Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
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.


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.

Valle de la Luna

Chile Comments Off
May 122011

We enjoyed sleeping in on our second day in San Pedro.  The only tour we had lined up for the day was an evening excursion to some of the nearby rock formations.

Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte

The first stop on the tour was to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) to see some nice canyons and sand dunes.  Some of the large sand dunes are formed against the stone cliffs.  We hiked a little ways along one of the stone cliffs and then walked/ran down the dunes barefoot.  The pictures don’t really convey the size of these dunes but I would say that they were close to 200ft tall!

After the dunes we walked down a narrow rock canyon and explored a small cave.  The rocks along the canyon walls make an eerie popping noise due to thermal expansion/contraction.  Another interesting spectacle in the canyon was the salt crystals that coat the walls.

The final stop on the tour was the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) for sunset.  We hiked along a ridgeline to get a nice view of the mountains and the crazy colors made by the setting sun.

Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte
Walking/running/jumping down the dunes
Walking/running/jumping down the dunes
Not as clean as they were when the trip started!
Not as clean as they were when the trip started!

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 162011

Chile is a big country.  It is certainly possible to travel by bus but distances are absolutely vast.  Before I left on my RTW trip I researched mileage redemption options within Chile in hopes of finding a cheaper and more comfortable way around.  As it turns out, British Airways has a very generous mileage award for travel within Chile.Chile award routing courtesy of gcmap.com

Easter Island has long been on my list of places to see and, being part of Chile, is accessible using this British Airways award on their partner, LAN Chile.  At the suggestion of some friends I decided to see just how far I could stretch one of these tickets.  Surprisingly, the agents at BA allowed me to piece together a very elongated routing (over 7,500 miles!) that would not only allow me to visit Easter Island but also the far south of Chile.  20,000 miles and $59 in taxes later it was ticketed.

The first flight on this ticket was from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas in Region XII of Chile.  It is a relatively short two-hour flight and, provided it is clear, you are treated to spectacular views of fjords, mountains and glaciers.  Upon arrival in Punta Arenas we immediately made our way to the bus terminal to catch a bus north to Puerto Natales which is the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park.

Chiloé to Puerto Natales

 

4-lane highways.  Welcome to Chile!
4-lane highways. Welcome to Chile!

The day after our trip to El Bolsón it was time for us to cross the Andes to a new country for the both of us – Chile! One of the classic ways to cross is the famous “cruce de lagos” which is a full day of switching between buses and boats as you trace your way across the mountain range.  Unfortunately, this trip is quite expensive and from what we read the quality of the experience is highly weather dependent.  To save some precious pesos we bought a Bariloche to Puerto Montt bus ticket for about 30USD each from the ever-present Via Bariloche.

A foggy morning at the top of Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass.
A foggy morning at the top of Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass.

I had visions in my mind of a harrowing 14,000ft mountain pass on a gravel road but in reality the Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass is pretty tame: below 1300 meters and beautiful tarmac the whole way.  About an hour of the journey is spent on border formalities and most of that was on the Chilean side.  Chile is very protective of their agriculture and import bans on fruits, vegetables and animal products are strictly-enforced.  At the border they completely unloaded the bus and ran all the bags through the xray.  Meanwhile they have a working dog sniffing the ins and outs of the bus.  It was impressively thorough, I have to say.

Our bus on our boat.
Our bus on our boat.

Within thirty minutes of our arrival in Puerto Montt we were already on another bus headed south to Ancud on Chiloé Island.  The total journey (8 USD) takes about three hours and maybe 30 minutes of this are spent on a drive-on, drive-off ferry.  Cruz del Sur, the bus company, also operates the ferries so the timing is nicely orcestrated and wait times are minimal.  The water crossing was smooth and we even managed to spot a few penguins.  We pulled into Ancud around 5PM and made our way to an excellent hostel (Hostal Mundo Nuevo) on the waterfront that was to be our home for the next three nights.

Dinner at the hostel.
Dinner at the hostel.


Bariloche to Chiloé Island
A foggy morning at the top of Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass.
A foggy morning at the top of Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass.
Amy crashed out on the bus to Puerto Montt.
Amy crashed out on the bus to Puerto Montt.
4-lane highways.  Welcome to Chile!
4-lane highways. Welcome to Chile!
Our bus on our boat.
Our bus on our boat.
Penguins!
Penguins!
Pulling in to port on Chiloé
Pulling in to port on Chiloé
Hostal Mundo Nuevo - a wonderful waterfront hostel in Ancud
Hostal Mundo Nuevo – a wonderful waterfront hostel in Ancud
Dinner at the hostel.
Dinner at the hostel.


Apr 092011

We woke up way too early to catch an 8 o’clock bus to El Bolsón.  The small hippy town is a couple hours south of Bariloche and is known for its thrice-weekly market.  We had to take a taxi to the bus station because we couldn’t find a collectivo going the right direction.  There were plenty going in the opposite direction, much to my annoyance.

We had seats right up front which allowed us to enjoy the 20 or so feet of visibility thanks to a thick morning fog.  The driver seemed to have things well under control though and we arrived safely right on schedule at 10AM.  The market was supposed to start at 10AM but since this is a hippy town and an Argentine town, the schedule was a bit more flexible.

Amy had a vegetarian (calabaza) milanesa sandwich from the vegetarian sandwich stand.
Amy had a vegetarian (calabaza) milanesa sandwich from the vegetarian sandwich stand.

After a bit of coffee and tea (and wifi stealing) at a nearby bakery we ventured out to check out the offerings.  In particular,  Amy was on the hunt for vegetarian goodies.  She was a bit disappointed to find only one stand selling vegetarian food.  Nevertheless, she turned up a nice calabaza (butternut squash) milanesa sandwich on whole wheat bread.  I went with the more typical and popular fair food: papas fritas and empanadas.

After walking the market a few times to admire the goods, we decided to hike up Cerro Amigo to enjoy the mirador.  It was an easy 45 minute hike and we passed some very nice mountain homes properly outfitted with horses grazing nearby.  The view from the top allowed us to see the entire city and the mountains across the valley.

El Bolsón, Argentina
What to do with a dead tree? In a hippie town, you carve it into a awesome sculpture!
What to do with a dead tree? In a hippie town, you carve it into a awesome sculpture!
Weird hippy contraption/art
Weird hippy contraption/art
Scenes of Patagonia captured on sugar packets.
Scenes of Patagonia captured on sugar packets.
Very large milanesa sandwiches seemed to be the most popular food item at the market.
Very large milanesa sandwiches seemed to be the most popular food item at the market.
Amy had a vegetarian (calabaza) milanesa sandwich from the vegetarian sandwich stand.
Amy had a vegetarian (calabaza) milanesa sandwich from the vegetarian sandwich stand.
We saw walnuts on trees all over town.
We saw walnuts on trees all over town.
Wood bowl carving
Wood bowl carving
It is fall in El Bolsón
It is fall in El Bolsón
Amy's dream house along the walk to a mirador.
Amy’s dream house along the walk to a mirador.
A jeep with Alberta plates!  Turns out that the guy has a website: www.theroadchoseme.com
A jeep with Alberta plates! Turns out that the guy has a website: www.theroadchoseme.com

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.


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