Chile: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Mar 8 to 16, 2015)

How did I spend 9 days in Patagonia’s famous Parque Nacional Torres del Paine? Trekking, of course!

My 9-day, ~81-mile (130-km) “Q” Circuit included the “tail”, the “W”, and the “backside”. I did the hike with Steffen (Germany) whom I’d met en route to Puerto Natales (the closest town to the park). After the first campamento (campground), we befriended Florencia (Argentina), Verena (Switzerland), Grant (Australia), and Jonas (Denmark) who we trekked with for most of the remainder of the route. We also befriended Chris (UK) and others along the way doing parts of or the whole circuit. Hiking with these good peeps added to the whole experience, and was especially helpful in keeping spirits up when trudging through copious amounts of mud and coping with almost daily rain and high winds.

Having completed the trek, I think the park is amazing. But to be honest, I had moments of doubt, like when trekking for several hours through pastures or scrubby foothills. While very pretty, I felt like the overall topography and vegetation were too similar to places I’ve hiked in the So Cal mountains or even the lower elevation areas of the Sierra mountains. From all that I’d read about this park and given the rain, crazy strong winds, and the amount of mud I encountered everyday, I wanted to be blown away (figuratively speaking). For the first few days, I was worried I’d be disappointed. However……the park did NOT disappoint, in fact, I was blown away (figuratively and literally). Along with pastures, I hiked through native grass and shrub lands and moss-covered beech tree forests; hiked along cloudy gray glacial-fed rivers and turquoise glacial-fed lakes; hiked underneath the many snow-covered peaks variously lite up by the sun and shrouded in dark rain clouds; and viewed the famous Las Torres peaks lite up by the rising sun’s rays and topped with an amazing rainbow. In addition to the Las Torres peaks, the park’s undisputed crown jewel, I hiked along glacier Grey, part of the Southern ice field, the 2nd largest sub-polar ice field in the world. And the day we hiked over the pass and viewed this massive glacier, it was speckled by patches of sun peeking through dark clouds, and also topped with an amazing rainbow. I’m not sure why this glacier and associated ice field don’t receive as much press as the Las Torres peaks, but to me, these were the crown jewels of the park.

Trekking in Torres del Paine exceeded my expectations both because of the people I shared the experience with and because of the park’s natural splendor.

Here’a a teaser picture. Click the link to see the full photo album & videos:  https://goo.gl/photos/5hD13yDdAeYB4r829

Enjoy!

Rainbow over Glacier Grey.

Rainbow over Glacier Grey.

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Antarctica (Feb 20 to Mar 4, 2015)

When I tell people I went to Antarctica, they of course ask me what it was like. While this should be an easy question to answer, I find it difficult every time. The reason being that I can’t seem to find the right adjectives to adequately describe Antarctica. Gorgeous, spectacular, amazing, surreal, other worldly, tranquil, serene, alive, vast. As perhaps you’ll get a sense from the pictures, it’s all of these and so much more.

So, what was trip like? I was aboard the 341-foot MS Expedition (operated by G Adventures) along with about 130 passengers. We spent the first two and the last two and a half days traveling across the infamous Drake Passage. We were told that on a scale of 1 to 10, the seas were about a 4 on the way there and about a 3 on the way back. To many, it likely felt more like a 9.9, even with meds. Fortunately, I was largely unaffected and actually enjoyed being rocked to sleep each night. During the passage and throughout the trip, the expedition staff, a team of naturalists, biologists, geologists, (and other “gists”) offered numerous presentations to educate us about Antarctica’s wildlife, geology, climate, and history of exploration. The team also included a photographer who helped people get great shots in the snowy paradise.

Almost daily for the 8 days that we traveled south along the Antarctic peninsula, we were taken onshore and/or cruised along the shore via zodiac to commune with penguins (chinstrap, gentoo, and adelie), seals (fur, crabeater, leopard, and Weddell), and nesting sea birds (including shags and petrels). We also had close encounters with humpback whales (one breeched near the ship 63+ times in a row!) and orcas (one swam under a zodiac!). And many days, petrels and giant albatross (with a 12-ft wing span) cruised around the ship. While it was amazing to be so close to the wildlife, it was the landscape that I found most mind blowing, especially after we crossed the Antarctic Circle and cruised past giant icebergs and sliced through large sheets of sea ice. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

On top of all this, the food was delicious and plentiful, the bar had live music, including the ship’s band, The Monkey Eating Eagles (named for an endangered Philippine eagle), and a very talented musician named Moss, the passengers and crew became one big happy family, and my roommates, Anna (Australia) and Jing (China), made the experience even more special.

While I didn’t plan to go to Antarctica, I will be forever glad I did. It’s hard to beat crossing the Antarctic Circle toasting champagne with friends while cruising past some of the most majestic scenery imaginable. Antarctica really should be on everyone’s bucket list. Oh yeah, and doing a polar plunge in Antarctica, huge bragging rights!

Here’s a preview picture. Click the link to see the full photo album & videos:  https://goo.gl/photos/tcg5NQndgAoPwiZ57

Note: the amazing close-up pics of the humpback and the orca were taken by my shipmates, Jing and Shirley.

Enjoy!

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The Joys of Traveling – A Few Observations (Mar 7, 2015)

We’ve all heard it said that people should travel when they’re young. I always took that to be due to the increased responsibilities that typically accompany getting older, which makes sense since once you get a “real” job, get into a long-term relationship, add beings to your life that rely on you (i.e., kids or critters), and have bills, it’s much harder to leave for an extended period of time. What I also suspected but can now personally attest is true is that this statement also refers to the notion that we tend to be more flexible and resilient to the realities of travel, particularly budget travel, when we’re younger.

Overall, my travels so far have been exceptionally smooth. My luggage hasn’t been lost (yet). I haven’t spent a night in an airport due to a delay or canceled flight (yet). I haven’t had gastro-intestinal issues due to food or water containing fauna that doesn’t agree with mine (yet). And, I haven’t lost my passport or credit card (yet). But while smooth, it hasn’t been all sunshine and good, cheap wine.

While in a 6-person dorm room in a hostel in Santiago, Chile, and, more recently, one in Ushuaia, Argentina, I was woken up as a few dorm mates stumbled into the room in the wee hours of the morning after a night of drinking. We all know that it’s impossible for a drunk person, even one with the best of intentions, to be quiet. I don’t know what the other sleeping people in the dorm thought but as I’ve been the well-intentioned drunk person a few times in my life, I figured this was payback so turned over, turned up the volume on my iPod, and fell back to sleep. (My new habit is to fall asleep to music).

In addition to being woken up by drunken dorm mates, my bed was stolen in the hostel in Ushuaia! I’d gone out for a beer with a hostel-mate and came back at midnight (not drunk) to find my stuff (books, towel, clothes) moved from my bed and placed neatly on the bunk above. WTF!?! It’s unspoken hostel code that the presence of a person’s stuff on the bed signifies it’s occupied. Then as I stood there absorbing the situation, the woman asleep in my bed asked me to close the door, presumably because the hallway light was keeping her awake. Since it was late and I wasn’t sure what to do, I moved my stuff from my new bed to my locker and climbed up to sleep. But in retaliation, I only half-heartedly tried to be light-footed as I climbed up the bunk bed. Ha, that’s what she gets for stealing my bed! I also felt a bit vindicated when she too was later woken up by our drunk dorm mates. I left very early the next morning to catch a bus so didn’t get a chance to see who this bed-thief was or figure out her deal. However, by then, I’d reasoned that she was older and likely couldn’t climb to the top bunk. So, I figured that I’d been volunteered to do a good deed which would surely be repaid to me in the future.

After that fun night, I got on an early bus to Punto Arenas, Chile. I actually didn’t mind that it’d be a 12-hour ride. I figured I’d use the time as “Tannika time” and catch up on my daily journal, listen to music, sleep, write my next blog about Antarctica, ponder life. As it turns out, I had more “Tannika time” than expected. We were delayed for 4 hours at a ferry crossing. Apparently, the local coast guard had stopped the ferry service due to high winds. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that it appeared that there was nothing around! Only a giant sign welcoming us to the crossing of the Strait of Magellan and a boat ramp; no terminal buildings or anything else in sight except a long line of waiting vehicles. After 2 hours, the bus driver informed us that if the ferry service didn’t resume, we’d have to spend the night there, on the bus, parked with all the other vehicles in front of the giant sign, the boat ramp, and nothing else. To make matters worse, while cold outside, the bus, entirely full, was hot and stuffy and there was no running water. So, no water to drink, no water to flush the toilet, no water to wash your hands. I can deal with sleeping on a hot, stuffy bus and not having water to flush or wash but no water to drink!?! I had just run out so y’all know I went into a quiet panic. Fortunately, we all retained our good moods. Nothing we could do about the situation, so no reason to get mad. After a total of about 3 hours of sitting on the hot, stuffy bus with no water, someone thought to ask if there was a place to buy food/drinks nearby to which the bus driver casually responded, yes, and pointed to the right. There was a tiny truck stop-like cafe with snacks, drinks, and working bathrooms literally on the hill immediately above the bus but out of sight. WTF!?! Didn’t he think we would have liked to know that about 3 hours ago? Good reminder to be more proactive and ask questions. Another hour later, now hydrated and stuffed with cookies and chocolate (survival food), we got notice that the ferry was on its way and I made it to my hostel at about 1am and got a good nights sleep.

Don’t get me wrong, my trip so far has been filled with amazing experiences, and lots of good, cheap Chilean and Argentinean wine. And like I said, I realize these are minor annoyances on the scale of possible and probably travel annoyances. These are just a few events that made me realize why being “young” as defined as being someone who’s flexible, resilient, accepting, and positive is imperative for successful extended travel. So, here’s another reason I’m super happy with my decision to start my extended travels now, while I’m still young.

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Argentina: Ushuaia, El Fin del Mundo (Feb 11 to 20, 2015)

What did I do for 10 days at the “fin del mundo” in Ushuaia, Argentina? After landing on a single track runway, seemingly inches from the ocean surface, I shared a taxi to my hostel with Lorraine and David, a Swedish couple that I befriended on the plane. Like me, there are traveling until the money runs out. After checking in to my hostel, I put on my rain gear and set out for an evening walk. It was about 9pm but still twilight. After walking around this new city a bit, along with other strollers, I found a little cafe to enjoy a salad and a local beer, a Beagle Golden Ale (who’s namesake is the famous Beagle Channel which fronts Ushuaia).

As for the days after that, I spent most of my time exploring the area with a fun-loving trio from the US, Carrie, Candice, and Don, who I met at the hostel. We day hiked to nearby Glacier Martial, did a 3-day backpack on the Camino de la Turbera through the mountains and canyons behind Ushuaia (the southern side of Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego) with a side trip to Lago Tempano, celebrated the national holiday of carnival enjoying lots (and lots, and then a little more) of Argentinean wine while watching a local parade, and hanging around town. I even got my first lesson in fire throwing (minus the fire of course) from Candice, a seasoned pro.

While I was tempted to join my new friends traveling north to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (my next destination), I decided to spend a few more days in Ushuaia. And holy crap am I glad I did! I ended up booking a last-minute 13-day cruise to Antarctica (pics coming in the next post). I’m also glad I stayed as I got to do another day hike back to Lago Tempano and then to Lago Encantada with my German friend, Karen, and hang out a bit with three wild and crazy guys, David, Michael, and James, from Australia, Romania, and the UK. Too bad I had to turn down their offer to join them driving their rental car north to Punto Arenas cuz it would have been a blast, but Antarctica called.

Ushuaia is a safe, clean, charming little city (population 56,500). Besides the wonderful people I befriended, all of whom I hope to see again in the future, what stands out the most about Ushuaia is its location between the Beagle Channel and gorgeous snow-capped mountains (my favorite kind of place as you know).

Here are a few photos from my time in Ushuaia. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/KMQVQwebjb1X2LvG8

Enjoy!

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Travel notes: recommend Cruz del Sur Hostel (although tiny kitchen and a bit noisy) and Los Lupinos Hostel (large kitchen, rooms upstairs); tap water is potable (no treatment needed); can use collectivos to get to Camino de la Turbera trailhead (7 pesos); can easily get high exchange rate (higher than national rate) around town (better to bring lots of US $$ to exchange and pay cash for everything); recommend Ushuaia Turismo (Daniella) to book Antarctica cruise.