Archive for the ‘Patagonia’ Category

Hiking a hidden valley

April 9, 2008

My friend Juliana and I meant to spend a day meandering through Valle Bader, the high-elevation valley that runs between the 7,200-foot slab of the easternmost Cuerno and the 8,700-foot glacier-capped Almirante Nieto. Instead, we ended up scrambling up and down one of the more precarious moraines in the area and almost summiting both peaks. Not bad for a dayhike.

Despite the wrong turn five minutes into the hike through the trail-less valley (the RIGHT side of the river, the RIGHT!), we saw some of the most amazing views ever. From the valley’s entrance, we could see numerous lakes, each a different shade of blue, and once inside, we could see the actual base of the cliffs we’re so used to seeing from afar. Rainbows arced overhead most of the day, and we saw wild parakeets on the return hike.


That’s me, squatting low to avoid blowing off the mountain, near the entrance to the valley.


That’s Juliana. She’s taking a photo.


Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Sarmiento, two of the lakes we could see from up high.


Nordenskjold again. Pretty.


During our hike, it rained, it snowed, the sun beat down on our backs, and the wind blew.


This is the Cuerno we almost summited, accidentally.

We traversed the top of this moraine — and ate ham sandwiches almost at the base of the Cuerno — before realizing we were probably very far from where we were supposed to be. We decided to walk out on the other side of the valley, where we could make out a faint trail through much safer territory.

Descending the moraine of loose rock was tough. We scooted backwards down the mountainside, placing our hands and feet on the rocks with great care to avoid starting avalanches. We crossed the pounding river at the base of the valley, and in the process of searching for the trail on the other side, almost summited Almirante Nieto.

While we didn’t see as much of the valley as we could have if we’d had more time and hadn’t climbed so far in the wrong direction, we were blown away by what we did see. Valle Bader is a magical place for sure.


For more photos of Valle Bader, click here.

Moving on

March 25, 2008

On my last day of work, I was thrown into a sopping-wet mixture of mud and horseshit. I was at the stables saying good-bye to the baqueanos when they all started chanting “Al barro! Al barro!” (This means “To the mud.”)
“Alvaro,” I thought. “Is THAT the name of the new guy who’s been hanging around?”
Before I had come to any conclusions, two baqueanos grabbed and carried me into the corral, which had been freshly saturated by the recent rain. They lowered me — by this time, kicking and screaming — into the squishy muck. It promptly soaked through my fleece jacket, T-shirt and pants and onto my skin. For those of you who’ve never lain in a pile of wet shit, it’s very disgusting, and you’re not missing much.


They all seemed pretty pleased with themselves, damn them.

All that’s to say, after six months of marketing, a muddy baptism and a much-needed shower, I’m through with work and off to see South America — and hopefully write more than I have been.

While my plans are not well formed, here’s the gist: I’ll do a few hikes in the park and meet my friend Alexis in Buenos Aires, where we’ll stay a couple weeks. Then I’ll fly to Santiago at the end of April to meet my sister Laura. She and I will travel through North Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador through May and June and then return to the states probably around July 1.

I’m slightly apprehensive about surfacing from the cultural immersion I experienced in Paine, where I was the only foreigner in a 260-person company. For the past six months, I have been completely immersed in the Chilean way of living and working. I’ve spoken mostly Spanish, hung out with mostly Chileans, eaten mostly white bread and lamb and listened mostly to the choppy ch-ch-chhh rhythm of regaetton music.


Juliana cooking lunch in the living room of the house we share with others in Paine

I realize as I embark on my travels, I will no longer be as in touch with the local peoples and places as I have been. I will share bunkrooms with people I don’t know, stand in line to visit must-sees and probably speak more English than Spanish.

While I’m sad for the experience I had in Paine to end, I am also excited about what’s to come. I can’t wait to see the sun set over the desert in Northern Chile, to explore the jungles of Bolivia and to hike five days to Machu Picchu in Peru. I’m excited to talk to locals and hear their stories. I’m looking forward to not knowing what each day will bring and being surprised at every turn.

I now declare you hombre y mujer

March 18, 2008

Dear Mom and Dad,

A lot has happened in the week since you left Chile. I got married, for one. His nickname’s Ladrillo, and he’s a baqueano. We were married in the stables the other day after lunch. It was a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing: He asked me, I said yes, and we were hitched three minutes later. I think we’re going to honeymoon at Los Cuernos.

Here are some pics from the ceremony:


Ladrillo stood on a bucket so he could be taller than me, for the ceremony at least


Exchange of rings (Mine was needed back directly after the ceremony for a piece of horse equipment, but that’s ok, right?)


Mishou, the priest. Note the robe.


Cejas, the witness.

Well, that’s it for now.

Love ya, miss ya, mean it!


Madre, padre — meet Chile

March 12, 2008

My parents’ Spanish came a long way during their visit to Chile this month. My mom can now say “Mucho gusto” with a perfect Chilean accent (context isn’t THAT important, is it?), and my dad can get around pretty well with the word “postre” (“dessert”).

During their two weeks here, I introduced them to all the people and places I’ve come to know over the last few months. They met my bosses, friends and self-declared fiances. They hiked to the granite spires that tower over the landscape where I work. They learned to embrace instant coffee and powdered milk with breakfast every morning and become as engrossed in the dramas of the street dogs in town as I am.

Below is a basic description of how we spent our time together. But before I go any further, let me introduce my parents with some visual aids acquired on the trip.

My dad, Barden:


And my mom, Terri:


W Circuit
Ok, so with the schedule modification, it was more of a transposed U, but same thing. On my parents’ SECOND full day in Chile, we started a super-relaxed, two-hour hike (note the key words) from Lago Pehoe to Campamento Italiano. During this walk, we crossed paths with a Russian language professor from New York who delivered the most interesting 45-minute monologue I’ve ever heard. It seamlessly transitioned from the airplane passing overhead to alcohol abuse in Norway to icebergs, and it was peppered with an informative mix of facts and statistics. We listened, mostly, slackjawed and enraptured.

Also during the hike, my mom caught me up on the wolves new to the Natural Science Center where she works, and my dad filled me in on details from the Hillary/Obama race.

We camped by Río Ascencio and ate pasta and red sauce for dinner. My mom shoveled her food with a titanium spork, which she really likes because its Titanium. I don’t really get it. It burns when it gets hot, and that just doesn’t seem practical for an eating utensil.

We ascended to the mirador at the top of the Valle Frances in the morning. We ran into my friend Chapa, who was guiding a Dutch group over rock and root around the 10-day circuit IN HIS CROCS.


El Tiburon, or Shark’s Fin, one of many granite monoliths that surrounds you at the top of Valle Frances.

We stayed in one of the seven cabañas near Refugio Los Cuernos. Down comforters, a skylight, a waterfall right outside. What luxury.

My very-macho guardaparque friends at Campamento Italiano near the base of the towers invited my parents and me into their triangular house for dinner. They even used a teacup to mold the rice into cylinders on our plates. We ascended to the towers in the morning.


My mother conquering the moraine you have to climb to get to the view. This is when I decided a five-hour hike up Valle Silencio that afternoon was not a good idea.


The Cookes (minus one) at the top. (Laura, want to photoshop yourself in?)



I forgot to mention: My sister Laura made it to the towers with us! It was really great to all be together, even if for a short time.

Río Serrano


The morning after finishing the hike, we crammed ourselves and our stuff into neoprene and dry bags, respectively, for a three-day kayaking trip on Río Serrano. The river runs 28-miles along the southern border of Torres del Paine National Park and carries water from six ice fields and many more mountain glaciers to the Pacific Ocean. We paddled from its beginning at Pueblito Serrano to Glaciar Serrano, located right where the river empties into the fjords. (“Fjord,” incidentally, is my new favorite word.)


Our Turkish guides Cem and Serkan both knew pretty much everything there is to know about everything— and were kick-ass cooks to boot.

During our first 45 minutes in the kayak, we faced winds so forceful they blew the river upstream. This is not normal, given that rivers normally flow downstream. I did my best to dig my paddle into the whitecaps and ferry from one shore to the other, all the while getting sprayed in the face with airborne water. Our guides said the wind around here often blows around 50 mph and sometimes reaches around 100. In the United States, that’s considered hurricane force, and it blows houses down. In Chile, you keep paddling.


We decided it best not to run the pounding waterfall in our sea kayaks. Instead, we carried our stuff around.

My father flipped while ferrying across the river at the base of the waterfall. The guides rescued him from the glacial water.

Though we faced strong winds continuously throughout the journey, nothing was on par with our initiation. The river was swift but calm as it wound through lenga forests and beneath dark, imposing mountains. We saw a number of tremendous, age-old glaciers creeping imperceptibly down mountainsides, still at work shaping the landscape.

We ran into virtually nobody else during the whole journey, probably because no roads or trails cut through the Serrano sector of Torres del Paine. We had the whole area — the water, the wind, the glaciers, the forests of lenga trees covered in lichen — to ourselves. I felt privileged.

At one point, we passed several log structures built by a hermit who has not left the river’s bank in the 12 years since he lost a woman to his cousin. I was dying to stop and talk to him, but we continued downstream.
Our last night, we camped by Glaciar Serrano, which measures about 75 feet high at the point it touches the river (that’s the visible part). We kayaked as close as we could to the glacier’s base in the morning.



Otherworldly lichen we ran across in the glacial moraine

We took the 21 de Mayo ferry through the fjords from the end of Río Serrano to Puerto Natales.


A man on the boat wore a plastic bag on his head. I have no idea why. But it fluttered in the wind as he gazed out over the bow, and it was hilarious.

Cueva del Milodon


I almost got eaten by a lifesize replica of the giant ground sloth in the Cueva del Milodon.

In 1895, scientist Otto Nordenskjold discovered the skin of the giant Milodon sloth in a massive cave 25 km north of Puerto Natales. The Milodon, which stood about 20 feet tall, went extinct 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the roots it gummed for sustenance stopped providing the nutrients it needed for survival.
At the national monument, you can into and around the cave, which measures 656 feet deep, 98 feet high and 262 feet wide and looks a lot like the moon inside. There are a couple other caves you can visit at the monument as well, but we didn’t get to those because the taxi driver who carried us would only wait an hour.

Río Verde


Río Verde basking in the sunlight, Otway Sound in the background

My mom, dad and I ran through the pasture at Río Verde, waving our arms, yelling, and otherwise trying to convince a herd of 100 sheep to take the most direct route between the corral and the green seaside pasture. We were helping my second cousin Christian Santelices (also an international climbing guide) manage the animals on his family’s ranch outside Punta Arenas. The majority of the sheep followed our breathless commands, though eight accidentally separated from their compatriots, got extremely confused and took off for the other side of the pasture. Seeing fleecy butts run off toward the horizon is frustrating, but it’s extremely cute at the same time, so you can’t be too upset.


Most of what we ate during our visit to Río Verde grew up within a mile of our table. The lamb, the lettuce, the eggs: all completely fresh and extremely tasty. Wish I could eat such high quality food all the time. Check out Christian’s wife Sue’s website on ecogastronomy.


We picked and shelled peas from the family’s garden, then ate them for dinner.

Punta Arenas


The penguins on Isla Magdalena, off the coast of Punta Arenas.

We understood our tour guide to say that the chief predator of the penguin is — get this: the squirrel. As might be expected, this drove my mother and me into uncontrollable hysterics. We misheard, I’m sure, though it would be much more fun if we didn’t.



We stopped by the cemetery one afternoon in Punta Arenas to explore the ornately decorated tombs. Macabre, sí, but worth the visit.

To see more photos of our trip, click here.

A pitch black night and golden morning

February 22, 2008

From treeline on Cerro Paine, the lunar eclipse Wednesday night was spectacular. After hiking up the sandy mountain in the dark, we pitched our tents on the only slivers of flatness we could find. Then we sat beneath the lenga trees and polished off a box of wine and loaf of marble cake while watching the moon change from a burnt orange globe to nothing to a burnt orange globe again (the pics didn’t do it justice).

The wind was too powerful in the morning to ascend an hour and a half to the top of the mountain for sunrise (Gabriel guessed the gusts were 200 mph at the summit), so we just walked a few minutes up from our campsite to a clearing. And, Oh. My. Goodness. For 15 minutes as the sun was rising, we lived in the most golden world I’ve ever seen. The entire landscape, including the towers in the distance, was illuminated. We glowed, so did everything else, and above it all shone a rainbow.


Come on, be a nice horsie…

February 14, 2008

I’ve spent the last two weekends watching my baqueano friends jinetear (hi-ni-tay-ar), which, translated directly, means “to show off one’s mad horsemanship skills.” I went to a local jineteada Feb. 1, 2 and 3 in the town of Cerro Castillo (pop. 100) and an international one the 8 and 9 at the Estancia San Jorge, located about 12 km outside Puerto Natales.


The playing field in Cerro Castillo


Aaaaaaand… in San Jorge

Jineteadas are the same as rodeos, only different. During the main event, participants try their damndest to stay planted on the back of a bucking animal that flatly rejects the idea of being ridden. In a rodeo, the main event involves a bull with its balls tied; In a jineteada, the main event involves an untamed horse, upset by the events that proceed as follows:

1. In a muddy corral at the end of the jineteada field, baqueanos rope the wild horses one at a time, then shimmy bridles over their noses. Sort of like face bras. Nobody likes that.


2. Just before the event begins, someone runs the horses from the corral to the far side of the field, where they tie them to one of three 15-foot posts. A bleacher full of spectators looks on. The horse sometimes protests by bucking, yanking away or lying down. The baqueano manning the post fastens a leather strap around the horse’s midsection. In the case of the basto event, this will be the only item the rider has to hold onto.



4. The rider, with a little help from his friends, mounts the horse. He wears sharp spurs around his boots.

5. An official on horseback approaches the post, raises a flag, then lowers it. In a split second, the baqueano in charge of the post releases the rope tying the horse to the pole. The rider kicks the horse with his spurs, slaps it on the butt with his whip, and the horse takes off, his head lowered, his feet kicking. The rider holds on for his dear, dear life until the gong sounds after eight, 12 or 15 seconds, depending on the event.


Sometimes this is incredibly graceful. The horse bucks and the rider’s body follows its rhythm, staying strongly anchored to its back.


Other times, it is incredibly not graceful, like when a wild buck sends the rider crashing to the ground, where, if his foot does not slip properly out of the stirrup, he gets dragged and trampled as the horse sprints across the field toward the corral. I cringed through this during the Cerro Castillo jineteada. An ambulance is always parked right outside the field for this occasion.


Not a fall that required an ambulance, but painful to watch nonetheless

A couple of the baqueanos who work at the hotel participated in the jineteadas this year and both won first place at their events.

While the international jineteada at the San Jorge ranch focused completely on riding wild horses, the Cerro Castillo event encompassed a few other competitions as well. Kiddies rode sheep, teenagers rode cows, baqueanos lassoed the front feet of horses and brought them to the ground.



One of the most popular events at the jineteadas, however, was the never-ending fiesta. Most everyone was a contestant — and most everyone a winner.
I joined the game late in Cerro Castillo, attending an asado, or cookout, in the fenced-in patio of a Castillo resident after the day’s events finished up. We grilled lamb over an open fire while a local guide/musician nicknamed Chapas played traditional music on his guitar, accompanied by many voices and a makeshift drum.


Carlitos and William tending the meat


Paola on drums

Meanwhile, we slang back (new term, invented for the occasion) beer and Piscola (the Chilean liquor Pisco mixed with Coke).

Around midnight, we headed to a dance in the school gym, a la 7th grade. A live band, a packed basketball court, aerobic dancing and tons of fun. Eventually required a sweatband on my part.


You can just see the love in the air (My American friend Alexis and me.)

We CAN stop the fire

February 8, 2008


No need to fight anymore, the fire’s just about out. The volunteers that battled the blaze near Laguna Azul on Wednesday say everything is under control.
The brigade cooled the burning topsoil and roots by digging open the earth and pouring water on the ground. As they worked, they saw clouds of smoke rise from the soil and the water they poured begin to boil. Hot work, but well worth it.

Photo by Gabriel Ortega. All rights reserved.

Danger, danger! The park is on fuego!

February 6, 2008

The meter at the forest service’s Laguna Amarga outpost called it right when rating the fire danger “extreme” yesterday. Since mid-afternoon, clouds of thick gray and black smoke have risen from the pampa near Laguna Azul, about 10 km from where I’m based at Refugio Torre Central. As of now, no one’s sure how the fire started.



My friend and coworker Gabriel Ortega headed out to see the fire around 4:30 this afternoon and took a few shots while he was at it.

Brigadeers from the nearby town of Rio Turbio in Argentina have been fighting the blaze for most of the day and say they have it mostly under control. Still, the hot, dry weather over the last two weeks has left most of the grass around here a brittle brown, and the wind has been blowing hard all day. Not a good combo.


Uncontrolled wildfires have destroyed parts of the park several times before — most recently in February 2005, when a hiker’s lit campstove overturned in an area where fires where prohibited. The resulting flames singed about 5 percent of the park — 28,083 of the park’s 598,500 acres, 37,602 acres total.
The hostería Las Torres is assembling a team of volunteers to fight the fire starting Wednesday. The group will head out at 8 a.m. with shovels and buckets, and has been warned not to wear clothing that contains plastic. No pleather pants, people. Suerte!


All rights reserved on the photos.

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).