Wednesday, 7 September 2016

3 reasons why these secrets will keep you spellbound: exploring off the beaten track in Peru

Exploring the secrets of Pallasca Province, Peru
Adventure, exploration and relaxation - all at the same time in areas where you’re likely to be the only person around, following age old trails used by the communities who live in these mountains. Central Peru with its rugged beauty is a mix of high altitude lakes, rocky hills and mountains, some rising up the snow-covered peaks of the northern Cordillera Blanca of the Andes. Being totally off the traditional tourist trail, coming across people other locals from the surrounding communities is a rarity. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Prisoner of a Desert

A stunning day with clear blue skies at high altitudes many times bely the temperatures which at 08:30 were hovering around 3-5 degrees Celsius. The trail north from Parinacota passed frozen streams, wetlands and lakes winding its way in the direction of Mt Guane Guane that dominated the northern horizon here. Shouts of a distant herdsman could be heard at times between the bustling and chattering of the waterbirds jostling for space in the unfrozen parts of the lakes.

desert trekking: frozen lakes and the twin volcanoes
Partially frozen lakes with the twin volcanos of Pomerape and Parinacota in the background.

Being dressed with adequate layers, I was not overly bothered by the cold and crisp air - in fact, it made for refreshing walking. Stopping along the way to enjoy the various views and lakes, I eventually made it to a viewpoint at one lake which ‘blocked’ the trail further to Guane Guane. From here the trail made a big loop back to the village of Parinacota…not where I wanted to go so early on in the day, there was still heaps to explore. I had only arrived from Putre (read about my journey to get here at Wandering the Ancient Routes)

desert trekking: farmhouse and surrounding plains
View of the farmhouse and surrounding plains from a nearby hill
desert trekking: countless rocky hills on the trek
View of just a few of the countless rocky hills that I crossed along the trek
I started heading back along the same trail thinking I’d find a trail heading toward the Cotacotani Lakes. Along the way, I met up with the herdsman following his alpacas. After the normal greetings, we chatted about the different trails and I then asked about the ‘nearest’ trail to get to the lakes. He directed me to a road I’d crossed earlier from where I should up up past a farmhouse and then over the hills from there - not far he said. He reminded me that it was important though that I check whether anybody was home at the farmhouse and get permission to cross their land - being a biosphere reserve, there was still a lot of private land in the Lauca National Park. All the greetings again, and I headed off - it was only 09:45, so still early and loads of time to explore.

Stopping at the edge of the farmhouse property, I found the gate locked and nobody apparently at home other than the mildly curious dogs who soon stopped barking and continued lazing around the gate. So on then, along the fence-line over a couple of small rocky hills (pretty much everything here was made of rocky hills and sandy trails). As the fence-line cut off to the left (north), I decided to head out “straight” in the direction of the lakes - the snow-covered peaks of Parinacota and Pomerape were visible a lot of times so I was not going to get overly lost. (And I had offline maps on my iPhone and the gps)

So on rough calculations I would cross the trail soon…”soon” turned out to be a very relative term as the peak of each rocky hill just revealed more rows and rows of rocky hills. Admittedly the views were spectacular all the time, even when they only sometimes consisted of rocky hills and the twin volcanos. 
desert trekking: llareta between the rocks
Llareta between the rocks
There were varying amounts of Llareta growing on the different hills and appeared to be more dense on certain slopes contrary to other slopes and hills where there were virtually none. Growing only near the ground where the air temperature is 1-2ºC warmer than the mean air temperature would explain why it’s more prolific in certain spots than others.

The Llareta is a strange plant but wonderfully adapted to these high and dry altitudes with the extreme cold during winter. The general appearance is that of a rock covered by moss (and is rock hard!) but actually consists of thousands of individual plants packed tightly together with tiny wax-covered leaves to prevent loss of moisture by evaporation. To appreciate how old some of these plants are, they only grow about 1.5cm (15mm) annually!
desert trekking: hillside with llareta plants
Hillside with Llareta plants

Eventually after countless rocky hills, I was on the northern-most trail again to the Cotacotani Lakes and then a dirt road that goes along the western edge. I was left speechless at the views even though there were some dry lakes but where there was water, there was always a stack of birdlife around. Birds included the common Andean Coots, Giant Coots, Chilean Flamingos, Puna Ibis, grebes and swallows to mention but a few.

desert trekking: Cotacotani Lakes route and map
The route I trekked to the Cotacotani Lakes (approx. 12km) Min altitude 4,400m - Max altitude 4,600m.
Mark along the main road shows where there's an excellent viewpoint of the lakes.
desert trekking: along the Cotacotani lakes
Along the Cotacotani lakes

The road passed another trail that headed back to Parinacota near where I stopped to rest, take some photos and just relax in the spectacular surroundings. A perfect example of how stunning a desert can be! As the norm is here at this time of year apparently, the wind picks up between 11am and midday and adds a decent wind-chill factor even out in the sun. 

So just after 1pm, I started to head back to Parinacota village along the other direct trail. At a very relaxing pace this sandy trail was about 1 hour and added even more panoramas to my growing memory bank of amazing scenery here. I didn’t want to leave this place…the tranquility and beauty was leaving me mentally super refreshed! …and physically a little bit tired but still wanting more!
I was mentally a prisoner of this desert where at least my mind would always return to for some respite.
desert trekking: volcanoes and Cotacotani Lakes
The volcanos of Pomerape and Parinacota (in the foreground) dominating the
view of the Cotacotani Lakes from the main road;


Monday, 4 July 2016

Wandering the Ancient High Routes

Putting my hand outside the bed covers resulted in a very rapid withdrawal - the temperature was freezing...only about -2 Celsius! I had to get up and get out on the road to do some hitchhiking to the village of Parinacota, only 42km away but first I had to brave the cold by getting out of bed and getting dressed. This was only one of those few times when I actively thought about devising a way of warming my clothes in the bed first and then getting dressed, all without leaving the bed. Idea discarded; needed a lot of refining still!

I was in Putre (3,530m altitude) in the Arica & Parinacota region of Chile, the northernmost region sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean, Peru in the north and Bolivia in the east.

Tarapaca Volcano at the village of Putre

Eventually dressed and a fleece jacket with a soft shell jacket over that and good gloves, I was out of there with backpacks, the whole ton of weight of them, well 47kg to be exact. The owner of the hostel had told me last night I needed to get out to hitchhike between 7 - 8am - it was now 08:00 exactly as I reached a final junction in town. Yip, I was late but there was no way I was going to give up on the idea now. First goal was to at least get up to the main road about 7km from Putre town. 
Hitchhiking to Parinacota, the main "highway" between Arica
and La Paz, Bolivia. (Putre village to the left of this road)
It was an hour and a half later at 09:30 when an elderly gentleman stopped and gave me a lift to the main road; initially he thought that I’d just mentioned wanting to go Parinacota at some time in the future, not today so was about to give me a lift to Arica! Anyway, he dropped me off at the main road where there was a Chilean truck driver waiting for a mechanic to arrive from Arica. We spent a good time chatting while seeing the umpteen Bolivian trucks passing with maybe two slowing down a bit as they passed but none stopping to offer a lift.

One Bolivian truck stopped and the driver was taking a break and doing some checks and said that he’ll give me a lift if I’m still there when he leaves. Turned out to be just fancy words as with the bus that stopped to drop somebody off and told me they were full then promptly let two other people get on! I had a few colourful words to say about this but hey, that’s what hitchhiking is about - some you win, some you lose! It was 12:40 when another bus stopped and said they could drop me off at the junction to Parinacota village for 4,000 pesos (about US$ 6.00). 
View of Las Payachatas  (the Twins) from Parinacota

It wasn’t long before I had my first views of Las Payachatas (The Twins), the two snow-capped volcanoes that dominate many of the landscapes of the eastern Lauca National Park. Seeing those snowcaps across an arid landscape is just something that left me speechless, I took a few photos with the phone through the bus windows but they never would do any justice to the magnificence of those views.

At the junction of the road to Parinacota village
After about an hour on the bus and some dodgy sections of road, the bus stopped and the conductor told me that we were at the junction to Parinacota. Getting my things off here and then being left standing alone was quite a moment of “What the hell?!” as I was surrounded by miles and miles of arid desert - well, there were some wetlands in the far distance but they certainly weren’t within strolling distance. It was hardly 10min before a small car with a couple stopped and asked if I wanted a lift into Parinacota - the smile on my face was huge!!

As is normal, the couple asked me where I’m from and the woman let out a little yelp, she was South African too! This was unbelievable how I meet South Africans at high altitude; the 1st South African I met in South America was in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru and chatting to one girl at Laguna 69 (4,625m), she also turned to be South Africa - now again at around 4,500m I meet another South African. We had a good chat on the drive of about 5km and then some more when we got to Parinacota.

Parinacota village (4,450m altitude) and one of the nearby lakes
Pulling into this village was like going back in time, other than the obviously modern 2-3 vehicles parked in the little square, the obvious feature of the church tower and the surrounding adobe houses was from another era. For the umpteenth time in the last few days I was just speechless. 

The church tower in Parinacota at sunset
The church dated back to the mid- 17th century when Parinacota was along the main route between Potosi in Bolivia and what is now the Chilean coast. Due to the Spanish influence, churches were built at every single little village and town along the way with around 50 just in the Chilean side being part of a restoration project.

The friendly Don Leo who owns and runs the Alberque Uta Kala accommodation was around and he showed me to my room. The rate was 10,000 pesos/night (about US$ 14.50) and included dinner with breakfast (2,500 pesos - US$ 3.50) and lunch (3,500 pesos - US$ 5.00) optional. I was in a “dorm” room with two ‘normal’ beds and the the 2 beds of the bunk but alone, so in fact a large private room - I wasn’t complaining and the rate was really reasonable.

I was in heaven with my camera and I loved the remoteness of this village! The high altitude and cold air made for photos where blue sky was really deep blue and in stark contrast with the arid surroundings. Sitting down along my walks around the wetlands and lakes in the afternoon was one of the most relaxing things I’d done in a long time. A few moment then viscachas would start moving around again and the birds would be closer again whilst the cool air was quiet otherwise. I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d want to be right at that moment!

Alberque Uta Kala in Parinacota owned and run by Don Leo - Cerro Guane Guane in the background

Southern/Mountain Viscacha in Parinacota, Northern Chile
Interesting about the viscachas here is that they’re much smaller than the ones I saw regularly in the Cordillera Blanca (Northern Viscacha Lagidium peruanum) in Central Perú. For one, their ears are shorter and the colour is much more of a yellow/brownish colour - depending on the light of course. According to literature, the viscacha in these parts of Chile is the Southern/Mountain Viscacha Lagidium viscacia - still need to confirm this as the same literature also says that the latter is heavier by 300g on average (a lot for a little animal like this) than its northern counterpart.

Anyway, as the sun started to go down the temperatures were also plummeting very rapidly and with the wind that usually starts between 11am and midday everyday, it was really cold. So after a good dinner and some coffee I was deep under the covers for the night - thinking about what wonders I’ll be seeing the next day.

View to the northwest of Parinacota village over the bofedales (wetlands) and rocky outcrops


Friday, 24 June 2016

Do Borders Keep Us Apart?

Borders and unions are very much the talk of the day at the moment and my coincidental experience this morning is probably an answer that many know but can't or won't borders are created in big buildings far away from the reality.

Twin Volcanos (Las Payachatas) dominate the landscape.
Pomerape (left) and Parinacota (right)
Right in the north of Chile is the Arica and Parinacota region bordered by Perú in the north and Bolivia in the east (Pacific Ocean in the west). This area is known as the altiplano of the Atacama desert with spectacular snow-capped volcanos and gravel/rock mountains displaying a rainbow if pastel colours, advertising their mineral riches. Many villages in this part of Chile are at altitudes from 3,500m asl to 4,500m asl with winter temperatures dropping to -25 degrees Celsius.

Twin volcanos keeping watch over everything
I had been in the tiny hamlet of Parinacota, located in the Lauca National Park for two days where the night time temperature averaged -10 degrees Celsius. When all inhabitants are home from the grazing areas of their animals, there are 29 of them in the village.  Anyway, I digress...

This morning I was invited by the owner of the small alberque (hostel) to visit a local fair farther north near the border of Bolivia, near a village called Caquena. As is usual by 8am in the morning, temperatures were only just above the zero (excluding wind chill) so we were well wrapped up on the half-hour drive to Caquena through more spectacular landscapes dominated by the volcanos Parinacota and Pomerape. Most of the bofedales (wetlands) still had large sections of water frozen.

Arriving at Caquena, we stopped at the police post where they account for all people and vehicles passing. I didn't think anything of it other than it was just some control due to the proximity of the Bolivian border. 15min more along another dirt road, we suddenly came across a group of vehicles - 4x4's, little trucks etc and a lot of unloading and loading going on. This was all kept "organised" inside some rock 'walls' - handmade as is the custom here for their grazing animals.

The site of Achuta, the fería (fair) held every 2 weeks on the border
Welcome to the fería (the fair) also know as Achuta that takes place every 2 weeks (or 15 days says some) when people from the surrounding Aymara communities (non visible from here) meet and buy and exchange a variety of necessities that range from toilet paper, to candles, sodas (that don't need a refrigerator) to Alpaca wool and skins. Obviously some ladies were also serving huge bowls of food mainly consisting of rice and chunks of alpaca meat - actually looking very appetising.

Trading, meeting and eating on the border

This was taking place just inside the Bolivian border - I was in Bolivia and I didn't even know it...I didn't even have my passport with me! A few of the guys came over and chatted with me and told what the fair was about and explained where the borders were - a line of rocks designated the spot where the vehicles from either country weren't allowed (not saying "they don't") to pass. I felt very privileged to have been invited to this - it was very clear that this was not something where they expected to see gringos (foreigners) at all, if ever. Yet, they still made me feel at home and welcomed me to their little private fair on the border of Chile and Bolivia. borders keep us apart? When we ALLOW them to keep us apart, then yes they do!!
Area of the fería (fair) on the border of Chile and Bolivia
Coming soon...the rest of my explorations in this amazing remote area of Chile!


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Not a climber but want spectacular views?

From the western bank of Wilcacocha
Sometimes we think that to have great views of a snow-covered mountain range, we need to be mountaineers.  In certain places this is true to an extent but in others there are other alternatives. Huaraz is an example of the latter due to its location in the Huaylas Valley between the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. There are various trails and small roads into the Cordillera Negra close to the city of Huaraz that offer breathtaking views of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Scramble for a View

Nevados Paria, Garcilaso and Laguna Parón (lake)
Photos often don’t do justice to reality and this is especially true in many landscape photos - the biggest problem is that a photo cannot always convey the emotions and feelings of the moment. This was the case when I went on a trip to the Parón Valley (quebrada) to get some more photos and see what the trek is about. I had seen photos of this area although many had been taken from the classic/normal trail - this day was going to be anything but normal!