I order off the menu a pumpkin salad
I order off the menu a pumpkin salad
A bit of a strange routing to begin with
A bit of a strange routing to begin with
Huge bathroom!
Huge bathroom!
Aug 152011
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!

After a couple of well-spent days in Kota Kinabalu we pushed west to the biggest attraction on Borneo: Mount Kinabalu.  The mountain, one of SE Asia’s highest, tops out at 13,435ft (4,095m) and this is made even more impressive by the fact that there aren’t any other peaks of comparable size in the area.  A short two-hour van ride was all that was needed to reach the park from KK.

Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.

Climbing the mountain is why many tourists visit Borneo but Amy and I were quickly turned-off to that idea because of the cost and because neither of us really fancied a two or three day slog up the mountain.  After paying for permits, guides and accommodations we were looking at around US$300 per person for the climb.  Instead, we stuck to the trails around the base of the mountain which still gave us a nice taste of the local wildlife.

Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights

For sleeping arrangements, we stayed at the Kinabalu Mountain which is about 2km from the park entrance.  Inside the park there are a whole range of accommodations that were just above our price range.   Rather recently a hospitality company secured an exclusive contract covering all the in-park housing and dining options and this seems to have driven prices up drastically.  Even the cheaper restaurant in the park was charging RM50 (about $17) for a barely passable lunch buffet!  No thanks.

Despite the hordes of climbers buzzing around park HQ all day, it was surprisingly easy to get away from everyone by hiking some of the lesser-known trails in the immediate vicinity.  We had read that there was a very informative guided tour led on some of these trails.  Honestly though, we were quite disappointed.  The walk was very brief (40 minutes) and the tour group was quite large.  Hiking on our own was a much better.

In addition to hiking around the park, I found some great bird watching right at our lodge.  The  lodge has a nice big front porch that overlooks the valley and all sorts of birds pass through at various times of day.  I didn’t do so well with identifying them but I did manage to capture photos of a few.

One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby

The evenings at the lodge were also quite entertaining.  As soon as the sun goes down all sorts of insects wake up and start their day.  I saw dozens of different types of moths as well as a few different giant beetles.  I have never seen such huge insects before!

The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”


Mount Kinabalu
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
They have some big bugs in these parts!
They have some big bugs in these parts!
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center.  Close to a foot long.
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center. Close to a foot long.
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
One has to be careful of these while hiking.  Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
One has to be careful of these while hiking. Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus  leucophaeus)
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby
Broadbeak?
Broadbeak?
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Fog rolls in from time to time.
Fog rolls in from time to time.


The Pampas

Bolivia Comments Off
Jul 112011

Second to Madidi Park, the most popular attraction for visitors to Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s vast grasslands known as The Pampas.  A guided tour seemed to be the way to go so we organized one from Rurre and it came to about $145 for a two-day, one-night tour – quite pricey for Bolivia!  The guy at the tour company, a real slick used car salesman type, told us that we had to meet at the office at 8:30AM sharp the next day for our departure.  He said we needed to make sure that we left on time to beat the other companies and to avoid the dust.  Certainly an intriguing reason for an on-time departure.

After a restless night of sleep in one of the dumpier room offerings in Rurre we walked over to the tour company for our 8:30 appointment.  A small SUV was waiting for us and there was a bit of commotion as the guide’s underlings strapped stuff to the luggage rack.  The salesman neglected to inform us that there was very little space in the vehicle so I had to quickly pull some essentials from my pack before storing it in the company office.

The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?

Leaving Rurre the road quickly went from pavment to cobblestone to dirt.  The next 50 miles of bumpy road looked as if it was made of ground-up brown chalk and each passing vehicle, pedestrian, and cow stirred up an impressive amount of the stuff.  The calm winds that morning made the dust just linger over the road and many many times our driver plunged our vehicle into dust clouds we couldn’t see through.  Three hours to go 50 miles – yep, still in Bolivia.

An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.

At the camp near San Rosa, our guide told us that there would be a bit of a delay before our rooms and lunch were ready.  He suggested that we go relax in the hammocks for a bit.  Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour before lunch was served.  After lunch the guide told us that our first boat trip into the Pampas would start at approximately 4pm.  At this point Amy and I were pretty frustrated with this tour company.  We booked a two-day tour and we burned almost the entire first day in a car or hammock.

After the lengthy siesta we loaded up in one of the motorized canoes and headed up the river to see the pink river dolphins.  The winding river was flanked by short water-loving trees and there were large wading birds everywhere we looked.  The terrain reminded me of the Florida Everglades but the density of wildlife was seemingly much higher.

Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)

It wasn’t long before we spotted some capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, as well as some monkeys.  The capybaras, which top out at around 100 pounds, were surprisingly calm around us photo-snapping tourists.  At one point Amy got within just a few feet of one that was grazing on the riverbank.

Pink river dolphins, too, were easy to find but photographing them proved difficult.  They would frequently break the surface with their fins and snouts but it was next to impossible to predict when and where they would come up next.  We were given the option to swim with them but Amy and I declined and left that to the two Australians that were with us.

The next morning we were up early for our second boat ride on the river.  With howler monkeys howling away in the distance we loaded into the boat just before the sun came up.  A short while into our ride we heard something crashing through the trees along the river.  Our guide pulled over to the side and before we knew it yellow squirrel monkeys were running around on our boat.  Unfortunately, some of the tour groups feed the monkeys so as soon as they see a tour boat they jump on board and look for food.  They must have been disappointed in us though because we didn’t give them any more than stares.  One of them managed to catch and devour a huge water bug while we were stopped.  Crunch, crunch, crunch!

Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect

The variety of birds that we saw during the ride was absolutely incredible.  All sorts of herons and ibis plus a few storks and spoonbills as well.  Rounding each corner of the snaking river revealed more and more birds.  Equally plentiful were the caiman sunning themselves along the banks.

By midday we had all had enough of the boat riding.  Hours in a rickety metal seat in the blaring sun was enough and we were happy to return back to the camp.  After a quick lunch we loaded up in another vehicle (this time even more packed) to make the three hour trip to Rurre.

Black Caiman
Black Caiman

All in all, I would say that the Pampas are a great place to visit if you want to see lots of wildlife in a hurry.  By Bolivian standards, the tour was very pricy and it makes me wonder how much money one could save by traveling independently to San Rosa and arranging boat trips from there.  The next post will be my last on Bolivia and then the blog will take a turn for the South Pacific!

The Pampas
The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Cappuccino monkey
Cappuccino monkey
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Oropendola nests
Oropendola nests
Tropical comorant
Tropical comorant
Caracara and friend
Caracara and friend
Caracara
Caracara
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey
Yellow squirrel monkey
Monkey on the boat!
Monkey on the boat!
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Black Caiman
Black Caiman
Caiman
Caiman

Jun 302011
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)

On our second day of the park tour we left the San Miguel de Bala community and headed up river to Madidi National Park.  After about 30 minutes of motoring we stopped at a small hut along the bank of the river that serves as the park ranger station.  We paid our entry fee (125 Bs, $18) and continued to the point where the Rio Tuiche branches off from the Rio Beni.  Despite the recent flooding there were many shallow areas along the way and it was entertaining to watch our guide fight his way around the rocky spots.

White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)

Eventually we pulled up along a rather nondescript section of the river bank and unloaded our bags. Our guide told us that he could smell chanchos (wild pigs) and that we might get to see them.  Sure enough, after we walked the half-mile to the ecolodge we came upon a group of a couple of dozen milling around the camp – talk about stinky!

We spent a total of two nights at the ecolodge in the park.  The accommodations were a little less sophisticated than what we had in the community but let’s face it – we were in the middle of the jungle.  The sleeping area consisted of a building divided into three rooms and the bathroom was a separate hut with running water.

Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin.  Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin. Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)

The main activity at the ecolodge was going on hikes through the surrounding jungle.  Over the two days we completed 5 or 6 hikes with our guide who had an uncanny ability to spot, smell and hear animals.  On our first walk through the woods we darted off the path after he heard the high-pitched whistling sound of a saddle-backed tamarin.  We eventually caught up to the small primate but he (or she?) was still really difficult to see high in the canopy.

Poison frog
Poison frog

Even though the monkeys and colorful birds are the most popular sights among tourists I found the smaller wildlife equally interesting.  Everywhere you look there are strange types of insects, lizards, plants and fungi on just about every surface.  Our guide pointed out a nest of bullet ants which are inch-long insects that get their name from the pain associated with their bite.  One of the teenagers at the community mentioned that he had been bit by one and spent the subsequent hours weeping in agonizing pain from the bite.  The Wikipedia article on the subject states “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours.” Note to self: avoid bullet ants.

Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway

The famous leaf-cutter ants were good fun to watch.  Spotting them is easy: you just look for the foot-wide river of leaves floating along the ground.  The pieces they carry dwarf the ants themselves.  Did you know that leaf-cutter ants are farmers?  They take the leaves back to their nests where they decompose and serve as fertilizer for a fungus that the ants in turn consume.

We found plenty of feathered friends in the jungle.  The toucans were a favorite and we came across the channel-billed variety on a couple of different occasions.  There were also various birds of prey, woodpeckers, water birds, etc.  Check out the thumbnail pictures below for more birds.

Male howler monkey
Male howler monkey

Monkey-wise the jungle treated us well.  It took about five walks and lots of effort but eventually we found some howler monkeys.  Hearing them is simple since their calls carry for miles through the jungle but getting close enough to see them through the dense foliage is another matter.  On our last day, as if out of spite, a large group of them came straight to the ecolodge and hung out in the canopy eating leaves for a couple of hours.  The males are strikingly large compared to the females.

So that wraps up our visit to Madidi National Park.  We returned to Rurre in the boat on our forth day and worked on booking the next adventure.  Heading the other direction from Rurre it is possible to visit Bolivia’s Pampas or grasslands.  It is an area not too different from the Florida Everglades that is chock full of birds, caiman, and monkeys.  More on that in the next post.

Madidi National Park – Part 2
Bullet ants
Bullet ants
Tayra (Eira barbara) tracks.  This critter sort of looks like an otter.
Tayra (Eira barbara) tracks. This critter sort of looks like an otter.
Our first capybara sighting
Our first capybara sighting
Macaws
Macaws
Orinono geese (neochen jubata)
Orinono geese (neochen jubata)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
Solar panels and papayas
Solar panels and papayas
Fresh papaya juice in the making
Fresh papaya juice in the making
Poison frog
Poison frog
Some sort of turkey
Some sort of turkey
Some of the local plants are traditionally used as skin pigments
Some of the local plants are traditionally used as skin pigments
Vine snake?
Vine snake?
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin.  Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin. Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Massive trees!
Massive trees!
Termites: They prefer to travel in these mud tunnels.
Termites: They prefer to travel in these mud tunnels.
Two beetles rolling a ball of mud (dung?)
Two beetles rolling a ball of mud (dung?)
Taking pictures of mushrooms
Taking pictures of mushrooms
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Walking Tree - these trees can actually move themselves!
Walking Tree – these trees can actually move themselves!
Owl butterfly
Owl butterfly
Baby tarantula
Baby tarantula
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Footprint of a jaguar
Footprint of a jaguar
Female howler monkey
Female howler monkey
Male howler monkey
Male howler monkey
Macaws
Macaws

Jun 132011
Our guide
Our guide

Visiting Madidi National Park is a multi-day process once one makes it to Rurrenabaque.  Wandering the streets of Rurre we passed dozens and dozens of agencies offering tours of the park.  We had read online that it was best to avoid the cheapest options in order to get a responsible company that treats both the park and the animals ethically.  We also heard recommendations for a number of community-run park tours: Chalalán, San Miguel de Bala and one other.

In the end we selected San Miguel de Bala.  While the Chalalán eco-lodge is the best known, it is a long five-hour boat ride from Rurre and was also quite pricey at over $400 per person for a four-day inclusive tour.  San Miguel de Bala’s pricing was lower ($300 per person, 4-day inclusive) and their jungle lodge is only about 2.5 hours by boat from Rurre.  The specific tour that we booked allowed us to stay in their village for the first night (about an hour upriver from Rurre) and then the second and third nights in their jungle lodge off the Tuiche River inside of Madidi National Park.

We departed from Rurre at about 8:30 in the morning on Day 1 and made the quick trip up to San Miguel de Bala.  The lodge was actually a collection of buildings on stilts.  There was a kitchen/dining building and a communal gathering building that were quite close to the banks of the river.  The guest cabins, which each  have their own bathroom, are further up the mountainside.

Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala

After we settled in to our nicely appointed bungalow, we headed off with our guide Simon to see his hometown – the village of San Miguel de Bala.  The village is home to about 30 familes of Tacana Indians and is a short walk down the river from the eco-lodge.  Simon showed us his childhood home, the homes of some of his siblings as well as the village’s church and school.  At one point we stopped to squeeze some sugar cane juice which we mixed with fresh lime – exceptionally tasty!

Squeezing sugarcane
Squeezing sugarcane

At the end of the village tour, one of the community’s dugout canoes picked us up at the village and took us to the eco-lodge for lunch.  The tourist facilities are quite large at San Miguel – I think they can host upwards of 40 or 50 guests but that day Amy and I were the only ones.  Following proper Latin American procedure, we climbed  in the hammocks for a short siesta after lunch.

Siesta time!
Siesta time!

The afternoon tour was to a rock canyon that is about 20 minutes down the river.  The canyon was only about 2-3 feet wide and was filled with bats.  Between the bats, the worms and the huge spiders it was definitely pretty high on my list of creepy-crawly places!  We also got to see some nice birds in the boat along the way.  All in all, a good first day on the tour!

King Vulture
King Vulture


Madidi National Park – Part 1
The booming metropolis of Rurrenabaque
The booming metropolis of Rurrenabaque
Setting out on the 90-minute boat ride from Rurre to San Miguel de Bala
Setting out on the 90-minute boat ride from Rurre to San Miguel de Bala
Jumping fish
Jumping fish
Leaf cutter ants
Leaf cutter ants
The center of the village: football field, school, church.
The center of the village: football field, school, church.
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Squeezing sugarcane
Squeezing sugarcane
Refreshing sugarcane with lime.
Refreshing sugarcane with lime.
Rigging a trap to smash some chanchos (wild pigs)
Rigging a trap to smash some chanchos (wild pigs)
Siesta time!
Siesta time!
The river is thick with fish.
The river is thick with fish.
A spider for ever rock along the river bank.
A spider for ever rock along the river bank.
Buzzards and their king fighting over a couple catfish carcasses
Buzzards and their king fighting over a couple catfish carcasses
King Vulture
King Vulture
I am a giant (with awesome boots)!
I am a giant (with awesome boots)!
The entrance to the rock canyon
The entrance to the rock canyon
Bats
Bats
Our guide
Our guide


May 262011
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada

Day 3 started with a visit to Laguna Colorada a short 10km from where we stayed the night before.  The laguna is one of the largest flamingo habitats in the world and three of the six species of flamingos feed here.  Like just about everything else on this tour, the lake sits at high altitude (4,270m).

James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos

We spent about an hour marveling at the flamingos and the nonstop chatter with one another.  There are three distinct species that live in this lake but they can be tricky to tell them apart.  To be honest, I am not really sure which of the three we saw.  One group was definitely the James’s Flamingo but who knows about the other two types (Chilean and Andean).

After Laguna Colorada we drove to the overly famous Arbol de Piedra.  It’s a big rock that has been eroded away at the bottom and looks vague (very vaguely) like a tree.  Like all the other tourists, we stopped and took photos wherein we pretend that it is about to fall on us.

Driving northward from the Arbol de Piedra, we passed a string of five high-altitude lagunas.  I tried to take panoramic photos of them but only three of them worked out.  By the fifth lagoon everyone in the jeep had that “oh boy, another laguna…” sarcasm about them but, in retrospect, they were all incredibly spectacular.  One tends to lose track of how incredible the landscape really is when faced with it day in and day out.

Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa

Our lunch stop was in another rock-littered valley, conveniently named the Valle de las Rocas, that was also home to a bunch of viscacha.  Chasing them about to get good photos proved to be quite a challenge.

Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!

A couple hours after lunch we rolled into the town of San Cristóbal.  We stopped right in the center and had a brief walk around.  My first impression of the place was “Civilization!  My money is actually good here…I could BUY something if I wanted to.”  I guess that is pretty normal after three days out in the middle of nowhere.  San Cristóbal is a mining town and is home to Bolivia’s largest mine.  Workers at the mine work 12 hour shifts for three months straight (no weekends off) and then get two weeks of leave.  A hard life that must be.

Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.

Colchani, a small town with about 500 people, was our resting place for the third night.  The town is located on the shore of the Salar de Uyuni and seems to eek out its existence on tourist dollars and salt production.  Our accommodations for the night were in a lodge made almost entirely out of salt.  The walls were salt, the floor was salt, and the beds were salt.  Pretty weird.  The main downside was that there was no running water which meant we were on our way to our fouth showerless day!

Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Southwest Circuit Day 3
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo footprints
Flamingo footprints
James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa
Valle de las Rocas
Valle de las Rocas
Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!
This is the “condor rock.”  I like the real ones better.
This is the “condor rock.” I like the real ones better.
A brief stop in a real town!  San Cristobal
A brief stop in a real town! San Cristobal
Lots of salt in these parts
Lots of salt in these parts
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Our room at the salt lodge.  Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.
Our room at the salt lodge. Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.

May 142011

Day 3 in San Pedro was another early morning for us.  We had booked a tour to the lagunas altiplanicas and the flamingo reserve through Cosmo Andino tours.  They picked us up around 7AM and we drove about an hour to Los Flamencos National Reserve.  The reserve is divided into a number of different sections but the first encompasses Laguna Chaxa and the surrounding salt flat (Salar de Atacama).

Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world

It wasn’t long before we spotted some flamingos from a pretty long distance (good thing I had my telephoto lens).  As a Floridian, I always knew that the idea of flamingos in the tropics was pure hogwash.  That said, seeing a flock of them feeding in a lake at 7,500ft above sea level really drove the point home!  Another interesting fact about the Salar de Atacama is that it is the world’s largest reserve of lithium.  Something like 30% of the world’s supply of the metal comes from the salar so, if you are reading this blog on laptop or phone, there is a good chance your batteries have material from the salar!

Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo

After a light breakfast at the reserve we headed to the village of Socaire to have a look around.  The quiet village survives on farming and has a couple of nice churches made of adobe.

Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques were the next stop after Socaire.  These brackish lakes lie at 4,300m (14,000ft) and have a mirror-like surface most days.  The lakes are home to a number of different bird species so it is not possible to approach the shoreline.  I was impressed by the fact that there were actually park rangers present to enforce these rules.

Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

The final laguna on the tour was the Salar de Aguas Calientes which has a nice blue lake flanked by some strange red rocks.  We had a nice lunch (vegetarian friendly as well!) at this spot and did our best to capture the other-worldly colors of the terrain.

Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour

On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at the village of Toconao.  This was a welcome stop as it took over 2 hours from our lunch stop.  The village is situated along a river which makes it the wettest place in the driest desert in the world.  There are many farms in Toconao but unfortunately we didn’t get to see much as most of them were swept away by a flood earlier in the year.

All in all, we were very happy with Cosmo Andino the operator of all three of our tours (Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna, and Lagunas Altiplánicas).  The guides were knowledgeable and spoke fluent English, the food was plentiful and the vehicles were in good condition.  We paid 67,500 CLP (about $135) per person for all three tours together.  This price was a slight discount over the posted prices because we booked all three tours at the same time.  Another tip for other travelers would be to book late in the day as the tour companies are keen to fill the remaining seats in their vehicles.

Lagunas Altiplánicas
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world
Three of the world's five species of flamingo
Three of the world’s five species of flamingo
Andean Flamingo
Andean Flamingo
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo
Buildings in Socaire
Buildings in Socaire
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
A pisco sour to end the day.
A pisco sour to end the day.

Shortly after arrival at Tatio.  It is 6:20am and -15C.
Shortly after arrival at Tatio. It is 6:20am and -15C.

We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get picked up for our tour of the Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world. It was dark and cold and we drove for an hour and a half to get the to geyser field.  Our guide and driver prepared breakfast while took photos and waited for the sun to rise.  The geyers sit at 4,321m (14,176.5 ft) so we were both a little winded due to the thin air.  The main reason all the tours visit the geyseys for sunrise is because you can see the steam the best.

After the sun had come up we departed for our second stop, a hot stream fed by water from the geysers. I was too cold to get in the water. Instead, Amy and I dipped our frozen tootsies in the water. It was hot!  Our guide said it was about 35 degrees Celsius.

One of the warm rivers near the geyser field where swimming is possible.
One of the warm rivers near the geyser field where swimming is possible.

We drove some more and got out to walk along the Río Putana. There we saw several types of birds. We also had a great view of Volcano Licancabur.

Our final stop was a hillside covered in cacti. We learned that due to the extreme climate in the Atacama, they only grow about 1cm per year.  That puts the 5m high cacti that we saw at 500 years old!  We hiked into a canyon to see plenty more cacti and a small waterfall.

Our tour ended at 2pm and we were dead tired. We went back to our guesthouse to rest up for another tour we had that night.  A French astronomer has setup a small observatory just outside of San Pedro (in Solor) and he hosts star tours.  The only picture we have from that night was one that Amy took of Saturn through one of the telescopes.  Due to the high altitude and thin dry air, the view of the stars was stunning.

The only picture we have from our star tour.  Saturn!
The only picture we have from our star tour. Saturn!
Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama
Just after takeoff from Santiago.  Sunrise over the Andes
Just after takeoff from Santiago. Sunrise over the Andes
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
The humorously short A320 variant...the A318
The humorously short A320 variant…the A318
Predeparture snack.  Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Predeparture snack. Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Those are some big tires!  Mining is big in this area.
Those are some big tires! Mining is big in this area.
Desolation
Desolation
The ruins of some town.
The ruins of some town.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro

One of the biggest attractions in southern Chile is Torres del Paine National Park.  Most visitors to the park complete multi-day treks such as “the W” and “the circuit” but, being short on time and perhaps toughness, we opted for a simple day tour ($40 per person) of the park’s highlights.  After a hearty breakfast at the Yaganhouse hostel in Puerto Natales a bus picked us up at the dark hour of 7:30am.  We were the first ones to board and, consequently, were able to snag the two front seats.

The huge mouth of the cavern.  Amy pictured at center.
The huge mouth of the cavern. Amy pictured at center.

On the drive north to the park, we made a very short stop at Milodón Cave.  The milodón is an extinct giant ground sloth and apparently the remains of quite a few of them were found in this cave.  We believe it is Puerto Natales’ claim to fame as its silhouette is depicted on all the town’s street signs.  Oh, and there is also a giant metal statue along the road into town.  The cave was nice enough (it is impressively large) but perhaps not worth the 6 USD entry fee since we were only there for 30 minutes.

Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lagoon) has extremely high mineral and salt content.
Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lagoon) has extremely high mineral and salt content.

Before we reached the park we started to see large herds of guanaco, a few ñandu and we managed to catch our first glimpses of the spectacular mountains.  Before reaching the guardhouse we stopped at Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lagoon) a stunning turquoise-colored lake tinted by the heavy mineral content.  Unlike most of the other lakes in the park, this one is “closed” meaning it has no outflows of water.  The continuous evaporation makes the water six times saltier than sea water and the banks are crusted with white salt.

We paid our entrance fee (30 USD for non-residents) and drove onward to Lago Nordenskjold.  Before unloading at the mirador, our guide warned us numerous times about the strong winds.  Sure enough, we jumped off the bus and before I knew it Amy was chasing her glasses which had been ripped from her face.  The winds that day were in excess of 100kph and we heard later that some climbers had been blown off one of the peaks.

Hosteria Pehoé
Hosteria Pehoé

A couple of stops later we checked out the very scenic location for Hosteria Pehoé in the middle of Lago Pehoé.  We took a lunch break at a small tourist village outside the park.  Some of the people on the tour had their meals included, however, we budget-sensitive travelers had packed our own food.  They still let us eat in the restaurant and enjoy the spectacular views.

Lago Grey
Lago Grey

Our final scheduled stop was at Lago Grey on the western end of the park.  Lago Grey has a wide stony beach and, on a clear day, a view of the Gray Glacier some 10+ km away.  Unfortunately, the high winds that day were kicking up so much mist from the water that we could scarcely make out the glacier.  We were able to spot some electric blue icebergs.  One upside to the mist was that it produced a very nice rainbow over the beach.

A rainbow over Lago Grey.  Made possible by the mist being kicked up by the ferocious winds.
A rainbow over Lago Grey. Made possible by the mist being kicked up by the ferocious winds.

On the way home, as a final treat, we managed to spot an Andean Condor.  These birds have the largest wingspan of any land bird at 10.5 ft.  They aren’t all that rare, however, it is pretty uncommon to see one up close and I was very happy that we had those front bus seats so that I could hop out and snap a photo.

Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Torres del Paine National Park
The sloth (milodón) cavern
The sloth (milodón) cavern
The huge mouth of the cavern.  Amy pictured at center.
The huge mouth of the cavern. Amy pictured at center.
A to-scale milodón
A to-scale milodón
Many farms surround Torres del Paine
Many farms surround Torres del Paine
We had the best seats on the bus.
We had the best seats on the bus.
The torres (towers) from afar.
The torres (towers) from afar.
Guanacos
Guanacos
Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lagoon) has extremely high mineral and salt content.
Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lagoon) has extremely high mineral and salt content.
Amy enjoying the wind-free comfort of the inside of our bus.
Amy enjoying the wind-free comfort of the inside of our bus.
Amy trying not to be blown away by the 100+ kph gusts
Amy trying not to be blown away by the 100+ kph gusts
Salto Grande
Salto Grande
Hosteria Pehoé
Hosteria Pehoé
Short gnarly trees are everwhere in the park
Short gnarly trees are everwhere in the park
A rainbow over Lago Grey.  Made possible by the mist being kicked up by the ferocious winds.
A rainbow over Lago Grey. Made possible by the mist being kicked up by the ferocious winds.
Lago Grey
Lago Grey
Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Andean Condor
Andean Condor

Apr 072011

San Martín de los Andes proved to be a smaller and quieter version of Bariloche.  Like Bariloche, it is situated on the bank of a nice blue lake and is completely surrounded by pine-covered mountains.  I guess it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the surrounding forests and parks are the main attraction.

A photo of me taking a photo.
A photo of me taking a photo.

On our first morning we climbed the Mirador Bandurrias for a view of the town and the far eastern end of Lake Lácar.  It is an easy 45 minute hike from the edge of town once you find the trailhead.  There are a couple houses near the top and an old lady that charges you a couple of pesos to enter (private property?) but it is certainly worth it.  The views were spectacular and the old ladies’ goats were also fun to watch.  I gave one a crab apple that I found on the trail and he seemed very pleased with it.

Volcán Lanín - 3776m
Volcán Lanín – 3776m

Later that day we hopped in the car and drove north to Lago Huechulafquen to get a peek at the Lanín volcano.  It was late in the day so we opted to not enter the park (around $12 per person) but were still able to see it from the windy shore of the lake.

On day 2 in San Martín we headed west on a dirt road that hugs the north shore of Lago Lácar.  The road goes all the way to Chile but we only wanted to go as far as Yuco Park to check out the lake shore.  We rolled into the park in our tiny Chevy Corsa and discovered a couple dozen other vehicles in the parking area: all of them were SUVs.  At first I thought that perhaps I had misjudged the quality of the road on the way in (it was dry and mostly downhill).

Arrayanes trees
Arrayanes trees

It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when we came across a group of 40 or so American/Canadian tourists, that I put two and two together.  Their guides were packing up their fancy catered lunch and they were all piling back into their SUVs.  The way I had it figured, they were each traveling two to a vehicle.  That’s an environmentally conscious way to tour a national park.  Either way, after the group left we had the place more or less to ourselves.  It was gorgeous.

San Martín de los Andes
The town as viewed from the mirador.  A short 45 minute walk from the center.
The town as viewed from the mirador. A short 45 minute walk from the center.
...and the view in the other direction down Lake Lácar.
…and the view in the other direction down Lake Lácar.
A photo of me taking a photo.
A photo of me taking a photo.
San Martín has a nice selection of dogs.  Here is a particularly furry model.
San Martín has a nice selection of dogs. Here is a particularly furry model.
The central plaza (either Sarmiento or San Martín, I can't remember which.)
The central plaza (either Sarmiento or San Martín, I can’t remember which.)
They have strange pine trees in these parts.
They have strange pine trees in these parts.
Volcán Lanín - 3776m
Volcán Lanín – 3776m
La costa de Lago Huechulafquen
La costa de Lago Huechulafquen
The next day back on Lago Lácar
The next day back on Lago Lácar
Arrayanes trees
Arrayanes trees
More arrayanes trees
More arrayanes trees
Our own private beach
Our own private beach
A hummingbird!  Check out what happens when he turns his head...
A hummingbird! Check out what happens when he turns his head…
Yep, it is red when viewed from the front.  Same bird.
Yep, it is red when viewed from the front. Same bird.
The view from our room at Siete Flores Hosteria.  Got this place for $40/night thanks to a groupon deal in BsAs.
The view from our room at Siete Flores Hosteria. Got this place for $40/night thanks to a groupon deal in BsAs.
Killer breakfast with all sorts of locally made jams.
Killer breakfast with all sorts of locally made jams.


One final post on Bahia Bustamante before the blog moves on to the mountains of Bariloche.  We spent our last day at Bahia exploring the nearby peninsula in our tiny VW Gol.  The terrain on the peninsula is quite varied: scrub land, sand dunes and tidal pools.  There are also three landing strips, a solar-powered lighthouse and the ruins of many small buildings.  The pictures below tell the story better than I can so I will just leave it at that!

It was sad to leave Bahía Bustamante but we had a bus to catch later that night from Comodoro Rivadavia.  From a backpackers standpoint, Bahía Bustamante was definitely a splurge ($110/night plus rental car expenses) but we felt that it was certainly worth each and every centavo.  We would highly recommend it to other travelers!

Bahía Bustamante – Day 3
Bahía Busttamante from the peninsula
Bahía Busttamante from the peninsula
Our rental car on the landing strip.
Our rental car on the landing strip.
Ñandú, sheep and guanacos!
Ñandú, sheep and guanacos!
Rush hour!
Rush hour!

 

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