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Valparaiso – last port of call

Santiago de Chile. One last day before the journey to the fin del mundo is over. We don’t know the city at all and it seems too huge for a quick sample, so instead we plan a day trip to the coast and drive through the flowering fields of Californian poppy, vines, orchards and a national park forest to the port city of Valparaiso.

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“Valpo” has been described as gritty and groovy. It is both. Many of the city’s iconic and historical neighbourhoods and buildings have seen better days.

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Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal it was certainly a very significant 19th Century port town and the architecture  reflects the influence of its  European immigrants and also, its naval importance.

Valpo Amada

There is now much urban renewal and the fortunes of the city are again rising. Many of the buildings in the faded hilltop “hoods” are being revitalised.

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Valparaiso is definitely on the tourist route in summer.

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With its historical buildings and monuments, arts scene, shops, cafes, bars, boutique hotels and nightlife it does not disappoint.

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The funiculars  – the oldest operating since 1883 – provide quirky, creaky  access to  locations such as Cerro Concepcion.

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Side by side are beautifully restored  colonial buildings,  brightly painted houses with their bohemian vibe,  walls of street art and political graffiti.

Valpo street art

As in many other places in South America, sleeping dogs lie undisturbed in any convenient spot.

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Back in Santiago on the last evening before our departure we sample just a little of Barrio Lastarria before dinner.

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A stroll in the park close to the hotel, an appreciation of colonial influences on the architecture  (Museo de Bellas Artes); then an empanada and a pisco sour, the music of a street performance ……..the journey is over.

“This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.” Pablo Neruda

 

 

 

 

Tierra Patagonia

Images of a wild and beautiful place, the urging of a former guide in South America, and a romantic notion of the “uttermost ends of the earth” – all were convincing – so we followed the adrenalin rush of our experiences with Cruceros Australia to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn with a visit to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine – a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1978 – and more time in amazing Patagonia.

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Our drive from El Calafate in Argentina on the first day provided a gradual introduction to the unique environments of the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region, including Patagonian steppe, Pre-Andean scrubland, Magellan forest, glaciers and watercourses.

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But nothing could quite prepare us for the location of the Tierra Patagonia Hotel on the shores of Lake Sarmiento and the ever present magnificence of the peaks or for the soft (but nonetheless amazing) adventure of a few more days at the end of the world.

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Tierra Patagonia Hotel is uniquely placed to provide visitors to the national park with an uninterrupted vista stretching from Paine Grande, including the “Cuernos” (horns), the “Torres” (towers), the Almirante Nieto and Nido de Condor.

The weather here can be notoriously changeable with bone chilling winds – it was not.

 

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We saw sunrise, sunset, moon rise and moon set, reflections in lakes and the mesmerising presence of the peaks of the Paine Massif from different perspectives as we travelled on excursions, a navigation, hikes and on horseback throughout the park. We were spellbound by the 360 degree picture postcard moments but also felt utterly privileged to go out each day with our very experienced guides.

Thursday afternoon – arrival day – Cornisas (Cornices) hike

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From this plateau we had stunning views of las Torres del Paine, Sierra Contreras and Sierra del Torro. The sky was blue, the breeze fresh but light and the condors were soaring and performing for the cameras.

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The unmarked trail was strewn with small flowering plants, the most notable the red mate guanacos.

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Our expert guide was relaxed but reassuring as we made a skidding, zigzag descent.

Friday morning – Hunters Trail

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After a frosty start, the weather was again unbelievably bright, sunny and calm.

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The trail gave us a chance to pass close to herds of guanacos.

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A key focus was a visit to the rocky outcrop with “pinturas repestros de Aonikenk” – cave paintings of a native people who were hunter gatherers and occupied the area some 6,000 years ago.

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Again, the initial descent was a little challenging. It then became obvious that we were in the territory of a hunter – the puma (the predator of the guanaco).

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The grassy sierra was strewn with their remains – some recent kills. According to our guide, the nervous behaviour of the guanacos also indicated that a puma was not so far away.

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Friday afternoonLaguna Azul

There was a relaxing option after lunch. A drive north to the Blue Lagoon, stopping along the way at the Paine waterfall – such a powerful, deafening surge of water and an exhilarating experience to walk along the path and feel the spray on our faces.

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The picnic spot in the forest above the lake had more breathtaking views.

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A curious (and obviously scavenging) Caracara approached us hopefully.

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The picnic spread provided by the hotel included a refreshingly crisp white wine. Pure pleasure.

Saturday – full day including navigation on Lago Grey

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A very long day but there was so much to see and do! The drive included stops along Lago Pehoe, views of another impressive waterfall on the Rio Paine, an informative visit to the administration centre of the park (CONAF), a “typical” lunch at Rio Serrano, a forest walk, a (stony) beach walk and a trip aboard the Grey II on the lake right up to the Grey Glacier.

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We boarded the boat late in the afternoon for the cruise to the glacier.

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The little boat was crowded and there was the usually difficulty for the photographers to that ‘perfect’ shot.

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The sky again was a brilliant blue and the skyline of the Paine Grande was imposing. The boat manoeuvred among  the ice floes along each face of the glacier – it was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience to hear the ice crunching under the bow.

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We would have appreciated a guide aboard the boat. This was not provided but the friendly crew offered pisco sours with clinking glacier ice.

Sunday – Baguales and Estancia Lazo

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Our last day in this beautiful hotel – an option was to simply relax and experience its picture perfect location, sympathetic eco design immersed in the landscape with spa, library, relaxation areas, extensive picture windows overlooking the lake, dining room and bar. BUT we opted to go out again. In the morning after an interesting drive we reached a higher altitude and walked beside a stream looking for fossils.

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We were outside the park and crossed the boundaries of estancias. Wild horses roamed freely.

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In the afternoon, eager for one last opportunity to be out in the park we spent a couple of hours horse riding accompanied by our guide and a couple of local gauchos, through ancient forest of lenga trees to a lookout point.

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On the drive to the estancia (and during the drive south to Punta Arenas the next day) it was quite confronting to see how much of the forest has fallen victim to massive fires (2011) and ongoing destruction caused by a parasite (commonly called Chinese lantern).

Monday – departure

Soft clouds were dimming the brilliance of the southern sky and the wind was beginning to rise. It was time to leave. As a parting gesture, the manager handed me a password. It was the key to my ongoing connection to this land. If I chose to activate the link, Tierra Patagonia Hotel would plant a tree on my behalf as part of a renewal program for the depleted forest.

Our guide drove us on the long road south to Punta Arenas through a rather desolate open countryside of immense sheep stations. We turned for one last look at las Torres del Paine (towers of blue)), the condors wheeled in the air in farewell and flamingos provided a surprise flash of pink in the landscape.

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Faithful pairs of upland geese were a constant reminder of a land appearing dry and desolate but carrying so much water in its lagoons, lakes, streams, rivers and glaciers – I added my tears in farewell.

“Why then – and this is not only my particular case – does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain…but it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination.”   Charles Darwin.

 

 

Odyssey

Saturday (Navigation – Punta Arenas/Ainsworth Bay 90 Nm)

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The sky is clear, there is a fresh breeze whipping at the flags and the reception desk is a flurry of passports and boarding documents.

AAA Superior Cabin 422 on the bridge deck, Pisco Sours, a welcome toast in the Darwin Lounge (5th deck), meet and greet the captain and the expedition crew and then we are sailing into Estrecho de Magellenes! Everyone wants to be outside on the rails until the very last moment of the sunset before dinner is served in the Patagonia Dining Room (1st deck).

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We embrace the shipboard rhythm of briefings, drinks and fine food  – and anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.

Sunday (Navigation Ainsworth Bay/Tuckers Islets/Pia Glacier 208 Nm)

The Sky Lounge (4th deck) offers early coffee and fresh, gourmet pastries for those who are keen to photograph the sunrise or work out in the gym.

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Today’s disembarkations are not testing physically but it is the first time wearing all the gear and following procedure for leaving the ship and returning in the zodiacs.

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There is a shore excursion in the morning – we see our first condors of the trip, walk through an Antarctic beech forest, examine delicate marsh plants, mosses, lichens and mussel beds with our guide Javiera in the National Park Alberto de Agostini.

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I could have stayed longer at the imposing rock face – no cathedral, no matter how soaring or ornate can possibly match the sense of ‘awesome’ as this remote, silent, natural place.

Prior to the afternoon disembarkation to view penguins and cormorants at Tuckers Islet, there is some trepidation about the sea conditions but the crew ensures that the expedition (although thrilling) is quite safe despite the 30 knot westerly wind. AND we see another condor. BUT there are fewer penguins than usual – fewer each year.

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The evening lecture is Glaciology in Patagonia and after the briefing for the next day, there is very little energy for the other entertainments provided.

Monday (Navigation – Pia Glacier/Cape Horn 142 Nm)

There is high excitement as we sail in Ballerno Channel as the clear, early morning weather deteriorates. Snow flurries! The disembarkation for Pia Glacier goes ahead although there are a few modifications to the excursion on land because of the snow. It is quite amazing to be so close to the ice and very satisfying to experience this chilly place while drinking whisky and hot chocolate.

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We are anticipating a perfect sail through Glacier Alley and are keen to capture all five glaciers on film. It is not to be. The snow increases and there is almost complete white out. Disappointment is put aside as we anticipate the itinerary for the next day and the bar provides drinks and snacks and opportunities for interesting talk with new acquaintances.

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Late in the afternoon there is a briefing for the next day’s morning excursion – Wulaia Bay. And in the evening, the Captain’s dinner.

Tuesday (Navigation – Wulaia Bay/Cape Horn 78Nm; Cape Horn/Pto Navarino 94 Nm; Pto Navarinot/Ushuaia 20 Nm)

This place is steeped in history and legend. Captain Fitz Roy, naturalist Charles Darwin, Yaghan aborigines….the stories are wonderfully and meticulously curated in an old naval station. However, as we disembark for the hill hike in Wulaia Bay, our thoughts are on the viewpoints far above us which we will strive to reach. There was fresh snow overnight but now the forest is a winter wonderland (even though it is October and officially Spring).

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The track is muddy and the climb long and steep but well worth the effort as we reach the viewpoint and see Stella as a tiny toy on the bay below. There are photos and a minute’s silence to appreciate the pristine environment and breathe the clear, cool air. No sound except the rushing water of an icy stream.

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This day yields another excitement late in the afternoon. The captain and crew keep us in suspense as they assess the sea and landing conditions on Isla Hornos – the ultimate experience for most on this expedition is to reach Cape Horn AND go ashore to the monument. After the satisfaction of the morning climb in Wulaia Bay, I am feeling that Cape Horn would be an extra bonus.

The disembarkation begins. I am on the second boat to land and push myself to climb to the monument – then race to the lighthouse and back down to the landing spot in the fading light for the first zodiac back to the boat.

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It is time for the farewell toast all too soon. I really wanted a very special keepsake for us to take home – there was a raffle for the 150th voyage flag (the Jack) and an auction of the nautical chart too. But I am happy with the Cape Horn stamp in my Passport and the memory of an unforgettable expedition cruise. The Stella Australis is a beautiful boat with an exceptional crew. I am forever spoiled – cruising for me can only be on a small ship like the Stella – preferably with a barman who understands that champagne is my first love but Pisco Sours come a close second.

Wednesday – Cruise destination – Ushuaia

The voyage destination is Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – a stepping stone to El Calafate and the next part of our journey in Patagonia.

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We have sailed and walked in this  remote area of legends, pristine waters, the albatross and the ancient ice of the Darwin Range glaciers….we think we have been especially privileged to  have had the opportunity to be here.

Our next destination is back in Chile in the Torres del Paine National Park. Another very special place on earth.

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Santa Ana de los cuatro rios de Cuenca – a weekend visit

Back to the high altitudes of  La Sierra  – this time in the south. Cuenca, Ecuador is the capital city of Azuay province and enjoys a cool climate at 2500m above sea level. Our plan is to wander at leisure in this lovely city, visit a local family who run a panaderia (bakery) and drive to Chordeleg and other nearby villages before returning to the coast the next day.

Part of our road trip from La Costa is shrouded in mist and cloud. When we reach the National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas) – gateway to the mountains – to photograph the lakes of glacial origin, we are more than 3000m above sea level. It is now relatively clear, windy and very cold on this October Saturday.

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Cajas National Park

Cuenca  was founded in 500 AD as a Canari settlement – “a land as big as heaven”. When the Spanish arrived in 1557 to establish the walled colonial city that stands today, both the Canari and the Inca who had followed them, had abandoned the site.

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Flags fly proudly in every city in South America

Cobblestone streets, colonial parks, squares, churches and cathedrals and museums – Cuenca today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cornerstone

Corner “stone”

Bishop's house

Bishop’s house

Old Spanish residence, now Hotel Los Balcones

Old Spanish residence, now Hotel Los Balcones

Spanish interior detail

Spanish interior detail Hotel Los Balcones

Family run Panaderia

A visit to a family operated Panaderia – fragrant smell of fresh bread

Little suns

Little suns – heavenly treat

So many to choose from

So many to choose from……….

 

Stone church

Cathedral de la Immaculada

Cuenca artisans at Turi viewpoint

Cuenca artisans outlets at Turi viewpoint – some beautiful leather goods

Cuenca evening

Cuenca evening

Plaza de las Flores markets

Plaza de las Flores markets

Flowers in the plaza

Flowers in the plaza

On Sunday we take a very scenic drive.  The pretty town of Chordeleg with its silver and ceramics shops will be the first stop. Our driver, Sergio, has a plan to select a roadside cafeteria for a “typical” family Sunday lunch before visiting his father’s village of Sig Sig. The Pan American Highway will then provide a fast route back to the coast.  Hairpin bends, heavy traffic and double lines seem to be of little consequence to our driver and certainly do not slow the speed of our descent from the mountains!

Church and park in the square

Church and park in the square in Chordeleg

Private museum Chordeleg

Private museum Chordeleg

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Chordeleg Plaza Artesanal

“Typical” Sunday family village lunch

Popular roadside Sunday lunch - roving musicians

Popular roadside Sunday lunch – roving musicians

Village street scene

Village street scene

Cathedral

Cathedral “perro” – street dogs sleep all day

Sig Sig cathedral

Sig Sig cathedral – it was Sunday afternoon – an important last stop for our driver

We took few photos on the return to the coast. We were too busy holding on tightly as Sergio drove skilfully (but VERY fast) through the pretty green valleys, sleepy villages, rolling farmland, cloud forest and then the flat rice fields and sugar plantations to reach the outskirts of Guayaquil. The equatorial sunset was incredibly dramatic – huge red sun, golden, hazy light, soft mauve dusk.

Reflections on Tren Crucero – a train “cruise”

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The promised volcanos of Ecuador were elusive, lost in the clouds and mist along the route. Cayambe, Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, Chimborazo. Instead, the changing panoramas of villages and farmlands, forests and rivers moved sedately past our windows as Tren Ecuador took us on a leisurely journey from the mountains to the coast.

Vistas of beautiful hills and valley

Vistas of beautiful hills and valleys

Encounters with artisans, musicians, crafts men and women and other producers were arranged at each of the many stops.

The haunting music of the Andes

The haunting music of the Andes

One of these, San Antonio de Ibarra, is internationally recognised for its wood carvers, great artists and sculptors who have given continuity to the XVth century-born Quito School of Art.

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El diablo –  San Antonio de Ibarra

Many along the Tren Crucera route would rely on the patronage of travellers to supplement their incomes and revitalise the village economies.

The knowledgeable guides, Sixto and Adeline, gave so much interesting information about this land and the culture of its people. The itinerary had been designed to give a variety of opportunities to understand Ecuador’s history as well as the geography, geology and economy.

First Roman Catholic church in Ecuador - at Balbanera

First Roman Catholic church in Ecuador – at Balbanera

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Fabrica Textil Imbabura – a museum in Andrade Marin

The service staff in the train’s cafeteria/bar, the suppliers of fresh fruit and snacks on board, the accompanying outriders on motor bikes, the security guards staff and stall holders at the stations, and of course, the crews of the steam and diesel locomotives, all had jobs dependant on the successful operation of this venture of Tren Ecuador.

Outriders - ensuring safety at road crossings

Outriders – ensuring safety at road crossings

Large international companies like Nevado Roses put out the welcome mat for Tren Crucero and provided guides for tours. Rose production makes a significant contribution to the economy of this region in Ecuador.

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Roses for export – a flourishing industry in Ecuador

Haciendas and restaurants were obviously delighted to make Tren Crucero welcome for our overnight stays and lunchtime repasts.

A beautiful hacienda

A beautiful hacienda near Riobamba

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Lunch at La Roka, Ambato

Red steam engine 14 at Riobamba

Red steam engine 14, Riobamba

Colourful market stalls were everywhere, proudly displaying colourful Andean handcrafted items in wood, ceramics, beads, wool and other textiles. Market day in Guamote was a special stop. This was a day for local people to trade and although our patronage was welcome, the focus was not on us, but on a busy, family day out.

Guamote market day

Guamote market fresh produce

Guamote shoe shine

Guamote shoe shine

There is one section of this train track which deserves a special mention – Devil’s Nose – an incredible feat of engineering. (This near-vertical wall of rock was an obstacle to overcome when the rail line was first built to link Guayaquil and Quito (1899-1908). A series of tight zig-zags were carved out of the rock which allowed the train to climb 800m at a gradient of 1-in-18 by going forwards then backwards up the tracks).

Devil's Nose

Nariz del Diablo

A special highlight for everyone on this trip followed a tour and information session at a cocoa plantation. Producers are very proud of this industry which provides the resource for another industry – chocolate! And then…. LUNCH! At the stunning Hacienda La Danesa.

Plantation demonstration - from cocoa to chocolate

Plantation demonstration – from cocoa to chocolate

Beautiful Hacienda La Danesa

Stunning Hacienda and Restaurant, La Danesa

Last lunch on the trip

A very special lunch on the trip

La Danesa wines

La Danesa wines

But of course, nothing can surpass the excitement of a steam engine, with all the noise and fuss when it is shunted in to replace the diesel locomotive for the last part of the journey – from Yahuaci to Duran.

What a journey Tren Ecuador! Ama la vida!

All cameras clicking

All cameras clicking

Steam engine for the last part of the trip

Steam engine 53 for the last part of the trip from Yahuachi to Duran

Tren Ecuador can be very proud of its faithfully restored steam engines, rebuilt railway tracks, gracious carriages and immaculate stations. The Tren Crucero route opened our eyes to the country and its people.

Folklore Olga Fisch outlet, Guayaquil

Folklore Olga Fisch outlet, Guayaquil

Glimpses of Ecuador (Guayaquil and Quito)

Guayaquil – an old colonial city with new modern energy

Getting acquainted with the city

Getting acquainted with the city on the Malecon

Hanging out in Seminario Park in Guayaquil

Hanging out in Seminario Park on a Saturday afternoon

Evening light in Guayaquil

Evening light in the historical centre of the city

Bario Las Penas was founded over 400 years ago

Bario Las Penas was founded over 400 years ago

Quito – politics and religion and a fiery volcano

Arrival of Latin American leaders to discuss Colombia/Venezuela border dispute

A colourful rally in Plaza Grande for the arrival of Latin American leaders to discuss Colombia/Venezuela border dispute September 21, 2015

Quito treasure

Quito treasure – San Francisco Museum and Convent

Cotopaxi looking benign but very active indeed

Cotopaxi looking benign but very active indeed