2020 Patagonia. ARGENTINA: Bariloche & Los Glaciares. CHILE: Torres del Paine.

The beautiful parks of Patagonia attracted me for a second visit (January 28–March 7, 2020), escaping from dark Seattle winter to sunny South American summer. Meticulous planning created an active outdoor self-guided trip for 40 days with my brother Dave and sister-in-law Rebecca.

Phase 1 began in Argentina with a flight from Buenos Aires to the resort town of Bariloche. For 11 flexible days in a rental car, we looped south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returned north via Chile’s Carretera Austral. The trip started strongly with a fun overnight trek to Meiling Refuge, perched high on a flank of glacier-capped Tronador volcano. Seven tall waterfalls plunged from a hanging glacier. Further south we explored Butch Cassidy’s Ranch, Los Alerces National Park, and colorfully prehistoric Cave of Hands. Crossing into Chile towards Andes icecaps encountered twistier gravel roads along Lake General Carrera, to reach dusty Carretera Austral, Ruta CH-7. A 2-hour boat tour revealed the marvels of Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary. On foot we admired the High Lakes loop in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park; Laguna Cerro Castillo; and Queulat National Park‘s spectacular Hanging Glacier.

In Phase 2, we flew south to El Calafate to rent another car for 14 days. Moreno Glacier’s calving and crashing ice fascinated us for hours from intimate boardwalks. An extra day in town allowed time for cruising remote parts of beautiful turquoise Lake Argentino to see impressive Spegazzini Glacier and more. Further north in Los Glaciares National Park, I re-experienced my favorite piece of Patagonia, based for 10 days in the hikers’ paradise of El Chalten under magnificent Mount Fitz Roy.

In Phase 3, we bused round trip from Argentina’s El Calafate into Chile to trek for 9 days on the wonderful W Route in Torres del Paine National Park. (Dave & Rebecca went on to cruise Antarctica, which unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising from Ushuaia to Montevideo, Uruguay due to COVID-19 border closures!)

Favorite Patagonia photos from 2020


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WHAT’S NEW in 2020 since my last visits to Patagonia in 2005 and 1993?

Fulfilled by our 2005 trip to Patagonia and Antarctica, my wife Carol stayed in the USA to do an Asilomar quilt workshop in February 2020.

Still my favorite Patagonian destination, Argentina’s El Chalten resort has expanded since 15 years ago, yet retains a vibrant young pioneer vibe. Founded in 1985 as a stake in a boundary dispute with Chile, El Chalten is the youngest town in Argentina. Its easy-going residents are now here for the love of these majestic mountains. On a flexible schedule optimized with the weather forecast, we hiked many wonderful trails from comfortable lodging. Both traditional Argentine asado (ritual barbecue) and excellent yuppie restaurants have sprouted from the desert steppe. I highly recommend Resto El Muro which serves delicious perfectly-barbecued trout, lamb, beef, and vegetables. Paving the highway RP23 to El Chalten by 2009 has reduced travel time from El Calafate, from 4.5 hours down to 2.5 hours by car (3 hours by bus).

From El Calafate, a short drive into Los Glaciares National Park revisited magnificent Moreno Glacier, which calved and crashed icebergs into Lago Argentino, captured in the following video:

During my 1993 visit with four family members in a new South Korean rental van, we drove and ferried for 25 days round trip from Santiago to Chiloé Island via Chile’s scenic Lake District. On the remote gravel Carretera Austral, reaching 25 km south of Chaiten allowed us to admire yet another Andean volcano, Michinmahuida. South of us lay 730 kilometers of little-known highway reaching as far as Cochrane. We pondered, “what wonders might lie on that rough, remote road?” Some answers came 27 years later on our 2020 trip. In 2017, Michinmahuida became part of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, which bisects Chile and is South America’s largest national park. After successfully co-founding The North Face and Esprit with his first wife Susie Tompkins Buell, Douglas Tompkins and his second wife Kris Tompkins made the largest ever private gifts of land to a country, leading to the creation of Patagonia National Park (see my photos below), Pumalín, Corcovado, and other parks.

In 2000, pushing Chile’s Carretera Austral to Villa O’Higgins unleashed a new distance-bicycling and pedestrian adventure route connecting into Argentina, via a series of ferries and buses to Lago del Desierto and El Chalten mountain resort. Potholed gravel surface and choking dust haven’t discouraged the many bicycling, busing, and hitchhiking tourists who we encountered emerging from this remote route in 2020!

Today, the Carretera Austral (“Southern Way”, Ruta CH-7) has been completed for 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, opening previously-isolated rural Patagonia. Only ~100,000 people live along this lifeline, with the largest city being Coyhaique (population 57,000), a thriving hub that bustled with activity during our visit in 2020, as we looped back to Bariloche.

In the remoter parts of Patagonian, finding lodging in high season can be a gamble. Tents, pads, and sleeping bags reassured us as backup and let us stay in Patagonia National Park without paying expensive lodge rates. In cities with cell or Wi-Fi signal, Booking.com (sponsored) served us well to compare and find the next night’s lodging, setting clear expectations at a good discount. Pre-booking with AirBnb.com also proved valuable.

Back in 2005, right as we tried to enter Torres del Paine National Park, a careless camper in an unauthorized area caused a fire which closed the park for 3 days, shortening our planned W Route from 8 days to 5. Sadly in early summer of 2012, another careless camper caused a huge fire which burnt 10% of the Park, creating damage which is still prominently visible from most park roads and along the W Route from Refugio Grey to Skottsberg lake. Majestic forests that I remember from 2005 were decimated, leaving vast areas of eerie twisted tree snags rising from shrubby regrowth. With the help of careful replanting, the slow-growing lenga beech trees will take 200 years to recover. Crowding now impacts some areas such as the Mirador Base Las Torres Trail at midday. At the trail junction entrance to spectacular French Valley, the overused Campamento Italiano reeked of human waste; so “O Route” hikers should instead pay the price premium for Camping Francés or more-scenic Camping Los Cuernos. Thankfully, to prevent the Park from being loved to death, the total overnight capacity is now tightly controlled for both camping and lodging; although consequently, overnight visitors must book 6 months in advance. Despite fire damage, under-staffing, and some overcrowded hot spots, the park remains a magnificent treasure to behold, listed by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.

In my following video from Torres del Paine National Park, calving icefalls crash in avalanches from Cerro Paine Grande; powerful wind throws Dave off balance on a swing bridge, whips the surface of Skottsberg lake, and whirls mist on Lake Nordenskjöld; and the world’s southernmost parrot species flirts and chirps (the austral parakeet):

Money: US$ cash is king in Argentina

As of February 2020, all Argentine ATMs charge exorbitant fees (8% minimum) and by law restrict the amount withdrawn. I could get at most AR$8000 per transaction with a fixed fee of AR$630 per withdrawal yielding a dismal 56 pesos per US dollar (at Banelco ATM, whereas other ATMs were costlier). To avoid exorbitant ATM fees in Argentina, bring from home enough United States dollars cash as crisp NEW paper $20 and $10 bills. Or if uncomfortable carrying cash on the airplane, then wire US dollars from your home bank to a Western Union office in Argentina (only available in Buenos Aires and a few other major cities) to convert into pesos.

Credit cards are conveniently accepted at almost all groceries and gas stations in Patagonia, but many other businesses may not accept them. Credit cards followed the daily official bank rate (~61 pesos per US dollar), which in Argentina can be 10-25% less than you get for US$ cash at street rates. Make sure your card charges zero international fees, like Costco Visa. Many accommodations accept a credit card to hold the booking but usually give a better rate if paid in cash, especially US$ currency.

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Phase 1: Bariloche 11 days car rental: loop Argentina’s Ruta 40 to Chile’s Carretera Austral

Car versus RV or camper

To best explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt or Punta Arenas in Chile. Check out Wicked Campers in Puerto Varas or Punta Arenas. Or try Rolling Patagonia in Coyhaique, in central Patagonia. See “Patagonia flight tips” at bottom for planning logistics.

In Argentina, Bariloche doesn’t yet rent RVs or campers. So several months in advance, we pre-booked a compact car. We found lodging for 9 nights of 12 in Phase 1. The remaining 3 nights used tents, pads, and sleeping bags brought from home (plus sleeping bags were later used once in Phase 2).

Sadly, miscommunication with a third-party booking site (ArgusCarHire) disallowed our initial Argentine rental car to enter Chile, which had been our main goal, starting from Bariloche. If you plan to enter Chile from Argentina, contact your rental car supplier directly (such as Modena in Bariloche) a week in advance to double-check their progress in obtaining a Chile-approved car and required paperwork (about US$60 extra). Luckily, we negotiated a replacement car to come three days later (giving us a superior clutch in a newer vehicle that didn’t require jump-starting).

ARGENTINA: Bariloche and Tronador Section of Nahuel Huapi National Park


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Throughout our flexible 11 days with a car rented from Bariloche, we were able to find lodging or tent-camping either spontaneously or booked a day in advance. Although we had booked both the first and last nights’ accommodations in Bariloche, I regretted that the last night was nonrefundable, because on night 3 we found lakeside Villa Huapi outside of town to be superior in value to our booking at the aging Apart Costa Azul.

An open schedule plus a good weather window realized a spontaneous Friday plan with pinpoint timing: driving from Bariloche to Los Rapidos cutoff point on the road to Pampa Linda Trailhead, before the daily 2:00 pm one-way-road reversal. A sunny mid-afternoon start allowed time to hike 12 kilometers with 1046 meters gain (7.5 miles, 3400 ft up) through a lovely forest with soaring trees, to popular Refugio Otto Meiling, arriving at sunset in time for second dinner! Gardeners like me recognize the bright red drooping flowers of native hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) growing in the understory.

Conveniently, Refugio Otto Meiling (external link) welcomes all, doesn’t take reservations, and serves good, hearty meals. I loved the crepe dessert with fresh raspberry jam! The down side was a dormitory floor tightly-packed with dozens of snoring bodies. Reaching the downstairs bathroom for midnight pee required balancing a tightrope between faces and feet on bouncy mats! The trail gives spectacular views of 7+ waterfalls plunging from Castaño Overo Glacier, best seen from the easy side trip to Mirador Castaño Overo (great for day hikers), done during our descent the next day.

With an altitude of 3470 m, the extinct stratovolcano of Tronador stands more than 1000 meters above nearby mountains in the Andean massif, making it a popular climb. The sound of falling seracs helped name the volcano Tronador, Spanish for “Thunderer.” Located inside two National Parks, Nahuel Huapi in Argentina and Vicente Pérez Rosales in Chile, Tronador hosts eight glaciers, which are retreating due to warming of the upper troposphere.

ARGENTINA: Los Alerces National Park; Butch Cassidy’s Ranch


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We drove south on Ruta 40 through popular hippie town El Bolsón and turned southwest on RP71.

Near the end of their career, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place tried settling down to make an honest living from 1901–05 near the quiet farming community of Cholila, outside the northeast entrance of what is now Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Visiting their restored ranch enlivens history, off the radar.

Paving turned to dirt as we entered Los Alerces National Park (honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List). An hour paid for parking allowed time to stroll across Pasarela Rio Arrayanes pedestrian bridge to a pleasant overlook on Lago Verde. We learned that seeing the ancient Alerces trees (Fitzroya cupressoides, the largest tree species in South America) would have required a boat tour consuming most of a day, for which we sadly lacked the time. Near sunset, we ate the dust of a dozen other cars exiting the park’s windy roads, to eventually reach our nice two-bedroom cabin with kitchen booked in Esquel (Cabañas Lorien, US$63).

ARGENTINA: Cave of Hands


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We departed Esquel to rejoin Ruta 40, driving 6 hours south to an apartment Sol y Luna booked in the sleepy town of Perito Moreno, in Santa Cruz Province. The next day we drove south to Cave of Hands on remote paved and steep gravel roads, 169 km (105 miles) south of town. Along the roadside flocked exotic creatures including Darwin’s rhea or ñandu, and countless wild guanacos (parent species of the domesticated llama).

Located in a scenic canyon of the Pinturas River, the Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) displays some of the earliest known human art in the Americas, protected for millennia under the rim of a dry canyon. This striking artwork is honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Dating to around 5000 BCE, the silhouette paintings of mostly left hands were sprayed using a bone pipe held in the right hand. The age of the paintings was calculated from pigments found in layers of charcoal from human fires and bone remains of the spraying pipes. The hunting scenes (mostly guanaco) and representations of animals and human life all date older than the stenciled hands, to around 7300 BCE. Visiting these exquisite artworks requires a low-cost tour led by one of the park caretakers/interpreters who live on site. The Visitor Center provides exhibits and restrooms.

After being inspired by this vibrant prehistoric art, we returned to Perito Moreno and turned west. Following Lake Buenos Aires, we crossed into Chile at Chile Chico, where the water’s name changes to Lago General Carrera.

CHILEAN CUSTOMS WARNING

Fresh or dried food cannot be brought into Chile (via car, bicycle, or airplane) such as: fresh meat, fish, groceries, milk, fresh fruits, dried fruits, fresh vegetables, even food bars (such as containing honey). Declare all food, so that disallowed food will be simply confiscated instead of incurring fines. Due to this inspection, be prepared for border delays.

CHILE: Patagonia National Park and Rio Baker


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The pavement from Argentina ends in gravel immediately west of Chile Chico, where Saturday’s delivery of vegetables and fresh foods, sourced from distant Chilean suppliers, were now empty shelves on Tuesday. Prolonged Patagonian border disputes between Chile and Argentina have historically chilled relations and discouraged trade, isolating this remote town. Cabañas Cueva del Indio provided a comfortable new 2-bedroom apartment with kitchen for US$71.

The next day, we drove towards the ice-capped Andes on panoramic Ruta 265 along glacially-carved General Carrera Lake, which surprisingly drains westwards to the Pacific Ocean, via Bertrand Lake and the voluminous Baker River. The coast of the lake was first inhabited by criollos and European immigrants 1900–1925. In 1971 and 1991, eruptions of Hudson Volcano severely affected the local economy, especially sheep farming.

We turned south on Carretera Austral (CH-7) for 30 km to reach Salto Rio Baker, an impressive cascade which boils just above the colorful confluence of rivers Baker and Neff, just north of Cochrane in Capitán Prat Province. As Chile’s largest river by volume, Rio Baker dazzles your eyes with bright turquoise-blue color, caused by glacial sediments. Rio Baker was the proposed site of a controversial major hydro-electric project called HidroAysén, involving five dams, to be the biggest in the history of Chile. After the project was opposed by Chilean and international environmental activist groups, Chile’s Committee of Ministers denied its permit in 2014. Due to growing human demands, few rivers this large in the world remain undammed and free flowing.

Just north of Cochrane, camping in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park for two nights in Los West Winds Campground (external link) (CLP$8000 Chilean pesos or US$11 per person per night) avoided high Lodge rates ($600 triple, $500 double). From our tent doorsteps, we enjoyed hiking the Lagunas Altas Loop Trail (21 km round trip with 1100 m cumulative gain). Intensive ranching on this former estancia caused overgrazing, but through restoration and rewilding, native grasslands have recovered, wildlife has returned, and more people are employed now than when it was a ranch. Top-notch park infrastructure includes a classy Museum and Visitor Center, Lodge, Restaurant, campgrounds, and trails. The park’s inspirational story is a shining bellwether for the recovery of abused land in Patagonia and elsewhere.

Patagonia National Park (external link) consists of the Tompkins Conservation donation in addition to the former national reserves of Jeinimeni and Tamango, plus fiscal land. Parque Patagonia was created by Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit incorporated in California and founded in 2000 by Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. In January 2018, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Kris Tompkins signed a decree creating 5 national parks, including Parque Patagonia, which now attract ever more Chileans and others to appreciate this remote corner of the world.

CHILE: Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), on General Carrera Lake


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A surprising number of motorboats plied the beautiful “Marble Caves”, officially called the Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), starting from Bahía Manso on General Carrera Lake. Services in the little town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo were clearly overwhelmed by the summer onslaught of bus package tours, bike packers, rental cars, and desperate hitchhikers. You can join a Marble Caves tour in Puerto Río Tranquilo; or save money and time like we did, by driving directly 8 km south to Bahía Manso, where we spontaneously joined a 2-hour tour boat on short notice. The best time is a sunny summer morning in calmer waters. The precipitous side road down to Bahía Manso was nervously passable with our 2-wheel-drive compact Volkswagen Suran (Highline), but if the road is wet, 4WD might be required to untrap your car.

CHILE: Cerro Castillo; Carretera Austral


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Continuing north, our long days rattling over dusty gravel roads were suddenly relieved by smooth new concrete paving on Carretera Austral just south of Villa Cerro Castillo, a growing pioneer town in Coyhaique Province. Urbanization is marching southwards. As more-famous Patagonian treks become overcrowded, international adventurers increasingly seek alternatives, such as multi-night backpacking routes in Cerro Castillo National Reserve. Along with more than a hundred like-minded travelers, we day-hiked the Reserve’s main gem at Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo, 14 km round trip with 1082 m gain (8.5 miles with 3550 feet). Steep basalt walls of the mountain Cerro Castillo resemble a castle (or Castillo in Spanish). Hostel & Camping Sendero Patagonia supplied a cheap tent site with great view, but the shared kitchen and shower house were aging and messy, plus Wi-Fi was broken. After the hike, driving north 75 km to Coyhaique, cellphone service allowed finding a beautiful apartment at Cabañas Río Claro, on short notice.

CHILE: Queulat National Park; Futaleufu


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Waterfalls plunge spectacularly from Queulat Hanging Glacier, in Queulat National Park, in Aysen Province. The Glacier extends from the Queulat ice cap, which borders Ventisquero Sound (actually a fjord, carved by glaciers) in northern Puyuhuapi Channel.

Sendero Ventisquero Colgante, the best of the park’s few trails, reaches Mirador Ventisquero Colgante (Viewpoint of Queulat Hanging Glacier). Ventisquero (or “snowdrift”) is an archaic word for “glacier” used by early South American explorers. In summer, go early in the morning to avoid crowds. Entering the park’s rutted dirt road around noon required a 45-minute wait to park, pay entrance fees, then park again. We joined the friendly international hordes walking through dense forest (4 miles or 6.6 km round trip with 1150 ft or 350 m cumulative gain). The trail is wildly popular despite some steep steps, slippery rocks, roots, and mud. Waiting in line to cross the suspension bridge, limited to 4 people at once, took 30 minutes in late afternoon to return to the car. In contrast to drier areas east of the Andes crest (such as Lake Carrera, Chacabuco Valley, and Coyhaique), windward-side Queulat National Park is one of the rainiest places (3500 – 4000 mm) in Chilean Patagonia.

Phase 2: Fly from Bariloche to El Calafate

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February - 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February – 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

ARGENTINA: El Calafate: Perito Moreno Glacier & Spegazzini Glacier on Lake Argentino, Los Glaciares National Park

Perito Moreno Glacier‘s loud cracks, groans, and calvings captivated us for hours from intimate viewing platforms on Lake Argentino (see video near top), on a bright sunny morning in Santa Cruz Province. The magnificent Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water). Surrounded by Los Glaciares National Park, Lago Argentino is the biggest freshwater lake in Argentina and reaches as deep as 500 meters (1640 feet). Its outlet, the Santa Cruz River, flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Using 2009 data, scientists report that nearly 90 percent of the glaciers in Antarctica and Patagonia are melting quickly, as are most glaciers worldwide due to global warming. Curiously, Moreno Glacier has been a relatively stable exception for the past hundred years. Located 78 kilometers (48 mi) from El Calafate, the glacier was named after explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 1800s and defended the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile. Los Glaciares National Park and Reserve are honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


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Three nights in El Calafate allowed time to explore remoter reaches of Los Glaciares National Park. On Lake Argentino, we boarded the ‘Maria Turquesa’ Cruiser for their enjoyable Glaciers Gourmet Full Day Sightseeing Cruise (booked two days in advance for US$120 per person, plus add their shuttle service if you don’t have a rental car). Save money by driving yourself to their La Soledad private port. The highlight for us was sailing to the striking Spegazzini Glacier. The Old Settlers’ Las Vacas Station on Spegazzini Canal Bay intrigued us with stories of historic ranchland now transitioning to National Park management, grappling with feral cows and restoration of native forest. Back on board, the provided lamb sandwich lunchbox tasted great, as we swapped stories with fellow international travelers at our table. Cloud buildup dulled photography and quieted the glaciers’ calving, so cruising to revisit Moreno Glacier paled in comparison to yesterday’s loud excitement experienced from boardwalks.

ARGENTINA: El Chalten and Mount Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park

The awesome knife of Mount Fitz Roy looms ever higher as you approach El Chalten mountain resort, in Los Glaciares National Park. Don’t miss the astounding sunrise view from Mirador al Chaltén, a pullout on Ruta 23 just 2 km southeast of town.


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Prebooking a nice flat in Patagonia Hikes Aparts served as a comfy home base in El Chalten. In this hikers’ paradise we dedicated 10 days to explore the following:

  • Chorrillo del Salto waterfall is 7 km round trip from El Chalten by vehicle or on foot. Walkers can start at the end of Avenida San Martín, on the same trailhead as Laguna De los Tres, but soon taking the path to the right which parallels the road to Lago del Desierto.
  • For a homespun taste of Patagonian history, don’t miss Andreas Madsen House Museum, seen exclusively via private tour led by Walk Patagonia, starting from their office at Avenida Antonio Rojo 62 in El Chalten. Danish pioneer Andreas Madsen arrived in 1905 and built the first house in El Chaltén, on his farm named Estancia Cerro Fitz Roy. Walk an easy 6 km round trip to visit his family home along Rio de las Vueltas, within Los Glaciares National Park, with a commanding view of Cerro Fitz Roy.
  • Laguna Torre: starting at sunrise to avoid crowds, we hiked 21 km (13 miles) round trip with 730 m (2400 ft) cumulative gain to Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft) and Mirador Maestri, with stunning views of Cerro Torre (3,128 m or 10,262 ft elevation). On the way out, we encountered hundreds of hikers going both directions.
  • From Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado (“hill of the collapsed fold”), see Cerro Fitz Roy rising high above Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft). Sadly, clouds hid Cerro Torre that day. The trailhead starts from the Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center, going for 19 km (11.9 mi) with 1170 meters (3860 ft) cumulative gain (which I’ve hiked 3 times).
  • Laguna de Los Tres is one of the park’s most crowded, most scenic trails. Start early (ideally before sunrise) and follow Sendero Fitz Roy for 20 km round trip with 1100 meters gain. To reach the best view, slightly descend left of Laguna de Los Tres then ascend 50 m to a bare knoll overlooking both it and Lago Sucia under mighty Mount Fitz Roy.
  • Huemul Lake and Glacier: A short, steep, sweet hike 4 km round trip with 215 m gain on private land. Pay the trail entrance fee at the campground at Estancia Lago Del Desierto. Note the knife-like north face of Fitz Roy rising to the south. Directions: drive or shuttle north from El Chalten for 35 km on gravel road RP23, leaving the national park, to reach Punta Sur of Lago del Desierto, just before reaching the ferry.
  • Paso Quadrado: Rio Electrico Valley staged my favorite experience in Patagonia. North of El Chalten, we parked where the gravel road RP23 crosses Rio Electrico bridge. An easy 7.3 km hike leads to Refugio and Campground Piedra del Fraile (“Stone of the Friar”). From the refuge, a scenic half-day route visits turquoise Lago Electrico under the glacier-clad Marconi Range, then leads to rocky Lago Pollone which reflects Mount Fitz Roy (8.5 km round trip with 320 m gain). For us, hiking to Lago Pollone completed a 16 km day including the trail from the highway. The relaxed, uncrowded Refuge’s dining building served good hearty food, including delicious pizza and cakes! We slept comfortably in our sleeping bags on provided mats in a quiet 4-person dorm room. After a breakfast of cold pizza saved from last night, we ascended very steeply to the breathtaking Paso Quadrado (gaining 1340 m vertically in 8.4 km round trip). Views improved steadily during the ascent. From Piedra Negra climbers camp, you can see an icy Chilean peak rising from the South Patagonian Ice Cap, 27 km northwest. What to me resembled a ptarmigan was actually a rufous-bellied seedsnipe (Attagis gayi), a common wading bird resident in the Andes. To our delight, a pair of rare huemul (south Andean deer, Hippocamelus bisulcus) wandered across Piedra Negra. A rocky, sometimes-exposed cairned route crosses between muddy green Lago Quadrado and an unnamed pure blue lake partially covered in ice. The last kilometer climbs steep snow which could require crampons and ice axe if icy, but was passable in soft snow using our trailrunning shoes. Scrambling the last 30 meters of rock to reach Paso Quadrado requires comfort with exposure (not for those with fear of heights).
Cerro Fitz Roy (3405 meters or 11,171 feet elevation)

is also known as Cerro Chaltén, Monte Fitz Roy, or Mount Fitz Roy. The first Europeans recorded as seeing the peak were the Spanish explorer Antonio de Viedma and his companions, who in 1783 reached the shores of Viedma Lake. In 1877, Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno saw the mountain and named it Fitz Roy in honor of Robert FitzRoy who, as captain of HMS Beagle (accompanied by Charles Darwin), had traveled up the Santa Cruz River in 1834 and charted large parts of the Patagonian coast. Cerro Fitz Roy was first climbed in 1952. Cerro is a Spanish word meaning hill, while Chaltén comes from a Tehuelche word meaning “smoking mountain”, due to its frequent orographic clouds.

Phase 3: CHILE: Trek the W Route in Torres del Paine National Park


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Round trip by bus from Argentina’s El Calafate, our generous nine-day itinerary to trek the W Route in Chile allowed for two shots of weather window for each of the three major valleys, as follows:

  1. Picked up from our lodging in El Calafate (Argentina) at 6:20am, we bused (BookingCalafate.com, US$67 per person) from El Calafate 6.5 hrs to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station then to Refugio Pudeto in CHILE’s Torres del Paine National Park. Before crossing into Chile, be sure to eat your sandwiches or any fresh food, otherwise Chilean Customs will capriciously confiscate it at the border! (Going the other way, bringing Chilean food into Argentina is fine.) Walking an hour on the dusty park road reached Hosteria PehoeHosteria Pehoe, which provided wonderful views of Los Cuernos but mediocre meals, on our first of eight nights in the park. Take your hot showers early as we did, because others later suffered cold showers.
  2. Hosteria Pehoe’s concierge booked us a pricey US$150 ride for 28 km to reach the nicer Hotel Lago Grey, the best starting point for the W Route (if you can book it at least 5+ months in advance). Their shuttle boat ferried us to the sandspit where we boarded their Lago Grey Ferry’s special third sailing (at 14:00, US$92, reservations recommended), which cruises dramatically close to Glacier Grey before dropping we trekkers (and pick up others) at Vertice Refugio & Camping Grey for two nights. (The first two sailings drop & pick up trekkers BEFORE sightseeing the glacier.) Our W Route trek began auspiciously with onboard gratis pisco sours and astounding glacier views! Don’t miss the inspiring Mirador Glacier Grey just 1 km north of Vertice Refugio Grey. Their elaborate new mountain hotel lavished us with elegant bedding in comfortable 4-person shared dorm rooms.
    • W Route trekkers have a cheaper alternative ferry which takes no reservations, departing from Refugio Pudeto (our backup plan). Catamaran Hielos Patagonia ferries hikers to Paine Grande (US$35 for foreigners; 35-minute crossing at 09:00, 11:00, 16:15, 18:00). Walking from Refugio Paine Grande to Vertice Grey Refuge is 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, each way. You can walk to the nearby Salto Grande waterfall while waiting for the catamaran.
  3. Staying a second night at the remarkably comfortable Vertice Refugio Grey allowed weather flexibility to hike 4.5 miles round trip to the best viewpoint over Grey Glacier, located just after the Second Swing Bridge. If extra energy allows, continue up to twice as far, as we did to Campamento Paso Ranger Station viewpoint, relatively lightly traveled by day hikers (for 14 km round trip with 924 m gain & loss; or 8.9 miles, 3030 ft up & down). The thrilling trail crosses three swing bridges high over deep gorges cut into the steep mountainside, through ancient twisted Nothofagus forest, breaking periodically into panoramic views of vast Glaciar Grey and surrounding peaks. Dozens of weary but exuberant “O Route” backpackers exited one-way from Paso John Gardner towards Vertice’s hot showers.
  4. We walked from Vertice Grey Refuge to Refugio Paine Grande 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, with the gusty prevailing 25-mph winds at our backs. Our 6-bunk room encouraged hours-long conversations with two French economists (who we met again at Chileno Refuge).
  5. From comfortable Refugio Paine Grande, we hiked via panoramic Mirador Britanico in the French Valley to Camping & Domes Francés (12.9 mi gaining 4610 feet up, dropping 4050 ft down). Hiking to Mirador Britanico reveals an impressive cirque of tall cliffs, including Cerro Cota 2000, Cerro Catedral, the granite arête of Aleta de Tiburón (Shark’s Fin), Los Cuernos, and more. Mysterious thunderous crashes heard throughout the day turned out to be calving icefalls (see video near top) periodically plunging from the imposing Cerro Paine Grande (9462 ft or 2884 m elevation measured by GPS in 2011). Staying in Fully-Equipped Tents at Camping Francés required walking a steep 1-km road for dinner and breakfast, except for lucky people staying in the attractive geodesic Domes dormitories (which were harder to book). Good healthy dinners were served with fresh green salads, imported by boat via Lake Nordenskjöld, seen broadly below.
  6. A rest day scheduled at Camping & Domes Francés allowed weather flexibility for seeing French Valley (done yesterday). But the ambiance would have been better if scheduled 2 hours further east at scenic Refugio Torres.
  7. Walking from Refugio & Camping Francés to Refugio Chileno (10 miles with 2680 ft gain, 1860 ft down) was my hardest day, due to fighting a head cold in hot, humid weather. We followed along Lake Nordenskjöld then crossed drier estancia land, then steeply up Ascencio Valley. Refugio Chileno served the best food of the W Route, a delicious salmon dinner and layered dessert.
  8. We ascended from Refugio Chileno to Mirador Base Las Torres on Lago Torres, then descended all the way out to Fantástico Sur’s Refugio Torre Central on the park road (9.6 miles gaining 2450 ft and descending 3270 ft). The popular hike from the refuge to Lago Torres alone was 5.85 miles round trip with 1980 ft gain and loss. Rising at 4:00am allowed dozens of others from the hut to hike to Lago Torres to see magenta sunrise light strike the namesake Towers in a magical setting. But instead, I slept off my head cold and first ate breakfast with Dave and Rebecca before ascending the route. On the descent, we encountered hundreds of others going each direction, many doing a much longer day round trip from Refugio Central and other lodges located on the park road terminus (13.5 miles round trip with 3270 ft gain). For weather flexibility, we had tried to book a second night at well-worn Chileno Refuge, but it was fully booked several months in advance. Instead, Dave & Rebecca stayed in a Fully-Quipped Tent in Camping Central, and I stayed in a 6-person dorm room with 2 others in the spacious, nicely furnished Refugio Central, where all shared tasty hot meals. Chirping exuberantly in the trees were several of the world’s southernmost parrot species, the austral parakeet (Enicognathus ferrugineus or austral conure), posing for my photos.
  9. A Fantástico Sur shuttle bus (US$5 with several daily departures, ticket bought a few hours in advance) took us from the Central Welcome Center to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station, where we caught our afternoon bus back to El Calafate in Argentina (BookingCalafate.com, US$55).
Planning tips for Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Backpacking in the park carrying your own tent and/or camping gear may pay off for stronger, younger, more-frugal adventurers such as on the longer, less-crowded “O Route” (see stingynomads.com) circumnavigating the Paine massif, counterclockwise only.

However, the most stunning landscape of the “O Route” can be seen by day hiking north from Refugio Grey across two exciting swing bridges, to the entrancing viewpoint over Grey Glacier just north of Second Swing Bridge (4.5 miles round trip). Also worthwhile for us was continuing on to Campamento Paso (8.9 miles total round trip, 3030 ft up & down). Above that, Paso John Gardner offers higher, perhaps grander, but incredibly windier views.

The Park’s grandest mountain scenery is on the W Route. My 60s-year old body prefers the comfortable huts and Full Equipo Tents, with all meals optionally provided (yes). Simply carry lightweight day-hiking gear plus change of cloths and camera. No need to carry any food, fuel, or camping equipment. Hot showers are available for all. Don’t hike the W Route from east to west, due to prevailing winds blasting you in the face. Go west to east as we did.

All lodging AND camping are strictly limited within Torres del Paine National Park, and must be booked at least 6 MONTHS IN ADVANCE, as we tried to do. Booking any later will severely limit your options. Booking everything ourselves for our 5-week trip cut costs nearly in half compared to a packaged tour, but took weeks of work and some headaches. The refugios (refuges) in the park are comfortable mountain hotels operated by two different companies, inconveniently requiring separate bookings:

  • Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Camping & Domes Francés; Refugio Los Cuernos; Refugio Chileno; and on the park road terminus are grouped Refugio Torre Central, Camping Central, and Refugio Torre Norte.
  • Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Refugio & Camping Paine Grande; Refugio & Camping Grey; and Dickson Shelter & Camping (on the “O Route”).
  • Campgrounds operated by CONAF (nice park overview map): Paso Camping & Ranger Station (above Grey Glacier); and smelly Campamento Italiano.

Offloading your booking tasks to a professional organizer or tour operator can be worth the price premium. My research for self-guided tours on a budget revealed the following promising USA-based company: Pygmy Elephant’s 5-day W-Trek (external link).

Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Paine-Grande/forecasts/500

Patagonia flight tips

All flights between Chile and Argentina must go through their capital cities. Over a dozen small airports serve Patagonia, but none of their flights cross the international border. (In our 2005 trip, one flight went from Ushuaua to Punta Arenas but wasn’t unavailable in 2020.) Efficiently touring within Patagonia can require patching together a series of one-way flight legs within either Argentina or Chile, but not flying crossing the border. Search by specifying “one-way” or “multi-city” in flight websites. To reach Torres del Paine by air from Chile, you must fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas Airport, then continue by bus or rented vehicle to Puerto Natales, and from there to the Park. Access from Argentina’s El Calafate by bus was more efficient for us. Our Argentine travel goals in El Chalten and Bariloche based our flights in Argentina instead of Chile. To explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt, Coyhaique, or Punta Arenas in Chile (see Bariloche: “Car versus RV or camper”).

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty.”Douglas Tompkins (see video)

Patagonia overview map

Patagonia map: Argentina & Chile.  — January 28–30, 2020: Fly from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.  — January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral.  — February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.  — February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.  — March 5–7: Fly home El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Patagonia 2020 map, Argentina & Chile. Itinerary:

  1. January 28–30, 2020: Tom Flies from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.
  2. January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral
  3. February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.
  4. February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
  5. March 5–7: Tom flies home from El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. Dave & Rebecca flew to Ushuaia to cruise Antarctica round trip. Their healthy ship unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising to Montevideo, Uruguay due to Argentina’s COVID-19 border closures.

PERU 2014: Around Alpamayo & Cordillera Huayhuash Circuits

During my third visit to Peru (June 19-July 18, 2014), our family group of eight Dempseys trekked vigorously 10 days Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and 9 days on the spectacular Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, in the Huaraz area, Andes, South America. We prepared for the breathtaking altitudes with three day hikes of acclimatization out of Huaraz: 1) Callan Punta (in the Cordillera Negra), 2) Lake Churup, and 3) Lake 69. The tough itinerary was rewarded by memorable images shown below.

Favorite Peru photos from 2014, 2003, 2000

In galleries below, click “i” to display informative captions.


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Peruvian trekking season, climate, guide service

The Andes climate is generally wonderful for trekking in the mountain dry season from May through September. Days are about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, nights about 38 degrees, with frequent morning frost if the night was clear. Encounter fewer fellow travelers in May or September, when weather is also good. Coastal Peru, including the megalopolis of Lima, has a climate opposite to that of the mountains: a short summer of sunny, sticky days from January to March, followed by 9 months of gray mist called the garua. Coastal Peru is one of the driest deserts on earth, watered only by rivers descending from the Andes. As mountain weather often differs from nearby cities, get a better forecast at: www.mountain-forecast.com

We booked our treks of 2014, 2003, and 2000 directly via e-mail and wire payment using the excellent Peru-based trekking company Aventura Quechua. (See my earlier article PERU 2000, 2003.) Our group enjoyed their good food and confident leadership on tenting treks with guide, cook, and arrieros (donkey wranglers). Experienced, flexible trip leader Dante successfully guided our 22 days of hiking in 2014.

Peru is one of the best exotic travel bargains from the USA (much closer than Nepal). Visitors from the Americas will have little jet lag to Lima because Peru Time (PET) equals Eastern Standard Time (EST) without a Daylight Savings shift.

Around Alpamayo in 10 days, Cordillera Blanca 2014


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We walked for 10 days Around Alpamayo in Huascaran National Park, as high as 15,950 feet or 4830 meters elevation at Caracara Pass. (A side trip to Punta Union Pass reached 15,600 feet in better weather than the rainy day of our Santa Cruz Valley Trek in year 2000.)

Alpamayo mountain weather forecast: www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Alpamayo

Cordillera Blanca is the highest tropical mountain range in the world, reaching 22,205 feet at the top of snowy twin-peaked Huascaran. In 1985, UNESCO listed beautiful Huascaran National Park as a World Heritage Area, a label for special places worth seeking worldwide.

Cordillera Huayhuash Valley Circuit in 9 days, 2014


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Trekking around the stunning Cordillera Huayhuash requires altitude acclimatization and good physical fitness. We averaged walking about 9 miles and 2000 feet up/down each day in good weather. Donkeys carried gear and arrieros (donkey drivers) set up camp ahead each day, leaving us to carry light day packs. We crossed many passes over 15,000 feet in elevation above sea level reaching as high as 16,500 feet. The scenery and thin air took my breath away!

Portachuelo de Huayhuash and Punta Cuyoc passes on the Huayhuash Circuit gave us sweeping views of Cordillera Raura. The source of the Amazon River lies on the east side of the Cordillera Raura, as determined by the Royal Geographical Society in 1950: the tiny glacial lake Laguna Niñococha feeds Rio Lauricocha, then Rio Marañon, then the Amazon. [From May 21-28, 2003, I trekked with 10 other men for 55 miles in eight days halfway around the Cordillera Huayhuash on a route is known as the Backwards C, which exits in the Cordillera Raura. In 2014, I repeated those first 5 days then added the southern portion to finish the amazing Huayhuash Circuit route.]

Cordillera Huayhuash is currently a Reserved Zone, which recognizes the rights and traditional land use by the eight communities of the area. Please respect the area by informing yourself before going. The following book helps plan a trek, identify routes, and name peaks during the trip (and includes several of my photos):

Climbs and Treks in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru” by Jeremy Frimer 2005  ISBN #0-9733035-5-7

Touching the Void

The Cordillera Huayhuash challenged mountaineers in the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the treacherous West Face of Siula Grande (20,800 feet / 6344 meters), one of the last unconquered faces in the Andes, but after Joe broke his leg, their descent became one of the most amazing survival stories in mountaineering history. The movie is based upon the harrowing book, “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival” by Joe Simpson (published 2004, 1993, 1989).

Huayhuash weather forecast

Weather forecast for Siula Grande (and other selectable peaks in the Peruvian Andes or worldwide): www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Siula-Grande

Huaraz; Lake Churup hike; Callan Punta hike (Cordillera Negra)


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Peruvian History

While Lake Titicaca (on the border with Bolivia) is an earlier and more important cradle of Andean civilizations, Cuzco Valley gave birth to the powerful Inca Empire. Peru’s greatest native legacy to the world is the potato plant, which is now a staple crop spread world wide.
An ancient mummy seems to cringe in sorrow or intense feeling at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia (National Anthropology and Archeology Museum), Lima, Peru, South America.)

The Inca Empire and Spanish Conquest

Archeology suggests that in a 700-800 AD military expansion, the Wari people may have settled the Cuzco Valley and become the Inca’s ancestors. Quechua oral history says that the first Inca, Manco Capac, the son of the sun god (inti), founded the city of Cuzco in the 1100’s AD. After 1430 AD, the Incas burst out of Cuzco and quickly imposed their culture from southern Colombia to central Chile.

The Incas used their absolute rule and organizational genius to build vast terraces for growing food on the steep Andes mountains in a moderate climate, away from the dry desert coast and above the mosquito-filled Amazon Basin. The Incas developed textiles, pottery, metals, architecture, amazingly fitted rock walls, empire-wide roads, bridges, and irrigation, but never discovered the wheel, arch, or writing. Despite their amazing accomplishments, the Inca Empire lasted barely a century.

Over in Europe, Catholic Pope Alexander divided Africa and Brazil to Portugal, and gave the Americas to Spain. With Church approval, Spanish fortune hunters accompanied by priests sought riches in the Americas. With lucky timing, conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 at a moment that found the Incas vulnerable from a just-ended civil war. With just a few dozen conquistadors bringing superior weaponry, horses, and guile, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca. Despite receiving a fabulous a gold-filled room as ransom fulfillment, Pizarro soon killed Atahualpa. After realizing that the Spanish were here to stay, the successor Inca Emperor, Manco, met with fellow Inca chiefs at Lares in spring 1536 to plan a rebellion, raising an army of 100,000 to 200,000 to surround Cuzco against just 190 Spaniards (including 80 on horses). Despite vastly superior numbers, their clubs, spears, slingshots, and arrows were no match against armored and mounted Spanish Conquistadors brandishing steel swords. Manco Inca’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and he was forced to retreat to Vilcabamba in the Amazon jungle, where he was killed in 1544. In 1572, the Inca Tupac Amaru organized another rebellion, but was also defeated and executed by the Spaniards. The Spanish Conquest lasted 40 years, from the ambush of Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca, to Tupac Amaru’s beheading.

Sadly, the near-socialistic support system of the Inca was now destroyed by the cruelty of feudal Europe. The “Indians” (now known as Andeans or campesinos) were now triply-exploited by 1) their native chief (curaca), 2) their Spanish governor (encomendero), and 3) their Spanish priest, who all exacted undue tribute payments. The Incas’ mita system of forced labor for the common good was misused by the Spanish for mining gold and silver for the Crown. Eventually the Spanish forced 80% of the former Inca Empire to work for tribute, mines, or textile mills, stopping just short of slavery. After the Spanish Conquest, Peru’s population declined from 7 million to 1.8 million due to disease, war, famine, culture shock, and demoralization.  Read The Conquest of the Incas (2003), first published in 1970 by John Hemming.

Today, despite turbulent politics, Peru makes a wonderful vacation. Allow one or two extra flex days in your schedule to handle delays in transportation due to frequent strikes.

Recommended books for Peru

Search for latest “Peru travel books” at Amazon.com.

May 2013: 2013: 2014:
2011: 2011: 2004: 2004:
2008: 2003/1970:

How to acclimatize to high altitude

Learn how to adjust to high altitude without getting sick (updated 28 February 2018):

Ascending too quickly above 10,000 feet elevation can cause nausea, headaches, or sleeplessness due to acute mountain sickness (AMS, altitude sickness, or soroche in Spanish).

The best way to acclimatize above 10,000 feet elevation is to stay hydrated and to “climb high, sleep low.” That is, moderately day-hike to elevations higher than 10,000 feet, but then each night sleep no more than 2000 feet (600 meters) higher than the previous night. Avoid over-exertion for the first 1-2 days after arriving at altitude. According to the Institute for Altitude Medicine at Telluride, “avoid use of alcohol or sleeping agents of the benzodiazepine family, since they both suppress breathing and lower blood oxygen. Other sleeping pills like Ambien or Lunesta do not affect breathing at high altitude and are safe.” How fast you acclimatize is unpredictable and can vary for the same person on different occasions. Descending quickly towards sea level is the best cure if you become altitude sick.

Take time to naturally adjust to higher altitudes without relying on a drug with side affects such as Diamox — compare with the safer Ginkgo Biloba herb or ibuprofen below. According to a significant study in 2010, over-the-counter ibuprofen is just as effective as prescription Diamox (acetazolamide) for prevention of high altitude headache.

Ginkgo Biloba or ibuprofen have fewer side effects than Diamox

If tight trip schedules restrict time available for safe acclimatization, consider ibuprofen or the natural herb Ginkgo Biloba , which are both widely available without a prescription and have fewer undesirable side effects than Diamox (Acetazolamide, the drug most commonly prescribed by doctors for preventing altitude sickness). Common side effects of Diamox include frequent urination (risks dehydration), numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, taste alterations, blurred vision, and risk of kidney stones.

Ginkgo Biloba may not be as effective as ibuprofen or Diamox. Ginkgo Biloba may interact with some other drugs, but the interaction with Diamox is unknown. Pregnant women and people taking antidepressants should first consult their doctor before using Ginkgo Biloba.

Ginkgo Biloba directions: Take 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 3-5 days before ascending, and continue for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude. In the year 2000, a Ginkgo Biloba clinical study on Pike’s Peak with 40 college students reduced altitude sickness by 50% compared to the placebo group. Other studies

Starting at sea level, my sleep was significantly better in my first 2 nights in Cuzco (at 11,000 feet) when taking Ginkgo Biloba herb in 2003, compared to my trip in year 2000 without the herb. On our high altitude Huayhuash Trek in the Andes of Peru, most of our group of 11 men took 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and no one experienced serious problems from mountain sickness. In Nepal, we extended acclimatization time by first trekking Annapurna Sanctuary before the higher Gokyo Valley (Mount Everest area) and felt no significant altitude problems. My wife says she feels more comfortable at altitude after using Ginkgo Biloba as described above.

Coca leaf tea (mate de coca) in South America

In South America, your risk of feeling nausea due to altitude may also be reduced by drinking local coca leaf tea (mate de coca), the mild, traditional Andean stimulant. I found it pleasantly helpful. A cup of coca leaf tea is comparable to the affect of tea or coffee (but without the caffeine withdrawal hangover). As of 2012, coca tea is legal in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, most commonly served in the Highlands. But don’t bring coca leaves back home, as they are illegal in Brazil, the United States, and most countries outside of South America, despite the low coca alkaloid content. (In the USA, only a few companies are licensed to import and de-cocainize coca leaves such as for pharmaceuticals or soft drinks.)


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Acclimatization Example: Cordillera Huayhuash trek daily elevations

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru 2003, we acclimatized comfortably as follows:

  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek (the Huayhuash Reverse C Route):

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

How high can humans live?

At 18,000 feet you breath only half the oxygen compared to sea level. Research indicates that humans cannot live permanently above an elevation of 18,000 feet without suffering a gradual physiological deterioration that eventually leads to death. Mountaineers who anticipate spending time above 18,000 feet must fatten themselves before the climb to offset their inevitable weight loss.

Workers at the Aucanquilcha sulfur mining camp in Chile lived for years at 17,500 feet above sea level, and ascended each day to work the mine at 18,800 feet. A settlement in Bolivia matched this 17,500-foot record altitude maximum for permanent human habitation. As of May 2003, National Geographic Magazine reports that 16,730-foot La Rinconada, Peru, is the highest permanent human habitation.

Air retains a constant 21 percent of oxygen content (the rest is mostly Nitrogen) throughout all surface altitudes. But as you climb to higher altitudes, the weight of the air column above you decreases, thus lowering air density. As you ascend, the oxygen available per lungfull decreases as follows:

Altitude | Available Oxygen, Compared to Sea Level (average observed at 45 degrees latitude**)

  • 0 feet (sea level) | 100% (base for comparison)
  • 5,000 feet | 80 % of sea level oxygen per lungfull
  • 10,000 feet | 69% of sea level oxygen
  • 15,000 feet | 56% of sea level oxygen
  • 18,000 feet | 50% of sea level oxygen
  • 20,000 feet | 45% of sea level oxygen
  • 29,000 feet | 31% of sea level oxygen per lungfull

**The above figures are averages that apply only to the mid latitudes (45 degrees latitude, North or South). Oxygen available per lungfull also varies slightly by latitude as follows: you will gasp for air about 5 percent harder when climbing at 20,000 feet on Alaska’s Denali (Mount McKinley) than when climbing at the same altitude in the Himalayas. Denali is at 63 degrees north latitude, the Himalaya at 28 degrees north latitude, and the Cordillera Huayhuash at 10 degrees south latitude. Denali rises to 20,320 feet but has the oxygen availability of a 23,000 -foot peak in the Himalayas.

The centripetal force of the earth’s spin shapes the atmosphere (and the earth itself) into an “oblate spheroid”, flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator. At a given altitude, oxygen available per lungfull is highest at the equator (0 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is deepest (such as at Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa), and lowest at the poles (90 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is shallowest. 

PERU 2000, 2003 treks, Machu Picchu

Peru delights your heart with spectacular mountains, amazing ancient ruins, and colorful cultures. In 2000 and 2003, I enjoyed trekking in Peru to Machu Picchu, Lares, Santa Cruz Valley (in the Cordillera Blanca), and Cordillera Huayhuash. We booked all trekking trips directly by e-mail and fax using the excellent Peru-based company Aventura Quechua. Peru is one of the best exotic travel bargains from the USA (much closer than Nepal). Visitors from the Americas will have little jet lag to Lima (Peru Time PET=EST Eastern Standard Time).

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Favorite Peru photos 2000, 2003, 2014


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May 10-30, 2003 Peru trip:
  • We trekked the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru’s second highest range, for 55 miles over eight days, with loads carried by donkeys. We averaged 7 miles and 2000 feet up and down per day. Our camps varied from 10,660 feet to 14,500 feet elevation. We crossed five 15,000-foot passes, the highest measuring 15,700 feet elevation.
  • Visit the important ancient ruins of Chavin (1000-300 BC), a long day trip from Huaraz.
  • Visit Machu Picchu 3 days plus the spectacular Inca Salt Pans at Salinas.
May 19 – June 12, 2000 Peru trip:
  • We trekked with friends to the following three areas:
    • Trek 4 days on the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, with loads carried by porters.
    • Trek 3 days from remote Lares to Patacancha (north of Cuzco), with loads carried by llamas and horses.
    • Trek 5 days on the Santa Cruz Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca mountains, Huascaran National Park, with loads carried by donkeys and bus.
  • We avoided altitude sickness by ascending gradually with each trek, walking a total of 85 miles over 12 days, reaching 15,600 feet elevation in the spectacular Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Peruvian trekking season and climate

The climate is generally wonderful for trekking in the mountain dry season from May through September. Days are about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights about 38 degrees. However, the classic Santa Cruz Trek (near Huaraz) and especially the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be crowded in June-July.

Weather forecast for Machu Picchu (or other specific peaks worldwide): www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Picchu-Picchu

You will encounter fewer fellow travelers in May or September, which have excellent weather. Many other equally spectacular destinations have few tourists all year, such as the Cordillera Huayhuash trek.

Coastal Peru is one of the driest deserts on earth, watered only by rivers descending from the Andes. Coastal Peru, which includes the capital at Lima, has a climate opposite to that of the mountains: a short summer of sunny, sticky days from January to March, followed by 9 months of gray mist called the garua.

Lima, capital and gateway of Peru

Visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia in Lima. The dry coastal air preserved ancient mummies for up to 1000 years. Flying from Lima to mountainous Cuzco gives a good aerial view of the coastal desert.

Photo gallery: Cuzco 2003, Urubamba, Lares trek 2000


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Cuzco

The attractive town of Cuzco (or Cusco) nestles in a valley at 11,000 feet, and offers impressive Inca history, Spanish colonial architecture, high-quality handicrafts, comfortable lodging, and a pleasant year-round climate. The Spanish name “Cuzco” comes from qosqo, or “the earth’s navel,” in the Quechua language (Kichwa shimi, Runashimi, or Spanish Quichua)  Runakuna, Kichwas, and Ingas). In 1983, UNESCO listed the city of Cuzco as a World Heritage Site.

Although restaurant touts and craft vendors can be annoyingly assertive around the main tourist areas of Cuzco, you can’t blame them for wanting to make a living. Local products are often of high quality and inexpensive: fresh food, Cusquena beer, woven rugs, decorated ceramic plates, and various handicrafts. As of 2003, the city cleaned up the central square by banning roving vendors and moving them to a covered market building several blocks west.

Petty crime is high, but your your body is safer from harm in Peru than in the United States. Hang on to your valuables — one woman in our group lost a loosely secured small camera to a mother with children who distracted her and pressed closely. Be vigilant in cities, and you’ll find Peru to be safe and enjoyable for touring. Easily escape urban problems by trekking and visiting rural country. The campesinos (country folk) are friendly, conservative, and colorfully dressed.

Cuzco, the longest continuously occupied city in the Americas, is built upon the foundations of the Incas and several previous cultures. Many of the buildings incorporate Inca walls as a footing several feet high. Francisco Pizarro officially founded Spanish Cuzco in 1534. Santo Domingo Church was built on top of Coricancha (“Golden Courtyard” in Quechua language), Cuzco’s major Inca temple, and was twice destroyed by earthquakes, in 1650 and 1950. At Tambomachay, the Incas diverted a spring through impressive stone work. The Incas perfected stonecraft to a degree which amazes us today. Not even a piece of paper can fit between stones in the finer temples.

Lares to Patacancha Trek

This moderately strenuous trek through rugged, little-visited country in the Cordillera Urubamba, crosses passes at 13,800 and 14,200 feet between the towns of Lares and Patacancha. A five hour bus ride from Cuzco took us to Lares, where you can soak in developed hot springs. Llamas and horses carried our loads, and we camped at 12,500 feet for two nights. A woman said she weaves for a month on a rug which she sells for only $35 US. Her village is too remote for the government to extend electric lines and she subsists on raising alpacas, much as did her Inca ancesters. We met children who walked 6 miles each way to school. A flock of 30 wild Ibis birds flew overhead. We enjoyed trekking with Aventura Quechua.

Urubamba Valley

Visit the ancient experimental agricultural terraces of Moray.

Inca Salt Pans at Salinas: Since Inca times, workers have redirected a salt-laden spring onto these extensive terraces for evaporation into salt. At a small mill, workers add iodine to the salt and package it into different grades of purity.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 2000, and 2003 via train


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Trekking is the most rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu. Or take the train to Aguas Calientes, where a bus climbs to Machu Picchu on the ridge above town (or walk for 1 to 1.5 hours one way). In 1983, UNESCO honored the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site.

The Peru National Institute of Natural Resources requires overnight trekkers on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to hire a guide and pay entrance fees.

Our group of 12 hikers enjoyed great food on a tenting trek with Aventura Quechua who organized 2 guides, 2 cooks, and 22 porters. Trip leader Wilbert attracted us ever higher with his Andean flute. He played several more instruments, spoke eight languages, earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from a Peruvian university, and had a playful sense of humor. We trekked the standard Inca Trail 32 miles in four days, ascending a total of 8600 feet. A bus took us from Cuzco to the end of the road in the Urubamba Valley at Chilca (railroad kilometer 82), where we met our porters and began walking with day packs on a bridge over Urubamba River. Starting at 7700 feet elevation, we trekked as high as 13,770 feet (Dead Woman’s Pass), before descending on the fourth day to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu (8200 feet), where a bus descends to Aguas Calientes. Spaniards passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu.

At Machu Picchu, climb a very steep, scary, exposed stairway to a great view atop Huayna Picchu, the main peak. Don’t ascend when steps are wet.

Photo gallery: PERU: Huaraz, L. Churup, C. Negra hike


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PERU 2000: Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Chavin

The Santa Cruz Trek is the most popular trek of the Cordillera Blanca range, which is the highest tropical mountain range in the world, reaching 22,205 feet at the top of Huascaran. We walked for five days in Huascaran National Park, crossing as high as 15,600 feet at Punta Union Pass. Donkeys carried our loads, and we camped at 12,100 feet elevation for one night, 13,800 feet for two nights, and then 13,100 feet on the last night. Read about acclimatization. In 1985, UNESCO listed Huascaran National Park as a World Heritage Area.

On day 2 of the Santa Cruz Trek, we walked beneath the ice wall of Caraz (19,700 feet). One of the most spectacular camp spots in Peru (at 13,800 feet) is surrounded by three major mountain massifs with spiky peaks reaching nearly 20,000 feet above sea level. Alpamayo (19,500 feet) must be one of the prettiest mountains in the world, and reminds me much of Ama Dablam in Nepal. Attractive lupine flowers bloomed on spectacular meter-tall stalks in Tingopampa Valley below Punta Union Pass and Mount Taulliraju (19,100 feet elevation). The next day, rain, hail, and snow extinguished our view of Tingopampa Valley as we crossed Punta Union Pass (15,600 feet). Luckily, rain affected us only 2 days out of 23 in Peru (May 19 – June 12, 2000).  We descended by bus to Llanganuco Valley and lakes (12,000 feet elevation), in view of Huandoy rising to 20,981 feet, the second highest mountain in the Cordillera Blanca. Hike by waterfalls to scenic “Lake 69” (14,600 feet) at the base of Chacraraju (20,052 feet), and see the immense twin-peaked Huascaran (22,205 feet), highest mountain in Peru.

Chavín de Huántar ruins

As a long day trip from Huaraz, Peru, take a bus over a scenic 15,000-foot pass to visit the ancient ruins of Chavín de Huántar, at 10,300 feet elevation at the bottom of Cordillera Blanca’s eastern slopes halfway between the Amazon forest and coastal plains, in the Department of Ancash in Peru. 3000 years ago, the innovative Chavin builders engineered the Castillo with underground ducts for natural air conditioning. The most striking feature is the Peidra del Lanzón (“Stone of Lanzón”) or “Lanzon de Chavin“, a 13-foot-high carved white granite stele monument at the meeting point of four underground tunnels in the Castillo (or castle). The Lanzon, the supreme deity of Chavin de Huantar, intertwines the head of the feline deity of Chavin de Huantar and the human body of the shaman of the pre-Chavin period. In 1985, UNESCO listed Chavín de Huántar as a World Heritage Site.

The advanced Chavin culture of 1000 BC to 300 BC greatly influenced all later civilizations in Peru, including the famous Inca Empire of a millennia later, 1430-1572 AD. The farming city of Chavin became populous by controlling important trade routes which crossed from coast to interior and from north-to-south along the cordillera. Modern artist Pablo Picasso remarked, “Of all the ancient cultures that I admire, Chavín is the one that surprises me most. To tell the turth, it has been the inspiration for much of my work.”

Willkahuain

Willkahuain is an ancient Wari site near Huaraz, Peru. From 600 to 1000 AD, the Wari (or Huari) people conquered their neighbors in the central Andes. They imposed their way of life on local cultures, and also fashioned strong stone buildings with good ventilation and earthquake resistance. Wari influence gradually wained as local groups regained control. The militaristic and urban culture of the Wari may have influenced the remarkable expansion of the Inca from Cuzco Valley in 1430.

Cordillera Huayhuash Valley Circuit 2003


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Trekking the “Valley Circuit” around the stunning Cordillera Huayhuash requires altitude acclimatization and good physical fitness (but you don’t need to be a climber on this non-technical trail). The Cordillera Huayhuash challenged mountaineers in the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” Within Peru, only the Cordillera Blanca (Huascaran) is higher.

From May 21-28, 2003, I trekked with 10 other men for 55 miles in eight days halfway around the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash. Our route is known as the Backwards C, which is a portion of the complete Valley Circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash. We hiked across the continental divide of the Andes into the remote upper reaches of the Amazon Basin, then back over the divide to a different road head. Donkeys carried gear and arrieros (donkey drivers) set up camp ahead each day, leaving us to carry light day packs. We averaged walking a moderate 7 miles and 2000 feet up/down each day in beautiful weather. We crossed six passes over 15,000 feet in elevation above sea level (as high as 15,700 feet). The scenery and thin air took my breath away!

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru in 2003, we acclimatized as follows:

  • We took 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and continued for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude.
  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek:

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

Cordillera Huayhuash is currently a Reserved Zone, which recognizes the rights and traditional land use by the eight communities of the area. Please respect the area by informing yourself before going. The following book helps plan a trek, identify routes, and name peaks during the trip:

Climbs and Treks in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru” by Jeremy Frimer 2005  ISBN #0-9733035-5-7

Touching the Void

Siula Grande (20,800 feet / 6344 meters) is the subject of the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the treacherous Siula Grande, one of the last unconquered mountains in the Andes, but after Joe broke his leg, their descent became one of the most amazing survival stories in mountaineering history. We photographed the east face, but they climbed Siula Grande from a valley on the other side (the west face). The movie is based upon Joe Simpson’s harrowing book, “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival” (published 2004, 1993, 1989).

Cordillera Raura

We exited our “Backwards C” Huayhuash trek in the Cordillera Raura mountains. The source of the Amazon River lies on the east side of the Cordillera Raura, as determined by the Royal Geographical Society in 1950: the tiny glacial lake Laguna Niñococha feeds Rio Lauricocha, then Rio Marañon, then the Amazon. To reach the source of the Amazon, trekkers can depart from the regular Huayhuash circuit near Huayhuash village on Day 7, go eastwards to Caquish, wade across Rio Lauricocha, climb to Laguna Niñococha and finish at the mining town of Mina Raura, on the road head to Churin and Lima (8 days total from Chiquian). You can also hike a complete Huayhuash loop (11 days) or other worthwhile variations.

Strikes can delay buses, cars, and flights

Before, during, and after our Peru trip in 2003, teachers, truck drivers, and campesinos held frequent but peaceful strikes. The campesinos (country people) blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees, threatening to stop our bus returning to Lima from our Huayhuash Trek. But our energetic guide Koki ran for nine hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point two days early to avoid strikers! President Toledo called a national emergency and cleared the roads, fortunately allowing us to keep our original schedule. Many thanks go to Aventura Quechua, the excellent local guide service (with whom I have trekked to Huayhuash, Machu Picchu, Cordillera Blanca, and Lares).

Peruvian History

While Lake Titicaca (on the border with Bolivia) is an earlier and more important cradle of Andean civilizations, Cuzco Valley gave birth to the powerful Inca Empire. Peru’s greatest native legacy to the world is the potato plant, which is now a staple crop spread world wide.
An ancient mummy seems to cringe in sorrow or intense feeling at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia (National Anthropology and Archeology Museum), Lima, Peru, South America.)

The Inca Empire and Spanish Conquest

Archeology suggests that in a 700-800 AD military expansion, the Wari people may have settled the Cuzco Valley and become the Inca’s ancestors. Quechua oral history says that the first Inca, Manco Capac, the son of the sun god (inti), founded the city of Cuzco in the 1100’s AD. After 1430 AD, the Incas burst out of Cuzco and quickly imposed their culture from southern Colombia to central Chile.

The Incas used their absolute rule and organizational genius to build vast terraces for growing food on the steep Andes mountains in a moderate climate, away from the dry desert coast and above the mosquito-filled Amazon Basin. The Incas developed textiles, pottery, metals, architecture, amazingly fitted rock walls, empire-wide roads, bridges, and irrigation, but never discovered the wheel, arch, or writing. Despite their amazing accomplishments, the Inca Empire lasted barely a century.

Over in Europe, Catholic Pope Alexander divided Africa and Brazil to Portugal, and gave the Americas to Spain. With Church approval, Spanish fortune hunters accompanied by priests sought riches in the Americas. With lucky timing, conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 at a moment that found the Incas vulnerable from a just-ended civil war. With just a few dozen conquistadors bringing superior weaponry, horses, and guile, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca. Despite receiving a fabulous a gold-filled room as ransom fulfillment, Pizarro soon killed Atahualpa. After realizing that the Spanish were here to stay, the successor Inca Emperor, Manco, met with fellow Inca chiefs at Lares in spring 1536 to plan a rebellion, raising an army of 100,000 to 200,000 to surround Cuzco against just 190 Spaniards (including 80 on horses). Despite vastly superior numbers, their clubs, spears, slingshots, and arrows were no match against armored and mounted Spanish Conquistadors brandishing steel swords. Manco Inca’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and he was forced to retreat to Vilcabamba in the Amazon jungle, where he was killed in 1544. In 1572, the Inca Tupac Amaru organized another rebellion, but was also defeated and executed by the Spaniards. The Spanish Conquest lasted 40 years, from the ambush of Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca, to Tupac Amaru’s beheading.

Sadly, the near-socialistic support system of the Inca was now destroyed by the cruelty of feudal Europe. The “Indians” (now known as Andeans or campesinos) were now triply-exploited by 1) their native chief (curaca), 2) their Spanish governor (encomendero), and 3) their Spanish priest, who all exacted undue tribute payments. The Incas’ mita system of forced labor for the common good was misused by the Spanish for mining gold and silver for the Crown. Eventually the Spanish forced 80% of the former Inca Empire to work for tribute, mines, or textile mills, stopping just short of slavery. After the Spanish Conquest, Peru’s population declined from 7 million to 1.8 million due to disease, war, famine, culture shock, and demoralization.  Read The Conquest of the Incas (2003), first published in 1970 by John Hemming.

Politics and Economy

President Fujimori, Three-Term President

On election eve in May 2000, my wife Carol and I joined the thriving crowds of Cuzco’s night life who bustled without incident around the intimidating police clad in full riot gear who surrounded the main square. Although Peru is officially democratic, the sole opposition candidate, Toledo, protested alleged poll-rigging by dropping out of the presidential race, leaving Fujimori for a third term, making him the most senior leader in the Americas after Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Corruption allegations heightened after Fujimori’s intelligence chief Montesinos was caught red handed on video, and in November 2000 Fujimori resigned from office and fled to Japan. Although he ruled more autocratically than democratically, the United States plus many Peruvians appreciated Fujimori for eliminating the Maoist “Shining Path” terrorist organization, improving Peru’s economy, building schools, and expanding electricity to rural areas. However, Peru’s campesinos (country people) felt more hurt than helped by Fujimori’s austerity programs, and would have voted for Toledo.

President Toledo in 2003

Toledo rose from poverty to become a Stanford-trained economist, and in 2001 proudly became Peru’s first democratically elected President of Andean descent. Unfortunately, his campaign promises to reduce poverty and create jobs failed to bear fruit. When I returned in May 2003, campesinos, teachers, truck drivers, and health workers were striking (peacefully) every week. One day I witnessed the main Avenue del Sol in Cuzco fill with thousands of peacefully striking teachers (maestros) plus another group. On day 7 of our 8-day Huayhuash Trek, we heard on the radio that campesinos had blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees for the past 2 days, which might block our bus returning us to Lima. Upon learning this, our energetic guide Koki ran for 9 hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point 2 days early to avoid strikers! Toledo declared a national emergency on May 27 and reopened the roads, allowing us to keep our original schedule. This national emergency put about half of the country under the control of the military and weakened many civil rights, allowing the government to detain protesters and enter homes without search warrants. President Toledo desperately reshuffled his cabinet in June 2003, which did nothing to help his minimal control over Congress. Our three different guides in Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Huaraz all yearned again for the strong, effective hand of Fujimori.

Peru’s Economy in 2003

The upper classes in Peru mainly earn their income from exports of gold, copper, zinc, natural gas, textiles, and agricultural products. Strong exports in 2002 gave Peru a trade surplus for the first time in over ten years. From 2001 to 2003, Peru had low inflation, good economic growth, and a thriving black market, at the expense of heavy regulation, worker dislocation, and social unrest. The disparity between rich and poor is very large. Half of Peru lives on less than $2 a day. The “Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act” gives Peru preferential tariffs to the U.S. market and boosts agricultural and textile exports, but also suppresses the livelihood of poor Coca leaf farmers, whose traditional product dates from pre-Inca times.

Despite turbulent politics, Peru makes a wonderful vacation. Allow two extra flex days in your schedule to handle delays in transportation due to frequent strikes.

Recommended books for Peru

Search for latest “Peru travel books” at Amazon.com.

May 2013: 2010: 2013: 2014:
2011: 2011: 2004: 2004:
2008: 2003/1970:

CHILE 2005 & 1993

In Chile, inspiring Patagonian scenery and great trekking between comfortable mountain lodges rival any in the world. We left winter in Seattle to enjoy summer in Buenos Aires, Patagonia (in Argentina and Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005. Since flying so far south takes extra money and effort, I suggest integrating both Argentine and Chilean Patagonia into one thorough itinerary, plus Antarctica if desired. First read my latest trip article Patagonia 2020. Below are travel tips and self-booked itinerary from 2005, plus my Lake District images from a 1993 trip.


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In Chile, Patagonia includes the territory of Valdivia through Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Spanning both Argentina and Chile, the foot of South America is known as Patagonia, a name derived from coastal giants (“Patagão” or “Patagoni” who were actually Tehuelche native people who averaged 25 cm taller than the Spaniards) who were reported by Magellan’s 1520s voyage circumnavigating the world.

Torres del Paine National Park: “W Route” trek


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In Torres del Paine National Park, hike between excellent mountain huts (refugios) which provide hot meals, hot showers, and mattresses in dormitory bunkrooms. Trekking to huts with a sleeping bag and change of clothes (US$42-52 per person per night in 2005) leaves your backpack much lighter weight than carrying a tent and food. Due to a grass fire burning and closing the park entrance, we shortened our “W Route” Trek from 8 to 5 days. While waiting two days for the park to reopen, we ferried up the Sound of Last Hope (Seno de Ultima Esperanza) to tour impressive Serrano Glacier. The 2005 grass fire was caused by a tourist having problems lighting his portable stove on a windy day in an area where camping was not authorized. Backpacking with a tent, stove, food, pad, and sleeping bag is cheaper than hut walking, but frequent 50mph winds can make tent camping uncomfortable.

The refugios (refuges) are well-equipped mountain hotels operated by two different companies, inconveniently requiring separate bookings:

  • Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Camping & Domes Francés; Refugio Los Cuernos; Refugio Chileno; and on the park road terminus are grouped Refugio Torre Central, Camping Central, and Refugio Torre Norte.
  • Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Refugio & Camping Paine Grande; Refugio & Camping Grey; Dickson Shelter & Camping (on the “O Route”).

Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Paine-Grande/forecasts/500

In this map of Torres del Paine National Park (in Chile, South America), our hikes are shown as dotted red lines, including 5 days on the "W Route" and 2 days at Hostaria Balmaceda and the Serrano Glacier. The pink arrows with dotted blue lines are ferry routes. The purple lines are the park roads which connect to Puerto Natales off the map. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

W Route trekking itinerary

  • Stay the first night or two at Hostería Pehoé with great views of Torres del Paine peaks. (Standard double room US$175; standard triple room US$215 in 2005). Explore nearby day hikes with great views, guanacos, and wildlife. (Our stay there was unfortunately cancelled due to nearby forest fire.)
  • Trek Day 1: While waiting for the ferry at Refugio Pudeto on the park road, walk to Salto Grande, a nice waterfall. Take the ferry “Hielos Patagonicos” to Refugio Lago Pehoé. Hike 6.6 miles, 2000 feet gain, to Refugio Grey (renovated 2005) for Night 1.
  • Trek Day 2: Hike from Refugio Grey back to the very nice Refugio Lago Pehoé. Dormitory bunks sleep 6 people in each comfortably carpeted room, with great mountain views.
  • On Day 3, hike French Valley side trip (only if mountain tops are visible) on your way to Refugio Los Cuernos. Advance booking of Nights 3 and 4 at Refugio Los Cuernos allows another day to experience spectacular French Valley in case of previous bad weather. Refugio Los Cuernos dormitory style hut (8 to 10 people per room) has excellent views of rock towers which glow at sunrise.
    • Alternative: Stay Nights 2 and 3 in comfortable Refugio Lago Pehoé. Hike on Day 3 round trip to spectacular French Valley (Valle Francés) 18 miles round trip, 3830 feet gain, one of our favorite hikes in the world! Hike on Day 4 from Refugio Lago Pehoé to Refugio Los Cuernos, 8 miles, 1435 feet up, 1200 feet down.
  • Trek Day 5: Hike from Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Chileno to stay for Nights 5 & 6.
    • Optional finish in 5 days: Hike from Refugio Los Cuernos out to Hostaria Las Torres on the park road, 10 miles, 700 feet total gain. Optionally get up early to complete the W Route by hiking 18 miles total including 5-hour side trip to Torres del Paine Lookout.
  • Trek Day 6: From Refugio Chileno, hike 3.5 hours round trip up Valle Ascensio to Torres del Paine Lookout, which many call the most spectacular hike in the park (about 40 minutes beyond Campamento Torres). Stay Night 6 in Refugio Chileno.
  • Trek Day 7: Hike from Refugio Chileno 1.5 hours to Hostaria Las Torres end point (or 3 hours if you miss the bus and must walk to Laguna Amarga entrance station).

Alternatively, you could start from Hostaria Las Torres and hike the W Route westwards, but prevailing high winds would blast coldly into your face, impeding progress and sapping energy.

Puerto Natales trips: Serrano River by Zodiac, Serrano Glacier, Seno Ultima Esperanza cruise, Puerto Montt ferry

Puerto Natales is not scenic, but is the best place to get supplies and arrange tours in and around Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Get out of town with great excursions into wilderness:

1. Serrano Glacier cruise

From the docks of Puerto Natales, catch the inexpensive daily cruise to Serrano Glacier on the ship “21 de Mayo.” Explore scenic fjord “Seno de Ultima Esperanza” (Sound of Last Hope) and walk a fun nature trail to the tongue of a spectacular tidewater glacier. Frequent high winds can sometimes turn back or cancel this day cruise. If the next day’s weather forecast is good, book the cruise one day in advance at the dock — or check for tickets on the morning of departure. If you sleep overnight near remote Serrano Glacier at basic Hostaria Balmaceda (as we did), meals are provided, but no hot shower or bath, just a sink. Pleasant day hikes have views of Serrano Glacier across the fjord and Torres (Towers) to the north. Adventure alert! Extend a Serrano Glacier cruise via remote wilderness into Torres del Paine National Park as follows:

2. Zodiac cruise up Serrano River to Torres del Paine

could be a dramatic way to enter the park and first lay your eyes on the awesome Paine Towers. Ride the Zodiac boat day trip into Torres del Paine National Park, stay extra nights on lakes with Torres views, optionally trek the W Route, then return to Puerto Natales by road/bus. Bring a camera or smartphone which is waterproof. Several different Chilean tour companies offer a great Serrano River tour via Zodiac including luggage transfers to lodging. (Don’t go the opposite direction, because southward Zodiacs leave the Towers behind you.)

3. Hostería Pehoé

To maximize your chances of catching good weather and seeing wildlife, stay at least one or two extra nights in Torres del Paine National Park, such as at Hostería Pehoé. Buy dinner in cafeteria (or bring cold food).

4. Puerto Montt ferry

Puerto Natales is the southern terminus for the ferry from Puerto Montt via Chilean fjords. The regular ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is on the Puerto Eden cargo ship/ferry, which I hear is an enjoyable way of making your way south for 4 days through the fjords and canals of Patagonia. “The ship is large and comfortable, with adequate deck space, large lounge, adequate food, videos of old movies, and a party on the last night.” Scenery is pretty, but there are no penguins, no icebergs, and little summer snow on peaks. I ferried and drove the coastal highway from Puerto Montt as far south as Chaiten and Chiloe Island, and saw interesting fjords, salmon farms, villages on stilts in the seawater (Palifitos), impressive snow capped volcanos — but none of this was as spectacular as Torres del Paine, where glaciers descend to sea level.

Image gallery of Serrano Glacier and Punta Arenas


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“Chilean Lake District” or Zona Sur

What international tourist literature calls the “Chilean Lake District” usually refers to the Andean foothills between Temuco and Puerto Montt including three Regions (XIV Los Ríos, IX La Araucanía, and X Los Lagos), in what Chile calls the Zona Sur (Southern Zone). The southern Andes mountains are pimpled with an astounding number of volcanoes, more ubiquitous than in Washington’s Cascades Range!

A trip with Mom, Dad, and brothers Jim and Dave took us from Santiago to Valdevia (where Jim was serving in the US Peace Corps) to Chiloé Island round trip in a van 25 days through the “Lake District” (December 24, 1992 to January 18, 1993). Highlights included: an enchanting native Monkey Puzzle tree forest in Nahuelbuta National Park atop the coast range; impressive snow capped volcanoes every 30 kilometers in the Andes (Volcan Osorno, Villarica, Llaima, Puntiagudo-Cordón Cenizos, etc); huasos (Chilean cowboys) pinning bulls with horses in a competitive rodeo; Fishermen’s traditional wood houses (palafitos) rising on stilts on Chiloé Island; delicious fresh seafood; roadside sales of German kuchen (tort-like cake); and the world’s smallest deer species (pudu).


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Mountain weather forecast for Volcan Osorno at 2600 ft elevation: www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Osorno/forecasts/811

A map of southern South America (Patagonia) summarizes trip from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Antarctica, Torres del Paine National Park (Chile), and Mount Fitz Roy (Argentina).

Patagonia and Antarctica itinerary

Our private, self-booked group traveled from Seattle to Buenos Aires, Patagonia (Argentina & Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005:

  1. Fly to Buenos AiresEzeiza airport (code EZE, Ministro Pistarini International Airport). Stay in San Telmo barrio (oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires). See tango shows, shop at street fairs, dance in Dorrego Square.
  2. Fly 1500 miles from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (airport code USH), in Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. Eat king crab pizza with frosty beer, take the ski lift to hikes, and walk in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
  3. From Ushuaia, cruise 12 days round trip with GAP (now called G Adventures) through the Beagle Channel and across rough 400-mile Drake Straight to explore the frozen Antarctic Peninsula.
  4. Fly a short hop from Ushuaia to working-class Punta Arenas (airport code PUQ), in Chile. Ride vans and buses to tourist town Puerto Natales.
  5. Bus from Puerto Natales to lodges or trailheads in Torres del Paine National Park (Chile). Trek or day hike happily for a week.
  6. Bus from Puerto Natales (Chile) to thriving tourist town El Calafate (Argentina), where awesome Perito Moreno Glacier is a popular day trip. Most people take a bus tour to Moreno Glacier round trip 8:30am to 5:00pm, which most hotels can book upon your arrival. But for better photographs, rent a car, drive in early around sunrise (2 hours driving one way), and experience morning light from the boardwalks. Staying for sunset light may also be good. For two or more people, car rental is cheaper and more flexible than a bus tour.
  7. Bus from El Calafate round trip to frontier town El Chaltén. The road is now paved and 2.5 hours by car or 3 hours by bus. (The formerly gravel road took 5 hours by bus in 2005.) Explore spectacular Mount Fitz Roy via classic day hikes.
  8. From El Calafate Airport (code FTE, 20 km east of El Calafate), fly back to Buenos Aires. Frequent daily flights.
For more itinerary details, see our 2005 Patagonia/Antarctica complete trip planning notes (21 pages) (but our agents Pathagone.com and Operatur.com are no longer in business).

Recommended Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica books and maps

Search for latest Patagonia travel books at Amazon.com:

2009:

Search for latest Argentina travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2010: 2011: 2006:

Search for latest Chile travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:
2006: 2008:

Search for latest Antarctica travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2008: 2009:

ARGENTINA 2005: Patagonia, Buenos Aires

In Argentina, inspiring Patagonian scenery and great hiking rival any in the world. We left winter in Seattle to enjoy summer in Buenos Aires, Patagonia (in Argentina and Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005. Since flying so far south takes extra money and effort, I suggest integrating both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia into one itinerary, plus Antarctica if desired. First read my latest trip article Patagonia 2020. Below are Argentina travel tips and self-booked itinerary from 2005.

Favorite Argentina photos (2020 & 2005)


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Buenos Aires photos


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When to visit Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina)

Spanning both Argentina and Chile, the foot of South America is known as Patagonia, a name derived from coastal giants (“Patagão” or “Patagoni” who were actually Tehuelche native people who averaged 25 cm taller than the Spaniards) who were reported by Magellan’s 1520s voyage circumnavigating the world.

  • The best time to visit Patagonia may be from March to April, when tourists disappear, yet most services remain open, wild windy weather calms somewhat, and beech tree forests glow with fall colors. At the beginning of March, children go back to school, parents go home, and crowds disappear.
  • Late February through March has less wind and rain than earlier in the summer.
  • High tourist season in Patagonia runs from December to the end of February, when accommodation and other services should be booked in advance.
  • Avoid overcrowding January to mid-February in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.
  • Patagonia is very windy all year. November can be the windiest. September to January are frequently blasted with high winds (gravity-fed katabatic winds or williwaws) which rush off the Patagonian icecap at 60 mph all day, sometimes up to 100 mph. Even in late February/early March, which have the lightest summer winds, we experienced steady 50 mph winds about every third day!
  • The ozone hole over Earth’s southern atmosphere is worst September to mid-October and continues through January — apply sunscreen every day, including cloudy days.

Mountain weather forecasts

Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina


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Easy boardwalks and stairs give wide views of Perito Moreno Glacier, an impressive wall of ice 200 feet high, 3 miles (5 km) wide, flowing into Lake Argentina in Los Glaciares National Park, in Santa Cruz province. Easy access to the awesome glacier makes it one of the most popular sights in South America. The glacier flows up to 2300 feet thick and originates in the huge Hielo Sur (Southern Icefield). The flowing ice periodically dams an arm of the lake which rises for a few years then breaks across the nose of the glacier as a crashing river (in March 2004 and 1991). In 2005, a narrow river flowed across the face of Moreno Glacier which calved large chunks of ice into the water with a loud crash several times per day. In the past 90 years, its melting has equaled its advance (up to 2 meters per day, 700 meters per year), so the glacial terminus has roughly stayed in the same place — a rarity in a time of global warming.

Hikes from El Chaltén village into Cerro Fitz Roy range, in Los Glaciares National Park


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In El Chaltén, we nestled into a comfortable cabin with kitchen. Multi-night backpacking trips can be done with optional horse support, but frequent high winds can thrash tents all night. The following great trails can be done as day hikes from El Chaltén:

  • Laguna de los Tres (15 miles, 3200 feet round trip) is one of earth’s most spectacular glacial cirques, a favorite hike. Be sure and ascend the 300-foot hill above Laguna de los Tres (Lake of the Three) for the best view, which includes glacial-turquoise Lago Sucia (Dirty Lake) far below. Options: backpack or horsepack to the campground for 2 or 3 nights for more time exploring awesome beauty.
  • Loma del Pliegue Tumbada (12 miles, 3000 feet round trip, plus 3 miles and 1000 feet higher if you go to the top of the third hill with the best view). Views are so impressive that we hiked a second time in better weather. See Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy together at several viewpoints. Start this spectacular hike at Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center (before crossing the river bridge into south end of El Chaltén). Start early to photograph classic sunrise views of the Fitz Roy Range on the main road a few hundred yards east of the Visitor Center.
  • Torre Lake (6 hours round trip) has an excellent close view of Cerro Torre. Halfway there, cool wave clouds sped over Mount Fitz Roy but clouds obscured Cerro Torre. 50 mph winds at the pass turned me back.
  • Rio Electrico to Cerro Electrico Oeste peak gives spectacular views looking south to the Fitz Roy Range. Optionally hire pack animals to support a tenting trip here, or possibly overnight at private Refugio Los Troncos, or day hike from a vehicle parked along the nearest road. The day hike is very steep with good views along the way.

Ushuaia and Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina


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As the port closest to Antarctica (400 miles across the Drake Straight), Ushuaia hosts most of the cruise ships that visit the southernmost continent.

A map of southern South America (Patagonia) summarizes trip from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Antarctica, Torres del Paine National Park (Chile), and Mount Fitz Roy (Argentina).

Patagonia and Antarctica itinerary

Our self-guided private group traveled from Seattle to Buenos Aires, Patagonia (Argentina & Chile), and Antarctica (see above map) from February 3 to March 11, 2005:

  1. Fly to Buenos Aires, Ezeiza airport (code EZE, Ministro Pistarini International Airport). Stay in San Telmo barrio (oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires). See tango shows, shop at street fairs, dance in Dorrego Square.
  2. Fly 1500 miles from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (airport code USH), in Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. Eat king crab pizza with frosty beer, take the ski lift to hikes, and walk in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
  3. From Ushuaia, cruise 12 days round trip with GAP (now called G Adventures) through the Beagle Channel and across rough 400-mile Drake Straight to explore the frozen Antarctic Peninsula.
  4. Fly a short hop from Ushuaia to working-class Punta Arenas (airport code PUQ), in Chile. Ride vans and buses to tourist town Puerto Natales.
  5. Bus from Puerto Natales to lodges or trailheads in Torres del Paine National Park (Chile). Trek or day hike happily for a week.
  6. Bus from Puerto Natales (Chile) to thriving tourist town El Calafate (which has an airport with frequent flights from Buenos Aires) in Argentina, where awesome Perito Moreno Glacier is a popular day trip. Most people take a bus tour to Moreno Glacier round trip 8:30am to 5:00pm, which most hotels can book upon your arrival. But for better photographs, rent a car, drive in early around sunrise (2 hours driving one way), and experience morning light from the boardwalks. Staying for sunset light may also be good. For two or more people, car rental is cheaper and more flexible than a bus tour.
  7. Bus from El Calafate round trip to frontier town El Chaltén. The road is now paved and 2.5 hours by car or 3 hours by bus. (The formerly gravel road took 5 hours by bus in 2005.) Explore spectacular Mount Fitz Roy via classic day hikes.
  8. From El Calafate Airport (code FTE, 20 km east of El Calafate), fly back to Buenos Aires. Frequent daily flights.

Recommended Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica books and maps

Search for latest Patagonia travel books at Amazon.com:

2009:

Search for latest Argentina travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2010: 2011: 2006:

Search for latest Chile travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:
2006: 2008:

Search for latest Antarctica travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2008: 2009:

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I’m enthralled with what Bill Gates calls his new “favorite book of all time”: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), by Steven Pinker.

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ECUADOR: Galapagos Islands and Highlands

View Tom Dempsey’s favorite images from three diverse eco-adventure trips to the Galápagos Islands and mainland of Ecuador, South America (2009, 1994, 1986). Further below read intimate details about Blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Galápagos giant tortoise, Galápagos marine iguana, Galápagos land iguana, Galápagos sea lion, Lava lizard, Prickly pear cactus tree, and the Geology of the Galápagos Islands.


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See more extensive galleries below.

From personal experience, we recommend cruising 7 nights with Ecoventura.com’s Galapagos Itinerary B. Or if budget allows, go with Wilderness Travel’s Ultimate Galapagos, a fabulous 14 night cruise with just 16 guests, in an active 17 day tour. The wonderful Galapagos Islands have attracted me to Ecuador three times: 2009 April 8-27; 1994 February 21-March 3; and 1986 January 12-26.

ECUADOR: Quito and the Highlands (extended gallery)

Quito was founded in 1534 on the ruins of an Inca city. Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic center in Latin America. The City of Quito is honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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Photos above include: Historic Quito. The atmospheric eco lodge and beautiful hummingbirds of Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, between Quito and Mindo. Otavalo’s handicraft and animal markets. Cotopaxi volcano. Quilotoa crater lake.

ECUADOR: Galápagos Islands (extended gallery)

In 1959, Ecuador declared 97% of the land area of the Galápagos Islands to be Galápagos National Park. Ecuador created the Galápagos Marine Reserve in 1986 (strengthened in 1998). Both are honored as a UNESCO a World Heritage Site.


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Photos above include: Red lava erupts from La Cumbre volcano. Pinnacle Rock. Kicker Rock. Charles Darwin Research Station. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galápagos Islands. Wildlife: Galapagos Giant Tortoises, green sea turtles, Boobies (Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca), Frigatebirds, Waved Albatross, Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Penguin, Swallow-tailed Gull, Brown Pelicans, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Striated Heron, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Marine and Land Iguanas, Galapagos Sea Lions, Lava Lizards, Sally Lightfoot (red lava crab), scorpion, and more.

Blue-footed Booby mates nest two eggs on North Seymour Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

Galapagos natural history: animals, plants, geology

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies parade their bright blue feet prominently during courtship. Courtship includes an elaborate sky-pointing display in which each booby in the pair alternately lifts each foot, then raise its wings and beak skyward. Males give a long whistle and females give a nasal honk. During courtship, one of the pair will place a stone or twig ceremoniously onto a symbolic nest, or will touch its long bill with the bill of its partner. Before a female lays an egg, she scrapes away the stones or twigs of the symbolic nest and lays the egg on the bare ground. This ritualistic nest-building behavior bonds the pair, and is a remnant of evolutionary history when blue-footed booby ancestors constructed real nests. The related red-footed booby still constructs nests in trees. Female blue-footed boobies have a ring of dark pigment around their pupils, which makes their pupils appear larger than those of males.

Blue-footed boobies lay one to three eggs about three to five days apart. After the chicks hatch, the parents feed the largest chick first, which is usually the first born. If food is in short supply, the larger chick out-competes its sibling, causing the smaller chick to starve. Sometimes the larger chick forces its sibling out of the nest, and the parents won’t allow the displaced chick to return. Although this behavior seems harsh, it helps guarantee enough food for the remaining chick to survive during hard times.

Both male and female blue-footed boobies share the responsibility to bring fish to their chicks. The naked hatchlings require a parent on the nest at all times for protection and temperature regulation. After the chicks grow a coat of white down and can pant to cool themselves, both parents may risk leaving the chicks to go fishing. Frigatebirds, hawks, and owls may take unguarded chicks. However, the chicks soon grow too large to be threatened by predatory birds.Nazca Booby pair preens on Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Nazca boobies

The Nazca Booby (which has an orange beak) was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the Masked Booby (which has a yellow beak) but is now recognized as a separate species. Nazca and Masked Booby species differ in size, nesting habits, and mtDNA cytochrome b sequence data.

Giant Galapagos Tortoise under prickly pear cactus, Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, EcuadorGalápagos giant tortoise

The giant tortoise inspired the name of the Galápagos Islands. “Galápagos” comes from the Spanish word “galapago” meaning “saddle,” which refers to the saddle-shaped shell found on some giant tortoise subspecies. Along with the Aldabra tortoise of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, Galápagos giant tortoises are the largest living tortoises. They can measure five feet (1.5 meters) over the curve of their shell, and can weigh up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms). We saw tortoises with shells up to four feet long.

Along with other members of the turtle order, Galápagos giant tortoises have a bony shell which is fused with their ribs and some other skeletal bones. The plates of the shell grow at the outer edges, but the rings gradually wear away and cannot reveal a tortoise’s age. Galápagos giant tortoises may live up to 50, 150, or even 200 years, but no one knows for sure. The growth of large lichen and fungi patches on the shells of older tortoises hints at their great age. Because tortoises cannot mate until age 20 to 25, and because they live life in the slow lane, they can most likely outlive humans.

Despite the tortoise’s extensive body armor, the exposed skin attracts parasites such as ticks. To eliminate parasites, tortoises (and iguanas) have adopted a mutually beneficial cleaning relationship with mocking birds and finches. When a tortoise wishes to be cleaned, it stands erect to expose all skin areas. The mocking birds and finches have learned that tickling the tortoise’s neck tells the tortoise to stretch out and expose tasty ticks and mites.

Since the Galápagos Islands formed several million years ago, enough time has passed for a number of hardy reptile species to drift by and gain a foothold. Rafts of vegetation released by flooding rivers have been known to carry animals for hundreds of miles. The giant tortoise originally came to the Galápagos Islands from continental South America, probably floating for two weeks in the prevailing westward ocean currents. Genetic studies indicate that the fourteen subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises evolved from a common ancestor that probably first colonized San Cristóbal Island. From there the tortoises spread to the other Galápagos Islands, such as to the cloud forests atop the volcanoes of Isabela Island. Each of the five volcanoes of Isabela Island have been sufficiently isolated to support the evolution of their own distinct subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises.

Four out of the original fourteen subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises were decimated by whalers, sealers, and settlers, and are now extinct. To restore remaining tortoise populations, the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island raises baby tortoises up to age five, when they reach a size safe from most predators. Scientists repatriate each tortoise subspecies to its native island or volcano. Each subspecies has a uniquely shaped shell. On dry islands, tortoises have saddle-shaped shells which allow them to reach high into the sparse vegetation. On wetter islands that have plentiful low vegetation, tortoises tend to have low, helmet-shaped shells. This distribution of giant tortoise subspecies greatly influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution. Through natural genetic variation and natural selection, each tortoise subspecies evolved a unique shell shape that better survived local conditions.Galapagos Marine Iguana breeding colors, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America.

Galápagos marine iguana

Galápagos sea iguanas, or marine iguanas, live throughout coastal areas of the Galápagos Islands, and are the world’s only sea-going lizard. They have evolved from land iguanas from the South American mainland, 650 miles to the east. Sometime in the past several million years, flooding rivers may have flushed rafts of vegetation into the ocean carrying the sea iguana’s ancestors. The prevailing westward ocean currents take about two weeks to reach the Galápagos Islands, a short enough trip for hardy reptiles such as iguanas to survive. Through genetic variation and natural selection over thousands of generations, iguanas adapted to a life of foraging algae from the sea.

The sea iguana feeds off red and green algae found underwater and in intertidal zones. As a consequence of its high salt intake, the sea iguana has evolved the most effective salt glands of any reptile. The iguanas sneeze the salt out of their nostrils, which often leaves their heads encrusted in salt. During breeding season, which varies island to island, males show brighter colors and aggressively defend their territories.Santa Fe Galapagos Land Iguana, Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

Galápagos land iguana

Galápagos land iguanas prefer drier areas, and obtain water primarily from their diet. They eat mainly prickly pear cactus fruits and pads, usually without removing the spines. Land iguanas reach sexual maturity after eight to twelve years, and can live more than sixty years. Males turn a brighter yellow in mating season, and compete ferociously for territories that overlap female territories.A Galapagos Sea Lion watches waves crash on North Seymour Island, Galapagos, Ecuador, South America.

Galápagos sea lion

Galápagos sea lions are a subspecies of the Californian sea lion. Female sea lions can mate after five years of age, and can live to twenty. Males can mate a little earlier, but live shorter lives. Female sea lions bear a single pup each year, which they suckle for one to three years. You can often see two differently aged pups suckling from one mother. Pups begin fishing for themselves after five months, and gradually wean from mother’s milk. Fearful of sharks, sea lions restrict their pups to shallow water. Often, one female will baby-sit a nursery of pups while the other mothers go fishing. The dominant, territorial bull will often guide youngsters to safe areas of the beach.

Female sea lions can choose a bull for mating, and can roam from the beach of one dominant bull to another. Females become sexually receptive about three weeks after giving birth, and males fight most severely over territory about this time. Most male sea lions lack a harem, and they frequently challenge the dominant bull with posturing, barking, pushing, or biting to try to gain territorial rights. When not challenging dominant bulls, the bachelor males usually gather in relatively peaceable bachelor colonies on less desirable areas of the coast, such as rocky cliffs.Lava lizard on Galapagos Marine Iguana, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina (Narborough) Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Lava lizard

The lava lizard, which grows much smaller than an iguana, is very common in the arid lowlands on most of the Galápagos Islands. Lava lizards can live up to ten years. Vision is the most important sense for a lava lizard, and it frequently climbs to the highest rock in order to keep watch on its territory. Both males and females have territories, but they only defend against members of their same sex. Males can mate after three years of age, and females can mate after only 9 months of age. Females sport a red throat during breeding season. Lava lizards see the colors red and yellow most clearly. (Images available upon request.)

Prickly pear cactus tree

Galápagos prickly pear cacti grow into trees with trunks up to 4 feet (1.25 meters) in diameter on Santa Fe Island. On other islands, prickly pear trees can reach 40 feet (12 meters) in height. You usually find the taller species of prickly pear on islands where they compete with dense vegetation and contend with giant tortoises, which eat their pads. Shorter species of prickly pear are usually found on islands with sparse vegetation and no tortoises. Various observations suggest that competition for light and consumption by tortoises has influenced the evolution of the fourteen diverse types of Galápagos prickly pear. Prickly pear pads provide the major food source for tortoises and land iguanas. The fruits sustain Galápagos doves, mockingbirds, and land iguanas. Native Galápagos cactus finches depend upon the flowers, fruits, and seeds of the prickly pear cactus for survival.April 21, 2009: La Cumbre volcano erupts on Fernandina, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America.

Geology of the Galápagos Islands

About ten million years ago, the first island of the Galápagos archipelago burst above the ocean. Huge submarine volcanoes have joined and uplifted into the Galápagos Platform, which rises 6,600 to 10,000 feet above the surrounding sea floor, in one of the most active volcanic regions of earth’s oceans. Isabela is both the largest and tallest island (5600 feet above sea level).

On April 21, 2009 we witnessed earth’s hidden fury as La Cumbre volcano erupted a fountain of lava. The glowing red river flowed into the Pacific Ocean and expanded the land area of Fernandina (Narborough) Island. We were lucky enough to have caught an eruption cycle that had been quiet for the past 5 years, until restarting on April 10. Fernandina Island was named in honor of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island of the Galápagos archipelago, and has a maximum altitude of 1,494 meters (4,902 feet).

Recommended Ecuador and Galapagos books

Search for the latest Ecuador travel books on Amazon.com.

2012: 2013: 2010: 2012:
2010: 2006: 2010/1839: