Archive | Chile

Four months of South America in photos

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

The second part of this year-long around-the-world trip (after a three-month stint in the USA), was South America, a continent I had never visited. It had always seemed so far from South Africa, so I felt like a normal-length two-week trip would never cut it. I saved up South America for a time when I had months to see as much as possible.

In four months, I travelled the length (and some of the breadth, minus Brazil) of this amazing continent, learning Spanish and tango in Buenos Aires, trekking the spectacular peaks and glaciers of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia, getting soaked under the spray of Iguazu Falls, hiking the otherworldly landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I stood under huge steaming geysers and floated in salt lagoons, 4x4ing through the desert of Bolivia’s altiplano and seeing the sun rise over the world’s largest salt flat, bird watching and piranha fishing in the Bolivian Amazon, exploring Machu Picchu,  snorkelling with sea lions and communing with marine iguanas in the natural Disneyworld Galapagos Islands, walking through mists in the beautiful cloud forest of Mashpi on mainland Ecuador, trekking for four tough days through the Colombian jungle to reach the ancient ruins of the Lost City and learning to dive on tiny Providencia Island.

It was one adventure after another – a wild, wonderful journey that I will never forget.

These are my favourite places in photos.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina-1Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National ParkPerito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, PatagoniaMoon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileLlama and Licancabur VolcanoEl Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, ChileSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaLaguna Blanca, BoliviaLlama, BoliviaMadidi National Park, BoliviaSarah Duff Machu PicchuView from Wayna PicchuSarah Duff Machu PicchuSarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-1Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorHiking at Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorColombia's Lost City or Ciudad PerdidaProvidencia Island, Colombia




Life on the edge in the Atacama Desert

El Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, Chile

“This is where all life came from”. The Chilean version of David Attenborough, our guide Gonzalez Cruz, peered into a hole the size of a truck tyre, out of which spewed forth boiling sulfuric steam. I assumed he wasn’t referring to the eggs some other guides were boiling in the ferociously bubbling water a few metres away from us.

More dramatically, he was talking about the origins of life on Earth, 3.5 billion years ago, in volcanic geysers under the ocean, while huge geysers erupted all around us in the freezing dawn air. We were at the El Tatio geyser field in Chile’s Atacama Desert, at 4320 metres above sea level. It felt appropriate to think about the beginning of existence in a place where the boundary between life and death is so fragile. The Atacama is one of the driest places in the world – some regions have not received rain for thousands of years. It’s very high, very sunny and very cold, and is surrounded by volcanoes that occasionally erupt. It’s a harsh place to survive.

It’s also surreally, spectacularly beautiful. When you think of a desert you probably imagine a vast monotonously sandy landscape that looks pretty much the same. The Atacama is startling in its variety, and the geysers are just one of the scenic highlights. Smoking volcanoes loom on the horizon, rippled sand dunes melt into the rocky steep sides of the Andes mountains, tiny green oases of villages with pomegranate and fig trees dot the terracotta blanket of sand, turquoise salt lagoons and deep navy thermal pools proved cooling relief from the intense dryness and a salt flat that looks like a huge bed of dead coral is home to flocks of candy-pink flamingoes. And then there’s Moon Valley, an apricot-coloured canyon covered in crunchy salt crystals, with rocks that crackle in the late afternoon like the sound of rain on a tin roof. I could have spent weeks there, but only had four days of immersion into this desert world, which I spent hiking, mountain biking, swimming in cold lagoons and hot springs, horse riding over dunes and star gazing – the Atacama’s night skies are awash with stars.

I’d never been anywhere like the Atacama before, but the other-worldly landscapes looked so strangely familiar. A quick Google search revealed that the desert has been used as a location for filming scenes on Mars. So it wasn’t just me who made lunar comparisons.

The Atacama’s connection with outer space doesn’t just extend to acting as a backdrop for movies, however.  One hundred and fifty kilometres to the south of where we stood under the steam of El Tatio’s geysers is the world’s biggest radio telescope. ALMA has been fully operational for just over a year as an international partnership between the US, Canada, East Asia, Europe and Chile. On a high, remote plateau sixty-six radio antennas are pointed up at the heavens to capture radio waves from the dark parts of the universe, to allow researchers to see where the first galaxies were formed, but more excitingly, to find out whether there are other solar systems that have the conditions to support life.

As we contemplated the beginnings of Earth’s organisms, astrophysicists and astronomers were searching for life on other planets. There, in the Atacama, the circle of life felt complete.


Moon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileAtacama Desert, ChileSarah Duff Atacama-4 Sarah Duff Atacama-5 Sarah Duff Atacama-7 Sarah Duff Atacama-8 Sarah Duff Atacama-10 Sarah Duff Atacama-11 Sarah Duff Atacama-13 Sarah Duff Atacama-14 Sarah Duff Atacama-18

Llama and Licancabur Volcano

How to get to the Atacama Desert

Most people fly to Calama in Chile from Santiago, and drive 174 kilometres to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, the main tourist village in the desert, which is a great base for all the hiking, geyser-spotting and volcano climbing in the area.

I’d been in Argentina for two months, and was in the northwestern city of Salta, so I travelled overland to the Atacama from there. Salta is Argentina’s new emerging destination – a charming colonial town where the empanada was invented, traditional folklore music is played in bars every night, and the main tourist sight is the preserved bodies of three children sacrificed by the Incans on top of a volcano 500 years ago. I stayed at the lovely boutique hotel Kkala, where the 10 rooms are named after national parks around Salta, balconies overlook the city and a sunny pool deck beckons in the afternoons.

From Salta I took an 11-hour overnight Andesmar bus to San Pedro de Atacama. I’d read that it was one of South America’s most beautiful and scenic bus trips, but there was only the overnight option on the day I wanted to travel, so I settled for watching Argentina’s dramatic mountains by silvery moonlight instead. Waking up at dawn to the spectacular vista of the Atacama Desert unfurling outside – terracotta sand, volcanoes, the occasional lake and salt flat – made up for missing out on the nighttime views. I did the highest border crossing of my life – 4300 metres – where my hands and feet tingled, I felt woozy and Chilean border policeman told me not to wait in the immigration queue and go and lie down in the bus instead.

Kkala boutique hotel, Salta

Kkala boutique hotel in Salta

The view from the Salta-San Pedro bus ride in the early morning.

The view from the Salta-San Pedro bus ride in the early morning.

Where to stay in the Atacama Desert

I stayed at explora Atacama, an amazing lodge located just outside the village of San Pedro de Atacama. I loved the ultra-modern architecture, the healthy food (I could have eaten the ceviche every day), the fabulous swimming pools to cool off in during hot afternoons, and the friendly staff but the highlight was definitely the focus on activities. The lodge has a philosophy that you should spend more time out of your hotel room than in it (which makes sense, seeing as you don’t travel all the way to the Atacama to lie on your bed all day), so they have 50 different activities to choose from. You either pick a full day activity or two half-day ones. It was hard to choose what to do, but the guides recommended the best choices based on your fitness and acclimatisation level (some activities, like climbing to the tops of volcanoes, require that you spend several days getting used to San Pedro’s height of 2500 metres above sea level). My activities included a mountain bike ride to Laguna Cejar, a hike through Moon Valley, riding the lodge’s beautiful Anglo-Arabian horses, sunset on the salt flat and the dawn drive up to the geysers (and the swim in the hot springs afterwards). The lodge even has its own observatory, where you can stargaze with an astronomer.

You can book explora Atacama through the Mantis Collection.

Explora AtacamaExplora Atacama


In Patagonia

The reward at the summit of the Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National Park

The reward at the summit of the Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National Park

For years before I even knew exactly where it was, the word Patagonia conjured up a magical idea of the unknown, the untouched, the wild. When I found it on a map it seemed so remote to be the kind of place I thought I’d never get to. It was my fantasy travel destination – a seemingly unreachable fabled land at the edge of the planet.

So when my plane from Buenos Aires started descending into a vast blanket of brown with a lake as the only splash of colour in the otherwise monotonous spread to land at the tiny El Calafate airport, with no sign of life other than a few sheep and cattle sprinkled on the plains, I started to wonder if I’d built Patagonia up too much (excitedly reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia just before the trip didn’t help either). Maybe it was true what Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges had said (to discourage travel writer Paul Theroux from heading south of Buenos Aires) “You will find nothing there. There is nothing in Patagonia.”

But then I landed, decamped to a lodge on top of a hill overlooking the plains that looked so dull from the air (but were, in fact, as serenely scenic as a landscape painting), and the snow-capped Andes and iceberg-studded Lake Argentina in the distance, sipped on a cocktail made from sparkling wine and the liqueur of the calafate berry (after which El Calafate is named) and declared that Patagonia is not a good place to be viewed from the air. Nor is it, as Paul Theroux discovered on his 1978 trip in The Old Patagonian Express, a good place to view from the windows of a train. He couldn’t wait to get to the last station on the line so he could fly home out of the “nothingness”.

All Theroux needed to do was spend a day in this landscape. I had two weeks – and by day three had decided Patagonia was the most beautiful place I’d ever been to. Each day brought with it a new adventure, a new landscape, and things I’d never experienced before: ice trekking with crampons on the groaning and rumbling Perito Moreno glacier, which moves two metres a day (downing whisky and glacial ice at the end), sailing on a catamaran through a lake of impossibly blue ice bergs and up to glaciers taller than skyscrapers, horse riding in icy winds to a lake populated with pink flamingoes and hiking up to snow at the top of a hill and finding puma tracks. And that was just El Calafate.

From El Calafate a bus trip through the desolate overexposed-yellow steppes took us three hours north, to El Chalten, a tiny hamlet known as Argentina’s trekking capital, which has surprisingly made it onto Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities for 2015 list (alongside the likes of Washington DC, Milan and Vienna), we trekked for days. The jewel on the hiking crown was Laguna de Los Tres – an 11-kilometre trail to the base of Mount Fitz Roy, a mountain with a sheer granite peak that’s only summited once a year, which rises above the Lago de Los Tres, but which was entirely snowed over. As condors swirled in the sky, we ate cheese sandwiches and watched a cross-country skier traverse the lake – a tiny figure under the massive mountain – as thunderous sounds echoed around the mountain from pieces of ice crumbling off a hanging glacier behind Fitz Roy. The handful of other hikers, also tucking into their plastic-wrapped lunches, fell silent and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing – I can’t believe I’m here.

Patagonia stretches across Argentina and Chile, with the Andes mountains forming the national boundary. Chile gets a lot more rain than Argentina, so the Patagonian landscape to the west is markedly different – and we didn’t want to travel all the way to Patagonia without seeing it. Bussing back to El Calafate, we rented a car and drove southwest (through a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-tiny border post on a dirt road) into Chile and Torres del Paine National Park. Here were green hills populated by guanacos (untamed cousins of the llama), rhea (ostrich-like birds) and calm deep-turquoise and navy blue lakes reflecting cloud-wreathed jagged mountain peaks like glass. It was astonishingly beautiful – a different landscape to Argentina’s more bleak expanses.

We spent our days driving around the park, stopping at every view point and curve in the road to take photos and drank whisky with 700-year-old ice from the glacier in Lago Grey, a grey lake with floating ice bergs, sleeping in a geodesic dome and a lakeside yurt but the highlight was the full day hike to the base of Las Torres, three granite peaks after which the park is named. It was a lot of uphill, up the side of mountains, on muddy paths through southern beech forests, over mountain streams where we filled up our water bottles (the water in Patagonia is the purest I’ve ever drunk) – but all of it incredibly scenic, and a different view every half and hour. A rocky scramble to the top, over deep snow and treacherous icy patches, brought us to one of Patagonia’s most famous views: the slate-grey towers looming over a half iced lake the artificial-looking colour of a topaz stone.

At this point, by the end of our trip, we’d run out of superlatives and adjectives to describe Patagonia. We could merely gape at this view, so beautiful to the point of surreality. Like so much that we’d seen in Patagonia – the other-worldly glaciers, ice bergs, mountains and wide open spaces that inspired a deep sense of calm – it was going to be etched in our memories forever. Two weeks in the “nothingness” was one of the best trips of my life.


How to plan a Patagonia trip

I don’t usually do these trip planners in my blog, because I feel like there’s usually an overwhelming amount of information out there for almost any destination, but I struggled to find a lot on Patagonia.


El Calafate

Eolo lodge, El Calafate, Patagonia-2

Our first stop in Patagonia, and what an introduction it was. We stayed four nights at Eolo Lodge, which is honestly one of the best places I’ve ever stayed at. The lodge is set on top of a hill on a huge estancia (cattle ranch), surrounded by acres and acres of rolling fields dotted with fluffy Hereford cattle and horses, and each of the rooms has huge windows to take in as much of the view as possible. When we weren’t out hiking, ice trekking or horse riding, we were sitting in one of the lounges (where we were served high tea – a choice of tea from a two-page menu and a cake stand full of dulce de leche pastries, sandwiches, cheese and cakes), decompressing in the sauna, taking dips in the indoor pool and drinking Malbec gazing out at Patagonia.

El Chalten

Mount Fitz Roy, El Chalten, Patagonia-2

From El Calafate’s bus station, one snowy afternoon, we took a bus three hours north to El Chalten, known as Argentina’s trekking capital. We stayed in the warm and cosy Hotel Destino Sur for three nights, spending our days on hikes (all the trails we did were within walking distance of town) – the spectacular 22-kilometre Laguna de Los Tres one day, and the much shorter Laguna Capri and Mirador de las Condores and de las Anguilas the other days. In the late afternoons after hiking we relaxed our sore muscles in the hotel’s sauna and Jacuzzi, and refuelled each evening with locally brewed beers and huge bowls full of homemade pasta in cheesy sauce from the tiny Alpine-like restaurants in town.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

We headed back to El Calafate on the bus and hired a car from Dubrovnik Rent a Car. Car hire is extremely expensive in Patagonia, and all the car hire companies charge pretty much the same prices. You can take a bus from Argentina to Chile, but we wanted the freedom of a car to be able to stop off where we wanted to. The car hire company was fine, but the Ford Focus was a little crusty (the wing mirrors shook like they were going to fall out, one light didn’t work and the air conditioning knob broke on day one) – nevertheless it held up on the 1000 kilometre trip, most of which was on gravel roads. From El Calafte we drove south towards Chile on empty roads where we only passed a few other cars. The border crossing at Cerro Castillo was the easiest and quickest one I’ve ever done – five minutes in Argentina and about seven minutes on the Chilean side, where they have to check your bags to make sure you’re not bringing in any fresh produce. We drove slowly to the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park, stopping to take photos of lambs, guanacos, rheas and a dead armadillo along the way.

EcoCamp, Torres del Paine, Patagonia

For our first two nights in the park we stayed in a geodesic dome at EcoCamp Patagonia – one of the most memorable hotel rooms I’ve ever slept in! Our dome had a wood fire, an ensuite bathroom and a massive bed where we drank tea and watched the rain falling on the dome’s plastic roof. The camp is very close to the start of the Base de Las Torres hike, probably the most famous hike in the park – a 9 kilometre trek up to the base of the striking granite peaks called Las Torres (the towers). After a day of rain, we had sunshine and very little wind – perfect conditions to make the calf-burningly steep hike up to a truly spectacular view.

Patagonia Camp, Chile, Patagonia

Our last night was spent in a yurt on the shore of the beautiful Lago Toro, just outside Torres del Pain National Park, at the Scandi-cool Patagonia Camp. We sipped pisco sours and talked about Die Antwood with the barman, hung out with a friendly fox who scouts around the camp looking for food, drank the delicious Cerveza Austral beer infused with calafate berry, went on a hike to Lago Grey, had a picnic of sandwiches, brownies, soup and more Cerveza Austral in the sunshine and slept under a skylight where we could watch the night sky.

Budget for a Patagonia trip

Patagonia is expensive, but it is possible to travel on a budget. Flights to El Calafate from Buenos Aires are an unavoidable cost (of around US$300 return – more during peak season), unless you want to take a really long bus trip. There are a fair number of bus options from El Calafate to El Chalten, and from El Calafate to Puerto Natales in Chile, from where you can catch buses to Torres del Paine National Park. We saw a lot of people hitchhiking, so if you’re really cash-strapped, there’s that option.

In terms of accommodation in Patagonia, Argentina is a more affordable than Chile. In El Calafate and El Chalten there are many hostels to choose from, where you can cook your own food and save on eating out.

In Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, all the accommodation options are pricey, apart from camping in your own tent, which costs US$12. Choose from hotels or more rustic refugios, which are mountain lodges located on the hiking trails and offer beds from US$48 (you book the refugios and campsites through this website). There are limited dining options in the park, and food has had to travel a long way to get there, so eating at the refugios and hotels is expensive. You may want to stock up on provisions in Puerto Natales (the closest town to the park entrance) before heading into the park.

When to go to Patagonia

Almost everything is closed in Patagonia during the winter months (May to September). December, January and February are the peak months when it’s warmest. We went in October, which was perfect as we got low season rates, there weren’t many tourists, and we mostly had hiking trails to ourselves. We were very lucky with the weather though – we only had one day of snow and two days of rain and the rest of the time it was sunny. It was still cold though – at night it dropped below freezing.

How long to go for

Because it’s fairly hard to get to, I wouldn’t suggest that you travel to Patagonia for anything less than a week. Two weeks was a good time for us to have seen the Argentinian and Chilean sides, but I could have easily stayed for a month.


Mount Fitz Roy, El Chalten, Patagonia

Perito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, Patagonia

Spegazzini glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina, Patagonia

Eolo lodge, El Calafate, Patagonia

Sailing to the Spegazzini Glacier

Sailing to the Spegazzini Glacier

Horse riding in Patagonia Crossing the Chilean border

Guanaco spotting in the Torres del Paine National Park

Guanaco spotting in the Torres del Paine National Park

Patagonia Camp, on the shores of Lago Toro

Patagonia Camp, on the shores of Lago Toro

Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park

Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park

Whisky at Lago Grey, Torres del Paine National Park