Argentina, Bolivia, Chile

Argentina, Bolivia, Chile
Serene and I spent part of our 2006 winter break in South America again, this time visiting the San Pedro de Atacama area in northern Chile, the Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia, and both the Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia.

Highlights  |  Total images: 30
If you don't have time to look through all our photos, these are our favourites.
San Pedro de Atacama  |  Total images: 20
Our route on LAN was San Francisco to Miami to Santiago to Calama. We arrived at Calama around 5 pm where we shared a cab into town with Veronica and Wilson, a Brazilian couple we met at the airport. From town, we caught the 6 pm Frontera bus to San Pedro where we stayed at Katarpe (which we liked) for the next three nights. On our return to Calama, we took the Tur bus back, which was the same cost but quite a bit more comfortable. Serene and I got along very well with Veronica and Wilson and we collectively reserved tours for the next two days to the Salar de Atacama, Valle de Luna, and Tatio geysers. Ray joined us in San Pedro for the Bolivian Altiplano trip a few days later; we later found out that the airport transfer from Calama to San Pedro for 7000 pesos is a roundtrip fare, which is about the same price for a single traveller taking a cab into Calama followed by a bus to San Pedro.
     We spent our first day in the San Pedro area visiting Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama (contains 40% of the world's lithium reserves) and two altiplano lakes, Laguna Miscanti and Miniques. At the time, we thought these sights were really spectacular, but after visiting the Salar de Uyuni and the altiplano lakes in Bolivia, these sights paled in comparison. On the other hand, we could get relatively close to flamingos in Laguna Chaxa, which we couldn't in Bolivia, and Laguna Miscanti is the deepest shade of blue I've seen in a lake (even compared to Crater Lake), especially when contrasted against the arid dry desert landscape.
     We got up at 4 am the second day to catch sunrise at the El Tatio Geysers. The five hour time difference between the US west coast and Chile was enough to throw our sleep cycle completely off on the second day. 4 am Chilean time is 11 pm Pacific time, which is just about the time we normally go to bed. Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep that night and we were constantly nodding off throughout the day. The Tatio geysers are at 13543 feet and watching the steaming vents at sunrise was worth the trip. The second half of the day was to Valle de Muerte and Valle de Luna. The former had some unearthly scenery but the latter was a little disappointing, although it was quite nice walking along the top of a sand dune with the warm colours of the setting sun lighting up the sand.
Cerro Toco (5604 m / 18385 ft)  |  Total images: 13
On our third day in San Pedro, Serene decided to take a break while I went to scramble up a volcano. I had set my sights on Volcan Sairecabur (5971 m) because it required a more involved scramble and had a spectacular view of Bolivia from the summit. Since I didn't have a car nor local knowledge of the area (the Chilean-Bolivian border is land mined in certain areas, such as around the volcano Licancabur), I went in search of a organized trip to the volcano. Unfortunately, there were no trips available for anything but Cerro Toco (with agency Vulcano), which is an easier scramble than Sairecabur.
     Although not my first choice, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and the views from the summit was spectacular. We were supposed to take an old mining road up to the start of the ridge to begin scrambling, but the road was washed out with soft gravel; our driver, Pedro, had to stop a few miles short and we walked up the wash instead. In all, we (the guide Ivan, and a Belgian couple Vincent and Laurence) scrambled only about 2000 feet up a class 2/3 (upper section is a little sketchy) scree ridge to reach the summit. Never having been this high, I expected to suffer some mild altitude sickness (the only acclimitization I did was sleeping three nights at 8000 feet in San Pedro and going on jeep tours up to 14000 feet), but I surprisingly did not suffer even headaches during this trip. I suspect that I was probably not at altitude long enough for any symptoms of AMS to kick in.
Bolivia  |  Total images: 51
From San Pedro in Chile, we went on a 4 day jeep tour of the Bolivian altiplano organized by Colque tours. The scenery is stunning and quite unique; we would see small herds of Vicuna roaming in an arid high altitude landscape with no humans in sight, and then suddenly arrive at a brightly coloured lake containing thousands of flamingos. Most of the first two days was spent above 14000 feet and we occasionally crossed passes 15000 feet high. The time we spent in Bolivia was the highlight of our trip. The tour was very good value (US $95) and included everything except drinking water. Ray, Serene, and I were fortunate to travel in our jeep with Britta and Daniel, two German students studying in Santiago for the semester, and Doro, our driver.
     Our itinerary was as follows:
     Day 1 - Cross the Bolivian border at Paso Hito Cajones, stopping at Laguna Blanca for breakfast. We changed from a bus to the jeep at Laguna Blanca. From there, we visited the emerald Laguna Verde, the hot springs at Termas de Polques, the Sol de Manana geysers, before stopping at a refugio in the bright red Laguna Colorada. It was quite a sight to see thousands of pink flamingos nesting in the bright red laguna.
     Day 2 - The first stop was to the Arbol de Piedra (the stone tree), then to Laguna Hedionda, through the Valle de Rocas, before stopping at Alota for lunch. After lunch, we went to Laguna Canapa, San Augustin, before stopping for the night at the Colque refugio in Chuvica. At Chuvica, we hiked 800 feet up to an overlook behind the refugio to see Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world (12000 square km).
     Day 3 - We drove through the salar to Isla Pescado (also called Incahuasi) a rock island with giant cacti. In the jeep, the salar felt as smooth as asphalt, which was a welcome change from the dirt roads in the previous days. After Incahuasi, we drove across the salar to Uyuni where we spent a few hours before leaving to spend the night in Alota. We headed back to San Pedro the next day.
Torres del Paine National Park  |  Total images: 40
From Calama, we flew down to Punta Arenas. In Punta Arenas, we bought a few screw top gas canisters for our stove before taking the bus to Puerto Natales, where we stayed the night. The following morning, we left Puerto Natales and reached Torres del Paine around 11. We wanted to backpack the Paine circuit but were told by the rangers that the circuit was closed because of landslides in two areas. Disappointed, we were starting out on the W trek from Refugio las Torres when we ran into a backpacker from Utah on his way out who met several groups of people who'd gotten through the landslide areas safely. Upon learning this, we turned around and started the circuit by heading to Refugio Dickson.
     During our time in the park, the weather was constantly overcast and occasionally rainy, but we were fortunate that the famous sights weren't clouded in and we didn't encounter any torrential rains. Even though I had gotten up for four sunrises and stayed up for every sunset, I didn't manage to get any good photographs then because of clouds on the horizon.
     The trails were in pretty bad shape especially in the back between Camping Seron and Campamento Paso. When we were there, the trails were often very muddy, or washed out, or confusingly marked, or all of the above. The trail got a lot better once we hit the more popular W part of the trail. We'd bought waterproof breathable socks (sealskinz) because we were wearing trail running shoes and they turned out to be quite essential for keeping our feet dry. From what I read before leaving on the trip, I thought that a 4 season tent is essential for Patagonia. On hindsight, I realise that a sturdy 3 season tent is probably sufficient for the Paine circuit because the campamento and refugio campsites (at least the ones we were at) have good wind breaks.
     Our itinerary was as follows :
     Day 1: Refugio las Torres to Refugio Dickson. This day had the heaviest rain during our trip and combined with the low clouds, we didn't get to see much. The day was a real grind because I was carrying 6 days of food for two people, which, together with my photo gear, resulted in a 55 lb pack; after we'd eaten most of the food, my pack felt weightless in comparison. The area near Refugio Dickson is very pretty and it is well worth spending a night at Dickson. The staff at Dickson were very friendly and we enjoyed our stay. We ran into them in Puerto Natales just after we'd returned from the park.
     Day 2: Refugio Dickson to Campamento Paso. This day had the worst trail and best view in Torres. The trail is non-existent for a large section between Camping los Perros and Paso John Gardner because it's basically a large bog. We spent a lot of time figuring out whether we were on the right track and avoiding the knee deep mud. On the other hand, the view as you crest the top of Paso John Gardner and see Glacier Grey for the first time is amazing. This view was easily the best we saw in Torres del Paine and (together with the area around Lago Dickson) makes it worthwhile hiking the circuit instead of just the W. I carelessly left my spectacles on a rock just below the pass and was forced to use the (goofy looking) prescription inserts on my sunglasses as my regular glasses for the rest of the trip.
     Day 3: Campamento Paso to Refugio Grey. We wanted to stay in Refugio Grey to watch icebergs float past and so this was a short day.
     Day 4: Refugio Grey to Campamento Britanico. Valle del Frances is my second favourite sight in Torres del Paine. As we headed up the valley, on our left was Cerro Paine Grande from which we would constantly hear and see avalanches, and on our right were the spectacular Cuernos del Paine. The mirador at the end of the trail has a view of the cirque of towers in the valley, which is amazing as well.
     Day 5: Campamento Britanico to Refugio los Cuernos. We'd heard from an American lady living in Refugio Grey that Refugio los Cuernos had an amazing view so we decided to spend an extra day and stay there. The view is nice but I think she exaggerated the merits of staying in Refugio los Cuernos.
     Day 6: Refugio los Cuernos to Campamento Torres. After setting up our tent at Campamento Torres, we dayhiked up to Campamento Japones and then into the Valle del Silencio, where the Torres climbing routes begin. This hike was based on the recommendation of Mariano, a Chilean guide we met on the trail. The hike into Valle del Silencio is over scree, talus, and boulder fields and was enjoyable as you can get quite close to the sheer walls of the mountains in the valley. The weather turned bad midway through our dayhike so we didn't get much of a view.
     Day 7: Campamento Torres to Refugio las Torres. We woke up early, hoping to see sunrise alpenglow on the Torres del Paine but we had no luck with that. At least we got to see Torres without being shrouded with clouds. This was our last day and we hiked out to catch the shuttle out of the park at Refugio las Torres.
El Chalten, Los Glacieres National Park  |  Total images: 20
Serene and I left for El Chalten the day after returning to Puerto Natales from Torres del Paine; Ray headed home that same day and missed out on a week of great weather. We left Puerto Natales at 830 am on a Cootra bus, arriving at El Calafate around 1 pm, and then caught the Chalten Travel bus at 630 pm, before finally arriving at El Chalten around 11 pm.
     In El Chalten, we stayed at Thiamalu, a small bed and breakfast near the center of town. The proprietress and her husband were very warm and we had a very pleasant stay. We also enjoyed the food at Patagonicus and the ice cream and chocolate at Del Bosque. In general, we enjoyed our time in Argentina more than Chile; the people we met in Argentina were warm, friendly, and Argentina is much cheaper than Chile. It didn't hurt that we had a week of perfect weather in Argentina, which was a welcome change from our time in Torres del Paine. Despite the bright sunny skies, I was again foiled by clouds on the horizon when I tried to get sunrise and sunset alpenglow photos.
     We did an overnight backpacking trip while in El Chalten, spending one night in Campamento Poincenot and hiking up before sunrise to Laguna de los Tres in the hopes of seeing sunrise alpenglow on the Fitzroy massif (foiled again by clouds). While in Poincenot, we hiked to Laguna Piedras Blancas as well. The second day, we hiked the Madre y Hija trail to Laguna Torre before heading back out to El Chalten. Cerro Torre is probably the most spectacular mountain I've seen so far and we were fortunate to see it on a day with clear blue skies. The clear sunny day heated up to a sweltering 90 F / 32 C while we were hiking out.
     While hanging out in El Chalten on our last day there, I met Fabrizio Zangrilli, a veteran of 7 or 8 8000 m peaks, who was there to climb Cerro Torre. Fabrizio was kind enough to spare a few hours and several emails sharing his knowledge of high altitude mountaineering (Thanks Fabrizio!).
Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glacieres National Park  |  Total images: 13
We stayed two nights in El Calafate in the Sir Thomas Hospedaje. We visited the Perito Moreno glacier the day after arriving in El Calafate from El Chalten. This glacier is about 4 km wide and 70 m tall and is one of the few that are still advancing. Because the glacier is still advancing, its face constantly calves off massive icebergs and we got to see some fairly large ones while there. An interesting fact I learnt is that this glacier is on the other side of the mountain from the Dickson glacier in Torres del Paine and they're both branches of the Southern Patagonia Icefield. We also took an hour long boat ride that brings you close to the face of the glacier; the boat ride was surprisingly cheap at US $9 or so. While we were there, the glacier had advanced over the winter to partition the lake into two parts, which has recently been a rare occurence; it last occurred in 1988 and 2004. That night, we had an excellent dinner at Michelangelo, which is next to our hostel, followed by a large amount of gelato at M&M heladoria on the main street. Given how good the food tasted at Michelangelo, we were surprised at the restaurant's emptiness.
Puerto Natales  |  Total images: 4
On our way back to Punta Arenas from El Calafate, we made a last minute decision to break up the bus ride and stay in Concepto Indigo again for another night. I went out at sunset to take some photos and this time, the sunset was not obscured by clouds. We ate again at El Maritimo, which we thought served much better food than La Ultima Esperanza (a fancier restaurant highly recommended in several guidebooks).
Penguins at Seno Otway  |  Total images: 8
From Puerto Natales, we travelled to Punta Arenas where we spent a night before catching our flight back to Santiago the following day. Ray had found a small bed and breakfast (Hostel Danahue on O' Higgins and Colon) the day flying home and we stayed in the same place. It was cheap, clean, and the proprietress was very friendly. We bought both lunch and dinner from a hypermart nearby (Abu Gosch) and brought it back to eat. While in Punta Arenas, we visited Seno Otway, where a colony of about 3000 Magellanic penguins live, where we got really close to baby and adult penguins and recorded some of their noises. Listen to an adult penguin squawk!