Friday, March 30, 2007

Very, very Torres del Paine

I had one very, very long walk in Torres del Paine these past few days doing the W from west to east. Included was one very, very cold night of camping (the first night, near Glacier Gray) and the other 3 in refugios (basic shelters with beds and heat coming from old-style wood-burning stoves). Because this is the shoulder season, the refugios were not crowded, and I was able to book these on the fly each night. I carried food for the first 3 days and after that bought meals at refugios (basic, hearty meals, home-cooked but expensive).

Glacier Gray possesses an intense blue that is retained in the chunks of iceberg that float on the aqua-green lake. The autumn colors are out, but because Patagonia is a dry place, the colors are not extreme, just small bursts here and there starting closer to the core of the bush or tree and emanating outward. Everywhere I saw rings of color, like the turning trees or around a shallow lake, everything in layers with no extra show of effort.

Many people were met and re-met along the trail each day and so it was a shared and awestruck suffering, because believe me, at times in the howling gales of greater than 100 km per hour and due to the treacherous river crossings (one in particular on the last eastern leg of the W), we were suffering! And yet I had quiet times with the path completely to myself in the tranquility of the changing autumn colors of Chilean Patagonia.

At the end of the day (actually early in the morning), I did not get to see the Paine towers top to bottom! By the time I got there, rain and clouds filled the sky, so half way up the last rock pile, knowing I would have no view, I turned to go...well, it was still worth it all after all!

Autumn colors:

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Intensely alive

I'm now in Puerto Natales, the town from which most hikes in Torres del Paine are staged. I am heading there tomorrow morning, early. I won't be on internet for the next 5 nights or so (this is the current plan, but I may stay longer if I feel like it or may return sooner if the weather is insanely bad).

The weather looks like crap for the next few days. Leaving Sunday, I'll start my hike in the rain, wind and mud. I'll do the W from west to east and hope the clouds and rain clear before I reach the Torres del Paine massif, the park's namesake.

Lots of folks around here spent the day or days rushing around in preparation for TDP. While any undertaking such as this requires planning and preparation, I have felt relaxed in the whole matter (as I don't need to rush and this is the very reason I came to Patagonia).

Everyday since I have been in Patagonia I have seen bright, fully arched rainbows. And I love the way that packs of friendly dogs escort you around town for the day, waiting patiently outside when you go into a shop or restaurant, wanting only affection and attention (but of course relishing every morsel of leftovers should you bring unfinished food).

I feel very relaxed and at the same time I feel intensely alive.

On the waterfront:

Companions for the day:

Again the convex sky:

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Austral autumnal joy

Today is the southern hemisphere's autumnal equinox. The extremity of southerly latitude and of climate and the potent natural beauty of this place compel feelings, dreams and memories to surface and to ascend. Inner terrain is exposed to the elements and is brought to light. Here there is no gile, no artifice.

Cerro Martial:

View of Ushuaia Bay from Cerro Martial:

Tierra del Fuego NP:

Beagle Channel:

Sea lions up close!:

Beagle Channel lighthouse:

These are PEANUT BUTTER days

We had such a good day, a spontaneous one with a rental car and 4 wanderers.

(Explanation of title:

Over morning breakfast, when someone sitting across the table offered the last of her (North American-style) peanut butter (which to that point had lasted her through 6 weeks of travel) to someone sitting at the table to my right (who had been living in Buenos Aires the last several months and planning to spend the summer there as well, who hadn't found peanut butter to his liking anywhere in BsAs), I never saw such a huge, warm, whole smile from someone not a child.

Today our mantra was Yyyyyeeeeaaaahhhhh!!!clap-clap-clap-clap!! This was passed on from the peanut butter smiler's second grade teacher through him to us. It's contagious. Now when we feel gleeful which is often this erupts spontaneously from our hands, faces, lips and hearts.

These are the days we are having here and now.)


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Elemental Ushuaia

It's elemental here, all is whole and indivisible, all is FULL and vivid and in motion, the wind and how it propels the surface waters of Beagle Channel, the revolving and revolutionary sky and how the clouds are hurled by the wind, appearing like in velocity and intention as a commercial jet or a powerful bird. Everything is pushed or pulled, gathered and accelerated by the wind in swirling eddies. This town is much less touristic and more earthly than Bariloche, as it must be: here is extreme, elemental, whole, indivisible.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Pitstop in Bariloche

I mentioned that I am going south first, because the season is coming to a close (and Patagonian winters bring snow, impassable roads and bitter cold, which is not my idea of a good time nor is it safe to hike in those conditions.)

I won't bother to explain my route geographically; suffice it to say it has 5 legs that take 4 days (due to my belief that I was taking the least expensive flight and doing what is typically recommended to avoid the high costs in Chile, which is travel mostly through Argentina and pop into and out of Chile for specific places, such as Torres del Paine NP...of course LAN Chile just announced a big airfare sale so this convoluted route was all for naught! Grrrrrr...the joys of traveling... Well, at least it was good for a long laugh yesterday night with some fellow travelers. I would try to explain here, but really you could not understand without knowing this place as clearly I proved by making these unfortunate plans before arrival!).

Bariloche is magnificent. I hope to return to do some hiking here on my way north. In the meantime, this is what I saw while walking this morning.

(BTW, I have additional photos to upload for my last installment on Easter Island, but I moved those to DVD, and I have yet to find a computer with a DVD drive here in Argentina (granted, I haven't been here long, but still)...this gives you a sense that Brazil and Chile are far advanced in computer use and internet compared to Argentina where the machines tend to be old and slow.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

To the end of the earth

Because there is so much to do in Patagonia and I am racing against time with the changing weather, I've prioritized my top 3: Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine NP in Chile, and the Carretera Austral (also Chile), in that order. Some plans must still come to fruition for this all to happen, but I am on path.

I'm now heading to Tierra del Fuego, the island which is the southern tip of South America (partially Chile and partially Argentina). I'll fly into the city of Ushuaia, Argentina (only 1200km from Antarctica!) and go from there.

(While I madly want to go to Antarctica, I long before realized that that must be it's own trip, another time...)

These are a few days of hard traveling now, because of my crazy route, but all that will melt away upon arrival.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Easter Island daze

Well, Easter Island was exceptional, the fulfillment of a dream, truly awesome. It has a remote, natural feeling about it, unspoilt by tourism. Though researchers and academicians have come to know a lot about the rise and fall of its first civilization, there is still a mystic, mysterious feel, and a quiet spiritual longing in the toppled, face-down moais and indeed in the people.

I read a few articles about the history of Easter Island, including one of the chapters in Jared Diamond's Collapse (same author of Guns, Germs and Steel, but I stopped after a few chapters because I dislike his writing style, I find him both pompous and insecure, and his English grammer is not at all inspiring.) His focus was the zenith years of Easter Island, the time during which giant, carved statues (moais) were created and erected, around 1550's.

Apparently, the religious faith of the Rapa Nui people led them to build about 850 moais (some gigantic, over 30 feet tall, weighing over 100 tons! some with hats, many in an around the quarry not completed). We now understand due to academic research and that in lieu of modern construction equipment, moais were excavated at one quarry at one location on the island and transported across the island to various destinations by wooden rollers, i.e., tree trunks. In building, transporting and erecting the moais, the people denuded the island of trees which, together with inter-tribal warfare, led to the rapid destruction of the island's ecosystem and the dramatic depopulation of the island due to starvation, war and later disease and the inability to defend against maleviolent intruders in the form of humans and diseases.

Easter Island has been a part of Chile since the late nineteenth century. Though beset by more than 40,000 tourists per season, the island has a feel of vastness and relative seclusion. The tourist information is good (though we did have a problem with a semi-fictional road map!) and widely available, and it is easy to get around on foot or bicycle, horse, scooter or car. People are very nice, inhabitants and tourists (mostly Chilean at this point) included.

I arrived with no reservations as per usual in the shoulder season of Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui to the original inhabitants, believed to be of Polynesian descent, reflected in similar coloring of skin, hair and eyes.) As I expected, guesthouse owners know the flight schedules and await incoming tourists at the airport, so a place to stay was easily found (and at a rate less than my research led me to believe). Another guest, a Chilena also traveling solo, arrived on the same flight, and so we joined forces.

On the first day, we did the light hike to Rano Kau, the largest of the 3 extinct volcanos at the triangular island's 3 corners. The island is home to many friendly dogs, including those with homes and strays. Horses and cows wander the island as well and they own the road and do not respond to polite honking. While walking, two dogs we named Mateo and Toto became our guides. They showed us the way along the sometimes not so obvious trail, however, as the sun climbed the sky, their more prominant motivation became shadow seeking, and so our roles reversed (and we were their water-bearers as well).

We arrived at the crater rim and glimsped its placid inner lake reflecting both the sky and the volcanic ash. We continued hiking the wide crater rim to Orongo, site of the annual Birdman contest which awarded to the fastest and most agile swimmer and climber who could retrieve the first bird egg of the season leadership of all tribes.

Afterward, we found good food -- freshly caught tuna at an atmospheric little restaurant that didn't mind that we long overstayed their siesta (which most businesses in Easter Island observe). (And while on the topic, let me say that while food is relatively expensive for budget travelers, $9USD for a nice sandwich with fresh tuna, special bread and nice trimmings, it's very high quality and that seemed to be true everywhere on the island.)

The next day, we rented a car to see more of the island, including the quarry at Rano Raraku, truly amazing and haunting place. Driving was difficult due to both road and car (not driver, heh heh) -- the island's gravel roads, sometimes trecherous, require a 4WD vehicle, and so we had a jeep, our jeep came with some dents, manual steering, and somewhat insufficiently functioning breaks. All in all it was very much worth it! We climbed up to the top of the volcano rim (which in the end required a wee bit of scrambling) and later cooled off with a swim at Anakena beach.

The third and last day for me ended prematurely upon my hat flying off my head and me reaching for it rather than keeping both hands on the bicycle handle bars on a steep downhill, gravelly, cratered road (oops). So with a few scrapes and bruises and the look of incoming rain which later produced a downpour, I spent the doing mundane things and passing time with friends we made at a local empanada restaurant (the best on the island by far!)

Clearly, I could have happily spent more days horseback riding and seeing more sites that we missed. So for any traveler thinking of coming here, I recommend at least a week during the shoulder season for time out of time at this other-worldly place.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Easter Island is paradise found

I´m walking around in a daze, I can hardly believe I am here. It is all the stuff of my dreams, sleeping and waking...