The Colours of Chile

The Colours of Chile

The Colours of Chile

PAUL COOK

One of the things you quickly realise about travelling in Chile is just how different each part of the country looks. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. In a country that spans over 2,500 miles from north to south, there’s bound to be a lot of variation, but it is still quite startling. One thing that stood out is how each part of the country seemed to take on a different colour.

“each part of the country seemed to take on a different colour”

Atacama was red. Actually there are lots of colours in Atacama. After all, this is a region which contains an area called Rainbow Valley which has rocks of vivid shades of green and purple, and there are vast areas of white salt plains, but it is the red that stands out. Great swathes of Atacama are covered with reddish rocks that would not be put of place on Mars. Indeed, Hollywood comes to Atacama to make movies set on the Red Planet and NASA tests their Mars-bound rovers here. At sunset, the desert is stained an even deeper hue of red as alpenglow lights up the mountains of the Andes. The sky is mostly a deep shade of blue that shades to a dark indigo when in one of the many canyons, but rare clouds can turn the sunset into a psychedelic display of reds, oranges and purples. The final red from Atacama is of course the excellent local vinto tinto served in the lodges – there is no better way to end a day exploring the desert than with a good meal and a glass of red wine.

The colour that stands out from Patagonia is blue. When covered by snow, the mountains of Patagonia take on shades of black and white, but Torres del Paine National Park is more than mountains. It is a land of blue lakes, blue rivers and blue ice. Indeed,“paine” actually means blue in the native Tehuelche language. I knew that glaciers and icebergs were blue, but I wasn’t prepared for just how intense the colour is. Under the bright sunshine, the icebergs that dotted Largo Grey took on an azure hue rarely seen in the natural world. While Largo Grey was indeed grey, other lakes in the park took on other tones from the minerals released into them by the glaciers which feed them. Against the monochrome mountains, Lake Pehoe stands out with a deep blue that feeds into the aquamarine of the wide River Paine.

“brightly coloured murals turn the streets of this bustling port into an open-air museum”

PAUL COOK

After ten days in Atacama and Patagonia, I did not realise how much I missed green until I flew into Puerto Montt, the gateway to the Lake District and Chileo Island. In the extreme environments of the far north and south of Chile, vegetation is fairly scarce, but the middle parts of Chile have a climate similar to Britain, with lots of rain and lots of greenery. As I headed off to Chileo, my eyes feasted on field of green pasture and trees coming into leaf at the start of spring, with the sunshine and rain bringing a succession of rainbows.
Of course, it is impossible to write about the colours of Chile without mentioning the many colours of Santiago and nearby Valparaiso. Street art developed in Chile as a protest against Pinochet’s dictatorship and reached its peak in the university town of Valapariso. Brightly coloured murals turn the streets of this bustling port into an open-air museum that is a great introduction to the many different colours of Chile.

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 Stars of Atacama

The Stars of Atacama

The Stars of Atacama

PAUL COOK

When my alarm went off at 3am, I found myself questioned my sanity as I forced myself out of the warmth of my cosy bed at Explora Atacama and stumbled around in the dark, gathering my camera and tripod before heading out. The Atacama Desert in the middle of the night is cold, dark and quiet. However, it only took a short walk away from the lights of the lodge and a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the light to find what I was looking for.

“Atacama desert is one of the best places in the world to see the stars.”

The Atacama Desert is known for many things. It is the driest place on the planet with a landscape like something from Mars, spectacular sunsets and a unique geology. It is a great place for taking a tour of the amazing scenery or getting out on a hike or horse ride. However, what I really wanted to see was not in the desert, but far, far away. At almost 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) above sea level, with few clouds and little light pollution, the Atacama desert is one of the best place in the world to see the stars.

There are several major observatories dotting the desert, and all the lodges offer star watching sessions. The night before I had been wowed by the sight of the rings of Saturn and tightly packed cluster of stars through the telescope at Explora Atacama. I really wanted to get my own photographs of the stars, but I had to wait for the moon to set to get the best views. Which is why I had set my alarm for 3am.

I had been lucky enough to have some photography lessons before heading off to Chile, and had done some research to work out the best way to photograph the stars. I had spoken to the guides at Explora, and during the day had found a nice quiet, dark spot on their extensive grounds. Now, I went back, set up my tripod and begin to take my photos.

The one thing I knew was that photographing the stars takes patience. To capture the dim light, a single shot can take a minute or more. What I really wanted to photograph was the movement of the stars which would need a lot longer. In the days of film, this would be a very tricky job requiring a single long exposure, but nowadays it is much easier to take hundreds of digital photographs and merge them into a single shot. After setting up the camera to point in what I hoped was the right direction, I left my camera snapping away automatically and headed back to bed.

“In the days of film, this would be a very tricky job requiring a single long exposure, but nowadays it is much easier to take hundreds of digital photographs and merge them into a single shot.”

PAUL COOK

It felt strange abandoning my camera to the elements like that, and I thought I would have trouble getting back to sleep, but the beds at Explora are just too comfortable. An hour later, my alarm once more roused me from a deep sleep and I headed back out into the cold to recover my camera. It was still snapping away happily, unconcerned about the cold, but I wanted to get it back inside before the batteries ran out.

I had to wait until the following evening to check if I had been successful. Downloaded onto my laptop screen, each individual photograph did not really look like much. However, I had brought the software I needed with me and my laptop chugged away as it merged over a hundred photographs into a single image. As I watched, the image began to appear on my screen of a swirl of stars revolving around the desert sky.

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:

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