Join Wildland Adventures' Director, Kurt Kutay, as he journeys from end-to-end through Chile starting in the Atacama Desert and on to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Other places of interest on the itinerary are the Lakes District as well as the wine country around Santiago.
From Seattle to Santiago I traveled 22 hours. Actually, connecting out of Los Angeles on Lan Chile was a relatively comfortable 10 hours flying time with a short stop in Lima, Peru. As far as national carriers go, Lan Chile is superb--on time, good service and a wide-bodied Air Bus 300.
The red-eye arrived at 6 a.m. and by the time we were on the road headed into town a new day was dawning. But it wasn't any old day-- it was Springtime again! Not a cloud in the sky. Just spectacular, snow-capped Andean peaks against a deep blue sky surrounding a budding city of green trees, parks and modern buildings juxtaposed against colonial architecture to accommodate a burgeoning population of 5 million. Everyone here is sneezing with Springtime allergies and I'm wondering if I brought enough short sleeve shirts.
I spent my first day with Javier Lopez, the owner of Cascada Expediciones, one of the most professional and reputable adventure outfitters in Chile. They have 10 people working in their Santiago office and another 25 full-time guide staff throughout the country during the high season, which begins next week.
Javier's story is not unlike many Chileans, or for that matter, many people I know back home in the Pacific Northwest. As a university student, he was part of a social circle of young men studying to be engineers to fill the ranks of corporate executives in the post-Allende capitalist economy. "I became very successful in marketing for one of the world's largest telecommunications companies and my goal was to be a top executive," he recalls. As we are walking down Bernard O'Higgins Boulevard on my first evening in Santiago, I could just imagine this tall and lanky clean cut Chileano wearing his wire rim glasses, but with a black brief case and stylish European loafers instead of the pony tail, blue jeans and sandals.
He credits his French wife for the transformation. "She could tell there was more to me than I was living, and she was not going to marry only part of me." So, he developed his love of kayaking and the outdoors into a highly rated, professional outfitting service taking Wildland Adventures travelers, Chileans (including many of his old engineering friends) and other world travelers on hiking and trekking trips throughout Chile. On this warm Spring evening, Javier proudly describes himself as an "Indio moderno" (modern Indian), because he likes to hike barefooted so he can feel the earth between his toes.
I repacked my bags that night and caught an early flight the next day to begin my first sojurn to the Atacama, the driest desert in the world. Lan Chile provides frequent and reliable service throughout Chile including my flight to Calama in the Atacama Desert.
First impressions are important. The first person you see upon arrival is our Santiago transfer guide, Eugenio Cabello. He is friendly, helpful and wild about welcoming you to his beloved country.
Moonrise In Desert Sunset
I was climbing the steep flank of a pristine dune in the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death), step by step, gasping for breath in the high desert air. Like a desperate dream, slipping back with every step forward, I was trying to make it to the top to get a picture in the best light of the sunset. I just had to stop and catch my breath. I looked up and gasped. The desert landscape had turned to gold, purple, and soft hues of coffee, from black espresso to luscious mocha. In the distance, the Andes rose up into the wisps of clouds dominated by the perfect cone-shaped, blazing red Licancaur Volcano with the full moon rising at its side!
From my first outing in the Atacama, the driest desert in the world, I was drawn into the incredible beauty and mysticism of this unworldly place. San Pedro de Atacama is a placid oasis of adobe houses built together as an "allyu" (native settlement) at the edge of the Salar de Atacama, a vast salt bed from an evaporated lake. The Atamacameno people maintain their own distinct cultural identity which has it roots in a combination of the native Quechua and Aymara Indian population of Bolivia and Peru, and Spanish colonial influence.
Situated in a green oasis where melting snow runs off the high Andes and the Altiplano towards the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama has been a resting place used for thousands of years by primitive humans migrating back and forth, east and west, for trade and hunting. We saw lots of amazing petroglyphs carved onto rock walls where ancient traders camped and left a record of their story. The Incas even conquered this remote world of the Atacamaneno people to control this important trade route.
The Atacama is a fascinating place to visit, especially when exploring the region with our guides from Atacama Desert Expeditions. The Hotel Terrantai, located in the small, adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama was my base from which I went on 1/2-day excursions throughout the area. We were always back for a delicious lunch and a few hours to nap or stroll around before the afternoon outing which always put us in the desert for sunset. Although I stayed at the Hotel Terrantai, I also visited the upscale Hotel Explora Atacama. See my pictures of both hotels by clicking here: Atacama Hotels.
I hiked in most of the National Forest Institute's complex of geographically diverse natural areas protected within The Flamingos National Reserve, including the breeding grounds of three species of flamingo. We hiked through the Valley of the Moon including a late night stroll under the stars and bright full moon.
I took a refreshing dip in the Sejar Lagoon, a natural site with turquoise and green waters, salt crystals of different shapes, and a population of flamingos. I was totally relaxed, easily floating due to its high salt content. Our guide thoughtfully brought a solar shower to rinse off the salt. In fact, on every outing they brought plenty of water to keep us hydrated. We visited Toconao, a small traditional village built of bleached white volcanic stone on the edge of the salt flat of Atacama and a nearby flamingo nesting site.
On another day I joined a local group for the excursion up to the altiplano (high plains) which extends all the way north far into Bolivia. We drove up and up and up a long road crossing through Bolivian immigration and then around the back side of the Licancacar.
One day a group of us from the hotel arose at 5:00 a.m. to drive to El Taito Geyers by sunrise. At 4,300m (12,9000') above sea level in the base of the Andes, the scenery was spectacular: a stark and vast space that was very COLD! At this time of the morning, the powerful plumes of hot moist air rise up as steam into the cold air from each of the boiling, churning geysers (not to be compared to Yellowstone).
My favorite day was our outing with local archaeologist, Cecelia Uribe, who completed her Ph.D. research with the Sorbonne University in France on an ancient fortress site in Atacama dating to 1000 AD. She married a native Atacameno, is raising two young children and enjoys the freedom that guiding provides to teach, get out in the field and be at home. She led us through the Gustavo Le Paige archaeological museum which is one of South America's finest museums. The rainless environment of the Atacama has preserved human remains and artifacts for millenia in incredibly fascinating detail including a child buried in a vase and the mummy of a young woman wrapped in a blanket with skin, hair and fingernails intact.
Due to the dehydration of the desert soil, the mummified body of a beautiful young Atacameno girl retains its skin stuck to the bone structure such that the face and original hair suggest how she really was 1000 years ago. We also hiked around the large, partly restored ruins site of Quitor Pukara, the last stronghold of the Atacamano people against the Spanish in 1500 A.D.
Tulor is a prehistoric village built by the first Atacameno settlers 1000 A.D. who lived in circular houses surrounded by a defense wall now partly buried by blowing sand.
After several days of meetings in Santiago with guides and outfitters from throughout Chile, I'm headed off to Patagonia where the rain is falling hard and we will be trekking and riding horses through deep, fast-flowing rivers. I'm not sure what my internet connections will be from the southernmost part of the continent.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia
I got that feeling again. It's the joy that comes from the beauty of morning light on the peaks of Paine, the freedom of spaciousness across the Patagonian pampa, and the unreal hues of green lakes and blue glaciers of the largest ice cap on Earth outside of the polar regions. The feeling rises up from within me transforming into a smile as I find myself galloping across the plains with a crisp wind blowing at my face. Hold on to your hat--Patagonia is a Wildland Adventure!
Although our regular Wildland Adventures in Torres del Paine National Park are day hikes from lodges or trekking based from tent camps, this trip is different. I'm on a reconnaissance, or "FAM" trip as we call it in the travel business in which I'm covering as much ground as possible at an accelerated pace. Horses are commonly used here as pack animals for our trekking trips, or optional horseback rides, but on this trip we have ridden horseback part of every day to get into the heart of the park.
One day we rode like the Pony Express to check out a new trail. It usually takes 4 hours, but "Moncho", our Chilean horseman set the pace so we could do it in three. So we trotted, cantered and galloped our way across the pampa, through deep rivers, muddy swamps, and colorful, budding beech and cypress forests on the verge of bursting into Spring foliage.
Although I'm not an equestrian enthusiast nor expert, riding horseback in Patagonia has been the most fun and most beautiful horseback riding I've done anywhere in the world. As well it should be...Torres del Paine National Park is considered one of the most beautiful hiking areas in the world and horses are a local tradition. Whether hiking or on horseback, every turn you make in this park you are awestruck by spectacular views of the impressive granite massif of Paine. If you are inclined to ride horseback as an optional activity during your visit to Paine, it's a great way to experience the park and enjoy the scenery without having to keep your eye on the ground as you hike over the rocky terrain.
We have designed our itineraries in Paine National Park to include more than only the hikes up the three principal valleys into the heart of the park. Hiking up Grey, Francis and Silencio (Torres) valleys does get you up close to the glaciers and peaks of the Paine masif. However, experiencing Paine National Park is much more than hiking up to the base of its peaks. Our lodge-based Paine Sojurn itinerary features spectacular hikes on trails that are further away from the base of the mountain peaks along lake shores and in the grasslands where you will have spectacular views of the entire massif and see lots more wildlife.
I have had a chance to check out a new route for our Paine Circumnavigation Trek so that we can now avoid the high season crowds on the established "inside" route used by other adventure travel companies and independent backpackers referred to as the "Paine gridlock" by Lonely Planet author, Wayne Bernhardson. Instead, we have located our own wilderness campsites along the more remote and scenic parallel trail further from the base of the mountain.
It has been twelve years since I have personally hiked throughout Paine and until now, I had not personally inspected all the lodges and refugios in the Park. Traveling by van, on foot, horseback and by boat, we covered all the best (and worst) accommodations and highlights of the Park.
It's Who You Know!
In adventure travel, we presume it's the exclusive domain of the guide that makes a trip successful. Not so when our driver, Norman, is the central figurehead in our connection with a lodge, horseback concession, and the Lake Pehoe catamaran service in Torres del Paine National Park. More about Norman in a moment
First, meet Rodrigo "Trauko" Traub, our Director of Field Operations and Senior Guide in Patagonia. Trauko is a free spirit. He chose a different path from his siblings who followed the family lineage of lawyers and professionals living in Santiago. Like his father who was also a mountain climber, Trauko has seen the world. After climbing expeditions throughout Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Austria, Ireland and Brazil, he finally took up residence in the wilds of Patagonia. During the past seven years he has let his hair grow and climbed all the major peaks of Paine on personal mountaineering expeditions. He makes a living leading trekking trips in every corner of the park. Everyone in the park knows Trauko, or at least his reputation for knowledge, skill and charm. He has an opinion on everything, but his most fervent beliefs are about bread-he is a baker by trade and brings his own whole-wheat baked goods direct from his commercial oven at home because, he asserts, "I'm not going to serve spongy white hotel bread to my trekkers."
Everywhere we drove, rode by boat or on horseback, or hiked in the park, Trauko engages people in genuine conversation and laughter. That's because most people who live and work in the park consider him as family and every encounter is like a family reunion. Not long after he arrived here seven years ago, Trauko became the close friend, or as he describes it, the "adopted son" of Norman Mac-Leod, our driver. They now work together as a team.
It turns out, Norman has family ties that are so intertwined to people working in the park that Trauko had to draw me a family tree that went off the end of my notepad to explain the relations. Norman's eldest son, Donald, is the lead trail hand for the horse concession out of the Hosteria Las Torres.
Norman's sister, Tamara, is married to a son of the Kusanovic family who operates the Hosteria and Refugio Las Torres. Norman's niece, Vesna, who is also a wranger at Las Torres, is also married to a younger generation son of the Kusanovic family. Norman's eldest son, Juan, is a principal owner of the Pehoe Lake catamaran service. Norman and his wife Jovita look forward to having Wildland travelers to their home in Puerto Natales for dinner whenever possible.
As Trauko travels throughout the park with his two-way walkie talkie he is constantly checking in with all his "relatives" to set up special arrangements and double check on the status of our Wildland clients wherever they may be during their stay in the park.
Since I was here 12 years ago, not only are there many more shelters and a reliable boat service across Lake Pehoe, but there are also well-constructed bridges over rivers and stepping stones crossing swampy areas which make hiking much easier. Still, trails are very muddy in places, so waterproof, gortex boots are a must. The one greatest limitation in the park's infrastructure is a descent place to sleep in Pehoe which is the trailhead for hikes up the Grey Glacier Valley and the Francis Valley. The Pehoe Refugio looks tempting from the outside, but inside it is a crowded youth hostel filled up by budget backpackers in shared dorms and bath. Click here to see more about Paine Accommodations and our plans for placing semi-permanent dome tent structures for Wildland trekkers.
Andre Labarca is another one of our senior guides in Paine National Park. He speaks perfect English since he was raised in the US. He enthusiastically shares his interest and knowledge in natural sciences, especially including geology, flora and birds. He is a certified SCUBA instructor having worked in his family's dive business on the Chilean coast until he moved to Patagonia where he worked as a naturalist guide for 3 years at the Explora Lodge.
"You're in Good Hands With...."
After Patagonia, the Lakes District crossing between Bariloche, Argentina and Puerto Montt, Chile is the next most well-known region in Chile among adventure travelers. We have been offering the Lakes District crossing for 10 years, but I was anxious to explore the region outside of this popular tourist corridor because so many other activities and accommodations have developed here in recent years.
One thing that hasn't changed is the incredible beauty of this fertile, green farmland with vast lakes surrounded by spectacular, snow-capped volcanoes of the Andes. I felt right at home among local Chilean conservation groups we are supporting to protect the largest temperate rainforest ecosystems on Earth, including the last refuge of the rare giant Alerce tree and the ancient Araucaria forests, Earth's oldest tree species.
In recent years, we have received reports from some Wildland travelers expressing disappointment with the daily bus-boat-bus-boat Lakes District crossing between Puerto Montt and Bariloche because of the crowds of tourists in the peak summer months of December, January and February. We still do recommend the boat crossing under two conditions: 1) If it fits your itinerary as a means of transport between Chile and Argentina, and 2) if you can close a blind eye to tourists you can't beat the spectacular scenery on the one day trip. However, if you can spend a few days around Puerto Varas there is much more to see and do than the scenic boat tour alone!
I also had to come here to meet Jorge Moller, my local guide who takes care of our travelers in the Lakes District. Two separate colleagues in the travel business who knew Jorge and me, told each of us we had to meet and work together because of our similar style, philosophy and commitment to conservation. I was impressed. Jorge is a man with a dream. He has the vision and determination to create an truly unique and personal experience for active and inquisitive Wildland travelers who appreciate the good life in Chile.
He showed me all the principle tours he offers including a day hike through the Alerce Andino National Park (similar to our Redwood forests), rafting on the stunningly beautiful and easy Petrohue River, an easy scenic hike above tree line on the Osorno Volcano (or a technical climb with specialist guides to the summit), and a horseback ride up the Calbuco Volcano. Of course, he takes all his guests to see the spectacular Petrohue Falls with the Osorno Volcano in the background, but he is careful to plan that visit after the daily tour buses stop by on their way to board the catamaran for the lake crossing.
During our day tour of Chiloe Island, Jorge took me down little country roads among small farms and fishing villages along the coast. We stopped at Caulin Bay where he takes Wildland travelers for wine tasting and to savior a fresh oyster feast while observing the abundant migratory bird species and resident waterfowl including black necked swans and Chilean flamingos.
I was most impressed with the sensitivity Jorge has designed into his program to take care of the comfort and psyche of his guests. Rather than end a spectacular hike or horseback ride dropped off at your hotel, he often concludes the day and begins the evening in one of the exquisite, hand-crafted log cabins he has built (and still building) in each of his field locations. One evening he took me to his "King Fisher" cabin on the outskirts of Puerto Varas where we concluded a lovely day touring Chiloe Island with smoked salmon, a crisp Chilean white wine, cheese and crackers. This is where Jorge prepares a welcome dinner for most of his guests the first night they arrive. Guests enjoy wine at sunset while Jorge spins tales and spews facts as he prepares a tasty barbeque for a welcome dinner (including vegetarian fare on request).
I stayed in Puerto Varas at the Hotel Colonos right on the water front with a third floor view overlooking Lake Llanquihue with the Osorno Volcano on the horizon filling my window from pane to pane. A huge casino is being built next to the Hotel Colonos so we are recommending the Cabanas del Lago as our preferred hotel in Puerto Varas. Jorge and I developed a Lakes District itinerary which combines hotel accommodations in Puerto Varas (for closer access the Alerce Andino National Park), but then to transfer to overnight in the amazing, antique mansion Hotel Ensenada (closer to rafting, hiking and horseback riding).
In addition to the eclectic antique interior design and the fact that every room is different in this converted mansion, another benefit of the Ensenada Hotel is the unlimited use of the mountain bike which comes with each room-courtesy of Backroads cycling company which uses this hotel for their tours. They must have paid for rooms with bikes on their last few trips!