Archive for January, 2008

Where the magic happens

January 22, 2008


My coworkers and me in the Fantástico Sur office on the second floor of Refugio Torres Central. Milan (back row, higher boy) just brought us some toast from the kitchen downstairs, so we’re all happy.

Everyone stay at refugios run by Fantástico Sur! They’re the best! You’ll be lodged, you’ll be fed, you’ll be happy!!!
E-mail, or call our reservations line based in the park at (56)(61) 360-361, extension 380.

Does that count as my marketing for the day? Can I go play outside now?

Go away, invader!

January 21, 2008

So, I got this article published in the January edition of the Patagonia Black Sheep, a monthly magazine available in Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales and other towns in Patagonia. Yay for getting things published! It’s about invasive plants.

No, that dandelion is not supposed to be here. And neither is that clover. And that scentless chamomile? An outsider as well.
These plant species — and a number of others — made their way to Patagonia years ago and, quite literally, put down roots.
Some biologists estimate around 25 percent of the plant species in some parts of Torres del Paine National Park originated elsewhere.
“Invasive species are going to continue arriving as a consequence of tourism,” said botanist Osvaldo Vidal, author of the guide Flora Torres del Paine and a doctoral student in Germany, speaking in Spanish. “This is clear.”


Scentless chamomile: Cute, but invasive

Many of the invasive grasses and ground covers found in Patagonia were introduced as forage for livestock, and many of the flowers were brought over for ornamentation purposes. Other plants arrived by accident: Their seeds rode into the region in the fur, feathers or intestines of animals, or the shoes, clothing, tents or cars of humans. Most came from Europe.
Some of the most common invasive species in Torres del Paine today are:
• Poison hemlock
• Red sorrel
• Scentless chamomile
• Silver hairgrass
• Spotted catsear
Invasive plants have earned a bad reputation in the scientific community for their tendency to change ecological patterns and displace their native counterparts. Few, if any, studies have been conducted to determine the effects of the invaders in Patagonia, however.
Morty Ortega, a professor at the University of Connecticut who has conducted research in the park since 1977, said he considers most of the invasive grasses and ground covers in Patagonia more useful than threatening.
“Perhaps the most dangerous ones are those that are brought as ornamentals and escape because of their aggressive nature,” he said, citing a fast-spreading, white-flowered plant named cicuta as a prime example. He described the plant as both poisonous and useless.
Human visitors, hikers especially, are the single greatest threat to the native Patagonian ecosystem today, Vidal and Ortega agree. In addition to unknowingly spreading seeds, they compact the soil, making it ill suited for fragile native species and ideal for hearty invaders.
So as you trek through Torres del Paine National Park this season, do your part to slow the invasion.
Stay on established campsites and trails, and wash seeds from your clothes and supplies before you arrive and after you leave. That way, Patagonia can stay Patagonia, and stop evolving into the countryside outside your hometown.

One guanaco, two guanaco, three guanaco, four…

January 14, 2008

I counted 24 guanacos the other day. The number in itself is not notable at all, because I often run across 75 of the llama-like creatures in one place at one time on my hikes through the park. What’s notable is my ‘24’ has become part of the official 2008 Torres del Paine guanaco census taken last week. According to the count, there are 4,600 guanacos here. That’s 800 more than last year at this time.


Three guanacos

Dr. Morty Ortega, a natural resources management professor at the University of Connecticut, has been studying guanacos in Torres del Paine since 1977. He’s here with a group of students until mid-January collecting information and invited me to participate in the census. Guanacos look funny, so I figured counting them would be entertaining.



Here’s how the census worked: Over three days, groups of students scoured the sectors of the park the animals are known to inhabit, noting the number of male (machos), females (hembras) and babies (chulengas) in each group they encountered, as well as the time of their observations. For the record, there’s a more polite way of determining a guanaco’s sex than peering indiscreetly at its privates.

Usually, a lone guanaco is a male that the herd has rejected for being too sick, old or ugly. (Females, even sick, old and ugly ones, are welcomed into group activities and offered the most delicious terrain for grazing.)

When you see a group of guanacos, you can assume there’s a dominant male in charge and that there’s one hembra for each chulenga, plus maybe one or two more.


Sometimes, you’ll run across groups of young males who’ve been kicked out of their family groups for being strong enough to threaten their groups’ leader. They mostly bide their time until they can start wooing women and forming communes of their own.

When counting, it’s hard not to get distracted by the cuteness of the chulengas.


I tromped the landscape with Rebecca Weissinger, a plant biologist from the United States, and Oscar Guineo, the second ranger to arrive in the area once it was named a national park. The a 56-year-old botanist resigned as a ranger when CONAF, the semi-private forestry organization that runs Chile’s national parks, switched it’s No. 1 priority to recreation (read: money). But he still spends most of his free time in Torres del Paine and knows it like his backyard, especially the plants. He and his wife Gladys Garay, who prefers animals, conduct regular investigations and have written a book about the park’s flora and fauna (the one, incidentally, I purchased when I first arrived to Patagonia).

Once the red Toyota truck dropped us off along the gravel road that parallels Río Paine, we cut across the matorral, or the shrubland, heading south toward Lago Sarmiento. The region is not a favorite destination of guanacos because it’s inhabited mostly by spiky plants, like calafate and mata barrosa, that are painful on the tongue. Thus, a lot of walking and not many tally marks.


A plant and a rock, both inedible


Oscar looking for guanacos and finding none

Fortunately, the off-trail walk took us through some amazing terrain not seen by many.

Case in point:



And now, for some fun guanaco facts:
1. Guanacos jump fences.


2. Dominant male guanacos always defecate in the same places in order to build piles of caca, or poop, that mark their territories.


3. Female guanacos have babies between mid November and late January. They’re fertile again two weeks after giving birth, take 20-45 minutes to copulate and have a gestation period of 11 months.


4. Guanacos and rheas are friends (and they often wear matching turtlenecks to Christmas parties).


What I miss by sleeping in

January 13, 2008



Sunrise from the Las Torres campground this morning

I guess I do collect something

January 11, 2008

I have a problem with Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits. I can’t stop buying it. I just purchased my fourth copy today. That’s right, my fourth copy. It cost $22 from the World’s End bookstore in Puerto Natales.


The problem began three years ago when I purchased my first copy. I meant to read it, I really did. Instead, though, it ended up on a bookshelf in my parent’s house in Greensboro, North Carolina, the spine uncracked, while I attended college three hours away.

I purchased the second copy after I finished school, during the one of the summers I was leading outdoor adventure trips for Adventure Treks. I found it at a used bookstore I ran across on the side of the road in rural Washington State and thought, ‘I’ve been meaning to read this.’ Leading 25 teenagers through the woods leaves one little spare time, however, and the book spent the summer at the bottom of my duffel next to a pair of liner socks.

Copy No. 3 I picked up 15 days ago in Punta Arenas, after deciding I should read Allende’s work while in her home country (Incidentally, the random woman on the street I asked for bookstore locations would only tell me about one: the Krishna bookstore she runs out of her garage. I kindly accepted her address and moved on, eventually to find a more traditional book seller.) I bought the Spanish version of the novel, but the going was slow, and I didn’t want to miss the richness of the story for the language barrier.

That’s why, when I ran across my latest copy in Puerto Natales, I shelled out the 22 bucks.

I’m on page 13 now, just past the part where Uncle Marcos teaches the parrot with the Amazonian dialect to speak Spanish and tries to seduce his cousin Antonieta with military marches on a barrel organ.
From what I’ve read so far, I think it’s going to be good. So good, in fact, that I might need another copy.

As a sidenote: I really like the Pablo Neruda poem that precedes the story:

¿Cuanto vive el hombre, por fin?
¿Vive mil days o uno solo?
¿Vive una semana o varios siglos?
¿Por cuánto tiempo muere el hombre?
¿Qué quiere decir para siempre?

How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say “for ever”?

More on Ronan Lawlor

January 7, 2008

According to the article in La Prensa Austral this morning, Ronan Lawlor’s body was found buried under a pile of rocks and debris in the moraine at the base of the towers. Rescuers say it was located 700 meters beyond the mirador from which people are advised to view the granite formations, in an area with a gradient of 75 degrees. They suspect Lawlor was climbing past the established overlook to take pictures when he lost his footing and fell.
Rescuers found Lawlor’s passport in a nearby backpack, as well as a park entrance ticket dated Nov. 18, the date the Irish hiker was known to enter Torres del Paine. They must wait for the results of the autopsy in Punta Arenas to determine for sure whether the remains are Lawlor’s, however.
The body had many lesions fractured bones and was in an advanced state of decomposition, according to La Prensa. It will be sent back to Ireland once the autopsy is complete.

Ronan Lawlor found

January 6, 2008

The steady thwop-thwop-thwop of a helicopter passing over my cabin woke me up this morning. More than a month after 28-year-old Irish hiker Ronan Lawlor went missing, his body was discovered by Brazilian tourists near the base of the towers yesterday. A search and rescue group is ascending to the spot this morning to fly out his remains.

¿Hasta cuaaaando ya?: A lesson in Chilean slang

January 4, 2008

When I arrived in Chile three months ago, people’s stories were a lot wilder than they are now. One day at lunch, for example, I learned there’s a two-week period every August where Venezuelans take to the street and eat banana Jello, and I considered making a trip.

As I’ve grown more accustomed to the language, the stories have calmed down a bit and have started to make more sense. But to understand them completely, it helps to recognize the slang that peppers most every Chilean sentence.

Here’s a quick guide to the Chilean slang I’ve picked up on so far:
Al tiro — Immediately
Bacán — Cool!
¿Cachai? — Get it?
Carrete — Party
Fome — Boring
Guagua — Baby
Guata — Belly
Huevón(a) — Buddy, Dude, Man, Jerk or Asshole, depending on the context.
Often added to the end of a sentence to indicate familiarity.
La onda — Attitude, mood, character of person.
As in “Ella es buena onda” or “She’s got a good vibe.”
La pega — Work, Job
Pololo(a) — Boyfriend/Girlfriend
Po — Well
Short for “pues.” Added onto the end of many sentences and phrases.
As in “Sí po” or “No po.”
Ponte las pilas
— Go for it! Try harder!
Literally “Put your batteries in.”
La raja — Excellent, Cool, The shit
El tuto — Sleepiness (in a cute sense)
As in “Tengo tuto” or “I’m sleepy,” and “Voy a hacer tuto” or “I’m going to take a nap.”
Wea — That shit
As in “Esa wea no funciona” or “That shit doesn’t work,” and “Esa wea está mala” or “That shit is bad.”

A separate slang culture, mainly driven by the baqueanos (Chilean cowboys), has developed within the park. Here a few phrases you need to get around here:
Meh — A sound used to express surprise or disbelief
Vamos, VAAAAH-mos — Let’s go, leeeeet’s go.
Shouted as loud as possible, often by a baqueano, a guide or me, when prodded
¿Hasta cuaaaando, yaaaa? — When’s it gonna stop?
Literally, “Until when, already?”
Uttered with a nasally voice in fake annoyance

There you have it. Consider yourself Chilean.