what is it about bolivia and its placid, beautiful lagoons?
more importantly, what is it about bolivia and its completely improbable, contradictory, and just plain trippy landscapes?
take the laguna colorada, 4500m above sea level. its waters are fiery red. and even though it is in the middle of a desert and ringed by volcanoes, it is permanently populated by enormous islands of ice. as well as hundreds of flamingos. all together now: what the hell???
you don't normally think of the earth as something that burps, hisses, gurgles, and coughs. but that's exactly what it does in the el tatio geyser field.
walking amidst all the geothermal activity was like roaming the planet during some proterozoic era, when the earth was still trying to figure out what the hell to make of itself. i half expected a dinosaur to appear at any moment.
the curious effects of wind erosion in the atacama desert:
even though i slathered myself with sunblock every other minute, i still got toasted. i learned an important lesson that day, particularly while hunting for an overhang under which i could eat my lunch. in the world's driest desert, do not expect to find any shade. whatsoever. because it ain't there.
the only reason why you can see just a shred of shadow up there is because---finally---the sun was beginning to set. sadly, this was not the case during the grand majority of our bike ride.
so santiago has welcomed me back with open arms...and a major power outage. my good friend claudio posted some snapshots of the chaos yesterday on his blog, if you want to take a peek. basically, the grid went down, cutting power to approximately half the city's stoplights, as well as its most heavily used metro line...during the height of santiago rush hour.
i don't know if legends of this city's congestion have reached the northern hemisphere, but it's bad enough even with a functioning infrastructure. basically, the thousands of commuters who normally use the subway attempted to flood the buses, which weren't moving anyway since the intersections were clogged. a nice example of urban paralysis. add to that road rage of epic proportions. i always wondered why people honk when doing so clearly doesn't produce any positive change in the world (it's not like the people caught in front of you want to be immobile, either)...but in yesterday's case, i thought it was for the better. if drivers didn't have some innocuous way of releasing their frustration, i really think they would have resorted to mowing over sidewalk pedestrians or punching each other out eventually.
in counterpoint to this tale of urban madness, i offer a tranquil desert scene. this one was shot at sunset, during my bike ride through the valle de la luna, near san pedro. i'll post a few more as i sort through my obscene amount of photos during the next couple days.
spent the past couple of days wandering geyser fields (kind of like taking a time machine to some crazy prehistoric era), spying on flamingo colonies in the barren and bizarre landscape that is the atacama salar, eating llama meat (best carne i've ever tasted...YUM), and drinking coca leaf tea (no i am not a druggie. they say it helps you deal with the altitude, tho...). tomorrow i leave for my little foray into bolivia for a 4x4 tour through the altiplano lagunas and salt flats of uyuni. that means no internet for five days. then i'll be in santiago for good! see you then...
ironically, san pedro de atacama has a much more "end of the world" feel than ushuaia. it's literally smack in the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by windcarved desertscape as far as the eye can see. upon entering the town, you feel like you've gotten lost in an old western. all the roads in town are unpaved, and the dimly lit storefronts and restaurants are basically just dusty facades with a few walls. (since it rarely rains, roofs aren't all that necessary.) nevertheless, san pedro is always abuzz with activity, and can actually be quite fun for a night out on the town, if you're looking for a congenial atmosphere, cozy adobe fireplaces, and, oh yeah, lots of tourists. i rather dig this place.
once you leave town, however, the area begins to feel more like a sci-fi flick. today i rented a mountain bike and set off for the valle de la luna, a national reserve a couple hours' cycling from san pedro. it's exactly what it sounds like: an eerie stretch of seemingly lunar landscape (complete with twisted canyons, precarious rock formations, and white ridges encrusted in crystallized salt) that is bathed in red by the sunset. sitting on a sand dune and watching the colors fade over the valley is the closest i think i'll ever get to visiting mars. biking back to san pedro with nothing but a headlamp to cut the ensuing darkness, however, is a harrowing experience that i would rather not repeat.
a brief stop to restock in santiago, and it's on to the final leg of my southern cone trip. after a 24-hour busride, i've arrived in san pedro de atacama, a town situated in the driest desert in the world (fifty times drier than death valley!) fortunately, san pedro is built on an oasis, surrounded by the mars-like landscape of the valle de luna, boiling geyser fields, and pristine altiplano lakes where, somewhat absurdly, flamingo colonies thrive. from san pedro, i will cross the bolivian border to take a multi-day 4x4 excursion across the immense salar de uyuni (the planet's highest and largest salt flats). i am catching it at the end of the rainy season, during which the ground lies under a few inches of water. this converts the salar into the largest mirror on earth, perfectly reflecting the skies and erasing any trace of a horizon. even if i miss the rains, the white infinity of the flats should still be quite a sight to see.
they say that you get all four seasons in one day at torres del paine, and they are not kidding. the powerful winds push completely contradictory weather systems through the park at breakneck speeds. thus, in the same hour, you can experience sunlight fierce enough to make you strip down to a t-shirt, followed by a chill so intense it numbs your fingers, followed by rain, wind, snow, clouds, hail, more sun...and did i mention wind? i do not exaggerate. merciful, this park is not.
the marvelous thing about the volatile weather, however, is that no vista in torres del paine remains the same for more than a few seconds. everything is always changing; clouds are constantly revealing and shrouding mountains...light plays differently off leaves and water from moment to moment. this spells trouble for a camera-happy trekker like me. how many times did i think i had captured the most perfect photo of a scene, when the mist suddenly shifted to reveal a totally hidden mountain chain...or glacier...or river? i would snap another photo, only to find that, seconds later, a different and even more impressive landscape had been unveiled. no doubt my film-developing costs are going to be sky high. but given some of the breathtaking sights we witnessed during our five days in the park, i would say it's a small price to pay.
below are a couple glimpses that i snatched with my digicam. the best ones are still on 35mm film, though...i'll get to scanning them once things settle down.
one of our first views of the park---taken through the bus window. the scorched, black land you see is the handiwork of the fire that's been raging for the past couple weeks.
alvaro, stef, and i begin our trip at the eastern end of the 'W'.
as the clouds part after a heavy rain, we discover that we've been obliviously walking along spectacular mountains the entire day. where did they come from??
a cliff-bound river roars away.
alvaro and stef take a breather after a tough climb. at the time of this photo, we were completely lost. again. despite being such a well-visited park, the trails (particularly in the privately-owned concessions) are not very well maintained. they tend to splinter off into indistinguishable false paths that eventually leave you stranded. we lost several frustrating hours to this, unfortunately.
the famous cuernos del paine...great horns of granite topped with sedimentary rock that often symbolize the park. the waterfall between them is full from the previous night's downpour.
contemplating glacier grey.
the torres del paine themselves. water streams from the edge of the receding glaciers to the laguna below. we reached the summit just in time to catch the torres before they were completely swallowed by rain clouds.
finished at last! one final photo before we unload our backpacks for good.
packed and ready for several meals of ramen, rice cakes, and raisins. we'll be out in torres del paine for five days, so the more lightweight our load, the better. after gathering provisions in puerto natales this afternoon, we've nothing left to do but sit back and anticipate our first day of backpacking the 'W' circuit.
no more posts until i get back to civilization (i.e. santiago) next week. till then, here are some photos from our time in parque nacional los glaciares...
el perito moreno: one of the few & largest active glaciers left in the world. imagine chunks of ice the size of buildings collapsing off this thing...right in front of your eyes!
the fitzroy mountain range. the trail winds through valleys, bluffs, forests of lenga, and glacier-fed streams, right up to the tallest tower.
the tranquil laguna de los tres...your reward after an exhausting climb up to the base of cerro fitz roy.
the torre mountain range, also part of el chalten's trekking circuit.
a gnarled patagonian tree.
final view from my second hike: the glacier lake at the foot of cerro torre.
alvaro, stef, and me on the balconies at perito moreno.
spent the last couple days trekking around the fitz roy and torres mountain ranges in el chalten, an area at the northern end of argentina's glacier park. if you are looking for awe-inspiring patagonian scenery, this place will not let you down. although the region is normally windy, rainy, and shrouded in thick clouds, i managed to catch it during a series of picture-perfect sunny days. according to the park ranger, this type of weather rarely ever occurs. people wait for months at a time for a clear view of the famous peaks. i was thus really lucky to view some rare and magnificent mountain vistas, both from afar and up close. i'll post some photos as soon as i get back to santiago.
the trails i took led right up to the feet of the glaciers, where pristine lagunas of varying colors, whether ultramarine blue or dusky green, had formed. quite a reward for hours of hiking: being able to take off your shoes and rest your feet on the shores of a glacier lake, while jagged andean spires just a few hundred meters away tower over you. the park certainly makes you work for it, though...its trails involve some steep and sustained inclines. but it's worth every blister.
next stop: torres del paine! after several thousand hectares of damage, it looks like the fire is under control and the park has reopened. i've met up with stef and alvaro (they stayed in el calafate while stef got over a badly-timed cold), and our bus leaves tomorrow for puerto natales. till then!