Monthly Archives: December 2011

CLOSED: Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Into the Fire. Photo by Claudia Saunders.

Because of a wildfire that began last Tuesday, the Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (Onemi) has closed Parque Nacional Torres del Paine until further notice.

 

As of this morning, the fire has consumed up to 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land in the western sector of the park. Rugged terrain and strong winds (up to 95 kilometers / 59 miles per hour) are hampering efforts to bring it under control. In a press conference yesterday, Rodrigo Hinzpeter of the Ministro del Interior y Seguridad Pública stated, “We are confronted with an extremely dangerous and complex fire; in the zone, we have very adverse climatic conditions today and the forecast indicates the weather will be adverse tomorrow. Furthermore, the topography of the place makes it difficult for the brigades to fight the fire, along with highly combustible vegetation.”

 

The weather forecast calls for high winds again today (Friday), with a chance of showers Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

 

On the ground are over 150 firefighters from the national forest service Conaf, the Chilean military and Argentina. Three helicopters are also being employed. Private entities, like Fantástico Sur, which operates several refuges in the park, are asking for volunteers with experience fighting forest fires in mountainous terrain to help preserve their properties. Interested individuals should contact Katherine MacCormick at 61-614184.

 

According to La Prensa Austral, a foreign tourist is suspected of starting the fire. This is the third time in less than a decade that the 227,298-hectare (561,665-acre) park has been hit by a man-made forest fire. In 2005, about 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) were destroyed and another 10 square meters (108 square feet) were burnt in February 2011. In both cases, foreign trekkers were responsible.

 

Unconfirmed reports say that the fire, which began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé, has spread past the Valle del Francés and Salto Grande. The wharf in Paine Grande is destroyed. Hotel Explora and el Hotel Grey are threatened. Approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from the park. According to another source, the Cuernos and Torres sectors have not been evacuated yet. Evacuations are expected to continue this morning. Thus far, no injuries or deaths have occurred.

 

News of the extent of the fire remain sketchy. Visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Sernatur, Prensa Austral or Radio Polar. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales. Bill Penhollow, owner of erratic rock, recommends tourists come back in a week.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

Residents of Puerto Natales will be having a demonstration Friday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza de Armas, to call on the government to bring in more reinforcements to combat the blaze. The environmental groups Frente Defensa Ecologico Austral and Frente Defensa Ecológico Austral II in Punta Arenas will have a candlelight rally Friday evening (6:30 p.m. Colón and Bories streets, Punta Arenas). Another demonstration is planned at La Moneda at 6 p.m., in the nation’s capital, Santiago.

 

RED ALERT: Wildfire in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park

Since Tuesday, a wildfire in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has consumed at least 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of forest and forced the evacuation of 400 tourists from the Western sector of the park.

 

The fire began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé.

 

Conaf, Chile’s national park administration, has declared a red alert in that area of Torres del Paine. Over 100 firefighters from Chile and Argentina are on the ground battling the blaze, and helicopters have been called in. High winds, registering up to 95 kilometers per hour (59 mph), are exacerbating the situation.

 

According to Chile’s tourism board, Sernatur, the popular W Circuit is within the affected area. Hikers are to avoid the Pehoé, Grey and Campamento Italiano trails. The old Pehoé refuge has burned and Lodge Paine Grande is threatened.

 

The Eastern sector of Torres del Paine National Park remains open. However, visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Radio Polar or La Prensa Austral. Erratic rock in Puerto Natales is also an excellent source.

 

The cause of the fire is not immediately known, though it was not caused by lightning strike, as lightening does not occur in those latitudes. In recent weeks, the region has had warm, dry weather. There have been no injuries or deaths related to the fire.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

On the Road : Peru — Viringos

A viringo, or Peruvian Hairless Dog. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

In the ruins of northern Peru inhabits a strange-looking, ugly creature. Some travelers might mistake it for a large rat with long legs; others, a poor, mangy dog.

 

It is neither. These creatures of dark grey, leathery skin and a head tufted with sparse golden hair are the viringo, or hairless Peruvian dog. It was the mascot of the ruling classes of the Moche, Chimú and other nations that lived along these desert coasts. They have been found buried in elites’ tombs, like that of the Lord of Sipán at Huaca Rajada, near Chiclayo. Archaeologists believe they were considered to have special connections with the Underworld and other supernatural powers. Sometimes they were used for meat. They were frequently represented in pottery.

 

The Inca called the Peruvian hairless dog allqu. In Quechua, its name is kaclla, or “hot water bag.” The viringo is one of several breeds of hairless dogs found in the Americas, as well as other parts of the world. International kennel associations only recognize the viringo, Mexico’s xoloitzcuintle (escuintle) and the Chinese crested. Bolivia and Ecuador also have native hairless varieties; that of Guatemala is considered extinct.

 

Viringos not only are hairless, but also virtually toothless. Their thick skin allows them to have a high body temperature (39-42ºC / 102-108ºF) to stay warm in the chill nights. For generations, local humans have used this trait as a medicine. The dogs are placed on parts of a patient’s body that is suffering from arthritis, rheumatism or other malady. It is also said that placing a viringo on the chest helps alleviate asthma.

 

The dogs became very rare. But with the Instituto Nacional de Cultura’s policy of featuring these dogs in the ruins of the former dynasties that revered the viringo, this breed’s prestige has grown. A puppy fetches up to $2,000 in Europe. In 2001, Peru declared the viringo a national heritage treasure.

 

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Peru, updating our 2012 edition of V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Chile’s Carretera Austral: Ten Adventures to Get Your Adrenaline Fix

Taking a rest.

South America’s summer officially begins tonight, but already travelers have been hitting Chile’s Carretera Austral (Ruta 7), which extends 1,247 kilometers (775 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Bicyclists are battling the infamous Patagonian wind as gravel kicks up around their tires. Some backpackers stand by the roadsides, thumb outstretched, to explore the road that way. Very few travelers take the public buses or rent a car. This is a highway where dreams can be made reality.

If the adventure of biking or hitching the Carretera Austral isn’t enough for you, V!VA Travel Guides Chile presents you  with a cornucopia of high-adrenaline activities to keep you pumped going down the highway. This region has many legs of the national hiking trail network, the Sendero de Chile (www.senderodechile.cl). Local families provide homestay and guiding services for not only trekking, but also birdwatching, horseback riding, fly fishing, rock climbing and other sports.

So dig out the hiking boots and pack in the provisions because it’s time to hit the open road.

 

1 – Parque Nacional Horniporén

Parque Nacional Horniporén, near the start of the Carretera Austral, protects important transition zones of flora, fauna and geology. Over 13 kilometers (8 miles) of hiking trails wind through this fascinating landscape. The nearby village of Río Puelo is the starting point for an even more challenging trek: four nights, five days across the Paso Río Puelo border to El Bolsón, Argentina.

Kayaking on the Futaleufú River.

2 – Futaleufú

Rafters and kayakers, get your gear ready to shoot through the rapids of the Futa, one of the world’s three most challenging rivers. The toughest stretches are the “Infierno” (22 kilometers / 14 miles, Class III-IV) and the “Terminator” (7 kilometers / 4.2 miles, Class V). The Espolón River is renowned for its fly fishing. Dry land adventures are horseback riding and hiking near town and in Reserva Natural Futaleufú.

Further down the highway you can get another whitewater  fix on the Río Baker’s Class III rapids at Puerto Bertrand.

 

3 – Palena

Reserva Nacional Lago Palena offers horseback riding, fly fishing and a half-dozen hiking trails ranging from four kilometers (2.4 miles) to 13 kilometers (8 miles) in distance. It is also the staging ground for a 65-kilometer (39-mile) stretch of the Sendero de Chile, from Palena to Lago Verde (near La Junta).

 

A waterfall in Queulat National Park.

4 – Puyuhuapi

The delights around Puyuhuapi, a small German settlement on a fiord, never ceases to amaze travelers. After hiking to the hanging glaciers and waterfalls in Parque Nacional Queulat, soak your tired muscles in one of two hot springs near the village.

 

5 – Coyhaique

While you’re restocking on money and other necessary supplies in the Northern Patagonia’s major city, take some time out to explore the three national reserves near town: Monumento Nacional Dos Lagunas, Reserva Nacional Río Simpson and Reserva Nacional Coyhaique. On the coast is Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, most known for its boat tours to the glaciers. But it also has several hiking trails, ice climbing (for the experienced and equipped) and camping.

Coyahique is also home to Escuela de Guías de la Patagonia, a school that trains the region’s guides. During the summer, it also teaches travelers camping, rock climbing and other skills to survive Patagonian rigors.

 

Cerro Castillo.

6 – Cerro Castillo

With geological features much like Torres del Paine, Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo has a distinct advantage: It is virtually unvisited. The challenging 45-kilometer (28 mile) Valle de la Lima-Villa Cerro Castillo trek, which takes three to four days, wraps around the base of the mountain, with stunning views of icy lagoons and glaciers. If time is short, you can visit the park on horseback from the village.

 

7 – Bahía Exploradores

The boat tour of Río Tranquilo’s marble caves provides a respite from Chile’s Northern Patagonia’s trekking opportunities. But it’s now time for the next challenge: Hiking out the 59-kilometer (37-mile) road towards Bahía Exploradores, and ice trekking Glaciar Exploradores.

Capilla de Marmól, near Río Capilla.

8 – Cochrane

Besides being the last place along the highway where you can pick up on money and basic supplies, Cochrane has the Reserva Nacional Tamango. Also near town is Laguna Esmeralda with swimming, kayaking and great trout fishing. If you’re ready to roll up the ol’ sleeves and help restore natural habitats for huemul and puma, then volunteer at Valle Chacabuco nature reserve.

 

Caleta Tortel.

9 – Caleta Tortel

The entire village of Caleta Tortel is a hiking experience, with over seven kilometers (4.2 miles) of cypress-wood boardwalks. This is also where the southern sector of Parque Nacional San Rafael and Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins are accessed.  Both have hikes to glaciers. Caleta Tortel is also a prime kayaking destination.

 

10 – Villa O’Higgins

Villa O’Higgins is the last town on Chile’s Carretera Austral. From here, you’ll have to backtrack north to Cochrane or Lago General Carrera to cross over into Argentina. Or you can boat across Lago O’Higgins and hike to El Chaltén, Argentina—what has been called one of the world’s most beautiful border crossings (Paso Dos Lagunas). Before you leave this end-of-the-road town, though, take some time to hike or horseback ride one of the seven trails in the area, including two in the northern sector of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins.

The highway’s end.

 

Traversing the Carretera Austral once the snows swirl in late autumn provides other ways to get the old adrenaline pumping. The road becomes impassable and many of towns remain isolated for weeks at a time. The best place to use as a base is Coyhaique. You can snowshoe and cross country ski in the three national reserves near that city or in Cerro Castillo just to the south. Coyhaique also has a downhill ski center, Centro de Ski el Fraile.

The Carretera Austral can be accessed by several border crossings from Argentina, or by boats arriving at Chaitén, Puerto Chacabuco (near Coyhaique) and other villages.

There are many other towns along the Carretera Austral that provide many other delights. Pack along your V!VA Travel Guides Chile for the most complete coverage of the region than any other guidebook on the market.

Three Towns in Chile Anyone Will Love

When travelers plan their trips to Chile, usually Santiago, Valparaiso and the wine country are at the top of their lists. But other parts of the country offer towns that anyone will love, places full of history, culinary delights and cultural diversity. Three cities that are often overlooked are Arica, Valdivia and Porvenir. V!VA Travel Guides Chile can help you explore the many facets of these places.

 

In the extreme north of Chile, just mere kilometers from the Peruvian border, is Arica. Among this city’s many distinctions are the world’s shortest railroad (from Arica to Tacna, Peru) and the oldest mummies (over 10,000 years old). It is a city steeped in history. This once-important Spanish colonial port was a major battleground during the War of the Pacific. It also was wiped out twice by tsunamis in the 19th century. Several structures by Gustave Eiffel decorate downtown.

Arica offers nature lovers bird watching at the Lluta River Mouth wetlands and boat tours along the coast to the Humboldt penguin colony at Caleta de Camarones. Adrenaline junkies can hit some of the world’s most challenging surf or go kitesurfing. And of course, the miles of beaches and Isla del Alacrán offer a bit of something for everyone.

Eiffel's cathedral in Arica.

On the cultural front, the city has several museums, like the Museo del Mar and El Morro hill with the Museo Histórico y de Armas. On any given day, you can see Aymara or African-descendent dance troupes dancing down the 21 de Mayo pedestrian street. This is also a favorite venue for the medieval-esque tuna music groups. Culinary delights include empanadas de jaiba-queso (crab and cheese pies) and sopa marinera (seafood soup).

Two river valley oases hug Arica. To the north is Valle de Lluta, with many small Andean villages with colonial churches and the Eco-Truly yoga spa. Valle de Azapa, which is famous for its olives, begins south of the city. Along the road are dozens of geoglyphs, or designs etched into the hillsides, tombs and a pre-Columbian pukará fortress. The Museo de San Miguel has ancient mummies and fine textiles.

Arica is also a good jumping off point for trips to the Pre-Cordillera de Belén, where a dozen Aymara villages and ancient ruins nestle into the folds of the Andean foothills, Putre and Parque Nacional Lauca near the Bolivian border.

Riding the surf in Arica.

South of Santiago is Valdivia, in the heart of Chile’s famed Lake District. This city at the confluence of three rivers also has a fascinating history. In the dawn of the 17th century, the Mapuche indigenous forced the Spanish to abandon the port which was later occupied by Dutch pirates. In their efforts to reconquer their Pearl of the Pacific, the Spaniards built the America’s second largest fortress system, covering over 18 kilometers (11 miles). During the 19th century, thousands of Germans immigrated here. In 1960, the largest earthquake in modern history destroyed the city.

The Mapuche festival in Valdivia.

Today, Valdivia is a culturally and ethnically vibrant city. It has a full slate of museums covering everything from natural history to art, as well as a half-dozen performance art centers. The city’s ethnic diversity is celebrated with several festivals: Bierfest (January 29-February 1), Fiesta de las Tradiciones (September 17-21) and Expoarte y Cultura Mapuche (November 28-30).

 Visitors to Valdivia can join the national rowing team sculling the rivers. You can also spend a day boating towards the sea to visit the Spanish fortresses at Isla Mancera, Corral and Niebla, or upstream to Punucapa and the Cuello Negro brewery. Kunstmann, famous throughout Chile for its beer, also is headquartered near Valdivia.

A Spanish fortress.

At the end of a day of exploring Valdivia and its region, try some of its famous seafood or a crudo, a dish of its German origin. Of course, accompany any repast with one of the local beers (Café las Gringas serves all of Chile’s microbrews) and end it with some delectable chocolate.

Valdivia is a good point to launch any hiking expedition into the Lake District’s many national parks, like Villarrica, near Pucón, with a volcano to climb, or Puyehue, with an active volcano. Hot springs, fishing and other nature diversions spot the countryside around the Seven Lakes. The entire region is perfumed by the Mapuche and German cultures.

Black-neck Swans.

At the far end of Chile, on the eastern shore of the Magellan Strait, is our last destination: Porvenir. This town on the island of Tierra del Fuego also has a deep history and culture. It was where Selk’nam wandered and fished, Croats and Chilotes came looking for gold at the end of the rainbow and Chilean cinema was born.

Follow the rainbow to Porvenir.

Although the indigenous peoples of this land are long gone, you can learn about their culture at the Museo Provincial Fernando Cordero Rusque. Porvenir’s modern history began with a gold rush in the late 19th century. By following the Circuito Histórico Cultural into the mountains near Porvenir, you will find men still panning the chill streams for gold nuggets. This historic circuit also wends to the old sheep ranch Estancia Caleta Josefina and Onaisín.

The shores of Porvenir’s bay is a great place to learn about the town’s history and to birdwatch. Another refuge for avifauna is Monumento Nacional de los Cisnes. Out in the hinterlands of the island are Lago Blanco, a trout angler’s Paradise, and the Cordillera de Darwin, the ultimate adventure for trekkers.

Porvenir is accesible by ferry from Punta Arenas, or by private vehicle the Argentine cities Ushuaia and Río Gallegos. To visit sites in the countryside around Porvenir, rent a car in any of the major cities, hire a driver in Porvenir, go on tour or bicycle out. As in other parts of Chile, seafood is superb here. Porvenir is the best place to try centolla, or king crab.

 

Arica, Valdivia and Porvenir are all easy to get to from the neighboring countries. If you’re needing a break from Peru or Argentina, head over the border for the multi-faceted pleasures these three towns guarantee. Pack along V!VA’s other guidebooks to help you navigate into the lesser-known corners of all these countries.

The Elves of El Bolsón, Argentina: Mythical or Magical?

Most people come to El Bolsón, in Argentina’s Lake District, for its spectacular mountain scenery, wooded hiking trails, holistic spas and bohemian spirit. What many don’t know is that a trip to El Bolsón may mean sleeping among the famous duendes, or goblins, which are said to inhabit the forests around the small village—or at least being entertained by stories of duende sightings over a glass of locally brewed beer at the bar.

"El Bolsón Río Azul lupines," by MiguelVierira, 2011: http://www.flickr.com/photos/miguelvieira/6349893047/

It is no secret within town that a large population of elves lives in this area. Artists and creative types, who have called El Bolsón home since the 1960s, have cited the inspiration of these supernatural beings in their imaginative works.  It is commonly believed that there is a secret record of all the elves that live here, along with the names of some special guests who have visited them. This cherished list is known as the “Omsimitaica Honimac,” and can only be accessed by those who have had chance encounters with the duendes.

"El Bolson 2," by Pablo Arinci, 2009: http://www.flickr.com/photos/polfoto/3228235335/in/photostream

However, it has been an ongoing process of determining the truth in the stories told about run-ins with these gnomes. One thing is for sure: the duendes are nocturnal, sleeping in hidden spaces until sundown, when they gather for all-night revelry. Speculation points to a few major spots where these elves are thought to congregate, including at the foothills of Mount Piltriquiron, around the “Cabeza del Indio” (Indian’s Head), at the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Garden), in the “Bosque Tallado” (Carved Forest) and in the area around the “Cajón de Azul.”

"Bosque Tallado," by missgis, 2009: http://www.flickr.com/photos/missgis/3517049417/

The goblins are supposedly very happy, playful creatures, and are unafraid to interact with humans. When visitors happen upon one of their meeting places, they are said to welcome their guests with sweet elixir and strawberries. Three of the gnomes then present the traveler with three tiny clay pots filled with a pinch of stars, which is then planted in the visitor’s soul. After this ritual, the elves begin to recite ancient legends to the guest.

Many campers have reported incidents of duende activity on their campsites, shocked to find their trashed tent areas from the night before completely clean come morning. Some local residents have even mentioned finding passed out elves on their front lawns.

Although duendes are commonly associated with European mythology, enough evidence points to the existence of these magical creatures in the woods of El Bolsón, Argentina. However, whether you choose to believe in the Lord-of-the-Rings-esque nature of this place or not is up to you.

In the Footsteps of Che Guevara

Wherever you go in Latin America, you see the face of ErnestoChe” Guevara on t-shirts and murals. Since the fall of the military dictatorships and civil wars throughout the continent, hostels and cafés tout this alluring 20th century revolutionary.

 

Interest in the mythical Che Guevara rose with the release of The Motorcycle Diaries, a movie that chronicled his journey from his homeland Argentina to Venezuela with childhood friend Alberto Granado. It’s a tale many travelers can relate to: Leaving for the open road to see what is there, and discovering how journeying transforms one within.

 

Che Guevara’s trip, though, was much more than a ride an old Norton bike engraved on DVDs. It was a real live journey, from birth to death. V!VA’s Travel Guides for Argentina and Bolivia can lead you in the footsteps of Che Guevara.

 

Che Guevara was born quite by accident in Rosario, Argentina. His parents, Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna, were en route to Buenos Aires by river from their yerba mate homestead in Misiones Province. By the time the boat reached Rosario’s port, Celia was in labor.

The old homestead.

In Caraguatay, near Montecarlo in Misiones Province, the family’s homestead is now Parque Provincial Che Guevara. Rosario, which has embraced Che as its native son, has several sites related to his life. The casa natal, where his parents lived several months after his birth, stands at Urquiza and Entre Ríos. A few blocks away is Plaza de la Cooperación with a mural to him (Tucumán and Mitre). Plaza y Monumento al Che Guevara (Buenos Aires and Bulevar 27 de Febrero) has an imposing statue of the revolutionary.

 

The Guevara-de la Serna family spent most of Che’s childhood in Altagracia, near Córdoba. One of their homes is now Museo del Che Guevara. The galpón (warehouse) where Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado spent the night during their epic Motorcycle Diaries journey is now Museo La Pastera, in San Martín de los Andes (Sarmiento and R. Roca, Tel: 02972-411-994, E-mail: info@lapasteramuseoche.org.ar, URL: www.lapastera.org.ar). For more information about the roads Che traveled in his homeland, visit www.loscaminosdelche.gov.ar.

 

Che Guevara began his life in Argentina, but ended it in neighboring Bolivia on October 9, 1967. In the eastern part of that country is the 800-kilometer (500-mile) Ruta del Che, which traces the steps of the last revolutionary army he led. In villages along the route are museums composed of displays with information culled from the revolutionaries’ diaries, as well as from Bolivian military documents and newspaper articles of the era. In Lagunillas is the Museo de Ñancahuazú and in Vallegrande, the Museo Municipal del Che Guevara.

 

Many of the sites associated with his last days are in La Higuera, where a large bust truncates the only road through town. Locals will offer to take you down to Quebrada del Churo, where Che was captured. In the village is the old two-room schoolhouse where he was executed. It is now a modest museum. The story ends in Vallegrande. At the laundry shed of the public hospital, the revolutionary’s body was displayed to the international press. Today, the building is covered with the messages from the thousands of pilgrims who have come over the decades. Near the airport is a memorial near the mass grave where Che and other guerrillas were secretly buried for over three decades.

 

Tour operators in Santa Cruz offer three-day excursions on the route, usually visiting Samaipata, Vallegrande and La Higuera. The Ruta del Che may also be trekked. Community-run lodging and local guides are available along the entire route.