Chile Tip to Toe

Chile Tip to Toe

Chile Tip to Toe

PAUL COOK

The one thing that everyone knows about Chile is that it is a long, thin country. Before I went a representative from one the lodges I was visiting showed me a map of the country superimposed over a map of Europe, with the northern tip of Chile amongst the fjords of Scandinavia while the southern toe rested against the desert of North Africa. However, seeing it on the map is one thing. Experiencing it in person is quite another, as I found out travelling from Atacama to Patagonia in a day.

I was travelling in the middle of September, which is the start of spring in Chile. While the nights can be chilly in the Atacama Desert at this time of year, the days are pleasantly warm and sunny. With daytime temperatures hovering around 20°C (about 70°F) the weather was perfect for a hike. On my last morning in desert, I headed off with my guide to the Catarpe Valley, a few miles outside the town of San Pedro de Atacama to follow a route which followed the ridgeline overlooking the valley. On one side, the green valley was encircled by sunblasted red hills, backed by the distant snowcapped Andes. The other side of the ridge looked like something from the planet Mars. It was a typical cloudless Atacama day with no shade, and I slathered myself with sunscreen and donned my sunhat to protect myself from the high-altitude sunshine as I hiked along in my T-shirt.

“I wasn’t ready for the snow”

After a final lunch at my lodge it was time to begin my journey south, taking the evening flight from nearby Calama to Santiago with a night in a hotel next to the airport and then the early morning flight to Punta Arenas, the gateway to Patagonia at the southern tip of Chile. The sun was shining when I landed, but as I headed out to Torres del Paine National Park, the sky darkened and I passed through drifts of fresh snow.

I thought I was prepared for the weather and I wrapped up warm in a fleece jacket with a woolly hat and thick gloves for my afternoon hike along the shores of Lake Nordenskjold, quite a change of wardrobe from the previous day. However, I wasn’t ready for the snow. The previous night had seen what was probably been the last heavy snowfall of the winter, and the ground was covered with a thick layer of snow. Even during the day, the temperature hovered around freezing, and low clouds clung to the mountain slopes bringing a light patter of fresh snow. The scenery on my trek was incredible, but I felt I had earned my beer as I warmed up around the fireplace and watched the celebrations for Chile’s Independence Day in my lodge that evening.

From blazing desert to freezing snow in just one day. It was certainly the biggest shift in climate I’ve ever experienced in a single day, and there aren’t many countries which could offer such an incredible variety.

You can read Paul’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, he’s always happy to chat about Chile if you’re considering a trip here.

Other Chile blogs by Paul include:

The Small Stuff aka Ant-tastic

The Small Stuff aka Ant-tastic

Normally when we talk about our travels, we tend to focus on the big stuff – the large mammals, fearsome reptiles and brightly coloured birds – and it is all too easy to overlook the small stuff. On my recent trip to Costa Rica, I saw plenty of bigger creatures – monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, toucans, macaws – but what about the little critters? After all, the rainforest is home to millions of different species of insects.

It’s not just the little biting insects I’m thinking of either. They can be found in Costa Rica of course, you can’t escape them in the rainforest, although they are less of a pest than in the Amazon. Beautiful butterflies catch the eye wherever you travel in the country, with iridescent Blue Morphos wafting through the forest and bold Zebra Butterflies standing out in the cloudforest. Looking carefully you can easily find beetles and millipedes on the forest floor, although you have to be lucky to find the Hercules Beetle, one of the largest insects in the world.

Morpho peleides

  • The brilliant blue color in the
    butterfly’s wings is caused by
    the diffraction of the light
    from millions of tiny scales
    on its wings.
  • The entire Blue Morpho
    butterfly lifecycle, from
    egg to adult is only 115 days

Somewhat less pleasant are the convoys of army ants which march through the undergrowth, clearing everything in their path. If you watch carefully, you can see dismembered limbs of insects and even small birds and mammals being carried along in their tide. For me though, it is another type of ant, the leaf-cutter ants which really fascinates.

forest-floor

I’ve seen leaf-cutter ants many times in the rainforest. The ants find the paths cleared by us humans through the forest undergrowth perfect highways, and I have often had to step over convoys of ants, each carry a freshly cut leaf back to their colony. However, staying at El Remanso in the Osa Peninsular, my guide Felix really brought the complex society of the leaf-cutter ants to life.

Leaf-cutter ants are of course the only other species on the planet that practices agriculture, and their society is said to be the most complex in the animal kingdom after humanity. The ants strip plants of their greenery, capable of stripping a tree to the branches in a matter of days, and can be seen hauling pieces of leaves many times bigger than themselves underground to cultivate the fungus which feeds the colony. Each colony is a vast city containing a many as ten million ants with dozens of entrance mounds leading to hundreds of subterranean chambers.

At first the ants just look like – well ants – but Felix was quick to point out the different castes.
Tiny minimis scout around the convoys and protect the heavily laden workers from parasites,
often hitching a lift on the back of a leaf, while majors are the soldier caste using their fearsome
jaws to defend the colony. Holding a soldier careful by the thorax, my guide demonstrated its
strength as the little ant clamped its jaws onto his hat and refused to let go, bearing the weight of
the hat, many times its own weight in its powerful grip. I learnt to respect the soldiers after that
and give them a wide berth.

Leafcutter ants can carry more than 5000 times their body weight and cut and process fresh vegetation (leaves, flowers, and grasses) to serve as the nutritional substrate for their fungal cultivars.

Hidden deep underground, a single queen is mother to the entire colony, living for over a dozen years laying thousands of eggs each day. Felix explained how the queen is shifted from chamber to chamber underground, giving birth to daughter queens who fly high above the rainforest carrying a scrap of fungus with them to start a new colony. Only the strongest males can catch the young queens who mate just once on their first flight, storing the sperm needed to populate the entire colony.

I thought there was no way to see inside the colony, but back in San Jose for a travel conference I met someone even more obsessed with the leaf-cutter ants than myself. At La Quinta lodge in Sarapiqui, Leo Herra has created an artificial colony with a glass wall, allowing visitors to peer inside the world of the ants and search out the queen and her nursemaids. That is a must-see for my next trip to Costa Rica.

Hill Forts of Rajasthan

Hill Forts of Rajasthan

Last month, six of Rajasthan’s hill forts were recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, putting them up there with other World Heritage Sites in India such as the Taj Mahal. This is hardly a surprise; perhaps the only surprise is that it took so long for them to achieve this recognition. These six hill forts – Amber, Chittorgarh, Gagron, Jaisalmer, Kumbalgarh and Ranthambore – are some of the biggest and most impressive fortifications in the world.

Jaislmer Fort

Jaislmer Fort

Most of the hill forts date from the 12th to 15th century, and they dwarf the castles of Europe that were built at a similar time. The largest of the forts, Kumbalgarh, is enclosed by more than 20 miles of wall, said to be second only to the Great Wall of China. Many of the forts were built more like walled cities, enclosing palaces, temples and reservoirs. The fort of Chittorgarh still contains dozens of temples within its walls which remain very active, drawing pilgrims from across Rajasthan. Some of the most beautiful architecture in Rajasthan is contained within the walls of these forts. Amber Palace, built inside Amber Fort just outside Jaipur is famous for its intricate decorations with fine marble carvings, frescos and coloured tiles.

Kumbalgarh-Fort

Kumbalgarh Fort wall

Each of the hill forts is different, and each has its own charms, but my personal favourite has to be Jaisalmer Fort. Built on a hill that towers over the city of Jaisalmer, the walls of the fort are constructed from honey-coloured sandstone. When it glows in the sunset, you can see why it is called the “Golden Fort”.  The main entrance passes through several impressive gates as it winds up to the Raj Mahal, the royal palace which offers unforgettable views of the city and surrounding desert from its terraces.

Inside Jaislmer Fort

Inside Jaislmer Fort

What makes Jaisalmer Fort so unique in that it is still occupied. About 4,000 people live in the maze of streets enclosed by the walls, giving it a vibrant atmosphere full of life and colour. Havelis, town houses built by rich merchants, line the narrow alleys and feature beautiful carving and woodwork. Most of the havelis are still occupied by the families that built them, but some have been converted into museums and are open to the public. There are of course many temples within the fort and the Jain temples here feature some of the most beautiful carvings I have seen in India. There is even a heritage hotel, Garh Jaisal, built directly into the battlements – the rooms are small, but the view is unbeatable.

Chittorgarh: www.tribes.co.uk/India/Rajasthan-and-the-North/chittorgarh

Kumbalgarh: www.tribes.co.uk/India/Rajasthan-and-the-North/kumbalgarh-and-ranakpur

Jaisalmer: www.tribes.co.uk/India/Rajasthan-and-the-North/jaisalmer

Garh Jaisal: www.tribes.co.uk/India/garh-jaisal

Tiger Safaris in April

Tiger Safaris in April

Anyone who knows India knows that April is hot in the sub-continent, especially in the south, with the heat and humidity starting to build up as the monsoon approaches. Although it can be a bit too hot for comfort, I’ve always known this is also a good time for seeing wildlife. This April I went on my first tiger safari at this time of year in Nagarhole National Park in the south of India.

My previous experiences on safari in India have been after the monsoon rains, in October, November and December, when the weather has been cooler and the vegetation lusher. Travelling in April, everything was much drier, especially in Nagarhole. The monsoon rains were not good in the south of India last year, and the Kabini River which forms one edge of park has almost dried up. What this means is that the wildlife tends to be concentrated around the remaining water sources, and with less vegetation to block the view everything is easier to spot. The guides know exactly where the water is within the park, and when the best time is to visit the waterholes.

Elephant in waterhole

I visited several different waterholes in the course of an afternoon safari in the park, and each was different. The waterholes are great places for seeing elephants of course. They come to the waterholes to drink, and also to cover themselves with mud to protect their skin from the strong sun. Nagarhole is one of the best places in India for seeing elephants; you don’t find wild elephants in the parks of Central India. Other waterholes attracted an incredible variety of birds, including big flocks of brightly coloured painted storks. In between the waterholes, I had a great sighting of a young male gaur, commonly known as the Indian bison. This big young male was in prime condition, and even a tiger would think twice about challenging him.

And would I be lucky enough to see a tiger for myself? Yes, our guide heard that a tiger had been sighted at one of the waterholes, and we rushed over to see for ourselves. The number of vehicles in Nagarhole is very limited, so you never got the big scrums of vehicles that used to be seen in Central India around tiger sightings, and there was just one other vehicle there looking out over the waterhole. The tiger was a long way off and it took some searching to finally locate it; a big male happily wallowing in the mud at the edge of the waterhole, enjoying the chance to cool off. While not the best sighting I have ever had of a tiger, I was very impressed to be able to see one after such a limited time inside the park.