Monthly Archives: January 2014

Magellan Shouldn’t Have Sailed Strait Through

Chilling out in Buenos Aires for a few days was great, but that was just to prep us for the forty some hours we would spend on the bus the next few days making our way to Torres del Paine, Chile.

Megan and I stopped off in Puerto Madryn for a night to break up the bus ride a little.  Puerto Madryn lies about half-way between Buenos Aires and Rio Gallegos (larger town near the very southern portion of Argentina), and is a small port town known for its whale watching.  While we were there we experienced what might be considered for some as strong winds.  Little did we know that would continue everywhere we go, even until this writing.  It was most unfortunate, as we were standing out on a rather long pier, that a large inflatable whale would go flying by on top of the water.  That was the only whale we saw.

(Looking back at Puerto Madryn from the pier, and watching the whale blow away)

Back on the bus we made our way to Rio Gallegos, showing up early in the morning.  Hoping to catch a break we quickly made our way onto another bus for the border town of Rio Turbio.  If things went right we could cut several hours of bus time off from the route usually taken.  Yeah, things didn’t work out and we had to spend the night in Rio Turbio, where there is nothing and only one accommodation in town.  That night ended up being a bit rough as we had learned that Megan’s Grandpa Rhodes had passed.  I think Megan said it best in a later remark.

“…He will always be Superman in my eyes, with the strongest will to live that I have ever seen, a phenomenally cheerful attitude, and dreams bigger than himself. Since his wish to live to be 220 years old couldn’t come true (a wish he had so he would have time to accomplish all his dreams), I will try to take comfort in his support of living my own dream and promise to never let my dreams slip away.”

Sub was one of our biggest supporters of this trip and truly will be missed.

(Meg and I visiting Gpa & Gma Rhodes before the trip)

After way to many buses and four days of travel, we made it to Puerto Natales in Chili, one of the few towns that reside just outside of Torres del Paine National Park.   Puerto Natales was originally founded as a port city for the sheep industry, but now mainly focuses on the tourists that come through for the park.

(Looking at the mountains across the sound in Puerto Natales)

Torres del Paine was one of our most anticipated destinations of South America.  It lies in a transition area between the Patagonia Steppes and subpolar forests within the Magallanes Region and Chilean Antarctica.  The park has a temperate climate of cold rain/snow with no dry season.   January is its warmest month with the temperature possibly reaching a high of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cloudy and rainy are the norm during the summer.  The geology mainly consists of granite with many of the spires and peaks capped with a dark sedimentary rock that give some of the sights their amazing contrasts.

Before even finding a place to stay in Puerto Natales, Megan jumped in on a briefing covering the backpacking in the park.  Really the main thing we got from was that we can drink the water and that is to expect to get wet, muddy, and blown over by the wind.  Doesn’t sound very good, but again the weather is unpredictable.  We spent the day renting our gear and stocking up dry foods: boxed potatoes, soup, rice, pasta, granola, oatmeal, peanut butter (difficult to find), crackers, dehydrated soy meat, and tuna.  Our plan was to do the “W” circuit that would cover around 45 miles of moderately difficult hiking.  We would cover this in five days and four nights with the first and last days being easiest.  Once our bags were all packed they had to come in at around 35lbs a piece.  Lucky for Megan, as she had the food, her bag only got lighter the entire trip.

Day one (New Years Eve) started early catching a bus to the park and ferry to the trailhead.  The first hike was just a little over six miles and we started around 1 p.m., but being this far South, it doesn’t get dark until 10:30p.m.  The day was quite cloudy with a bit of rain here and there.  This first section of the hike took us out past a couple of lakes and to Glacier Grey.  Even with a cloudy sky the lakes had that beautiful turquoise coloring, but it was most astonishing seeing Grey glacier.  Megan and I have seen “glaciers” before, but those were mere ice cubes in comparison.  Glacier Grey covers over 100 square miles and is around 17 miles in length, but you only see a fraction of it when looking upon its leading edge.  Grey only makes up a fraction of the South Patagonian Icefield that covers over 4,700 square miles.  On the front of the glacier we could see spectacular lines of blue ice and a field of white going back as far as we could see.

Being that it is high season there were quite a few people at the campsite with many of them celebrating New Year’s based on times back home. This started pretty early with some Czechs popping Champaign early in the evening.  Megan and I decided staying up to 3-4 in the morning to celebrate by Missouri or Colorado time wasn’t going to happen, let alone one of our longest hikes was the next day.

(Mountains off in the dinstance)

(Grey Glacier from a higher viewpoint)

(Kayakers approaching the face of Grey Glacier)

Day two started off quite nice with rather clear skies, flowers radiating different colors, and the white capped mountains showing off.  Everything seemed like it had an extraordinary luminescence to it.  Our hike took us back to the beginning of the trailhead and hooked off to make towards the center of the “W”. After hooking around, the wind drastically picked up nearly knocking Megan down a couple of times, and soon after queued the cold stinging rain.  I don’t think I have seen something encourage Megan so much to pick up the pace to the next camp site.  As we came into the site, the rain subsided and the clouds broke to show off the Cuerno Principal.  I nearly collapsed in amazement.  Being absolutely soaked and numb from the cold had no meaning as we stepped into some parallel world to experience euphoria.

(Lake at the base of the “W” trek)

(Getting out to the open after getting soaked by rain)

Day three was a quick five hour out and back up the middle of the “W” and then cutting out toward the bottom right of the “W”.  Heading from camp we made our way through the Valle del Francés and up to Britanico viewpoint.  The bonus was that we got to leave our packs in camp since we would be returning, and since we could drink the water from the streams, all we carried with us was a cup.  That was pretty cool.  The day was quite clear and the views were phenomenal.  We were surrounded by a white capped mountain to one side that had continuous avalanches occurring as we made our way down the trail, the Cuernos del Paine on the other side with their stunning granite columns, and the turquoise Lake Nordenskjold behind us.  Megan and I both believe this valley was the best part of the park.  That evening we setup camp just below Cuerno Principal getting to watch the sun set behind it.  Of course that still wasn’t until 10:30ish.

(Cuernos del Paine from the Britanico viewpoint)

(Punta Bariloche)

Day four was our hardest day with most of it being uphill and we put in around 12 miles.  This hike seemed to focus a little less on the mountains and more on the local fauna.  Of course we saw condors everywhere, which is always impressive, but what were really interesting were the black-faced ibises.  They looked like turkeys but with long, narrow beaks.  We were lucky enough to see one catch a mouse and quickly make snack of it.  We made good time to the campsite, so I decided to venture on up the mountain to get an evening view of the Torres spires.  Megan stayed back at camp saving her energy for the early morning departure for sunrise on the Torres.  Not even half way up the trail it started sleeting pretty good, making the granite pretty slippery.  Once I was to the top I couldn’t even tell where the spires should be.  Luckily the clouds and high vantage point still made for some good views.  By the time I made it back to camp I was nice and wet.

(Black-Faced Ibises, the left one making a snack of a mouse)

Day five, we hit the trail at four in the morning to catch the sunrise on the Torres.  It was funny to see all these headlamps bobbing around up the mountain trying to stay on the trail.  Going up the previous day really helped out making our way up in the dark.  Once we made it to the top we quickly found a rock to hide behind as it was super windy and cold.  Megan was even using a trash bag to help keep the brutal wind off her.  We were quite fortunate as the skies were mostly clear and we got to see the sun break across the spires.  The spires broke with amazing colors and the orange of the sun.  It was an amazing sight.  One thing that most pictures seem to overlook is the lake just below the spires.  I guess if we were there around noon it would be pretty amazing to see the sun shining on the spires and showing off the beautiful blue of the water.  The trip back was quick as it was nearly all downhill with a strong wind pushing us.

(Torres del Paine at sunrise)

Making it back to Puerto Natales, we cleaned up and geared up for a border crossing and bus ride to El Calafate.  El Calafate is a nice little tourist town situated on the edge of Puerto Moreno National Park on the Argentina side of the border.  This makes it a popular hub for visiting glaciers and some beautiful lakes.  Megan and I didn’t take that as we already saw some amazing glaciers in Torres, but enjoyed some of the great views of Lake Argentino.   Heading further North we made it to Bariloche.  Bariloche is surrounded by a multitude of lakes with the Andes Mountains as a backdrop.  A very picturesque town and great place to kick back and relax.

We took a day to head a few kilometers from town and rent some mountain bikes to tour a bit of the countryside.  Starting off with a little rain we peddled up to a nice little café for some waffles, tea, and empanada.  Making our way through the curvy roads lined with large pine trees and lakes, we took in the scenery that is quite reminiscent of Colorado.  Towards the end of our tour we checked out the Llao Llao Hotel.  This is probably the most known Argentinian hotel.  I think it is really only famous for its location and not so much the hotel.

(Looking across the lake next to Bariloche)

There are tons of pictures and hope all of you are able to check them out as they give a small glimpse of the amazingness of Torres del Paine.

The Closest We Will Get To Walking On Mars

As the distances between our destinations are spread farther apart and the end of our trip creeping nearer, our time is increasingly spent on buses and less time is spent getting to know the culture, people, and feel of a place.  South America has so many phenomenal sites, natural and historical, that we sadly don’t have time for much else.  It’s not really a choice though, not when you have the opportunity to see some of the biggest, best, most extreme, and most beautiful places in the world.

In Northern Chili we headed straight for the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world full of salt flats, salt mountains, geysers, hot springs, flamingos, adobe constructions, and terrain so similar to the moon’s that one of the mars rovers was tested here.  We based ourselves in the secluded town of San Pedro de Atacama, not a bad little town for being in the middle of the driest place on earth.  Basically the entire town is made of adobe construction and they continue to use this method for most everything.  That’s good because dirt is the only thing they have!  I do wonder what they do with trash though, because a landfill in that climate would just be a mass of well-preserved trash.

(An old church made of adobe)

From San Pedro de Atacama, some of the top sites are within biking distance, but most are too far away or too dangerous in that type of climate to attempt on our own, so we ended up taking a couple of tours.  The first tour was to El Tatio, the site of the third largest geyser field in the world, in a flat basin surrounded by barren mountains.  The best time to see the geysers is at sunrise so we dressed for a cool desert morning and quickly realized that wasn’t adequate.  It turns out the geysers are at a numbing 14,173 feet above sea level.  The sight of dozens of towers of steam rising all around us, near and far, was pretty cool.  However, when we saw the geysers up close, we were a little disappointed.  If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, you’ll understand.  What we didn’t realize is that the El Tatio geysers are much, much younger than those in Yellowstone so they are not nearly as big or developed.  Also, the mineral content isn’t as rich so the El Tatio geysers don’t have all the brilliant colors that we had seen in Yellowstone.  One nice bonus was that these were not blocked off by railings, so we were able to stand within touching distance of most geysers.  Nearby was an area of somewhat older geysers that were a bit more similar to those in Yellowstone.  A thermal pool was built around one geyser and I had to try it out.  It felt warm to my numb limbs at first but not for long.  The only really warm spot was the little cove where the geyser spilled in.  It was comical seeing everyone huddled together in a corner of the large pool!

(A geyser in El Tatio)

Our second tour was to the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Lake).  It began with a stop at a tiny oasis town with an old bell tower, now a National Monument.  The interesting thing about it is that cacti “wood” was used to make the doors (the roof of the old church in San Pedro is also cacti).  Visiting the Chaxa Lagoon National Reserve within the Atacama Salt Lake was the highlight of the day.  The salt lake, formed from evaporation of an underground water system with a heavy saline load, is the third largest in the world.  The crust, which is up to 70 centimeters thick in some places, is extremely interesting to look at closely because the crystallization forms “flowers” with all sorts of shapes and textures.  Really crazy!  Somehow the beautiful Chaxa lagoon managed to form on the surface and is favored by three types of flamingos.  We found out that the pink flamingos we’ve seen in zoos are artificially colored because they can’t eat the same food as in the wild, which here meant a type of tiny shrimp so small we could barely see them.  On this tour we also visited a couple turquoise lagoons formed by the eruption of a volcano long ago.  The lagoons have no outlet and are fed only by rain and snowmelt.  From our distant viewpoint we could make out mounds of dirt and plants in the water made by birds for nests, presumably a tactic to fend off land predators.

(Thick salt crust of the Atacama Salt Lake backed by Chaxa Lagoon)

(Flamingos in Chaxa Lagoon with mountains and more salt crust in the background)

Our last Atacama trip was to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) with an impressive array of colors and textures.  We rented mountain bikes and made our own tour.  Biking and hiking through a desert so dry, hot, and at high altitude was a new experience, but we survived and it was so cool!  The first trail we walked was through a fun cave system which appeared to be carved from wind and water out of almost pure salt.  I know; I tasted it!  There were many drastically varying and really interesting formations that I don’t know how to describe, so you’ll just have to see the pictures.  This is the area where the Moon Rover was tested!

(A salt cave in Moon Valley.  See the glistening walls)

(The extremely varying landscape from a high viewpoint in Moon Valley)

We had seen a couple blogs online that raved about the drive between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Salta in Argentina, so we opted for a daytime bus and managed to stay awake for the long ride.  We transitioned from the gently rolling, desert hills West of San Pedro to rugged desert with the most enormous cacti I’ve ever seen; to a crusty, cracked salt flat; through more hills and incredible cacti; and lastly through some of the most colorful hills we have ever seen.  These last hills were decorated with linear strips quite possibly containing every color in the rainbow.  Of course our pictures through the bus window don’t do a great job of portraying them, but Argentinians are so proud of these beauties that we saw posters of these hills everywhere we went.

(A salt flat on the Argentina side of the border)

(Colorful mountains in Argentina)

We didn’t do much of anything in Salta besides relax in a really nice hostel to recoup from our active days in the desert.  We also took much advantage of a well-stocked supermarket and kitchen.  The one notable adventure in Salta was a ride in a gondola to the top of San Bernardo Hill overlooking the city.  At the top was a nice park with fountains and greenery that gave a peaceful and romantic atmosphere.

The trip from Salta, in the Northwest of Argentina, to Puerto Iguazu, in the far Northeast, took us 24 hours, which really doesn’t seem all that bad anymore.  We had only one goal for this long haul: To see Iguazu Falls and check off another site from a “Wonders” list (specifically New7Wonders of Nature in this case).  The falls are located at the border between Argentina and Brazil and are 1.6 miles wide and are both taller and more impressive than Niagara Falls (at least Eleanor Roosevelt thought so), although Niagara has a higher rate of flow.  We haven’t seen Niagara so we can’t say from personal experience.  There are many pathways that give you several different perspectives of the incredible falls, including up close to a lower section, from an island at the bottom, midway up, over smaller falls, and most impressively right on top of the strongest section, called the Devil’s Throat.  The island was closed due to increased flow, but we were able to get really wet on the trails at a lower section and at the very top overlooking the Devil’s Throat.  At the Devil’s Throat, water is pouring in from three sides with unbelievable force, causing the mist to rise between 100 and 490 feet.  A walkway has been built stretching waaaay out above the falls to a top edge of the Devil’s Throat.  I feel for the brave people who built that trail!  It seemed about every 10-15 seconds a really big spray of mist would tackle the crowd on the platform, making for difficult photo-taking but a lot of excitement!

(Arial view of Iguazu Falls, Image taken by Horacio Belloni)

(Much of the Western portion of Iguazu Falls – Right side in the picture above)

(Looking into a section of the Devil’s Throat)

That afternoon we were already on a bus headed for Buenos Aires.  Even though the transport to and from Iguazu Falls took twice as long as the amount of time we spent there, we are extremely happy we made the trip.  It was incredible!

To Buenos Aires for Christmas we went!  Before arriving we were lucky to find a local to stay with on Couchsurfing.  We were excited because we thought it would make for an interesting Christmas and we would get to see how the locals celebrate, plus we would be saving money.  When we arrived to the apartment where David was waiting for us, we got a big surprise – Merry Christmas to us!  The apartment is a very nice flat that David normally rents out to tourists but loans to Couchsurfers when he has no renters.  It was pretty much the best situation ever – David is a really cool guy and is happy to see his city from a tourist’s perspective and therefore generously gave us a tour; we got to relax and feel at home with an entire furnished apartment, a 7th floor balcony, swimming pool, gym, and in a great location; we got to meet some great people and spend Christmas Eve with David’s family outside by the pool.  That’s right, Christmas in our bathing suits!  An interesting touch is that David comes from a Jewish family originating out of Austria and has some pretty interesting roots.  We learned a lot about his great uncle who escaped the Holocaust to Bolivia and later became a successful scientist and professor in Michigan.  He gave me a couple of books written by his uncle and I’ve completed one so far; very interesting life he led!  Anyway, David’s family doesn’t really celebrate Christmas, but they do take advantage of the holiday to get together and spend with family.  We enjoyed talking with his mother who is a teacher and has led an adventurous life herself, and others we met that evening including two other travelers, David’s sister, and friends.  On our first night while touring the city with David we learned that he has just applied to the University of Michigan, so we’re hoping to see him again in the states someday!  That night he took us to a really good restaurant so we could try the big, fat steaks that Buenos Aires is famous for.  They were, umm… HUGE!  Luckily Bryan and I split one, but we still probably each ended up eating about 2 pounds of steak after David gave us a portion of his too.

(A cool bridge in Buenos Aires that turns sideways to let boats through)

Because it was a holiday week and also because Bryan was a little under the weather, we didn’t get to experience nearly enough aspects of Buenos Aires.  We had heard tons of great things about the city and its culture, so we’ll just have to try and make it back again eventually.  What we did see, though, was really beautiful and really makes us want to go back.