Tag Archives: hike

Alternatives to Hiking the Inca Trail

Hola amigos,

Today we wanted to share a few ideas on great treks that you can do around Cusco in addition to, or as an alternative to, the Inca Trail. This post largely reflects our own research but also conversations with fellow travellers. If you find the Inca Trail to be prohibitively expensive, or you want a bit more Indiana Jones in your adventure, then this might be of interest to you.

There are three trips near Cusco that we would recommend looking into:

  1. Choquequirao
  2. Salcantay to Machu Picchu
  3. Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa

These trails are great alternatives the Inca Trail. There are companies offering hikes to all three, although Choquequirao and Espiritu Pampa are not covered by many companies, which is part of their appeal. They are also multi-day hikes of at least four days in duration.

A brief explanation on each is offered below. If any of them catch your interest then we highly recommend looking into the South American Explorers Club, who have a Cusco office. They gave us valuable information on everything from details on the trails, the cost of guides and where to buy hiking equipment. Membership is cheap and covers all of their clubs in South America. We also highly recommend the Trailblazer Guide to the Inca Trail, which provides detailed hiking information on these and other trails.

Note: Machu Picchu is part of a network of trails within the region. The Inca Trail is but one route to get there. The other trails range in terms of difficulty but it is possible to link up other ruins as part of a greater multi-day adventure to reach Machu Picchu. See the Trailblazer book for more information.

Choquequirao

This hike caught our intention for a number reasons. It is one of the few trails you can do without a guide, which brings down the cost substantially. In fact all you have to pay is the park fee, which from recollection is under USD100. So, those used to carrying their own gear will appreciate it. The trail is also straightforward – it is two days to the ruins and you return along the same path.

Choquequirao is a large site south west of Machu Picchu. Some consider it to be Machu Picchu's sister site because of its size and the quality of the stonework. Part of the appeal lies in the fact that the ruins are still being uncovered, so there is a genuine opportunity for a bit of exploration. It is off the beaten track too so you won't have the same crowds and it is possible to walk from here to Machu Picchu or to Espiritu Pampa.

We were dead set on tackling this but due to a bought of food poisoning we had to pull out. A shame as we put a lot of time into planning it. Send us photos if you go!

Salcantay to Machu Picchu

This is touted as one of several alternative trails to Machu Picchu. Salcantay is a nearby mountain with trails that can connect you to Machu Picchu. This trail is common amongst tour companies and it costs less than the Inca Trail. We are not clear on whether this trek can be done independently but we suspect it will require a few vehicle pick ups.

Source: https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b6/Salcantay_Stevage.jpg

We spoke to several peope that tried this trail and highly enjoyed it. Worth looking into!

Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa

Those wanting a real adventure need to seriously consider Espiritu Pampa, the real lost city of the Incas. This was the city Hiram Bingham was trying to discover when he found Machu Picchu. For many years people really thought Machu Picchu was the last city if the Incas. However, the general consensus is that in fact it was Espiritu Pampa, the last refuge of Manco Inca when he was in rebellion against the Spanish.

Source: https://i2.wp.com/www.thewhiterock.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Peru-2011-333-Copy.jpg

Like Choquequirao the ruins are still being uncovered however you are probably going to see more vine-covered ruins here. The reason is that this site is so off the beaten track. We only found two companies that would hike there. Unfortunately at the time we could not go because the Peruvian army was cracking down on local drug traffickers. Anyone interested should make enquiries as to the security situation.

Our understanding is that it is not advisable to tackle this hike on your own. Guides should be used. The track is not frequently walked and is at least four days. To get there you need transport to Huancacalle, the last town on the road west of Ollantaytambo. We explored public transport and it seemed difficult. We looked into just visiting Huancacalle for the day and were told it would cost several hundred dollars. So, a trip that needs serious planning and a good guide.

The White Rock. Source: National Geographic.

This trip has the advantage of including Vitcos, the ruins of an Inca town, and the sacred white rock. Neither site is visited frequently and apparently the local valleys are beautiful.

And so ends our series of posts on the Incas. We hope you have enjoyed them and if you missed any just click on the 'Inca' tag below or on the right hand pane.

Gracias,

Mark and Saskia

 


Machu Picchu

Llama photo bomb!

Machu Picchu. You have seen it all before. But don’t be put off by the touristy cliché, it is amazing, and it is one of the world’s top tourist destinations for a reason!

Seeing the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu was something we had been looking forward to for years and we were really excited about it, despite aforementioned food poisoning. Everyone at our hostel seemed keen to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. However, we had read that the mountains are usually covered in a morning mist that blocks out the sun, so we decided to sleep in to a more respectable time.

Arriving at the top of the mountain, looking down to the Urubumba River.

It is possible to hike to the entrance from Aguas Calientes but as we weren’t feeling well we decided to just catch a bus up. This was cheap and easy and got us to the entrance to Machu Picchu at around 9am.

When we arrived it felt like we were lining up to enter a theme park, but the lines moved quickly despite the hundreds of people pouring off buses all at the same time. After a quick bag check we had our passports stamped and we were on our way!

First glimpse of Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu.

This was actually a perfect time to arrive, as the mist was lifting and the ruins were starting to show us their full glory. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect. After having seen thousands of images of Machu Picchu over the years, we were worried that we might be underwhelmed. However, this was definitely not the case as the sheer scale and location of the ruins were breathtaking!

We wandered around for a while, took a few photos, and pinched ourselves. Hikers started to appear covered in mud from multi-day treks, and even though that would have been an incredible way to arrive, we were just stoked that we made it at all!

Machu Picchu: morning and afternoon.

Unfortunately we didn’t book our tickets in time to hike up Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins – numbers are limited to 400 people per day and they sell out quickly). We were however able to get tickets to hike up the higher peak, Mount Machu Picchu, which overlooks the postcard view. The mountain is ridiculously steep, and combined with altitude and remnants of food poisoning, pretty tough! The last part was more like rock climbing than hiking but the views over the valley were spectacular and gave us a good idea of the layout of the ruins as well.

The steep climb up Mount Machu Picchu.

Looking down over the ruins from Mount Machu Picchu.

Mount Machu Picchu.

We brought our own food and had lunch on a grassy terrace overlooking the ruins. The mist had slowly cleared and we had perfect views of the whole valley. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins with our guidebook in hand, feeling like explorers. Every now and then we latched on to a tour group to hear their explanation of certain sites, but it was pretty easy to get around and by 3pm most people had left. One of the best tips we had was to stay two nights in Aguas Calientes so that we didn’t have to rush off to catch a train back to Cusco. That was great because it meant that we had access to the ruins without being surrounded by hundreds of people, and it was easy to just catch a bus back down the hill when everything shut at 5pm.

Machu Picchu in the afternoon, minus hoards of tourists.

Just before we left we went on another walk to see the Inca Bridge, which is precariously placed on the side of a cliff. It is no longer possible to get too close (a tourist died trying) but it's still interesting to see how they would have controlled these access points as a security mechanism.

Inca Bridge at one of the entrances to Machu Picchu.

After a long day we headed back to the hostel, quickly got changed, and wandered up to the thermal springs to soak our tired bodies in warm pools. The complex was really nice and it was the perfect way to finish off the day!

 


Llactapata to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a big deal. The feature piece of Inca architecture, it was designed with strong connections to nature. We will talk about this in our next post, but one major point we picked up is that the Inca's beliefs strongly influenced not only the design of their cities, but the relationships between the cities.

The ruins of Llactapata provide a classic example of this. Situated on an opposing ridge, Llactapata has been designed to have structures that align with both the solstice line and key buildings in Machu Pichu.

The reasons behind the alignment with the solstice line are speculation, but the solstice would likely have been a major event for people that worshiped the sun. At this time of year the sun is closest to the earth and the Incas probably staged major rituals in their sun temples and around their intihuatana stones.

Looking out over the train lines and power station. Llactapata is located on top of the ridge in the background. The intihuatana stone is at the bottom of the valley. This photo was taken from the western edge of Machu Picchu.

Several clues suggest that this is the case. In Llactapata a stone corridor has been built in alignment with the solstice line. Mark Adams notes that when the sun rises during the solstice it's light runs straight down the corridor. In Machu Picchu, Mark was the first to establish that during the solstice light shone directly through a window in a major building, the Torreon (also known as the Room with Three Windows and other variations), and is thought to have lit up a golden statue of Pachacutec inside.

The last clue is the placement of the intihuatana stone near the hydroelectric train station. This can be found about 10-15 minutes walk uphill in the direction of Machu Picchu. The word intihuatana literally translates in Quechua as 'hitching post for the sun'. It is thought that the Incas wished to stall the suns passage, possibly to ensure a good harvest. Such stones are present in Pisac and Machu Picchu, however there were many more before the Spanish destroyed them.

Mark and the intihuatana stone. You can see the remains of the broken gnomon to the left of Mark.

Armed with this knowledge we decided to try a different way of getting to Machu Picchu. We had already been put off by the cost of the traditional hike and there was also the issue of not knowing when we would be passing through Peru (our haste to get to Brazil in time for Lollapalooza had put us off booking events too far in advance). So, with the help of the kind folk at the South American Explorer's Club and the handy Trail Blazing Guide (which contains a map of Llactapata), we decided to go the back route…

This consisted of catching a local bus to Santa Teresa, which lies north west of Machu Picchu. From here it is possible to catch a taxi south to the western side of the ridge where Llactapata is situated. We intended to stay a night in Santa Teresa and then tackle Llactapata in the morning. The plan was to then walk down the eastern side of the ridge to the train station, where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes (you can also walk along the train line if you can be bothered, but we wanted to squeeze in more beer drinking time).

All this was well and good until we were struck with food poising during our night in Santa Teresa. Terrible timing! We were guttered as we had been looking forward to this for months. Our main worry was missing Machu Picchu, so we hedged our bets and bailed on Llactapata. This, fortunately, was the only compromise we needed to make for this leg of the trip. We still visited the intihuatana stone (which we had to ourselves) and despite feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves, there were no 'incidents' on the train.

We highly recommend this approach to getting to Machu Picchu. The trip on the local bus was very scenic, amazing views. We would however recommend taking a tour to Santa Teresa if the budget affords – the van will travel at a reasonable speed and you won't be packed in like sardines. Our driver was an asshole with a death wish. Several passengers were car sick (literally throwing up in plastic bags on their laps and he refused to stop or slow down) and we had several close calls on the windy mountain roads. The worst stint we've had, and we've had some bad trips.

That aside, the trip is great, as is the section through to Aguas Calientes. You can actually see Machu Picchu from the train and the intihuatana stone, which gave us goose bumps. The landscape is lush with tropical forest and you'll have to resist the temptation to jump into the Urubamba.

Machu Picchu from the intihuatana stone at the hydroelectric power station.

Getting to the Intihuatana Stone

We found our books to be a bit vague on the stone's location so perhaps our advice may make it easier. To get there walk about 10 minutes in the direction of Machu Picchu. Keep an eye on your right hand side for an unmarked dirt path that runs up the hill. Follow this path to a little house (ignore the carved rocks), where the path hooks left beside the house. Carry on as the path hooks right again and takes you to another railway line. Head along the tracks towards Machu Picchu and you should see a path to your left. There may be a sign but don't count on it. Head downhill and within seconds you will see the stone.

We found the scrappy remains of 'Caution Do Not Enter' tape around the ruins so it may be that the Government doesn't want people visiting. If you do go please don't climb on the intihuatana stone and do your best to leave it as you found it. It was really interesting and worth a look if you have the time!

Cheers,

Mark and Saskia

 


Pumamarca: Inca Outpost

The area around Ollantaytambo was so beautiful that we decided to stay for a couple of days to have a look around. We read about a day hike to Pumamarca, an Inca outpost in the valley not far from Ollantaytambo. It was only five hours return so we picked up a picnic lunch from Heart's Café and headed up the valley.

Soon we were heading through the valley, surrounded by high peaks and incredible terraces still used for agriculture.

The most impressive piece of terracing we saw.

The path was not well marked, and if it wasn’t for a kind old man who happily rambled away in an incomprehensible dialect and showed us which way to go, we would have missed it completely. One path lead straight through the valley, but we needed to veer up the hill to head for the ruins. The climb was steep, and was made even tougher by the altitude, but the views were amazing!

After about 3 hours, we stopped for lunch inside the ruins of what was perhaps an old grain store, before climbing the last stretch up to the top. Upon reaching the top we discovered we had the whole place to ourselves! This was definitely some kind of outpost, as it was quite remote, but the scenery was beautiful!

A water channel follows the contour of the hill on the left. At on e point it ran right through the ruins but has since been diverted.

We spent a couple of hours exploring Pumamarca. Mark found a water channel and resolved to follow it to the source. This led to a hill rise, where the water tumbled down in a control waterfall. Mark went quite high up but could find where the spring emerged from the rock. It was a cool little innovation though and it was fun to think that this channel had been in place for several hundred years!

Pots, statues and other items would have been placed in these alcoves.

We highly recommend a trip to the ruins. It is a great walk, the ruins are largely intact and there's a good chance you will have them all to yourselves. Note that it is possible to get a taxi up there but we recommend the walk.

 


Isla del Sol

We ended our time on Bolivia with a visit to Isla del Sol, the Inca's mythical birth place of the sun and the god Varacocha. It is from here that the first Incas are said to have journeyed to Cusco to found the Inca empire.

The island can be found in Lake Titicaca, the largest high altitude lake in the world. To get there we took a boat from Copacobana, a small town on the eastern edge of the lake.

This was our first time getting up close with a significant Inca site so we were pretty excited. We opted to stay a night on the island to catch the sun set and sun rise, which as you can see above turned out to be a great idea.

Yumani Village, Isla del Sol.

Things got off to a comical start. We stayed at Yumani Village, one of two main drop off points on the island (the other is Cha'llapampa). Our hostel was on a ridge but we hadn't realised how steep the hike up would be…

Old Inca terraces used for agriculture.

At 3,808 metres altitude the hike, with all our bags, had zero appeal. We retreated to a nearby café and tried to work out what to do. Saskia in particular has a hard time with altitude and was a little distressed.

As we waited and took in the view we saw several herds of donkeys being shepherded down the slopes. We found out that the donkeys carry supplies up to the restaurants on the ridge…the answer to our problems! So, we paid six dollars for two donkeys and headed up the ridge with our pack animals in tow.

Isla del Sol features several sets of ruins and minor sites but the two main attractions are arguably the terracing and stairs at Yumani and the Chincana complex to the north. These sites are linked by a picturesque half day walk along the island's ridge line, which we tackled the next day.

The stairs, known as Escalera del Inca,.

We really enjoyed the walk, although the thin air made minor slopes feel like hills! The views are sensational. It actually looks remarkably similar to the Taupo region in New Zealand and Mark had to keep reminding himself that this was a serious Inca site.

A small village on the ridge line.

Looking south towards Copacobana.

Piles of stones. In the background you can see the Andes, which pass on the east.

The big draw for Chilcana is the sacred rock, the site where the sun is meant to have emerged. The site also contains a small ceremonial plaza and dramatic ruins that once housed the priests and caretakers of the rock.

To be completely honest we thought the rock itself was a disappointment. We walked straight past it several times and it was only through deduction that we worked out which one it was. They really need to put signs in there, but regardless we couldn't understand why that piece of the landscape was singled out.

What's the big deal?

Opposite the rock is a small patch of cleared ground with a ceremonial table. Not sure whether the area has been restored but that was slightly more interesting.

The ruins a few metres north were far more interesting. They are a small, labyrinthine complex that provided accommodation and food storage for the priests. Perched on the edge of the hill, they look down onto a tranquil beach and provide a good view of the lake.

Note the wall insets in the left. These are actually very common in Inca architecture and apparently are where religious artefacts would be placed, as well as mummies.

After a bit of a rest here we headed down to Cha'llapampa to catch a boat back to Yumani. It's a nice spot with am interesting museum. Apparently there's an underwater village just north of the island. Not sure how old it is but they've recovered pots etc and put them in the museum. Worth a visit while you wait for the boat.

Kids pretending to go fishing.

One thing we really loved were the boats made out of reeds. They look like old viking boats. The locals on the Peruvian side actually make islands out of the reeds as well as boats. We considered paying them a visit but heard the area has become heavily commercialised, so we skipped it and headed to Cusco instead.

And so ends our trip to Bolivia. We have one more dispatch on Death Road but it will take awhile to pull together (Mark has an hour of footage). All in all we really enjoyed our five weeks in Bolivia. The altitude got the best of us in the end but it was definitely worth the time. If pushed for time make beelines for Rurrenabaque and Sucre, they are great places to stay and offer plenty to do in the region. Don't linger in La Paz, it's not worth it!

The next posts will be a series on the Incas, including trips to ruins, museums and general stuff we learnt. Will mark them all with the 'Inca' tag so that they are easy to pull up for those interested. Looking forward to going back over the material.

As always thanks for reading. We've clocked up over 450 subscribers, which is both flattering and humbling. We get a real buzz looking at which countries our readers are based in, very cool! This blog has exceeded our expectations and we hope everyone else is enjoying this as much as we are.

Kind regards,

Mark and Saskia.

 


Cretaceous Park

Apparently Bolivia has one of the largest collections of dinosaur footprints in the world. Just outside Sucre you can find the Cretaceous Park, which is at the site of a cement quarry. Workers accidently uncovered an entire mountain wall of dinousaur footprints embedded into the ground after they exploded the side of the mountain. Part of the wall fell down recently (you can see a triangle shape in the photo below), and although a significant amount of the footprints were lost, interestingly enough, another layer below was exposed. These were even older still.

The footprints were once horizontal of course, but the collision of tectonic plates that lifted up the Andes also pushed up smaller mountains containing the fosillised footprints. The Cretaceous Park has replicated all the dinosaurs whose footprints have been found at the site. We weren't sure what to expect, but it was really interesting and the replicas were incredibly realistic!

Littlefoot!

While we were in Sucre Mark went on a three day hike through the local hills. The hike visited the villages of Maragua and Potolo and featured dramatic, buckled landscapes with near vertical tilts of old sedimentary layers.
The hike is notable for the dinosaur prints set in lava. The ground is currently used for agriculture and only partially uncovered, so who knows how many more are in the area.

The footprint of what is likely to be a large predator.

Mark tried to match the stride. The step almost split him in two.

Likely to be a type of titanosauros.

During the hike local kids would come running down to sell bracelets and fossils they had dug up. Mark bought a fossilised sea shell (below), which was found at around 3,500 metres above sea level. A good demonstration of the changes the land has gone through in South America!
Mark went hiking with Condor Trekkers, a non-profit organisation that helps to support village economies. The guides were great and the accommodation was surprisingly good. Highly recommended! Condor Trekkers also recently opened a café not far from the main plaza in Sucre. Its all non-profit and the money they make goes back into training local staff. The food is all really cheap, good quality vegetarian food, which is a nice change from the standard South American fare!

The large, four room huts (plus a bathroom) are run by the community.

 


Day Five: Volcano Hike

We booked an extra day on the salt flats tour to summit Thunupa Volcano. We were hoping to get a better view of the salt lake and to see a second salt lake on the other side of the volcano. It had seemed like a good idea when we booked it but by that stage we were questioning the decision!

So, after a 5:30 am start to watch the sun rise we said good bye to our comrades and headed to Coquesa, a little pre-inca village on the northern edge of the salt flats at the base of Thunupa Volcano.

The view from Coquesa. Note the water.

Thunupa Volcano, peak 5,450 metres.

Around 10:30 am we set out with our guide. It was a long day; we returned at 5:30 pm. As there were no local guides we went with our driver Albierto. He handled it well for someone who sits in a car all day!
The views were spectacular. The sides of the hills were lined with old rock fences, which we could see stretched for some distance. Coquesa is small now and you can see how big it must have been. Now it sits within the ruins of an older civilisation.
The colours of the rock slowly changed to a burnt red as we neared the crater. The air also became thinner. Saskia did well but altitude sickness got the better of her. At around 4,500m she agreed to turn back and find somewhere warm to wait. So Mark and Albierto continued on.

Looking into the crater. You can see the plug near the centre of the pic.

The walk was hard going. The trail crossed loose rock and shingle, which made it difficult to keep our footing. The trail was also steep so the air quickly became thinner and thinner.

Looking down at the southern edge of the crater.

Eventually we reached the rim, which sits at around 4,800 metres. We were pretty relieved to get there. After ten minutes of rest we decided to keep going up. The footing again was uncertain and the air difficult to breath. The trail zig zagged up the side of the rim and Mark found he had to stop and catch his breath at every second turn.
At 5,150 metres we agreed that we were going too slow to reach the summit with the remaining light, let alone be high enough to see down the other side. We were also worried about Saskia waiting for us, so we agreed to turn back. We filmed a panoramic video for Saskia's benefit then raced back down the rim, causing minor rock slides as we slid down the shingle.

We found Saskia well and warm and continued back down. As noted we arrived at the car at 5:30 pm. Our guide had actually left us behind an hour prior and we found him waiting sheepishly in the car. We were too tired to bring it up so jumped in the car and headed back to Coquesa.

Looking south from the feet of Thunupa Volcano.

All in all it was a good time but we were disappointed with being pushed to tackel Thunupa that day. Our understanding was that we would go up on the last day of the trip, which would have given us a whole day plus a bit of rest. Turns out our guide and the cook drive back to Tupiza after dropping people off in Uyuni and their need to get home determined the timing of the hike. So, anyone interested in this hike (which we do recommend) should be crystal clear on which day the hike will be undertaken. Due to the altitude more time makes it much easier so be sure to agree on a schedule that suits you before the tour starts (and make sure that the guide is in that conversation).

Thunupa Volcano from the salt flat.

 


Torres Del Paine

Panaroma courtesy of Ben Anscombe.

Note from Mark: This post was drafted back in February but I needed time to absorb the experience. There's a lot in this one, might pay to get a drink before you start. My thanks to Ben Anscombe for the assistance.

Currently rolling along Ruta 40, a day after I completed the W track at Parques Nacionales de Torres del Paine, Chile. No injuries, just a bit of sun burn and the normal aches associated with hauling a pack.

Torres del Paine was an awesome adventure. It has so much going on – huge glaciers, imposing peaks, raging rivers, rickety bridges, stunning valleys and turquoise lakes. It gave me my first sightings of avalanches, condors and even pink flamingoes (of all things).

I started with dos amigos from the Navimag trip. Saskia decided to stay back in Puerto Natales (PN) due to a lingering illness, but hoped to meet us on the last night of the trip. We had all agreed to start at the Western end of the track and make our way across the Torres massif over five days. This plan was further fleshed out with help from the guides at Basecamp in PN (recommend the briefing, held every day in the afternoon).

For those familiar with the park or interested in the trek, we camped at Campamento's Grey, Italiano (free), Cuenos and Chileno respectively. We had the option of staying at Campamento Torres (free) instead of Chileno but for various reasons opted for Chileno.

20 Febrero, Glacier Grey

It took about half a day to get to our starting point, which included a bus trip from PN to the park and a short ferry ride to the Western end. This trip gave us a good view of the massif, which is easily viewed from the road. The rain that pursued us through the fjords had dumped plenty of snow on the peaks and the forecast was for clear skies. A good start.

We set off from the wharf at 1:00 pm. Here we could see the damage done by the fires of 2005 and 2011. The damage was extensive and, with jagged peaks and high cloud above us, made for a melodramatic setting. I was relieved when we reached the highest point in the track and gazed down onto Grey Lake. It's a great view from there, right up to the glacier.

Me, Ben and Floris. Photo courtesy of Ben Anscombe.

We made our way down towards the lake, stopping frequently to take photos of the lake, mountains and ice bergs that had broken off from the glacier. It was easy going and we had a good time taking detours and marvelling at the views. The cloud slowly cleared and eventually it was sunny with no wind. Perfect!

Playing with ice. Photo courtesy of Ben Anscombe.

We pulled into Campamento Grey at 6:00 pm. Its a good camp site with reasonable facilities and a great view of the mountains. Two condors circled the peaks above us as we debriefed on the day. Couldn't believe how good we had it.

21 Febrero, Grey to Italiano

It may be helpful to note that Campamento Grey is located near the glacier but it is not beside it. Further, you cannot access the glacier directly but it is possible to hire kayaks near C. Grey or you can walk up to a viewing platform about 1.5 hours north from the campsite. We decided we wanted to try the latter, so left at around 9:00 am to the viewing point.

There's no fire damage here and the forest is fantastic. After about 1.5 hours of uphill leg work we were rewarded with a stunning view of not just the glacier but the Southern Patagonia Ice Field and snow covered mountains. The view was crystal clear, just beautiful. I've never seen anything quite like it, it was an overwhelming experience.

We hung around waiting for the sun to throw a bit more light before taking photos. A bunch of people in kayaks paddled up to the glacier and gave us a real sense of scale e.g. huge. Eventually the sun cleared the Torres' western shoulder. We took photos and then to our surprise stumbled into a glade filled with Andean wood peckers. Some how we didn't scare them off with our excited yelps and snapped a few picks. Chuffed!

Returned back to Campamento Grey to decamp. Someone had The Rolling Stones blasting. We took our time as we still had the whole afternoon ahead of us. The hike back out of the valley was slow, hard work with the packs, hadn't realised how steep it was. Still, we had great weather.

It took the whole afternoon to get back out and down to the original landing point. By this time one of the amigos, Ben, had hurt his ankle and was limping. We got him to stick his leg into the nearby lake then strapped it. From there it was a 2.5 hour trek to Campamento Italiano. Doesn't sound like much but our legs were tired so it was slow going. Fortunately we were distracted by views of the southern lakes and the setting sunlight on the peaks.

Coming around the southwest point of the W track.

Eventually stumbled into Campamento Italiano around 9:00 pm. All buggered. We estimate we hiked for about 10 hours in total, my longest day hiking to date. Cooked up pasta with tuna and finished off with a hot chocolate. Big day. Went to sleep with the sound of distant avalanches providing a hint of what was to come in the morning.

22 Febrero, Valley de Frances

Despite the long trek the previous day, staying the night at Campamento Italiano provided a key advantage – it sits at the base of the Valley de Frances, the mid point of the W trek. This is probably my favourite part of the trip, but by a margin.

We got up early to get the most out of the day. Cloud had come in overnight but it was quite high and we could still see most of the peaks.

The trek up the valley to the viewing point takes around 3 hours. The trip began with an up close and personal view of Cerro Paine Grande and Glaciar del Frances. Within minutes of our approach there was a thunder crack and a plume of snow billowed from under the cloud on our left. We thought that would be it but for around eight minutes snowed poured down the face of the mountain like a waterfall. Amazing.

The path up the valley follows a river towards a wide bowl at the top of the valley. The valley itself is fairly evenly divided by the river and features near pristine forest and stunning views of the Torres' craggy peaks and towers. Facing south, one is presented by an almost perfectly composed view of the valley and the southern lakes and rolling hills beyond. I will never forget it.

Getting up early was the best decision we made that day. As we walked back down the valley low cloud quickly rolled in, spoiling the view for those still making their way up.

A quick lunch back at camp and we were off east to Campamento Cuernos. This was a fairly easy leg which we completed under time. Great views of the local lakes. Rain began around 4:00pm which was good as were able to set up our tents in time. I had booked dinner at the hut, or refugio, which with the rain turned out to be a brilliant idea. Sat down with the boys and smashed the largest pork chop I've ever seen. Finished off the night with a couple of beers and fell asleep pretty quickly.

The lakes under cloud.

23 Febrero, Cuernos to Chileno

Woke up to rain. Got up for breakfast at 7:30 am. Found Floris, amigo número tres, who had expected his EU7 tent to buckle under the rain. The tree cover saved him but the tent was soaked. Decamped in the rain and began trudging up and over the next hill.

Ben was not in good condition. He had remained stoic despite the injury but it wasn't getting any better. The night before he had stumbled through the door into the hut, wobbled over to us, then wiped out half the table when is ankle gave way. Hilarious but not good!

Fairly early in the walk we came across our first river. The water was maybe knee high but moving fast over the rocks. People on the other side directed us to a tree that overhung the river. So next thing we are climbing into the tree and dropping down the other side! Good fun.

After three hours of walking in the rain we reached a junction that lead to Chileno (north east) or out of the park (due east). Ben's ankle was a real problem and the rain meant Floris was in for a bad night. The lads decided to end their trip that day and walk out. I was tempted to join them as I wasn't going to see much at Chileno with the rain and cloud, however there was the possibility that Sas would be making her way in to meet me there. So we all shook hands and agreed to meet for dinner in PN when I got out.

Turned out to be the right decision for all of us. Within minutes of arriving at Chileno Saskia walked through the door! We spent the rest of the day in the hut with the other soggy campers. Booked dinner again, big piece of slow cooked beef. Went to bed in the soggy tent, warm but not exactly dry. Saskia bore it well.

Sas making her way in.

25 Febrero, Back to Puerto Natales

We woke up to rain again so decided to head off early. Decamped fairly quickly and after 2.5 hours we were out of the park and waiting for transport.

Looking down the Valley to C. Chileno.

While we waited we saw several native birds (tíques, caranchos and condors) and some wild llamas.

A tíque with a fresh catch and a condor soars above us.

 

A carancho keeps watch and a llama heads into town for a beer.

Arrived back at PN at 5pm, went out for dinner with Sas, Ben, Floris and another couple from the Navimag trip, Rik and Elena. We found a restaurant that specialised in BBQ meat, Asador Patagónico, which delivered the goods in spades. We demolished a delicious meal of Patagonian lamb, beef and salmon with local beer and wine to wash it down. A perfect end to our adventure.

Happy ending. From left: Rik, Elena, Floris, Saskia, me and Ben.

 


Tilcara

From Salta we headed north to make our way into Bolivia, but we thought we would break up the trip by stopping in Tilcara. We had no idea what to expect, but the little town was beautiful and looked like it was straight out of a country and western movie!

Apparently there are a lot of artists around here, which is evident from the high quality of market stalls and craft shops. There are also a lot of really good quality restaurants and bars, which was a nice surprise!

The surrounding mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to the activities you can do here. We spent one afternoon wandering up to the indigenous ruins not far from town. The Pucará de Tilcara is a pre-Inca fortification that has been partially reconstructed to show the design of the buildings and llama enclosures. There are also graves that have been uncovered, which show small circular stone holes where people were buried curled up in the foetal position, so that they could be reborn into the next world.

Pre-Inca ruins; a monument at the Pucara site; stone graves; llama enclosures.

After talking to some English backpackers who showed us photos of their day, we decided to do a trek to see the surrounding mountains accompanied by llamas who carried a picnic lunch for us! The Caravana de Llamas is totally aimed at tourists, and not normally something we would do, but we thought it would be a fun way to spend our last day in Argentina. The views were amazing, the food delicious, and the wine was an added bonus!

Overall, a few days in Tilcara was the perfect way to end our time in Argentina and get us excited for new adventures. Next stop, Bolivia!!

 


Bariloche

Hola from Bariloche, where Winter has finally arrived!

We have been hanging around here for about a week, hoping to catch the start of the snow season. Unfortunately it is just really cold and wet, and while there has been some snow, there is not enough to open the ski fields yet. The lack of snow is a bit dissappointing, but it is awesome to be back in Patagonia! We loved it the first time round, and didn't expect to be able to come back again so soon! We had always planned to come to Bariloche, but when we were in El Calafate in March, we had the choice of going south to Ushuaia or coming here, and we went south because we thought we might as well see southern Patagonia while we were so close. Turns out that was a good choice, and we got to do both!

Snow capped peaks surrounding Bariloche.

Bariloche is set amidst stunning scenery of mountains and lakes, which looks very similar to New Zealand's Queenstown, and has the same snow town feel. There are loads of cool bars and restaurants, a nice square with old German style wood and stone buildings, as well as plenty of gourmet chocolate and souvenir shops.

Bariloche town square.

The lake on the edge of town.

Despite the weather, we wanted to make the most of being back in Patagonia. After spending a bit of time looking around town, we caught a bus out to Hotel Llao Llao and spent a few hours hiking through the forest. Hiking in the rain was not so much fun, and it turns out that my jacket is not water proof! The staunch Kiwi kept reminding me that the weather is worse in NZ and they still get amongst it, so I kept going and resisted the urge to complain too much. It was still nice to be in the mountains, which were actually quite different to what we saw further south. The views were somewhat obscured by cloud, but the lakes and forest were beautiful! We found one little grove of trees that looked like they came from the set of a fairy tale, and its not hard to understand why some of the locals believe there are wood elves that live in the mountains to protect the forest.

Hiking in the rain.

Enchanted forests in the mountains around Bariloche.

We did have one sunny day, so we spent an afternoon on top of Cerro Otto enjoying the spectacular views below. We caught a gondola up to the lookout, which also has a revolving restaurant, where you can sit for lunch or a coffee and enjoy amazing 360 degree views over snow capped mountains and lakes.

Cerro Otto lookout


The view from Cerro Otto overlooking Bariloche.

The whole area is beautiful, and we would love to come back one day (in Summer) to do more hiking and enjoy it at its best!