as many photos and videos as I could. Unfortunately the cold meant that my digital camera batteries ran out ridiculously quickly and I only managed to catch one small explosion on video. Then suddenly the earth shook and the lava lake fountained out a huge spray of molten rock, which covered the area we’d been standing just a few minutes before, and sent some other climbers running for cover. “We’d better get out of here”, said the guide. Having climbed for five hours I’d wanted to spend a little bit more than 20 minutes at the top, and I told him I’d wait until I’d seen one more explosion, and would catch them up. The Spaniards set off down, I saw one more good explosion and felt the tremendous heat from the molten rock, before reluctantly heading down.
I was still in a bit of a bad mood, but when I realised that our plan for descending a mile and a half back to the snowline was to sit down and slide I got a lot happier. The slopes were so steep that we quickly built up tremendous speed, and I had to use my ice axe to stop myself from sliding out of control. Although I feared that it would result in me picking up fragments of optics and electronics at the bottom of the mountain, I decided to take some footage of the descent, and managed not to drop the camera. Barely 45 minutes later we were back down at the snowline, and even though the Spanish women even managed to be really slow at sliding down icy slopes, we returned to Pucón pretty pleased with the day. I spent the evening watching the mountain top glowing red in the distance from the shores of the lake at the edge of town.
The next day I realised that despite my best efforts with sun block, I’d missed a bit. The sunlight reflecting off the ice had burned my septum, and it was astonishingly painful. I spent the day moisturising intensively and trying not to breathe through my nose. I was aching from the climb despite its slow pace, and spent most of the day relaxing by the lake. But I had to move on, and at 5pm I headed for Temuco, to catch the overnight train from there to Santiago.
Nov 29, 2005 in South America 2005
The boat north was supposed to be going at 11pm but when I bought a ticket I found out it was running late and would not be leaving until 3am. I had many hours to kill but luckily Carlito, the owner of the place I was staying, said I could wait in the hotel even though I wasn’t paying for an extra night. He was waiting up for the ferry as well, as his daughter was on board, and I spent a lot of the evening trying to improve my Spanish by talking to him. He turned out to be an ardent Pinochet supporter, and was quite aggrieved that after years of legal wranglings, the ex-dictator had just been stripped of his immunity from prosecution and put under house arrest.
Carlito’s view was that the general was 90 years old and should be enjoying a quiet life instead of facing jail, and that although lots of bad things happened during the dictatorship, the responsibility for them lay not with Pinochet but with other senior government people. Carlito was not just a fan, he’d actually met Pinochet on several occasions and had had dinner with him when he visited Chaitén. “A lovely man”, he said earnestly. He asked me what I thought, and I tried to explain my feelings on the situation while avoiding getting kicked out and having to spend the small hours on the streets. In the end my Spanish wasn’t really up to making complex political arguments, and we talked of simpler things until 2.30am. Then he drove me to the ferry terminal and I got on the boat, looking forward to a long journey up the Pacific coast.
We pulled out into the ocean at about 4am, and I watched the lights recede until we were in inky blackness, then slept uncomfortably on a reclining chair. I had wanted to get up and watch the sunrise, but in the end I slept through it and by the time I awoke it was broad daylight. A small serving hatch opened and I got a slightly oily-tasting coffee and a sandwich, and went up on deck to watch the mountains on the shore slowly drift by. We were sailing through the straits between the island of Chiloé and the mainland, and the waters were calm. I found a ladder up to the top of the boat, which had a sign saying ‘crew only’, but two old men climbed up it and told me no-one would mind, so I went up as well and enjoyed the panoramic views of islands and boats dotted across the sea.
We arrived at Puerto Montt at 3.30pm, almost seven hours late, and I hurried to the bus station to get a bus to Pucón, a couple of hours further north and situated at the base of the constantly erupting Volcán Villarrica. I got there at about 11pm, checked into a hostel and headed straight for the shower, finally getting out of my shoes which were still damp from Pumalín.
Nov 28, 2005 in South America 2005
There was a boat from Chaitén to Puerto Montt leaving the evening after I arrived. I spent my spare day exploring the nearby Parque Pumalín, with the two Italian girls who had arrived with me from Coyhaique. The park is somewhat controversial in Chile as it is all private land, owned by a non-Chilean, and it stretches from the coast to the Argentinian border, apart from a narrow strip in the middle. Chileans have accused the park’s owner of trying to split the country in two, and his efforts to buy the remaining strip have been fiercely resisted.
Ignoring the politics of the situation, we asked around Chaitén and found a friendly guy called Juan who had a 4WD and was willing to drive us up to the park for the day. As it had been ever since Coyhaique, the weather was not great, although the rain had eased off from being torrential to just being quite heavy. Most of Pumalín is inaccessible without serious preparation, but we drove for about an hour north of Chaitén, to a place where a couple of trails run a short way into the park. The first took us to some impressive waterfalls, and the second through a grove of alerce trees. Alerces are the largest tree in South America, and are related to the northern hemisphere Giant Redwood. They take hundreds of years to grow to their full size but they are now endangered due to centuries of exploitation. It’s illegal to cut down living alerces, but apparently it’s very common for people to strip them of their bark or set fire to forests so they can harvest the dead trees which are not covered by the law.
The massive sombre trees dripped on us as we walked through the grove. By this time all four of us had slipped at various points on the trail – two of us had a left leg covered in mud while the other two had the right leg. We decided it was time to head back to Chaitén, and I was looking forward to going further north where the weather might be drier.
Nov 27, 2005 in South America 2005
I spent a couple of relaxed days in Coyhaique, always intending to go walking in the surrounding hills but somehow never quite getting there. The town was laid back and quite bourgeois, with a well-to-do atmosphere and nice cafes on pedestrianised shopping streets. It also had the biggest supermarket I had seen in South America, with all sorts of produce that you wouldn’t expect to find in a small rainy town in Patagonia.
I had wanted to get a ferry up the coast from Puerto Chacabuco, not far from Coyhaique, but it appeared that boats only go from there at random irregular intervals. A company which used to do the run had gone bust due to rising fuel prices, and it seemed I would have to go north by bus. This was no disaster though, because the road north is no ordinary road, but the legendary Carretera Austral, which runs through the wild temperate rainforests of seldom-visited central Patagonia. Early on a Sunday morning I walked through the rain-soaked streets to the bus station and caught a minibus to Chaitén, a few hundred miles further up the country.
There were about 12 of us on the bus, all locals apart from me and two Italians. We drove out of Coyhaique under heavy skies, and before long rain was falling heavily. Gloomy mountains covered in dense forest rose all around. I hadn’t been able to get a coffee before leaving Coyhaique so I was relieved when we stopped after a couple of hours at Villa Mañihuales, a tiny village with a warm cafe where I got my coffee and also a nasty empanada containing some kind of gritty meat.
A bit further north we stopped for a while in a deep valley with a wild river rushing through it. I wasn’t sure why we’d stopped but it turned out that a new bridge was being built here and they were about to dynamite the rock face. I took photos in the drizzle, and stretched my legs. A colossal explosion rocked the valley, followed quickly by two smaller ones, and with that we all got back into the minibus and drove on.
In the afternoon the road took us through Parque Nacional Queulat, which was stunning. Impossibly steep mountainsides were covered in lush forest, with mist draped over everything and snatches of cloud hanging on the mountaintops like candyfloss. Wild rivers and towering waterfalls plunged into the valleys. North of Queulat we reached the town of La Junta, which had a giant statue of General Pinochet on its main street. Some locals got on, others got off, and the journey continued. The road, previously potholed and bumpy, became smooth, and we soon reached Chaitén, 12 hours after we’d left Coyhaique. For the first time on the journey it wasn’t raining.
Nov 23, 2005 in South America 2005
It seemed like it might be quite difficult to head north from El Chaltén except by travelling right back over to the east side of the continent where the endless plains allow good roads. Luckily, though, there are occasional buses which use Ruta 40 to get from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. My guidebook described Ruta 40 as ‘one of the world’s worst roads, passing through some of its most boring scenery’, but I’ve been on that road, it’s in Zambia. So I headed north on this road, and actually I found some of the scenery pretty spectacular. We passed through some astonishingly remote places, tiny villages with just a house or two and a cafe which must get no business at all except when buses pass through. The sun shone and I dozed a lot of the way. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Perito Moreno, where a lot of passengers got off, before turning east along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, South America’s second-largest lake. Snowy mountains lined the shores of the deep blue lake.
Late in the evening we arrived at Los Antiguos, a small town by the border with Chile. I tried to find a camp site but discovered that the municipal site was three miles out of town. I didn’t feel like walking several miles along an unlit road in the dark, but the hostel in town was full. However, the woman at the hostel phoned her friend Gladys, who appeared to operate some kind of overspill accommodation in her house. I ended up in Gladys’s spare room, feeling slightly ill-at-ease in her very large but very quiet house with no other travellers around. I was having a bad Spanish day and failed totally to make any conversation throughout my stay. I was glad to leave early the next morning.
I headed back into Chile. Chile has very strict regulations about bringing fresh produce into the country, which promise vast fines and possible jail terms for those surreptitiously importing evil substances like cheese. At previous border crossings checks had been cursory, but here the seven of us on the minibus were very thoroughly searched. As my bag was being emptied I heard another passenger being asked “Who sold you this orange?”. I had bought a sandwich that morning and had failed to declare it on the form, but luckily the border guard believed me when I said I’d forgotten I had it. Eventually, after a lengthy investigation, we were all allowed to pack up and get on the way into Chile.
I spent a quiet day in Chile Chico, a small town on the shores of what is known on the western side of the border as Lago General Carrera. Apparently the town is a major fruit-growing centre because it has a very sunny microclimate. I spent the night at a slightly odd ‘hostel’ that was just some spare rooms in somebody’s house, along with five other travellers who had also arrived from Argentina. We all chipped in to cook a feast of a dinner, and late in the evening when everybody was very relaxed, I let slip that I was an astronomer and had to give a long lecture on all the sights we could see in the spectacularly starry South American skies.
The next day we all got a boat across the lake to Puerto Ibáñez, a beautiful few hours on the waves with towering snowy peaks all around. The lake was pretty choppy and everything outdoors quickly got pretty soaked with spray, but there was not nearly enough space in the small covered area for everyone. But along the way I got talking to a girl from Finland, and she managed somehow to find us two spare seats in the covered area. As we approached Puerto Ibáñez, the waters calmed and I went outside again to watch the beautiful mountains gliding past. When we docked I got a bus to Coyhaique, at the south end of the Carretera Austral.
Nov 14, 2005 in South America 2005
The next day I walked 17km along the shores of Lago Nordenskiöld to get to Albergue Las Torres, my last destination of the hike. The first couple of hours saw the path rise steeply for a while, then drop down to the lake shore and a beautiful beach. I sat down and relaxed in the hot sunshine for a while. Every now and then I’d hear the roar of an avalanche on Paine Grande from behind me, followed a couple of seconds later by its echo from the mountains across the lake in front of me.
Further on I reached the Albergue Los Cuernos, and stopped for lunch. While I was there, two tiny colourful birds seemed to be having a fight, dive-bombing each other frantically by where I was sat. One of them landed about an inch away from me, squawking furiously at the other. When his opponent flew off, he sat for a moment before noticing me and flying off. After that it was a long walk under a hot sun to the Albergue Las Torres.
The next day I set off early to climb up to the base of Las Torres themselves. Still tired from the previous day’s walk, I hated the first section, known apparently to early British climbers as ‘The Slog’. It’s a relentless uphill stretch at an uncomfortable gradient, and it took me an hour to cover it. Then, all the hard work of getting to the top of the rise was undone because the path then dropped right back down to the banks of the Río Ascencio.
I stopped by the river for lunch, then pushed on. The next part of the trail followed the river for a while before climbing into the woods. I wound my way through the trees for about an hour, emerging at the bottom of a great swathe of huge boulders cutting down from a high ridge to the left. This, it soon became apparent, was the path, and I set off up, scrambling over the rocks. An exhausting 45 minutes later, I scrambled over one final huge boulder, and suddenly the towers were in front of me, soaring unbelievably into the clouds from a green icy lagoon in front of me.
I sat for a while by the shores of the lake, looking up at the tops of the granite towers, a mile and a half above me, as they appeared and disappeared within clouds. It had been a good hike to get here, but for serious mountaineers it would just be a prelude to the main objective of the towers.
Descending back down over the boulder field was treacherous, and I drew blood by falling heavily on my elbow. But from there things were easy, and I covered the ground back to the campsite more quickly than I had on the outward journey. I cooked up the last of my food, had a very weak coffee with all the grounds that I had left, and watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains. It was my last night in the park and I felt sad that the next day I wouldn’t be cursing my slightly-too-heavy pack on a wild Patagonian trail. But as I left Torres del Paine on the bus, a gale of astonishing violence starting blowing and I was happy that I’d be spending the night under a solid roof.
Nov 12, 2005 in South America 2005
My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés, one of the park’s most scenic sections. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possibly flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.
In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up soup, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.
After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a tremendous roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.
Nov 10, 2005 in South America 2005
My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first.
Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it.
The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. I bumped into two Australians I’d met the previous day, when they’d given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.
As it turned out, we actually weren’t very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn’t stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.
After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you’ve left, or just as you’ve turned to look at something else.
I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn’t see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I enjoyed a hot shower, a carbohydrate-laden dinner and some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.
Nov 09, 2005 in South America 2005
I had an awesome day’s travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later.
We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me.
As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, I realised there were two depressed young people who’d somehow ended up on the same tour as the awful group, and I chatted to them as we crossed. Their relief at a temporary escape from their nightmare travelling companions was palpable. As on the previous crossing, small black-and-white dolphins accompanied us across, leaping from the waves in groups of two or three. It was a beautiful sight in the warm sunshine.
A few hours later we were at Punta Arenas. On the way I’d had an excellent Spanish-learning experience – a bad film played too quietly for me to hear the words, but subtitled in Spanish. The outrageous predictability of the dialogue meant the subtitles were easy to get the gist of, and I learned loads. Finally, one more bus journey in the late evening brought me to Puerto Natales, access town for the Torres del Paine.
In Puerto Natales I spent a day buying up supplies for trekking. My plan was to spend six days hiking in the national park, doing the trek known as the W. An early morning bus took me from Puerto Natales to the park administration centre, passing extensive minefields along the way – a legacy of border disputes between Chile and Argentina. I was in a great mood as I left the administration centre in hot sunshine, with six days of hiking and climbing ahead of me.
My first day of trekking took me to Lago Pehoé, a stunning cyan lake. The walk there turned out to be probably the hardest of all that I did, as I was carrying all my food, and the scenery on the way was not particularly remarkable. A strong headwind also dampened my morale, and the hike took a lot longer than I’d hoped. Towards the end there were a number of rises, and over each one I expected to see the campsite, but each time I was disappointed. I finally got there at 5.30pm, just over six hours after I’d set off. I set up my tent for the first time on South American soil, cooked some fabulous pasta, and prepared myself for a hike to a glacier the following day.
Nov 02, 2005 in South America 2005
The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it.
But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later.
A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos and Ushuaia, and it wasn’t long until we reached the border. I accidentally broke the law here by having cheese sandwiches with me – Chile strictly prohibits ingress of dairy products, and garish notices threatened enormous fines. I’d forgotten I had the sandwiches until I was safely through, which was lucky – I’m sure I’d have given myself away had I known I was being a cheese mule. Soon we reached Punta Delgado on the Straits of Magellan, where we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The deep green waters of the straits were filled with small black-and-white dolphins, which followed us across, leaping from the waves.
Half an hour later we were on Tierra del Fuego – the wild end of a wild region. We drove on to Río Grande, where we had to get off the bus for a while. The wait there was enlivened when two alsations stole a Frenchman’s waterproof coat and ran off with it. And then it was the final leg to Ushuaia, which took us from the flat plains of eastern Tierra del Fuego into the mountainous western half. The change was abrupt – suddenly the horizon was full of Andean peaks. The grey skies got thicker and gloomier, and as we approached the mountains rain was hammering down. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 8.30pm, and in fading daylight and heavy rain I walked to the youth hostel.