A Walk, or Few, in the Park

Sunset in the Park

Our South American adventure started in Southern Chile’s Patagonia in the Torres del Paine National Park. It’s not the easiest place to get to – 24 hours of flights from Mexico City to Punta Arenas, Chile, and then 5 hours of bus rides to get to the park and another 40 minute bus ride to our lodge* – but it was well worth the long journey. It may be the most beautiful place I have ever been. Or maybe that was because I was so happy to be in the mountains again after island living for 2 years. Mountains, glaciers and lakes, oh my!

There are two ways to visit the park: backpack and do one of two multi-day hikes – the circuit or W – or stay in a hotel and take day hikes. As my camping limit is generally 2 nights and I don’t carry gear, we opted for a hotel. There are not many in the park, so we chose the most economical and had low expectations based on the reviews. Once again, my life experiences of rustic Wisconsin cottages served me well as Hosteria Pehoe has seen better days.

The point of the park is not the accommodations, but the views. Hosteria Pehoe had the best hotel views in the park, hands down. Our bartender showed us where to take the path to the scenic view for our first sunset, and the sunrise the next morning was equally spectacular. Even better – sunrise was around 8:15 a.m. My kind of place!

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We were out of hiking shape, but raring to go. On our first day we took a walk on the road to the Salta Chico waterfall and then hiked up to a lookout where we saw soaring condors. It felt great to be back in the mountains.

Day 2 was intended to be our easy day. We were building up to a 12 1/2 mile hike to the base of the Torres that we planned for Thursday, so on Tuesday we arranged to take the boat cruise to Grey Glacier. This is where traveling in a remote place with primitive hospitality services has its drawbacks. The wifi at our lodge wasn’t good enough for us to make the reservation for the cruise. The desk clerk at our lodge assured us that while the cruises were scheduled four times a day, the only one running was at noon and that we would have no problem booking it upon arrival the Hotel Lago Grey, where the boat departs. Unfortunately, she was not willing to make a call to reserve it for us. So we, together with another couple, hired a driver to take us to the Hotel Lago Grey where they informed us that there were no spaces on the noon cruise, but we could get on the 3 pm cruise. As we had 5 hours to kill, our options were to hang around the hotel or to take a hike to a scenic lookout above the lake. Feeling energized by the mountain air, I pushed for the hike.

Early View

The beginning of the hike was pleasant and I was happy with our choice. Then it got steep and I was slogging along. We were hiking with the other couple, and I felt like I was holding everyone back, a feeling I hate. I missed the stability of my hiking poles and regretted pushing for the hike. The other husband bailed while we forged ahead with the wife. Shortly thereafter, a couple of American men overtook us. They were trying to rally me to keep going, but I threw in the towel and Matt elected to descend with me while we sent the other woman off with them.

We cruised back down to the road and then our driver took us to the beginning of the trail for the hike to catch the boat. We trooped across a rocky beach, admired the bobbing icebergs and waited for the Grey III.

What a fun trip! The clouds that had blown in made it all the more interesting when trying to stand on deck in the driving wind. The color of the icebergs was an amazing blue and the glacier was impressive. I was surprised by how close we got to it. I was lucky be on deck to catch a moment of calving – when ice breaks away and falls into the lake. Fantastic!

I was demoralized after my failed hike to the lookout, but the next day we decided to walk to Salto Grande waterfall. Somehow it escaped us that it was an 8 mile walk, which wasn’t exactly our plan for the day before our big hike. But it was another lovely day for a walk.

Finally, the day had come – our hike to the base of the Torres. I was nervous about managing the hike, but I got the lowdown from a family we met who did it the day before us and our driver gave me a pep talk on our way to the start of the trail. We stopped to buy some provisions and then as we prepared to leave, one of my hiking poles was stuck! I was looking at the ridiculously priced gift shop poles, wondering whether it was a sign that I was too out of shape for the hike, when a workman walked by. We asked him for a pliers and he willingly helped us get my pole in order.

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The hike was hard. It was not as steep as the Grey Lake lookout and we were prepared for hiking, but it was not easy. At least not for us – plenty of people practically skipped by us. The hardest part was the end when you are climbing up boulders, sometimes through shallow streams. But it was spectacular – the terrain changed a lot throughout the hike, you could dip your water bottle into the stream for water and the day was fantastic. I am not sure that I will ever be in a landscape so breathtaking again.

On our last day our driver took us on a half day tour of the rest of the park before catching our bus to Calafate, Argentina. We enjoyed strolling on the shores of the beautiful Lago Azul (Blue Lake), admiring the rainbows in the Paine Waterfall and observing the wildlife. We saw so many guanacos on our days in the park that we felt like we had seen 90% of the entire population. I was keeping my eyes open for a puma, but we never spotted one although we enjoyed seeing many lookout guanacos on the hills standing watch for their herds.

Protector

Another grand trip to remember!

* In retrospect, we should have rented a car instead. Despite reading about a “shuttle” there was no public transportation within the park and we paid a small fortune in private transfers.

El Condor Pasa – Cruising the Colca Canyon Part III

Soaring

Soaring

The main reason most people travel to the Colca Canyon is to see the Andean condors soar through the valley and we were no exception. While we enjoyed all of our trip: hikes, homestay, bird watching, hot springs, cave art and more, the main event was watching the condors.

Our guide, Salome, planned the viewing perfectly: we left our hotel at 7:30 to travel to Condor Cross and arrived shortly before 8. Only a few tourists were gathered. The bus tours stay in a town farther away or come from Arequipa, so we were able to sleep in, if you consider getting up at 6:30 am to be sleeping in, and still arrive before the masses.

Salome quickly got us situated in a prime spot she had shown us the previous day and immediately directed our attention downward where 5 condors were gathered (we only spotted 4, but Salome leaned waaay over and saw a fifth). We laughed that none of the other tourists had noticed them and then nicely showed them where the condors were resting.

And then we waited. And waited. We were now inundated with other tourists, but held firm to our prized positions. I bushed off some very rusty Italian and chatted with a friendly, Italian-speaking Swiss tourist. A hawk flew by and got us all excited until we realized it was only a hawk. Then one juvenile condor, followed by a second, took off and began soaring through the valley. It was breathtaking to watch them glide and drift through the canyon on the air currents. Eventually, the adult condors got in on the action and other condors also appeared to provide us excellent, live entertainment.

We Have Lift Off!

We Have Lift Off!

What goes up, must come down…

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After about an hour, we started the short hike to the van. I was delighted with having seen 6 condors at that point, but on our return hike we saw another 8 condors. Every time we stopped watching to walk a bit more, another one or two would appear. We felt incredibly fortunate especially because the Belgians we met at the homestay only saw two condors the day they visited. Lilian later teased us and asked whether we would brag about how many condors we saw if we ran into them in Lake Titicaca. We did not see the Belgians again, so we were not tested.

Our day’s fun was not over. On our way out of the canyon we stopped in Maca to enjoy a colca sour  – a pisco sour made with cactus fruit (sancayo) juice. While I normally skip street food due to a sensitive stomach even after living in Peru, I wasn’t passing up a colca sour! Salome knows the owner, so we also got to see the skull of a family ancestor. They don’t know exactly who the person was but found the skull when tilling the family field. They named it Juan (I think) and treat it respectfully (if charging a small gratuity to see it counts as respect). Note his elongated skull of the Collaguas people.

Maca was set up for tourism, something that gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do not begrudge anyone from making a living, particularly from tasty cocktails, and if we can help drive a local economy, I am happy to do it. On the other hand, there is a fine line between sharing one’s culture and turning it into a tourist trap. Our homestay was a genuine experience, Maca was borderline and Lake Titicaca was the worst of its kind.

After our drink, we visited Santa Ana church. We had visited a handful of mountain churches on our trip, but after the grandeur of the Arequipa churches and monasteries, we were a bit churched-out. Maca’s church had been damaged in an earthquake but still retained much of its spectacular, gold-leafed interior. It also had an impressive display of statues, most with gorgeous embroidered clothing. Salome pointed out the indigenous and Spanish influences in all of these mountain churches. She also told us how the main statues used in processions would get new clothes every year and how families would try to outdo one another with the grandness of the clothing.

Finally, there were these crazy statues in the town square.

Salome tried to ask a local about the action-hero guerrilla on the woman’s back but all the man would say was that the statue wasn’t a correct depiction. When Salome asked what the proper depiction should be or what the folktale was behind the statue, he kept complaining how the statue wasn’t done correctly. Eventually she gave up, but Matt and I felt vindicated. We feel like we have these bizarre conversations often in Spanish and always attribute it to our lack of language skills. But no, sometimes people just spend a lot of effort repeating the same non- answer over and over again!

We left Maca and made our way out of the canyon with one final scenic stop to view the mountains. Then we were on to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca where Salome and Lilian left us to make their long drive back to Arequipa to be home in time for the obligatory elections the next day. What a great trip we had with them!