travelogue – el norte – Peru

Most visitors to Peru clog the southern Gringo Trail: Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca.

But many are banking on making the north just as enticing. The attractions are there but not yet the infrastructure. …

For the complete travelogue & photos jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive. OPEN icon

» north coast Peru
» mountain biking the Andes
» hiking the Santa Cruz trek Trek

photos – Jack’s first violin concert

sunsetI was lucky enough to be official photographer as a mega fiddle fest. A few bow strings were frayed that night, I’ll tell you.

To see all photos, jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive. OPEN icon

travelogue – Towers of Paine – Chile

The main reason I travelled to South America was attending the marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds.

Actually, it was to hike Fitz Roy (Argentina) & Paine(Chile).


paine_Both are stunning postcards. But which is the better hike?

To get to southern Patagonia we took a 20+ hour bus ride through scrubby, barren Patagonian steppes. I sipped red wine, dozed, listened to music & read — as I had the last two 20+ hour bus rides.

First stop, though, was the Moreno glacier, perhaps the most visited & photographed in the world.

I camped so as to have the fabulous glacier to myself once the buses departed.

moreno_9771the hunky Moreno glacier.

Next a happy rendezvous with Stacey and Bevan, a cool couple from Vancouver. We had hiked Alpamayo together months before. The three of us were psyched to finish our hiking adventures together before going home — as all good Canadians do— for Christmas.


We went first to Fitz Roy named for Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle. He and Darwin were likely the first Europeans to see the massif.

I feel a kinship with Fitzroy. Despite sharing a dinner table with Darwin for 5 years, he managed to come up with diametrically opposite positions on almost every issue.

While Darwin is a regular guest on Oprah, Fitzroy’s scientific theories have languished! (As has my own modest discovery that sea creatures once lived in the high mountains. It’s true! I can show you the fossilized shells.)

I had high hopes for Fitz Roy as it is far less visited than Paine and more famous with mountain climbers. The book Enduring Patagonia, by Crouch, details the history. I was particularly interested in the tale of the best first ascent in Patagonia, the Super Couloir on Fitz Roy, 1965. The Argentine climber Comesana said his fitness, at the time, was unimproveable.

Even more impressive is The Tower (Cerro Torre), most often climbed by theCompressor route, named for the 150 pound compressor hauled up by Maestri in 1970. This desecrated the mountain with 350 bolts, one of the great controversies in mountaineering. The compressor is still up there near the summit.

(Cheap chortle: one of the top climbers in history is named Athol Whimp. Talk about a boy named Sue!)

Also of note is the smaller Egger tower, sometimes named one of the 7 real summits — the most difficult peaks to climb on the 7 continents.

Unfortunately we had to endure Patagonia — in 3 days we did not see the tops of any of the famous peaks. The weather at Fitz Roy is horrific, even by Patagonian standards of horror. It sits on the largest ice shield anywhere in the world outside Antarctica. Near constant storms rage.

Horizontal rain and gale force winds. Snow at higher altitudes.

I love high wind, though, at night. The sound through the trees is wonderful. Wind is alive, like fire.

Wind batted my tent like a cat playing with a mouse.

We bailed on the Fitz Roy hike a day early. It did not look like the weather would clear. Ever.

Oh well, as Crouch says, It’s not Patagonia unless you hang on the cross for a while.

I was reading Naipaul too & recalled his advice on how to face disappointment, Take it on the Chin. And move on.

On to the Towers of Paine.


Super touristy, Paine is, regardless, the highlight for many who tramp South America.

Spectacular and uniquely chiselled peaks, granite towers, stunted & twisted trees, colourful flowers including orchids, huge undeveloped glacial lakes, brilliant glaciers — WOW! — What’s not to love?

Animal life is plentiful: llama-like guanaco, ostrich-like rhea, Andean fox, condors, flamingos, water fowl, hares, the endangered huemul deer. We saw all these. People hiking with us even saw a puma, not uncommon.

We did the 100km+ circuit of the Paine massif; no rush, plenty of time for side trips, in 9 days. Wonderful.

Unlike Fitz Roy, on Paine we had, for the most part, remarkably good weather. On the notoriously stormy Glacier Grey, you could light a match when we arrived at the Pass.

grey_9925Bevan at Glacier Grey

Anemomaniacs be warned, our most vivid memories of Paine are of the wind which often blasts 170km / hour. Several hikers were thrown to the ground. My glasses were whipped off my face and blown 10m. Two pack covers blew off: one recovered by a group a half hour behind; the other never seen again, flying like a balloon out of sight.


One night we sheltered in one of the expensive Refugiosas winds I estimated at 140km / hour tried to blow in the windows.


At last light (11PM!) Bevan went to check on their tent — it was close to Maytagging away down the valley. All the pegs had pulled out but the weight of 2 packs was justenough. Other friends had their rental tent flattened.

We saw waterfalls blowing UP.

And never before had we seen the wind pick up sheets of water and splash it on to the shore, drenching us at one point

After Paine, the remaining days of my trip were a let down. I moped at the southern extreme of the continent. I did not reach the barbarian coasts of the uttermost part of the world, but I could see it from Punta Arenas.

012 Punta ArenasPunta Arenas. Tierra del Fuego in the distance.

I daren’t cross the water to Fireland, forewarned that fearsome, naked giants live there, tending constant flames to stay warm, even in their canoes. They would devour me sure as shooting.

That’s it.

coffeeI am happy to go home to the best country in the world. Dreaming of a raisin bagel &double double at Tim Horton’s.

Pleased to stop torturing people with my Spanish.

I have a staggering genius for not learning languages. That is not the problem, though — perhaps I just got off the boat yesterday instead of months ago — the problem is my heartbreaking willingness to try to speak Spanish.

I am weary of filling in unnecessary bus roster & hostel registration forms. The amusement of using the nom de plume Richard Cranium is wearing thin. Occupation:grave robber. I invented new passport numbers each time.

When I was last in South America the blanks asked:Religion?. But this trip I was denied the chance to respond: lapsed pagan.

When I wandered into a high security Chilean naval base, I used my New Zealand driver’s licence as ID before being escorted out past red-faced security guards.

What part of the States are you from? The Canadian part. This no longer amuses anyone.

I will miss the plentiful time for reading, one of the great joys of travel. A few holiday recommendations:

 • Kim, Kipling (classic)
 • DaVinci Code, Brown (page turner)
 • Life of Pi, Martel (original, intense)
 • True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey (well wrote)
 • Sea Wolf, London (classic)
 • My Imaginary Country, Isabelle Allende (on Chile)


I was gifted a guide book to Molvania, a land untouched by modern dentistry.

Or — last minute berths to Antarctica by ship were going for US$1200 all inclusive 10 days.



related – my Paine and Fitz Roy trekking pages

travelogue – GONE TO PATAGONIA – Chile

What?, muchileros scolded me, You are going to CHILE! No way! Go to Argentina, man!

 B.A. is all-night fiesta, all-day siesta. Las chicas. Las chicas!

Truth is Chile is the least popular country on the continent with backpackers. You’d think I’d know, having been glum in Santiago the first week of this trip.

After months in the rural Andes, I was culture-shocked by modern Chile: tattoos, hair styles, midriffs, child obesity, piercings, girly bars, women painted like female impersonators. In short: civilization.

Coming from Bolivia, Chile seemed an expensive nation of do-nothing, chain-smoking posers. (Though it’s impossible not to grin at a Latin nation who’s Liberator is named Bernie O’Higgins. Didn’t she sing back-up for The Commitments?)

So why Chile?

I am stubborn. Stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay. I had originally planned on Chile, you see.

Partly it was due to the cover photo of Sara Wheeler’s book, In a Thin Country. I had to find THAT place.


truck_9512And I wanted to visit the Atacama, claimed the world’s driest desert.

But excitements like the Earth’s biggest open pit copper mine didn’t do it for me.

It was partly Enzo’s fault I went to Chile. He’s the founder of Pachemama by Bus which wheels tourists through endless stretches of this most oddly shaped country, painlessly.

chuquicamataEffortless, mindless travel in a modern vehicle, directed to the best local pubs, hostels & restaurants by an expert guide, boozing continuously.


We tried Carmenere wine, a grape wiped out in Europe, recently rediscovered here.

I drank Misiones de Rengo but locals buy cheap Gato Negro, same as Canadians.

We gorged on huge feeds of fish & seafood, by far the best grub in Chile.

We cruised the famed Lake District,  the southern most Province of Germany. Great weather for ducks, it took 5 days before I finally got to see a snow-capped volcano looming over a picturesque lake.

For we passer-throughers, Chile offers superb Catholic canoodling, an engaging spectator sport. This was the last democratic country to legalize divorce. No test drives, either in Chile. But anything that you get away with in public falls short of mortal sin.


(People keep telling me that the current Pope — May His Holiness cling to life — is a liberal. S’truth? I don’t hope for a Conservative successor.)

The travel gluttony of Pachemama by Bus might be some people’s idea of a good holiday — but not you or me.


This was the telegram famously sent by Bruce Chatwin when he quit his real job with a prestigious paper to become a travel writer.

Do you recognize the name Chatwin?

If you hosted a chic soirée for elite travel writers, Chatwin would top your list of invitees. Rumours of his 1989 death from rare blood disease merely add to his mystique.

Chatwin’s In Patagonia is the most famous read on the region though travellers down here often can‘t get through it. Puzzling, academic — it doesn’t have much to do with Patagonia.

If you are talking to a name-dropping travel snob like Chatwin (don’t you hate his type?) be sure to ask for specifics on the horrors of public toilets, especially bus toilets. That will shut him up for a while.

map_caThe best of the many bad ways to get to the central Patagonian Andes — by far the least settled — is the great Southern Highway (Carretera Austral). Only a mad dictator could push through a road so geographically illogical — 1200km long, starting nowhere, leading nowhere. I had to take a 12 hour cramped, diesel-smoke-filled freighter from Puerto Montt just to get to the highway.

Considered the Adolf Hitler of South America to some — families of the thousands he disappeared during his 17 year rule — that mad dictator was General Augusto Pinoche. (The over-decorated despot was recently ruled sane by a Spanish court of law.)

Pinoche took over on Sept. 11, 1973 after he convinced the elected President, leftist Salvadore Allende, to commit suicide by machine gun, a gift given Allende by admirer Fadel Castro.

The Americans supported the new dictator, of course, liking Pinoche’s policy of savage capitalism.

Travelling Pinoche’s Southern Highway though, to me, was akin to a Canadian trying to hitchhike to the Arctic Ocean.

On logging roads.

In May.


There’s not a LOT of traffic.

The road itself is something like driving the interior of British Colombia or South Island New Zealand: snow-topped mountains, huge lakes, trout-filled rivers. Very pleasant indeed.

The attraction is the absolute remoteness (it is difficult to get Diet Coke!) & foul weather. A grim 16-year-old local named Diego, who plans to run to Philadelphia when he is 18, asserted, It always rains here. Always.

But we had very good Spring weather.

The few homesteaders, still called pioneers, should import some convicts or Australians to clear the tens of thousands of stumps. Where is Ned Kelly when you need him?

A DC3 crash-landed near the highway. The military carted off the wings. Then a family of pioneers moved in. Can’t sneeze at free digs.

South Americans have the quaint, backwards notion that castrating & imprisoning dogs is cruel. Carry a handful of rocks in rural Patagonia to greet the large, furry survivors — or call yourself puppy chow.


The great Southern Highway is not for the faint of heart. Most who travel here speak Hebrew — but you will find the old odd Canadian too. Israeli adventurers love the Carretera Austral, cramming 6 into a rent-a-car. (Two of their jeeps had rolled in recent weeks.)

shimmi_9704I travelled the highway with Shimmi who turned 23 during the journey, an extremobackpacker. He was determined to hitch the Careterra Austral. He would play guitar while we sat on roads empty as far as the eye can see. I gazed skyward dreaming to flag down a helicopter.

On a good day we made about 90km with 4 short rides. On bad days Shimmi would finally join me in a guest house when it got dark & we would take the bus — if one showed — next morning.

Hey. A friend e-mailed to touch base and confirm travel plans. Seems he will, on early retirement, acquire a VW van and a bra-less wife.Freedom 55!

What say you were the retiring founder of Esprit & Northface clothing. On what would you spend the $140 million payout?

Right. Wed the ex-CEO of Patagonia clothing & start buying up pristine land in Patagonia.

Douglas Tompkins says he’s trying to undo a little of the damage he did to the environment when he was busy producing consumer items nobody needed.

We visited his Park Pumalin, the world’s first privately-owned National Park. It crosses into Argentina from Chile protecting some of the wildest land on earth.

Our guide pointed to peaks in every direction. None had been climbed. He claimed impenetrable valleys that had never been seen by a human being, untouched since all continents were one.

Trees 3000 – 4000 years old abound.

Very cool. I was much excited by this bold eco-experiment. It is being copied in Africa & in the Amazon.

Shimmi & I had a fantastic hike at Castle (Cerro Castillo), the biggest draw of the Carretera Austral. It was a surprise to see other hikers, a British youth group.

I doubt Pinoche will live long enough to see his road pushed through to southern Patagonia. Only then will it become one of the world’s great road trips. For now it is still a place to get some peace & quiet.

I did not make the southern roadhead either. I bailed into Argentinaafter about 700 kms.

Shimmi hates Chile and loves Argentina. Loves chowing down like Fred Flintstone in all-you-can-eat barbeque restaurants. In Argentina, vegetarianism is impractical, if not illegal.

And Shimmi has a theory about the shapeliness of the Argentina latina assienda which, I had to concede, was proved by the evidence.

Going down,