Tag Archives: Chile

Why I love long-distance trekking

Karale Glacier - Unplugged Wilderness - East Greenland

This is my favourite image from my trip to Greenland this year.   

Taken on Day 3 of the Unplugged Wilderness Trek with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides, it (almost) perfectly captures everything I loved about the trek and the reasons why the experience was so special to me.

Many people have asked me about why I love long-distance trekking, given that the thought of trekking for 8 or 10 or 12 days without a shower or many creature comforts is quite a stretch for most.  But for me it’s absolute heaven for the following reasons:

The beauty

Just look at the image.

Those who have been following my travels through the blog have probably figured out that I love mountains, despite the fact that I come from a country that doesn’t really have any “proper” ones.  I’m not a beach girl at all (very un-Australian of me) and am not fond of heat and humidity, though I do love deserts! 

No.  For me, it is the mountains that really give a sense of the grandeur of the World, whether it be looking up at them towering above you, or looking down from a bird’s eye view.  And although there are plenty of mountains that are easily accessible, if you trek for 10 or 12 days, you end up a long way from anyone or anything, and can really experience nature in all its glory.  It doesn’t get any better!

The silence

There is silence in nature – which in turn quiets my own thoughts.

Enjoying the silence of Huayhuash

Enjoying the silence of Huayhuash in Peru

Hiking and high intensity exercise are the only things I’ve found that switch my brain off from its constant chatter about what is happening in my life or what I would like to happen in my life.  The advantage that hiking has over high intensity exercise is that it is relatively easy to sustain for long periods of time, if you go in with a good level of fitness to begin with. 

For example, I love boxing!  It is my favourite type of exercise (apart from hiking).  But even at my fittest (just before I left Australia 18 months ago), an intense 30 minute training session with Charles would wipe me out for the rest of the day!     Another example, one of the things I try to do most mornings while traveling is High Intensity Interval Training.  I use the 12 Minute Athlete App and, if you really commit to the idea and put everything you’ve got into it, 12 minutes is more than enough time to destroy you.  If you don’t believe me – I encourage you to give it a go 🙂

And so back to long-distance trekking.  To me, it is a luxury and the best gift I can give myself to have 12 days of peace and serenity and freedom from thinking about life.  To be completely “in the moment” and disconnected from “real life” allows me to reset my thought patterns and eject things that I may have been obsessing over prior to setting off.  I always come back from a long-distance trek with a much clearer mind.

And for those of you who need a break from technology – we had no phone reception from the moment we left Kulusuk to the moment we returned.  Going cold-turkey for 11 days is a good way to break the cycle!

The simplicity

I’ve always lived a fairly minimalist lifestyle, preferring to spend my money on experiences rather than things.  However, since leaving Australia in February 2016, I’ve taken that a step further and have been traveling with just a 60L bag for the most part (OK, this has extended a little this year because I had to bring all my camping gear with me).  Trust me – you can’t fit much in a 60L bag!  For example, I have 2 pairs of trekking pants and 4 quick-dry shirts, so my daily decision about what to wear comes down to: “does it smell, or can I get away with wearing it for another day?“.   After all – you don’t want to be doing washing every 3rd day!

Trekking for 12 days takes this to an even more extreme – after all, you actually have to carry this stuff!  Decisions about what to eat are minimised – you eat what you have with you.  Decisions about where to sleep are minimised – you pitch your tent wherever you find yourself when you stop hiking.   And decisions about what to do are minimised – you are either hiking, or you entertain yourself with whatever you have with you.   Your options are severely limited when you are in the middle of nowhere, but that makes it all the more special, as you can really appreciate where you are and the people you are with.

Keeping ourselves entertained

Entertaining ourselves on a rainy day in the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut. Reading, sleeping, talking, drinking tea, and innumerable games of UNO.

The challenge

For some people, the thought of walking 6 blocks in the middle of a city is too much.   For others, a day hike is more than enough to last them for the next week or month.  But when you walk (and engage in other exercise) as much as I do, these shorter hikes are great, but often don’t provide much of a challenge.   

The exceptions I can think of off the top of my head since I started traveling in 2016 are VolcĂĄn Maderas in Nicaragua, Rucu Pichincha in Ecuador, and Laguna 69 in Peru.  These were tough day hikes – Maderas because of the heat, the others because of the altitude.

Laguna 69

Laguna 69 in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru is a tough day hike, mostly because of the altitude

The first long-distance trek I did was the Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile in 2015.  I remember when I signed up that I was a little nervous about walking for 8 days, especially with the osteoarthritis in my toes.  But it was an incredible experience (for all the reasons I’m talking about here), and while there were challenging parts to it, on the whole, it really wasn’t that difficult.

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

The Torres del Paine Circuit was the first long-distance trek I did. We had pretty ordinary weather but it was an amazing experience

Then, last year, I hiked the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit in Peru, 95% of which is over 4,200m, with several passes over 5,000m.   Having spent quite a lot of time at altitude, I knew I wouldn’t have any problems with altitude sickness, but if you’ve ever been above about 3,000m, you know that doing anything at these altitudes gets very difficult very quickly. 

Highest point on the Huayhuash Trek

The highest point on the Huayhuash Trek at 5,200m.

However, with the slow walking pace set by Eliceo, the  altitude challenge was entirely surmountable (though there were some tough climbs), and the sense of achievement I felt at the end of the 10-days was a kind of euphoria.  It took me several days to come down off the high of that incredible experience.

The 12-day Unplugged Wilderness trek in East Greenland was this year’s challenge.  And although altitude wasn’t a concern, I hadn’t actually done much exercise for the previous 2 months while traveling the Silk Road (I’d also been a bit slack on the High Intensity Interval Training 🙁 ) so wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be.  My other concern was the cold (this is Greenland after all, even if in Summer), something that I feel very keenly, and one of my biggest challenges on the Huayhuash Circuit.  It turned out that this actually wasn’t an issue at all (except for Day 4) and I think this trek is the easiest of the 3 I’ve done so far.  No less spectacular for it though, and 3 months after the fact, my head and heart are still in Greenland!

Sunset bathing the tips of the peaks behind the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut with a golden light. The hut is in the foreground

Another favourite image

So what is my next challenge?

Well, all the treks I’ve done so far have been supported – in other words, I’ve only had to carry a day pack while hiking.  And although my day pack tends to be heavier than most because of my camera gear, it’s still a lot lighter than carrying a full pack.

However, in February 2018, I will be leveling up in my challenges and undertaking the 10-day Southern Patagonian Icefield Expedition from El ChaltĂ©n in Argentina.  On this hike, I have to carry a full pack, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very, very nervous about the cold.   Check back in March to see if I survive!

Update:  I survived!  Read my stories from this incredible expedition with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia.

The new friends

Perhaps I’ve just been lucky.  But I’ve found that the types of people who undertake long-distance treks and actually stick it out, tend to be easy-going, fun, and interesting companions. 

Because you spend so much time together – hiking, eating meals, hanging out – you have tons of time to chat and get to know one another.  And if you really click, it very quickly and easily turns into an ongoing friendship.  I’m still in touch with Max and Nico from the Huayhuash Circuit last year (I am working on convincing them to come to Greenland next year), and I’ll catch up with several of my companions from Unplugged Wilderness again in 2018.   I’m really looking forward to this!

Max and Nico from Huayhuash (top), and the crew from Unplugged Wilderness (bottom)

So there you have it.  If you’ve been curious (or have asked me previously) about why I keep doing these crazy-long treks, I hope that gives a bit more of an idea why I’m so attracted to them.  I really wish I’d discovered this passion earlier in my life, but am making the most of it now that I’ve seen the light 🙂

So who’s in for the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland in August in 2018?


Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Leptepu and Porcelana

Day 5

Out in the kayaks early today for a paddle to explore the southern end of the Comau Fjord.   Glassy water, no wind, easy paddling – now THIS is what I was expecting!   THIS is what all those kayaking videos spruik – paddling lazily along taking your time and poking your nose into interesting nooks and crannies.  And it was sufficient to convince me to give kayaking another go – but perhaps on a lake, where there is no wind or waves, and maybe just for a few hours at a time 😉

Glassy water in the Comau Fjord

Glassy water (finally) in the Comau Fjord

Although the Comau Fjord has salmon farms and other seafood production along its entire length, it was particularly concentrated in this part.   So we went and checked out the salmon farms on our paddle.

Salmon Farms - Comau Fjord

Checking out the salmon farms

Given that it was a gorgeous, sunny day, the wind picked up about 1/2 way through the paddle (this wind is very typical during fine weather) so we decided to not head up the river, but return to camp and hit the hot springs.   This time we executed an “out-of-the-kayak-from-the-water” dismount – which thankfully, and once again due to my awesome coordination – delivered me to the Don Miguel nice and dry.

kayak to boat transfer

Kayak-to-boat transfer

Final piccy of us in the kayaking gear 🙂

The kayakers

The kayakers! Huw, Koreen and me

The rest of the day was spent at Porcelana, the site where we had originally intended to camp.  It is absolutely gorgeous there – and very typical of Patagonia.

Porcelana - classic patagonia

Porcelana – classic patagonia

But the key attraction are the natural hot springs that emerge directly from the forest.

Porcelana hot springs

Porcelana hot springs

There were a large number of pools to choose from, and most were at a great temperature.   There was also a “plunge pool” – otherwise known as a dip in the freezing river – just 30m away as well.  Spent a great few hours there chatting and relaxing after all the paddling.

Day 6

The next day dawned rainy and miserable.   We had no problem with this at all given we were to spend it inside the Don Miguel retracing our route back up the Comau Fjord, heading back to HornopirĂ©n and then Puerto Varas.  

We dropped Huw off in the rain to await transportation further south, and then enjoyed tea and other goodies during the 5 hours it took to make the return journey.  Quite amazing how far we paddled!

Don Miguel

Don Miguel, ploughing through the rain


Despite the pain, this was a really wonderful trip!   Wonderful company, wonderful scenery, and definitely an initiation by fire to the world of kayaking!   We got to experience all of the moods of the fjord – calm, stormy, windy, wavey, strong tides, blue skies, overcast skies, rain – as well as reverse launches and kayak-to-boat transfers.   In fact, the key thing I didn’t get to experience (thankfully) was tipping over!

Cost:   At almost AUD$2000, this was not a cheap trip!  In fact, I almost didn’t do it because of the cost.   However, for that price, you get a support vessel (the Don Miguel “mothership”), which, in the end, was worth every cent!   I would not recommend doing a multi-day kayaking trip in Patagonia unsupported!

Time:  6 days

Recommendation:  Can definitely recommend Alsur Expeditions.  They were very responsive in the lead-up to departure, and the trip ran very smoothly.  Special shout out to Colyn who was an awesome guide and lots of fun.


Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Termas de Cahuelmó to Porcelana

Day 4

The next day saw another brilliant blue sky and an opportunity to do a little hiking – up to a lake a little further up the valley.   This hike had to be timed to coincide with low tide, and we had to get there and back before the tide rose too much, otherwise we would never be able to cross the river.

Start of the hike at Termas de CahuelmĂł

Start of the hike at Termas de CahuelmĂł. The river was the highest Colyn had ever seen it

As it turned out, yesterday’s storm and the large amount of rain the area had received over the past few weeks had already swollen the river so much that we were thwarted in our endeavour. Instead we bush-bashed back to the Don Miguel through the vegetation, pulled out the kayaks and started our paddle for today.

Aborted hike at Termas de CahuelmĂł

Aborted hike at the Termas de CahuelmĂł

I’ll be honest, this was the worst day of paddling of the lot!   Heading back up the CahuelmĂł Fjord towards the sea lion colony was against the current and against the wind, and if you stopped paddling, you very quickly started going backwards!    About 2/3 the way along I motioned that I needed to stop for a rest and suggested we pull in near the waterfall.   Colyn, however, was adamant that we had to keep going a little further, as the waterfall was not sheltered enough and he wanted to get out of the CahuelmĂł Fjord before the full force of the wind came down upon us and made it even more difficult to paddle.

Kayaking past the sea lions at entrance to CahuelmĂł Fjord

Sight for sore eyes (well, arms, back and shoulders), sea lions at entrance to CahuelmĂł Fjord

We eventually made it to the sea lion colony and the entrance to the fjord, but it turned out we weren’t done yet.   Colyn kept assuring me that the beach we were aiming for was “just around the corner”, to “keep paddling”, and that I was doing really well, but he had a sense of urgency about him that none of us had seen before.  

Finally, about 5 corners and 1/2 hour of paddling later, we spied a brilliant white patch of land to the left, and beached ourselves with absolute relief.  

rest stop - Comau Fjord

Finally at the rest stop in the Comau Fjord

The beach was surprisingly well sheltered, but soon after we settled in for lunch, our arch-nemeses for the entire trip – the Colihuachos (big bitey horse flies) – found us.  So we left our paddling jackets on (the only way to thwart them) and slowly baked in the sun.

Beach and Colihuachos

Resting on the beach trying to avoid our nemeses for the entire trip – the Colihuachos

After about an hour, Colyn went out in his kayak to see whether he could spy the Don Miguel. The mothership had to wait for high tide before it could pick us up and transport us further down the fjord, and we were all wondering why it hadn’t yet appeared.   After about 20 minutes, Colyn came speeding back into the beach, hurrying us up to get in the kayaks for launch.   Apparently the Don Miguel couldn’t pick us up from the beach and we had to paddle further to a more sheltered pickup point.


By this time the wind had picked up enormously and the waves were getting pretty large!   Colyn was clearly worried about the conditions (particularly given he had a complete novice in his charge), but there was nothing for it.    We sat in our kayaks facing up the beach and he launched us backwards, one by one, into the waves.   The idea was to paddle backwards as powerfully as possible for a bit, then turn as quickly as possible before being capsized.   Uh … okay…

Fortunately I’m a super-coordinated person 🙂 so executed a textbook maneuver, and set off down the fjord with arms, shoulders and back burning – but at least I was still upright.

Finally found the Don Miguel about an hour and a half later at a very sheltered little dock, and thankfully pulled the kayaks up onto the back deck.   I think Colyn was the most relieved of all of us – that we’d all managed to make it without upending.  Apparently the conditions were the worst Koreen and Huw had ever paddled in, and it goes to show that sometimes ignorance is bliss … I wasn’t scared or worried at all … I was just exhausted!

kayaks loaded up

The rest of the afternoon was spent cruising down the Comau Fjord admiring the scenery and soaking up the amazing weather.   

Incredible scenery on the way to the southern end of the Comau Fjord

Incredible scenery on the way to the southern end of the Comau Fjord

Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit the Research Station along the way, and it turned out that the campsite we were aiming for was no longer accepting campers!   Apparently they had become tired of cleaning up the trash after campers had departed, so decided they wouldn’t be offering campsites anymore.   This meant finding a different place to stay, and we ended up around the corner and up a big hill.   Can’t complain about the view though!

View from campground at the end of the Comau Fjord

View from campground at the end of the Comau Fjord


Kayaking the Comau Fjord – CahuelmĂł Fjord

Day 3

Day 3 of our kayaking trip to explore the fjords in the north of PumalĂ­n Park dawned bright and sunny again.   Given we were already just across from our campsite scheduled for Day 3 (thanks to the storm), after another amazing breakfast aboard the Don Miguel, we hit the kayaks and went for a paddle up the length of the CahuelmĂł Fjord

Breakfast Table on the Don Miguel

Breakfast Table in the Don Miguel wheelhouse. All our meals were taken here.

Even after 2 days of paddling, I’m finding the whole kayaking experience rather challenging and frustrating.  The others make it look so easy, yet I’m going ten-to-the-dozen just to keep up with them!   But I do get there eventually… even against the wind!

Kayaking CahuelmĂł Fjord

Kayaking towards the sealion colony – CahuelmĂł Fjord

The aim of the paddle was to visit the sea lion colony near the entrance of the fjord.   Very noisy, but great fun to watch, especially when they were checking us out from the water.

Sea lions at the entrance to Cahuelmo Fjord

Sea lions at the entrance to Cahuelmo Fjord

Then we paddled slowly back towards our campsite, passing more sealions and some amazing waterfalls.    

Cahuelmo Fjord

The first time paddling with the wind and tide, and trying to put into practice some of Colyn’s tips from earlier in the morning, I felt like I might finally be getting the hang of this activity … sort of … kinda …

Kayaking CahuelmĂł Fjord

Paddling towards the campsite in CahuelmĂł Fjord

Our campsite for the night was at the CahuelmĂł thermal hot springs (Termas CahuelmĂł), and after 3 days in the kayaks, we were all looking forward to soaking in the hot water.

Cahuelmo thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmo)

Unfortunately, another family arrived at exactly the same time as us (what are the chances!) so we ended up diverting as many of the streams of hot water running into the pool we wanted to use as we could (it was waaaaaaay too hot to sit in comfortably) and went to set up the tents and to do a short hike up to a lookout over the Fjord.  

Lookout at Termas Cahuelmo campground

Lookout at Termas Cahuelmo campground

When we returned, the family was gone and the pool was just cool enough for us to relax in properly.   Ahhhhhhhh – luxury!

Cahuelmo thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmo)

Finally! Koreen, Chloe and Colyn enjoying the pool.

Dinner on board the Don Miguel was a great as always, and Chloe spoiled us with an incredible apple cake for dessert!   This was followed up by yet another spectacular sunset – I love being out in the middle of nowhere.

Sunset along the Cahuelmo Fjord

Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Isla LlancahuĂ© to Quintupeu Fjord

Day 2

Awoke not feeling too bad given the unfamiliar and extended exercise of yesterday.    The clouds had rolled in, however, and the forecast of rain was looking more and more accurate.

Rain Comau Fjord from Isla Llancahué

Setting out into the Comau Fjord from Isla Llancahué under threatening skies

After an amazing breakfast on board the Don Miguel, we suited up in our kayaking gear and headed off towards Quintupeu Fjord

Towards Quintupeu Fjord

The weather progressively got worse over the 2.5 hours we were paddling, and for the last 1/2 hour to the waterfall, we were paddling in the rain.   Not cold (too much exercise for that), and initially not unpleasant.  But we were glad to abandon the kayaks and retreat to the mothership when the rain started pelting down about 15 minutes after arriving.

Quintupeu Fjord

It started to rain once we’d reached Quintupeu Fjord

We were meant to continue paddling up Quintupeu Fjord and stay the night at the end of it, but given the weather and the abysmal forecast for the rest of the day, we agreed that we’d actually motor around to the next Fjord and cut short the super-long paddle (20 miles!) scheduled for Day 3.  Given my struggles with the paddle, I was all for it.  

Waiting out the storm

Waiting out the storm in the wheelhouse of the Don Miguel

Once we arrived in CahuelmĂł Fjord, we found a sheltered spot and tied up alongside some fishermen who were diving for mussels.   They very generously gave us some of their haul, and we sat around drinking coffee and eating mussels for the next 7 hours – waiting out the very impressive storm (horizontal bullets of rain, incredibly strong winds, huge swell, low visibility) in the wheelhouse of the Don Miguel.  At this point, the others all agreed that abandoning the original plan for the day was a great idea!

Coffee and mussels while the storm raged outside

Coffee and mussels while the storm raged outside

Eventually, the storm abated, and we were able to head out and enjoy the sunset – having decided to roll out sleeping bags in the bottom of the mothership, rather than trying to find somewhere dry to camp.

Sunset CahuelmĂł Fjord

Sunset after the storm – CahuelmĂł Fjord

Thought for the day:  who knew kayaking hurt the knees so much?!  Though it has occurred to me that it would be the perfect sport given my arthritic toes.

Kayaking the Comau Fjord – HornopirĂ©n to Isla LlancahuĂ©

For the past several years I’ve wanted to include a multi-day kayaking trip as part of my adventures.  However, mostly due to the fact that I travel independently and it is tricky to find others who are up for an extended activity at the same time I am, it hasn’t happened.  

Until now!

Trawling the internet, I found a few companies offering a 6-day kayaking trip down the length of the Comau Fjord in Parque PumalĂ­n (part of the area saved for conservation by Douglas Tompkins – if you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read it)  in northern Patagonia.  The the idea of paddling slowly past the incredible natural beauty of one of my favourite regions on Earth immediately caught my imagination, and I was determined that nothing less would do.

PumalĂ­n Park and the Comau Fjord map

The 6-day kayak trip took us all the way down the Comau Fjord in the northern part of PumalĂ­n Park

OK.  So, no, I have never actually kayaked before.  And yes, it would have made much more sense to start out with a kayak of a few hours to see what it was like.  But in a rare period of irrational thinking, and having been assured that prior kayaking experience was not necessary (you just had to be reasonably fit and come with a “can do” attitude), I ignored logic and followed my heart’s desire. 

For several weeks I waited in hope that others would be interested in doing the same trip.  And, just when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, Alsur Expeditions contacted me to let me know they had 2 others.  We were good to go!

Day 1 – HornopirĂ©n to Isla LlancahuĂ©

I was joined by Huw from Wales (some kayaking experience), and Koreen from Canada (fair amount of kayaking experience), and, together with Colyn (our guide) and Chloe (our general all-round-helper and cook), we set out from Puerto Varas for the drive (and ferry ride) to HornopirĂ©n.  There we met the last member of our expedition, Miguel the boat driver,  loaded the kayaks and all of our food and gear for the next 6 days into the Don Miguel “mothership” and motored for about 5 minutes to a sheltered spot to get set up with the kayaks and start our first day of paddling.

Loading Kayaks onto the Don Miguel mothership

Loading Kayaks onto the Don Miguel “mothership”

Given my experience with kayaking (remember, none), I was thankful that the kayaks we were using were of the particularly stable kind – something I tested as I got in for the first time.  Colyn help me to adjust the pedals for the rudder, gave me some basic instructions, and we were ready to go!

Don Miguel

Prepping kayaks for our trip

The whole of Patagonia is full of incredible scenery, and we were really lucky this first day to have bright sunshine and glorious weather!   We even went and visited this fur seal who was tucked up on a buoy trying to ignore us.

Kayaking Comau Fjord

Unfortunately, the gloriousness of my surroundings wasn’t quite enough to distract me completely from the fact that I seemed to be putting a heck of a lot more effort into paddling than my colleagues, and that kayaking is a shitload harder than it looks!  Particularly true when you paddle for 4 hours straight without a break!   Words cannot express how happy I was to see this beach on Isla LlancahuĂ© – our campsite for the first night.   I may have bitten off more than I can chew here…

Approaching Isla Llancahué campsite

Approaching the Isla LlancahuĂ© campsite – finally!

Here, we were also introduced to the “ferry” between the mothership and wherever we were camped and, after a luxury dinner on board the Don Miguel, we headed for our sleeping bags.

Ferry between the Don Miguel and our campsites

The ferry between the Don Miguel and our campsites


Petroglyphs – La Silla Observatory

Much closer than Cerro Vizcachas, in fact just below the road where it passes below the 3.6m telescope, are the rock engravings, or petroglyphs, of La Silla.   I visited these a couple of times when I first arrived at La Silla about 15 years ago, but haven’t been back since.   

Given I was wandering around the mountain anyway, I decided to pay them another visit, and was very happy to find out that there is actually a bit of a map to help find them these days.

La Silla Petroglyphs Map

Map courtesy of Stefano Berta

Previously I was only aware of, and had therefore only visited, those marked ‘A’ in the map so was keen to see if I could find some of the others.  

According to researchers, there are 2 main types of petroglyph at La Silla – abstract designs (mostly repeated geometrical designs) and figurative drawings depicting human outlines and animals in stick-figure format.   Those at site ‘A’ tend to be mostly abstract designs and there are lots and lots of them clustered together in this site.

Site 'A' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

These are located directly below the 3.6m telescope and only about 100m from the road to Vizcachas.  Be careful – it’s very steep and rocky!

Group A petroglyphs with 3.6m telescope in the background - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there, I found a couple of petroglyphs only at site ‘B’ and so headed over to site ‘C’ to discover drawings that started to look a little more figurative.

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Including this amazing example – one of my favourites. 

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

According to the ESO website linked above: “The delicate central spiral symbolizes a serpent while the rest of the space is taken up by strange little figures, together with some simple geometric motifs and quadrupeds“.

View from Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Site ‘D’ was actually my favourite and had many more figurative drawings than what I’d seen elsewhere – particularly of quadrupeds!  The image at bottom-right has the most animals of any stone on the entire site.

Site 'D' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there I wandered over to Site ‘E’ … I think!  Not entirely clear that I’d arrived at the right place, but again, more cool petroglyphs along the way.   Basically you just look for decent-sized rocks and go check it out.

Site 'E' (I think) petroglyphs looking back towards the 3.6m telescope - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Had a great time scrambling over the mountainside searching for the petroglyphs and am thankful for the map as it did help guide me.  Of course, the site has had a complete photographic and topographic survey (in spanish) of the engravings done on it (back in 1990), but it is still fun as you stumble across each one for yourself.

BTW – unfortunately there is now a 3rd type of “modern” petroglyph as well đŸ™  Disappointing to see.

"modern" petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Las Vizcachas – La Silla Observatory

If you walk around the La Silla Observatory site at all, it’s hard to miss the road that starts just below the 2.2m telescope and heads out to Cerro Vizcachas.

Sunset view to Cerro Vizcachas from road to the SEST - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Cerro Vizcachas is the second peak you can see – if you squint you can see the white marker

It was constructed back in the 1990s when the European Southern Observatory was conducting site testing at various locations to determine where they would ultimately build the Very Large Telescope, and gives easy access to the petroglyphs that can also be found on the mountain.

Ever since I first arrived at La Silla, I’ve wanted to do the 12km return hike out to Cerro Vizcachas, but never had the time while I was working there.  So, after almost 16 years, I decided that this visit that I would finally do it.

I had to abort my first attempt due to freezing wind and cloud rising out of valley.  I went back and curled up with my Thomas Covenant books instead 🙂

Freezing wind and cloud aborted my first attempt at Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

The next day, however, there were no clouds and not much wind, so off I set.  

To be honest, there isn’t much to see along the way that you don’t already see from La Silla.

Views along the way to Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

The exception being La Silla itself of course.  There are some great views back to the 3.6m and SEST telescopes!

Views back to La Silla - on the way to Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

And when you finally arrive, there really isn’t much there.  A radio antenna, the white platform that used to house the DIMM (Differential Image Motion Monitor) and some foundations.

Radio tower and remains of DIMM - Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Still, it was good to do some exercise and satisfy a (minor) bucketlist item.   And have I mentioned the view?

View of La Silla from Cerro Vizcachas - La Silla Observatory - Chile

View of La Silla from Cerro Vizcachas radio tower

La Silla Observatory

Between 2000 and 2004 I worked as an astronomer for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.  ESO had 2 observatories in Chile at the time – the older La Silla Observatory that had been in operation since the 1960s, and the new Paranal Observatory where the Very Large Telescope was just starting operations with all 4 of its telescopes (there is also now ALMA Observatory, with first light in 2011). 

The year I arrived, I was the only Astronomy Fellow to be assigned to La Silla, everyone else was assigned to Paranal.   I remember being a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to work on the largest and newest telescopes and instrumentation, but in the end – it turned out that I had won the workplace lottery!    None of my friends at Paranal enjoyed their time at the observatory (it has changed a lot since then), whereas we had such a great time on La Silla that I never wanted to return home to Santiago.

La Silla Observatory

Standing in front of the 3.6m/CAT telescopes looking down at the main part of La Silla Observatory

It was the last of the really great years of La Silla, when there were still plenty of staff and visiting astronomers up there to form a really vibrant and fun community, and we certainly took advantage of that!   It was a beautiful place (all observatories are in incredible locations) with very special people – and it is the main aspect of my life as an astronomer that I miss.  Profoundly!

For this reason, every time I come back to Chile, I send a request to the Director of the observatories (who knows me from when I worked at ESO) asking if I can stay a few nights at La Silla.  He always says “yes” thank goodness 🙂  This year was no exception, and I got to stay for several nights over Christmas 2016.

Words cannot describe the feelings I have for La Silla, however, the following image from Buddha Doodles sings to me of the observatory.  Sitting with great friends above the clouds on the top of a mountain, with the even higher Andes in the background, looking at the night sky – it’s what we did there.

Buddha Doodles - La Silla memories

Another expression of La Silla comes from this piece of music from the IMAX movie “Hidden Universe 3D“.  This movie was inspired by a trip the Director of the movie and I took through the observatories in Chile in 2008 and, although the composer had never talked to me about my experiences, he captured my feelings perfectly. 


If you’ve seen the movie (if not, you should go see it!), you know that the crescendo at the beginning leads up to the first reveal of the glory of a nebula in the night sky.  I listened to this piece of music over and over again this trip to La Silla while laying out on the upper ramp to the New Technology Telescope (NTT) looking up at the southern summer sky.

La Silla Observatory

View from the upper ramp of the NTT. The 3.6m and CAT telescopes under a southern summer sky at La Silla Observatory. The two galaxies in the top right are the Magellanic Clouds

Then, after the crescendo, the music descends into a slightly melancholic feel – exactly reflecting how much I miss working at observatories in general, and La Silla specifically.

I have come to think of La Silla is my “spiritual place”, which is really saying something given that I am not at all comfortable using the word “spiritual”.   And I plan to continue returning for as long as ESO will let me – recapturing and remembering a really special time and place in my life.

Easter Island – Part 5

One of the things I wanted to do this time around on Easter Island was head out to Tongariki for the sunrise.  There are excursions offering this for US$60 per person for a 3 hour trip (ouch!), so I decided to rent a scooter instead (even cheaper) to ensure I got out there to see it, and then have the opportunity to go on to visit other places on the island as well.

Unfortunately, the lady wouldn’t hire me a scooter!  I showed her my Victorian drivers license with my motorcycle permit on it, which is indicated by an “R” for rider.  I don’t think she believed me when I explained this, and then she asked if I’d ever ridden a scooter before.  I had to admit “no” (after all, I needed her to show me how the thing worked) and that was it.  She refused on the grounds that riding a scooter is totally different to riding a motorbike.   She wouldn’t budge on this point so ultimately I ended up hiring a (surprisingly cheap) car from her.  Still turned out to be less than the cost of the excursion!

Headed out in the car at 5:45am for the Âœ hour trip to Tongariki, and was one of the first there.  The Southern Cross was visible over the Ahu and the sky was already starting to brighten significantly.

Ahu Tongariki and the Southern Cross - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Can you see the Southern Cross?

Here’s another image from a little later – just because it is pretty 🙂

Ahu Tongariki - sunrise - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Due to the cloud, it took quite a while for the sun to appear,

Ahu Tongariki - sunrise - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

but it was truly spectacular when it did.

Ahu Tongariki - sunrise - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Totally worth getting up early and hiring a car 🙂

I also really like this guy who has both an amazing view back towards his home in Rano Raroku

Ahu Tongariki - Rano Raraku- Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

as well as Ahu Tongariki.

Ahu Tongariki - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Ahu Tongariki is the grandest of all the Ahus on Easter Island with a 220m long platform – the largest of its type in all of Polynesia.  Each of the 15 Moai occupying the platform is thought to represent a particular ancestor and is therefore unique in size and shape.

Moais of Tongariki - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

The 15 Moai of Tongariki are all unique

Like every ahu on Easter Island, the statues on Ahu Tongariki were at one point toppled by the Rapa Nui people.  In addition, a tsunami in 1960 wrought further damage to this site.   The restoration effort took 5 years to complete at a cost of USD$2 million with funds and assistance provided mostly by the Japanese.  “During the excavations another 17 Moais were discovered to be completely destroyed and were used as a base for the current platform, as was the usual thing to do when an ahu was raised in a place where another had once stood.”  It is impressive whichever way you look at it and one of the most popular sites on the island.

Ahu Tongariki - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Ahu Tongariki - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

After the sunrise, I headed to Anakena (one of the Island’s few beaches and the supposed landing place of the first King of Easter Island) and Ahu Nau Nau, another of the restored ahus.  

Anakena and Ahu Nau Nau - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Ahu Nau Nau - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Ahu Nau Nau was reconstructed in 1978, and exhibits the best examples of carvings on the Moais to be found on the island.  They were preserved when the beach sand essentially buried the Moai once they had been toppled. 

Ahu Nau Nau - Anakena - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

You can clearly see the fingers on the front of the statues, and around the back, the spine, knotted loincloth and what are thought to be circular tattoos on the butt.

Went and sat on the beach in the shade for several hours reading (you guessed it) Thomas Covenant and waiting for the afternoon light before I visited Rano Raroku – the other site on the island that you can only visit once, and the place where they quarried the Moai out of the rock.

Rano Raraku - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

I remember Rano Raroku being super-impressive last time I was on Easter Island, and it remains so, even though you are now severely restricted as to where you can walk.  It is incredible to see that the Easter Islanders really did just “down tools” one day and never went back. 

You can clearly see the faces of rock where the Moai were “born”, and there are almost 400 fully-carved heads spread all over the side of the volcano (as well as inside the crater), in various stages of “walking” to their places elsewhere on the island.

Rano Raraku - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

In the upper part of the image you can see where the Moais have been carved out of the volcano, leaving rectangular planes

There are also examples of Moai (including these incredibly large ones), that were carved but not yet set free to walk to their final position.

Rano Raraku - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

There is a very famous Moai here as well, called Tukuturi, the only one known to be carved in a kneeling position.  He has more “human” (round) features and may have been one of the last, or first (depending on which theory you like best) Moai to be carved.  He also has an awesome position looking down on Ahu Tongariki.

Rano Raraku - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Spent ages wandering around this abandoned birthplace of Moai – another really awesome place on the Island, and one where you want to have plenty of time to explore.  Here are some of my favourite shots – just because 🙂

Rano Raraku - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

And finally, for my last night on Easter Island, I headed back out to the Tahai Complex to watch yet another spectacular sunset.  

Tahai Complex - sunset - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui

Tahai Complex - sunset - Easter Island | Isla de Pascua | Rapa Nui


Recommendation: I really, really loved both of my trips to Easter Island, and I could easily have stayed longer.  If you have the chance – you should definitely go!   Depending on your style of travel, I would suggest somewhere between 5 and 12 days would be optimal.

Cost:  Easter Island is expensive!  

  • CLP30,000 national park entrance fee.  This is valid for 5 days and allows you one entrance to Raro Raraku and Orongo, unlimited visits to other sites.  Easiest to pay this at the airport when you get off the plane.
  • LATAM airlines has the only flights to Easter Island so they can charge what they like.   If you are on a OneWorld around-the-world ticket – add it in as one of your legs 🙂
  • Camping Mihinoa was a great budget option!   They also have dorm rooms and private rooms if you don’t want to camp.
  • LATAM allows you to take two bags to Easter Island, so another way to cut costs is to take a box of food with you from Santiago (assuming you have a place to cook).
  • There are lots of places to hire scooters, motobikes, ATVs and cars.  Shop around as prices vary.
  • I loved my experience on the e-Bike, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like they are still in business as I can’t find their website anymore!!  You can still hire a regular bike, it will just need a little more exertion from you to get around the island.