Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Chaiten Volcano

If you've been watching the news you'll have seen amazing photos's from the south of Chile after the eruption of the Chaiten Volcano. The first eruption happened last week sending billowing smoke into the air and causing ash to rain down on neighboring towns. The evacuation of Chaiten began as this town's streets were layered in ash making life impossible. On Tuesday the volcano erupted again and along with Chaiten being fully evacuated other neighboring towns from Futalafu to areas in Santa Cruz, Argentina.

This volcano is devastating the lives of thousands living in this area. Paula and I fondly remember traveling here and it being amazingly beautiful. We spent a few days in Chaiten and commented on how much we enjoyed the people and about wanting to return. We really hope that things will return to normal soon for the people of this area and that friends like Nicholas from Chaiten Tours can get their business' up and running again.
We also hope that the fallout from this volcanic ash doesn't do to much damage the flora and fauna of this area. It is really one of the richest and diverse areas in the world and the negative impacts this can have on the water systems and forest could be tremendous.
With natural events causing grief all over the world our prayers and thoughts go out to those suffering in Chile, and aslo to the victims and families in Myanmar.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Last Third: Chiloe Island

The boat from Chaiten was six hours. It was foggy all the way so we stayed in our seats mostly snoozing and watching Platoon and other war movies they were showing, in Spanish of course. Our destination was Quellon, a fishing town on the southeastern shores of the Island. This is the official end of the Pan-American Highway, or beginning depending on your perspective. By bus, bike, or car you can drive all the way up to Alaska from here.
We wanted to base ourselves near the capital of the island, Castro, so upon arriving in Quellon we snagged a bus for a ride up the highway to a smaller fishing village about 20 minutes outside of Castro called Chonchi located in the middle of the big island.  Chonchi was described as an old haven for pirates so Sean insisted on going there. The ride up was nice giving us a look at the mainly forested island with tiny fishing villages on inlets and sheep farms. We found the 
place we were looking for in Chonchi called the Esmeralda, owned by P.E.I. Canadian ex-pat Carlos. His place was right on the water and he gave us the Dolphin room that had excellent views out onto the water. We didn't know it at the time but we would use the Esmeralda as a base for five days exploring the old Jesuit churches in the area and going to Chiloe National Park.
The first day in Chonchi was overcast but we
decided to go for a walk anyways and explore the coast. We walked north along the beach as a light drizzle began to fall.  The tide was out and we came across big beds of mussels. We walked along the beach all the way to the next village of Villupulli where there was one of the old Jesuit churches. Like many others before us we took refuge in it as it began to rain much harder. We sat it out for almost an hour and then decided to just go even though we didn't have our ponchos. We got wet but it wasn't cold and the clouds actually broke on our way back to Chonchi. So we looked around a bit more and then went down the main market and found a place to sit and dry and have a bite to eat.
The next day we took a taxi collectivo into Castro, the islands capital. It has a population around 30,000 people and still has a small fishing village feel, just offering many more hostels for travelers. Castro is famous for its palifitos which are seaside houses built on stilts. We spent the day here walking around, exploring the artisan markets(Paula had a great time here) and we also took a boat tour around the harbor giving us views of the city and the palifitos from the bay. 
Back in Chonchi the hostel was bustling that Friday night. The common room was full of travelers from Denmark, New Zealand, U.S., Finland, and other Canadians and as the beer and wine flowed so did the talks of plans for the weekend. After hearing reports that the next day was supposed to be clear we decided to do a day trip into Chiloe's National Park. 
So Saturday we were up bright and early and caught a bus, with our new friends Vernon from the States and Mikko from Finland, to Cacau and the entry point into the park. 
This park is famous for being traveled by Darwin when him and the Beagle landed here on the shores. We thought we'd be able to get into the rain forest from the entry point but it was quite a distance off and being March 1st it was officially the low season and the bus schedule changed its latest departure time from 9pm to 5pm. So we didn't have as much time as we'd thought and instead of trying to get into the rain forest we walked miles up the same beach Darwin walked a 150 years ago. It was pretty awesome coming up over the dunes and hearing the Pacific Ocean ahead, sounding like a waterfall.  The water was rolling in, waves on-top of waves, one after the other. We walked and walked up the big long shoreline beachcombing, watching birds, and enjoying the sounds of the Pacific. Back in Cacau we had some really good seafood empanadas a litre of beer and then went to the side of the road to wait for the last bus of the day. While waiting Vernon went a talked to a couple of guys with a pick-up truck and arranged a free ride back to Chonchi for us. That night was much quieter than the last as we were all tired from the beach walk and crashed early.
The next day we went to Dalcahue and then over to Isla Quinchao for a look at the old Jesuit churches in this area. We caught the bus with our new traveling companions Vernon and Mikko and went into Castro for a transfer further north. First we went into Dalcahue where Vernon was going to stay that night. 
He checked in and then we meet him at the towns old Jesuit church, then walked down the main street through the markets to the docks where a ferry would take us across to Isla Quinchao. On the ferry we bartered with a bus driver to take us to Achao where the oldest Jesuit church on Chiloe was.  We went into the church to look at the old original construction, floors, roof, and then we walked down to the water and over to the market for a bite
 and beer. We were back in Castro for the start of the Colo Colo vs Universidad Catolica football match, which proved to be a good match and even more exciting atmosphere. Chileans love their football and these two teams are big rivals so there was lots of team songs and heckles and celebrating and disappointment. 
We finally left Chonchi on the Monday after five days. Using Castro as a hub we caught a bus to the far north of the island where we wanted to visit a penguin colony before ending our travels.
Ancud was the destination and we really lucked out at the recommended hostel.
They only had one room left - a cabana separate from the main building with its own bathroom and gorgeous views of the ocean. We stayed here for two nights and were treated to great ocean sunsets. After settling in we arranged a tour to the penguin colony for the next afternoon and used their kitchen facilities to make dinner. The next day at noon a van picked us up and took us out to Penguinera Punihuil. It was a nice day and a nice drive.  The driver stopped a couple of times to explain some points of interest and to allow us to take some photos of the sea.
This sanctuary is very unique as both the Magellene and Humboldt penguins use this as a breeding ground. There is no inter-breeding and when all is done the Humboldts head north towards Peru and the Magellenes go south to Cape Horn. We arrived at a time when most of the penguins were returning to their winter
homes so unfortunately we didn't get to see the full colony. The van drove us right down onto the beach for the transfer to boat. They gave us time to wander and then we were off for a look at the penguins. There was still a lot of them around so we weren't  disappointed, in fact we saw many other animals like pelicans, many other birds, and two really cute sea otters. 
The next day was the last day of our vacation. We had an overnight bus to Santiago booked for that evening and it was our last chance to be vacationers so we rented a couple of bicycles for the afternoon to explore Ancud.
The last thing of interest was on the ferry off Chiloe Island to the mainland when we saw several dolphins playing in our wake. We even got a couple photos. 
And that was it. The bus took us north and into the night and we woke up on the outskirts of Santiago ready to return to the life we'd set up there.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Second Third: The Carretera Austral

So we landed in Balmaceda after a 1 hour flight, given a meal and drink!, from Punta Arenas. To go anywhere from this area you need to use the main city of Coyhaique as a hub, unless you have a car of course which we decided not to rent. We planned to head as far south as possible on this southern road and and than loop around back towards Coyhaique and then to the top of the Carretera Austral. Origanally we planned on crossing big Lago General Carrera first, but because of bus and boat complications we first headed to Pto. Rio Tranquilo on the western shores of Lago Carrera.
The hiking part of our trip was now over and this part would be lots of traveling. We still planned to camp as often as possible for budget considerations, and we also like camping. 
So first we spent the weekend in Coyhaique and found this really great restaurant called Lito's serving really nice dishes at nice prices.  We had a day of sitting around a bar drinking
 big drafts of beer listening to all the North Americans talking about fishing in the area. On Monday we headed south.  The micro bus took us through Villa Cerro Castillo, where we stopped for a bite to eat and fantastic views of the mountains of same name.  Then furthur south we went to the 
shores of Carrera and into a spot called Pto. Rio Tranquilo.  From here you could take boats to see the marble cave formations so we found a Hospedaje with camping spots and wandered around. It didn't take long to see all this town of  maybe 200 people and as we were investigating boats for the next day a guy had a tour ready to go for that afternoon, at that moment actually, so we ho
pped aboard. The ride out to the caves was fun. The water was clean and blue with great mountains on the horizon. The caves themselves were also nice. Our guide drove the boat right into a few of the caves. The marble was of different colors and shapes and the water around them was a clear light blue that shimmered in the sun. The ride back was even more fun as the wind had picked up creating bigger waves that crashed against us.
The next day we were disapointed to hear that buses don't run on Tuesday and that we'd have to wait until Wednesday to get out of Rio Tranquilo.  We both weren 't interested in hanging around for another night so we sat by the town gas station asking travelers for rides out.  All morning without luck until around two in the afternoon we spotted a guy, alone, filling up and asked him where he was going, he said Cochrane, which was on the way to where we wanted to go, so we asked for a lift and he said o.k.! Daniel is Korean studying Spanish in Chile for a year for samsung and he was now on vacation.  Turns out he was going to Caleta Tortel which is where we were actually trying to get to.  It was a great ride and he stopped to take photographs of the
beautiful scenery.  We stopped in Cochrane for gas, the last place on the Carretera where you can buy gas, and then contiued down the bad road. I say bad road because not only was it rough and only for off road  vehicles but narrow too.  Whipping around curves hoping no one was coming the other way. Daniel was a good driver though and he'd rented a good 4x4 for the trip so we enjoyed the pace of the ride.
We arrived in Caleta Tortel very late, close to 9 pm. The sun was going down but we were all very happy to finally be here. It was a long day of driving and so after getting information on places to stay and how to navigate the boardwalks we found a hostel and met Daniel for a late dinner. The next morning was overcast and drizzly but it felt perfect for this town. Daniel had left early as he was going even further south to Villa O'Higgins, the end of the line. 
 We decided to check in to a nicer place and found a cute Hospedaje at the far side of Caleta.  There are no roads here. You park your car and get around by foot on boardwalks connecting houses to stores to everything else, or by water taxi. It was really an interesting little place. Very relaxed.
We spent this day relaxing in our nice room with even nicer views of the bay and then spent some time walking around in our matching ponchos out to the camping area, where we had a run in with a bull, and all over the boardwalks. We have some really great pictures from this town. So Sean spent his birthday morning, the next day, on a water taxi to Tortels entrance and then on a local 'bus' to Cochrane.  After a night camping in Cochrane we got a micro bus to take us along the southern shores of Lago General Carrera to Chile Chico.
It was a nice drive, scenic, we have some road pics. In Chile Chico we found a great camping spot close to shore. We went to the port to inquire about boats across the big lake to Puerto Ignacio Ibanez. There was one leaving the next day at 4 pm so we booked that and then found a place to have some beer and french fries. Our tent was nicely protected from the wind by tall poplars and we were treated to a fabulous sky at sunset. The next day before our boat across we hiked up a hill that was once an old fort, now lookout over the town. We then hiked down along the shore, the blue water shimmering in the sun. 
So across the lake to Puerto Ibanez and a connecting micro back to Coyhiaque for some more Lito's and transportation bookings/details for the north. 
We arrived in Chaiten on Sunday giving us a couple of days before the big ship  would take us across Golfo Corcovado to The Big Island of Chiloe.
The micro up from Coyhiaque was slow and scenic. There are many bicyclers on this road and at present lots of construction. So the bus was slow stopping at towns like La Junta, Puyuhuapi, and Villa Santa Lucia, which were all a nice break from the bumps and dust.
 Chaiten is a major town for boats to Chiloe Island or Puerto Montt, and treks into Pumalin National Park. We went for an overnight hike basing our camp at Caleta Gonzalo and doing a day hike up to some waterfalls through the temperate rain forest. One of the most beautiful spots of the trip. Just camping in this rain forest felt great. Pumalin has one of the greatest variety of trees in the world, it was a magical forest.
So this was nearing the end of the mainland. We spent the day before our departure washing clothes, and we rented bicycles for a tour around Chaiten, but other than that we were ready for the last part of our trip on Chiloe Island.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The First Third: Torres del Paine

Well here we are at the bottom of the world in Chile's most famous national park Torres del Paine. After a long flight to Punta Arenas and bus to Puerto Natales we were ready to begin final preparations for the circuit . We did some last minute gear and food shopping, and had a fish dinner at a nice restaurant.

Into the park the next day on the 8am bus arriving at Laguna Azul at 10. We received the Chilean discount because of our new national I.D. cards. (foreigners pay $40, Chileans - $10). Expensive entrance fee and expensive park in general actually. Anyways, we were on the trail by 11am.
We would hike the circuit taking us 8 nights 9 days, and here on Day 1 we felt fresh, strong and ready for anything!

Our first goal was campamento Seron. The trail took us along the eastern edges of the park through a tall grass plain(forest was burnt down by a careless camper a few years back). It was a nice hike along Rio Paine at points, with nice side views of the Towers. It was a 5 hour first day and gave us an idea what our routine would be hike...hike and hike, and rest and hike. Upon arrival at Seron we set up camp and cooked some food and talked with some other trekkers who we would be seeing everyday if they kept up the pace. There were some kinks in our packing that were worked out that night. We had a lot of weight especially with the food so we drank the (small) box of wine that first night.
Day 2 took us up a pass and around the bend to a long hike along Lago Paine. The early up and over was a challenge and once around the bend we really felt the power of the Patagonian winds. Until this point we had been sheltered by the mountain we hiked alongside, but now we were exposed and it was really something else. It's one thing doing a leaning walk into the wind but doing this while hiking a narrow trail that drops off to your right is delicate. We were glad to have new pieces of kit - our telescoping hiking poles that helped balance our pack weights and these crazy patagonian gusts. We expected this day to be grueling because of the 19km to the next camp and with this wind it made for an even longer day. After the pass we went down through forest, into grass plain, around through marsh, soddy, swamp, and then up up and down down down into campamento Dickson on Lago Dickson fed by glacier Dickson. Spectacular views. It was an early second night!
Up early for hot tea and hot cereal. Day 3 took us up through a forested valley giving us great views back onto the lake and glacier. The forest was thick and made for a humid, but peaceful, hike. We crossed a nice river fed by a small waterfall, and then scrambled up some rocks for a great view of glacier Los Parros. It was then down into campamento Los Parros for food and rest. We meet our two friends Annina and Grant, the Swiss-Aussie duo, who we had travelled with on the plane into Punta Arenas and the bus up to Puerto Natales. We had different schedules into the park but they managed to catch up to us by putting in two hard days at unmarked campsites. We'd bump into these two at most camps hiking the circuit.
Day 4 promised to be a difficult one. Talking with a guide the previous night he'd described it as the most difficult of the circuit, and with bad weather even harder. We'd had great weather up till now, but this day called for overcast and showers. The trouble wasn't so much getting up the 800 meter pass as it was going down the otherside. So we hiked out of the forest in the morning, in the drizzling rain, and out onto the rocky traverse that brought us to the base of the pass. Up the pass in the rain wasn't really that difficult. It brought us face to face with the flanking mountains and mist. At the top we were greeted with a cold wind and spectacular view of the southern ice-field. Having never seen anything like this before it is hard to put into words. It was spectacular and awing and made you want to put on warmer clothes eat some food and think how great life can is and how inspiring nature is. We were only seeing the part called Glacier Grey and others that fed it, but this field covers 17,000 km2 and runs for 350 km! We took it in and and then moved on....the hard part of the day was still to come. The 800 meter switch back up was really nothing compared to 1500 meters down( and not too forgiving with hardly any switchbacks). It had stopped drizzling so instead of our descent being suicidal it was just dangerous, very angled descent that left no room for mistakes. I was amazed to see porters almost running down this trail with heavier loads than our own. One wrong step and an easy tumble could lead to a sprain or worse. It was a painfully slow descent, physically and mentally and without being too dramatic we made it to the camp in one piece.

Campamento Paso wasn't much of a place...not too level and lots of trees, we were still in the thick of woods and next to Glacier Gray, but we had a nice little spot by a stream and we were really happy to be down in one piece.
Day 5 was a long traverse alongside Glacier Grey slowly descending to its end at Lago Grey where the camp was located. We had lots of nice views of the glacier and crossed over many streams taking ladders down and out of gulches. While stopping for lunch at a point parallel with the end of the glacier where we sat eating our peanut butter sandwiches when we heard a great crack boom and look a big piece of ice has broken off! It was pretty awesome and we got a couple pictures of the ice chunks falling into the water. Down into Campamento Grey was gentle and we set up our tent on the sand next to the grey lake with bright blue icebergs floating in it. After having our usual camp stove dinner we joined Annina and Grant inside the reugio for pisco sours and austral beers and talk of the hike. It was a nice to put off getting in the tent once the sun set.
The morning of Day 6 got off to a slow start. Whether it was the pisco sours from the night before or the five days of camping/trekking before, but we didn't get out of camp until 11:30. So we slept in expecting todays hike down to lago Pehoe and up to Campamento Italiano to be not so difficult. The beginning of the day gave us a quick 'up' for great last views of Glacier grey and the Southern Ice-Field and then a gradual down to Lago Pehoe. It was sunny and we were sluggish and upon reaching Pehoe it was difficult to muster excitement about the amazing color of the lake. So we refueled and pushed on to campamento Italiano in Valle Frances. We had more luck with spotting things and on this part of the hike we were pointed out two Huemels. Huemels are small furry deer, they are Chile's National animal, and it is very rare to see them...especially in this region. We had almost come full circle completing the east, north, west, and now beginning to hike along the southern part of the park. Up to Italiano was quite windy, we have pictures of little water tornados on Lago Scottsberg. The last challenges of the day were getting over a wobbly suspension bridge and finding a decent spot to set up our tent. The night before it rained and the water washed right down the valley into the camping area. Many people abandoned packed up that night and all were wet in the morning so when we arrived at the camp there were litle flood ditches dug around tents and lots of gear hanging out to dry. With the help of our friend Grant we found a nice piece of property to set up on. Later that evening while doing dishes in Rio Frances Sean witnessed a little avalanche from Glacier Frances. The bark was louder than the bite. We woke up relieved to see that our water ditch was unnecessary and we packed up our gear to begin
Day 7. We got lost for the first time on the trail today winding through thorny brush and horse poop until the trail just ended confirming our suspicions we had taken a wrong turn. The rest of the day was an easy traverse past the Cuernos del Paine and along the beautiful Lago Nordenskjold. We had a second problem of the day crossing Valley Bader and its now raging 'stream'. The rain from 2 nights ago was making this a very dangerous cross. You needed to accept that you were getting wet. Well Sean didn't , he's like a mountain goat when it comes to rock hopping, but most people including Paula put on sandals and rolled up their pants for the crossing. We had to go about 20 meters down to find a good place to cross and after using all courage and will power we made it across. The rest of the day was peaceful. We traversed down to Lago Nordenskjold and the up and down into campamento Las Torres. We would camp here for two nights before leaving the park.

It was nice to wake up on Day 8 knowing that we didn't have to break camp and that are hike into Valle Ascencio was only with a light day pack. What a feeling! Today we would be hiking up for a look at he famous Torres del Paine(the towers). The trail took us up 700 meters to a bend that had powerful enough gusts coming around it that you would sit down in fear of being blown off the path and down the cliff face. This was very difficult to get around and almost made us turn back, but we pushed on and like the river crossing we survived....well Sean's sunglasses didn't make it. They were blown off his face when he turned to make sure Paula was still with him. So having rounded the top we hiked down into the valley where campamento chileno waited for weary travelers to rest and regroup for the rest of the climb to the towers. Paula had aggravated her knee a few days back and today it was bothering her so she sat out the 2 hour hike up to the towers. Sean armed himself with the camera and trail mix and tackled the last portion. It was a difficult ascent that seemed to keep going. It was gradual in some places but most were steep and the toughest was getting through the boulder field that led up to views of the towers. After a look and rest it was back to chileno where Paula was waiting. We had a drink in the Refugio and then climbed back out of the valley and hiked back down to our camp for our final night in the park.
The final day was here. We had conquered the circuit and the W and hopped on the bus back to Puerto Natales. We had a celebratory dinner that night with Annina and Grant with lots of food, wine, and beer. When your camping and cooking for yourself for 9 days having food prepared that isn't boiled in water is a real treat.
We decided to stay in Puerto Natales until our flight that Friday from Punta Arenas. It's a smaller town and we were quite comfortable not packing until we had to. So we explored the shore line and relaxed in our Hostel and then two nights later caught a bus to the airport for our flight to Balmaceda and the next part of our travels; the Carretera Austral.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Travel Update

Here we are on the Big Island of Chiloe and finally giving you a quick update of our progress. Everythiong has neen great so far, no major problems to report. We survived 8 nights, 9 days of hiking in and around Torres del Paine National Park and then flew to the southern part of the carretera austral where we traveled far south into a small town between the northern and southern icefields. We then did a 180 back up through other small towns, across a big lake and up further north into Pumalin Park. It was from there where we crossed the channel to this big island of Chiloe and where we find ourselves now in a small pirate coast village Chonchi. We are into our last week and will write a more detailed account of our travels after all is said and done.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

So we are a couple of weeks away from our big trip to the south of Chile. I guess I've been planning this for many years but now that it's almost  here it seems my list of things to do keeps getting bigger. Slowly, though, we are checking items off, like gear/kit, health insurance, flight confirmations, what to do with our plants.  Of most importance is keeping our bag weight reasonable. We'll be taking down gear and food as we begin a trek into TDP as soon we arrive. Well we still have 12 days before we fly to Punta Arenas.Sean's parents are taking advantage of us being down here and are taking a trip to South America. They are now in Argentina and arrive in Chile next week. When they arrive we will take them to the coast for a tour of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, and then down towards Algarrobo and Isla Negra.  We'll be back Santiago in time for one final night of packing before we fly out the next morning.  The Roothams will then use our place as a base for trips into the Cajon del Maipo(beautiful mountain area near Santiago) and we're also planning a wine tour for them of the Colchagua Valley, one the best wine regions in all the world. Any would be travelers are more than welcome to follow their lead and come down for a visit and personal tour of the region. Paula has been working at a day camp this month and is presently on the coast in Zapallar.  She is working with children doing arts and crafts and teaching them some English.  They are very young and wandering but it sounds like she is really enjoying the experience.  She also says the area is very beautiful and that's reason enough for me to head up there this weekend for a visit, and because I miss her too. The next time you hear from us will probably be after our trek through Torres del Paine National Park. We'll try to post pics and stories as often as possible as we'll be in many places on and off the road for the month of February. It should be an amazing trip and we look forward to sharing our time with you.
Onward and Upward!  

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Christmas and New Years

Happy 2008 everybody!
It was a hot December here in Chile but we managed to make it feel like Christmas around our apartment.  Paula decorated with popcorn strings and she had some friends over for a day of christmas cookie baking.  We hung socks from our wall and found a little pine tree to put presents around.  
Santa had no problem navigating the southern hemisphere and he brought boots for Paula and a guitar for Sean.  We had an excellent morning drinking irish coffee listening to putamayo christmas songs and opening presents.
For New Years we went to Valparaiso for a couple of days. The sea breeze was a nice change.
We walked around the city breaking in Paula's new boots and taking photos.  The fireworks show there is supposedly one of the best in the world and it didn't disappoint.  We watched them from one of the hills with a great view of the port. There was 5 or 6 different spots where the fireworks went off....from different cities along the coast.  Load and spectacular!  It was a big party in the city afterwards and we walked the streets wishing everyone un feliz ano neuvo.

We celebrated Paula's birthday the next day by going out for a great Thai dinner with our friends Francisco and Marie.  Also a big congratulations to them as they were married on friday!
Now we're getting ready for our big trip to the south.  We leave on feb. 4 so as it quickly approaches we continue to check and revise our list of gear, food, and other preparations.  
It goes without saying we are super excited!

Check out our Flickr link for photos from Valpo and others.