Peru 2018: Vinicunca (Rainbow mountain)

Day 8:

This was another spontaneous decision I made while in Cusco. I had no idea how tough a hike it was mostly due to the high elevation. As before, make sure to bring enough water, food, and sunscreen for a 4 hour hike.

The tour starts at 4:30 am as with most Cusco tours I’ve been on. After a long 3 hour drive toward the Ausangate mountain area, you are fed some breakfast and Coca tea. It is a really scenic drive during the last hour as you ascend and circle the mountains to the trail head. Horses, Alpacas, and Llamas everywhere.

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Once at the trail head, you are already standing at 14,189 ft (4,326 m). The total distance from the trail head to Rainbow mountain peak is more than 5 kilometers and the final elevation is 17,060 ft (5,200 m). The difficulty is similar to the 2nd day of the Salkantay trek. At this altitude, every step becomes a struggle as your lungs receive less oxygen then you’re used to and your heart rate is constantly fast. Here we go again.

The locals run an interesting business here. They are very comfortable at this altitude and can run around effortlessly while us tourists are taking a step every 2 seconds. They pass by with their horses hoping you’ll give up and pay them to take you to the top on a horse.

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One by one, people fall like flies and end up on a horse. I must’ve been asked over 10 times on my way up. There were a few times when I thought that I couldn’t get to the top and considered the horse option, but I’m too stubborn.

Halfway up, I became dizzy from altitude and had to just stop. At that point, I ate a bar and drank water, Tylenol helped I think. Remember to keep drinking water. I thought to myself, I’m not sure if I can make it, but I have to try. Just breathe, one step at a time, no pain. The hike seemed like a big blur as Ausangate mountain looks down upon us like ants. Eventually, you reach a point where you can see people on top of Rainbow mountain. But at my sluggish rate, it’s an another hour away. Imagine walking slowly (one step every 2 seconds) toward something that is an hour away. Imagine the struggle, dedication, and patience.

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The highlight of everyone’s day is finally standing on Rainbow mountain. YES!

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As with all mountains, make sure to have reserve energy for the descent.

This concludes my 8-day Peru adventure. The high altitude makes the hiking trails twice as tough but the landscape is amazing and worth the effort.

Peru has it all: scenic cities and towns, deserts, beaches, nature, jungles, Andes mountains, glaciers and lagoons, endless hiking trails, good food, nightlife, and llamas. I hope my posts inspire you to travel to Peru and experience it for yourself.

Peru 2018: CuatriMoto and Maras Salt Mines

Day 7:

After days of nonstop hiking and waking up early, it was time to have a change of pace. I finally had a full night sleep and could actually eat breakfast at the hotel. I had nothing planned for the day so I just took a quick stroll through Cusco. After 10 minutes, I wandered into a tourist company with a short list of all the last-minute activities you can reserve. I spontaneously decided to sign up for the Quasi motos. This was such a great choice.

It’s a 4-5 hour tour that starts around 1pm at Cusco center. The tour van picks you up and drives an hour into the country side. Everybody gets out of the van and onto one of the motos. Then you put on your helmet, receive a brief tutorial, and go for a test run up and down the road.

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Afterwards, we drove to a lagoon.

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We had a lot of driving time. We then drove through farmlands which seemed like Tuscany scenery. The drove through small towns avoiding dogs and other animals in the roads. Even driving through an after school crowd of Peruvian kids. All these obstacles, don’t they know it’s my first time. Eventually, you arrive at a scenic area and its photo time.

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Back on the motos, we all head to the Maras salt mines. Pictures don’t quite show how large and impressive this was.

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Guess what, back on the motos for one last drive to the van as the sun sets. This tour is a must-do and it only costs $50.

Peru 2018: Machu Picchu

Day 6:

Machu Picchu; the sacred place of Peru where 5,000 people visit per day. No visit to Peru is complete without Machu Picchu. It’s probably the most important archaeological site in Latin America, built in the 1400s.

If you’re in Cusco like I was, then your Machu Picchu day tour will start at 3:30am. The most important thing to bring is your passport; you cannot enter Machu Picchu without it. It is about a 2 hour drive to Ollantaytambo train station. The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes town is quite scenic beside the Urubamba river surrounded by the mountains. If you’re not half asleep, look outside your window (on the left side where the river is).

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This train ride is also about 2 hours. Then after all that, you’re finally at the last stop; Aguas Calientes town.

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From here, follow the crowd to the buses which transport you to uphill to the Machu Picchu entrance. A lot of transportation right. This is the bus ride that will give you you’re first glimpse of Machu Picchu. That image that you’ve seen in all the photos. Boom, you’re actually going to stand there with llamas. But, not without effort, there are big stone steps everywhere. Be prepared to climb stairs, lots of big stairs. Machu Picchu is bigger than I thought it would be. And also, it is a perfect place for photos with all the green hills in the background.

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The ruins themselves are really nice too.

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And let’s not forget the llamas.

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If you were one of the lucky ones to book months in advance, then you can go to the top of Huaynapichu; the small mountain in the background of the typical Machu Picchu photos. Only 400 people are allowed per day. As an alternative, you can climb the much higher Machu Pichu mountain. If you’re looking for the Huaynapichu description, then this post isn’t for you. I tried to reserve it, but 2 months in advance was still not good enough. So after my walk around the ruins, I proceeded to summit Machu Picchu mountain. Its pretty much the monster moutain when you turn your body 180 degrees from Huaynapichu.

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My legs never get a break. I took my time going up the endless stone steps to the top; about an hour or so. There are several viewpoints along the way. Make sure to bring enough water since it gets really hot.

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Once you’re at the top, you’re so high that the ruins look like a spec within the vast green hilly landscape.

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Descending this mountain is tough because the steps are really steep. Just take it easy on your knees.

Once you’re ready to go, keep in mind that 1000s of people will be taking the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. Get ready to wait in line for at least 30 minutes. Before you leave, make sure to put that Machu Picchu stamp on your passport right at the entrance/exit. You’ll be hungry after all those steps in the sun and Aguas Calientes has enough restaurants to serve 1000s. I walked for a few minutes until I saw the word ‘buffet’, and that is where I stuffed my face. As before, its 4 hours to Cusco. Enjoy the scenic train ride back and eat dinner a good dinner at Cusco.

Peru 2018: Salkantay trek part 2

Day 5:

We all had to be awake at 5am for breakfast. Coca tea was definitely being served for the altitude. Honestly, I didn’t sleep well since my breathing kept waking me up (the high altitude). Also, it gets really cold in the domes. My un-rested body is going to get wrecked today, bring it on.

There is an option to ascend by riding a horse. The thought crossed my mind and many people do. But I ended up choosing to just hike it. The hike can be divided into 3 sections, like an hour for each section. The first section is mostly a 30 degree uphill march similar to the Humantay Laguna trail. The endpoint is called Salkantaypampa; 13,451 ft (4,100 m). I was tired since the beginning. But no excuses.

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The second section is called the Siete Culebras; the 7 snake switchbacks. Basically, the trail becomes so steep that you must ‘snake’ your way up. This was just killer. My steps felt like I mountaineer 10 minutes from summiting Everest; slow and with much effort (didn’t need an oxygen mask or anything). I’m starting to regret not getting on that horse. The endpoint is called Soirococha; 14,436 ft (4,400 m). This is about the same elevation as Mt Rainier. I’ve never been higher than that before, and Mt Rainier was the toughest thing I’ve done physically.

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The third section is the last section. Salkantay mountain is front of you the entire time. Salkantay is looking down at me and telling me not to give up. One step at a time. No pain no excuses. The peak of the trail is at 15,190 ft (4,630 m). Just when you think it’s over, you make a left turn and see more uphill. This altitude had me wobbling like a drunken zombie. Everything hurts. I didn’t get this far to stop now. C’mon. Push. The mantra in my head repeats, force power strength rage! I can’t believe I made it. Celebration time!

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While the rest of the group descended to the jungle for another 2 days in the jungle toward Machu Picchu, I turned back to base camp and then Cusco. But first, since I had the whole area to myself, photo time!

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And then the long descent back to base camp. Look what happened to my hand from being exposed for just a few hours without sunscreen.

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Machu Picchu is tomorrow!

Peru 2018: Humantay Laguna

Day 4: Humantay laguna

I reserved a 2-day tour with Salkantaytrekking (great tour company in Cusco). Traditionally, the Salkantay trek is a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu just like the 4 day Inca trail and 4 day Jungle trek. However, I’m not a much of a jungle guy so I decided to only do the ascent portion (2 days) of the Salkantay trek. My visit to Machu Picchu by train would be on the 3rd day instead of a 4th day; saves me a day while avoiding the hike in a hot jungle with bugs.

The tour started early around 4:00am. It is a 2 hour drive to the trailhead. After breakfast, we started the hike at Challacancha; 11,500 ft (3,600 m). The two major mountains in the area are Humantay and Salkantay. These 2 monsters were in the distance throughout our hike to base camp. The morning hike had great views and it started to seem more like walking in the Himilayas rather than Peru.

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Base camp is called Soraypampa; 12,861 ft (4,100 m). The altitude at this base camp is already as high as Mt Fuji. The most important thing is to apply the sunscreen. Any part of you that is exposed will get burnt.

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Once at base camp, we each claimed a dome. These domes are really cool and so much better than a tent; spacious and no noise when its windy. During the day, the domes are covered to avoid heat getting trapped and then uncovered at night for star-gazing.

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Other than the views, I was most impressed with the kitchen setup. There was more than enough food to feed the 50+ people at base camp. This was the first course out of 5 for a table of 10.

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We then proceeded to hike to the Humantay Laguna; 13,779 (4,200 m). It’s just one relentless 30 degree uphill march. This is when the altitude really started to affect my performance. I was tired within the first few minutes and every step required effort. For the entire hike, my heart beat was really fast as if I was sprinting. I only have one photo of the trail in the beginning and you can zoom in to get a sense of the distance. It doesn’t seem like much but trust me, it isn’t a walk in the park.

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Well, as with almost all hikes/trails, you are rewarded in the end. Behold, the Humantay laguna.

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The sun started to go down as we descended back to base camp. The weather drops like 5 degrees per hour. At night, the temperature is below freezing, even inside the domes, so keep that in mind when packing clothes. Back at base camp, dinner was even more impressive than lunch; amazing. After dinner, you can look up at the stars as you get warm in your dome.

Tomorrow will be a really tough hike to the peak of the Salkantay trail, so it’s time to get some rest.

Peru 2018: Cusco city

Day 3:
A one hour or so flight from Lima to Cusco. This may have been one of the most scenic flights I’ve been on. The landscape is made up of the Andes mountains surrounded by large green/brown hills and valleys. Cusco is larger than I thought.

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As soon as I started walking around in Cusco, I noticed something different. I had to breathe deeper every now and then, and it was more exhausting than usual just to walk uphill or up stairs. Well, it’s because of the 11,152 ft (3,399 m) altitude. I’m a sea level person and I became really sluggish with a slight headache. One popular remedy is the infamous Coca leaf tea offered everywhere in Cusco to alleviate the high altitude sickness.

Cusco is a nice touristy mountain city with hills, restaurants, souvenir shops (I had to purchase that Peruvian style winter hat), and stray dogs everywhere. The dogs bark at each other all night, bring earplugs.

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The streets can get really narrow. I’ve witnessed many times where cars try to fit themselves in but end up scraping the car mirrors on windows. Every now and then, you have to hug a wall as the cars drive by.

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To test myself at this altitude, I decided to ascend to the Cristo Blanco viewpoin (in the upper left corner on top of the hill).

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The 15 minute staircase was tough. Oh yea, the altitude. Anyway, you are rewarded with the Google Map view of Cusco city.

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From the Cristo Blanco, there is a clear path to the city center; Plaza de Armas.

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Every night feels like Saturday night in Cusco. I’ve heard that eating Guinea pig (Cuy) in Cusco is a thing. So I tried one out. Not quite like chicken and not much meat. It was ok, I’ll stick with chicken.

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Peru 2018: Paracas and Huacachina

Whenever Peru comes to mind, one usually thinks about Machu Picchu. After some research, I learned that there is much more to Peru than that. In the next few posts I present my non-stop 8-day Peru itinerary. My major regret is not including any rest days.

Day 0: Lima
The plan was to fly from NYC to Lima and arrive at 4pm but my flight was cancelled and I had to quickly find another flight. The best I could find was a flight that arrives at Lima at 11pm. Due to these circumstances, my few hours of walking and exploring Lima never happened. My hotel was in Miraflores; a scenic part of the city by the coast.

Day 1: Paracas and Huacachina
Before getting on the PeruHop bus (great tour company for getting around the major areas of Peru and Bolivia), I took some photos of the Miraflores skyline from the 10th floor of my hotel on a very cloudy day.

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With just 5 hours of sleep, my adventure starts with a bus ride from Lima to Paracas; about 4 hour drive. Just by observing for 20 minutes, the driving situation in Lima is out of control; nobody signals to turn or switch lanes. While driving south and looking out the window, there were either small towns or nothing at all to see during the entire bus ride. Not the most scenic drive so it’s better to just sleep. After the long drive, you arrive at Paracas (the poor man’s Galapagos); a town by the Pacific coast.

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A 2 hour boat tour of the Ballestas Islands was included in the PeruHop tour. The Ballestas is like a smaller version of the Galapagos, where you can see sea lions (lazy creatures, just sleeping all day), penguins, and 10,000’s of birds all in their natural habitat.

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After the boat tour, there was some time to eat lunch before heading back to the bus. Next stop, Huacachina desert oasis.

After an hour drive further south, the landscape starts to look ‘deserted’. You then come across a patch of green and a lake in the middle of the desert. This place is like nowhere I’ve seen. Make sure to apply that sunscreen. Even though you could walk around the entire oasis town in 10 or so minutes, I could’ve stayed here for days. As soon as I checked in the hostel, I had to take a walk around and couldn’t resist walking up a sand dune for a view (more dune summits tomorrow).

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It was then time for the highlight which happens daily here in Huacachina from 4pm-6pm (sunset); Dune Buggys and Sandboarding. This is why you come to Huacachina.

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At first you body board, but if you have the nerve and not afraid to fail, stand up and stand on the board…

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After boarding the biggest dunes of South America, it’s time to relax and enjoy the sunset.

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Finally, there is the high speed buggy ride back to the oasis at dusk; really fun.

The temperature drops a lot when the sun goes down so bring your jacket. There are plenty of restaurants to dine at. I particularly liked this place called Huacafuckingchina; really good ceviche. Did I mention Huacachina’s nightlife? Good luck going to sleep before 1am in your hostel. I hear drunken dune climbing at night is a thing too.

Day 2:
Before breakfast, I decided to revisit the biggest sand dune behind my hotel. It wasn’t as glorious since it was a very foggy morning. I did come across a bamboo stick which I became very attached to. I stashed the bamboo stick in a hiding place for when the sun comes out later.

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Breakfast at Bananas Adventure hotel was great. The PeruHop tour included a visit to the Pisco Vineyard. Pisco is Peru’s national drink, made from the grape to the bottle. Interesting story of how their Pisco was based on a wine mishap and can only be made in this region.

After the tour, there was a few hours left before leaving this place. After lunch (at bananas again) the options are the bar, laguna, or the dunes. You already know which one I chose.

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I grabbed my bamboo stick from my hiding place and proceeded to climb the 2 highest dunes on both sides of the oasis. A warning about dune climbing: your socks and shoes will eventually be full of sand so you’ll have to dump sand out every 10 minutes. Also, it can get frustrating when you ascend and the sand pulls you right back down; kick the sand to make steps. This is the view from the left dune summit.

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And the view from the right dune summit.

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It may take 30 minutes or so to get to the top but only 2 minutes to ‘sink step’ down. Or you could sandboard down if you carried your sandboard the entire time. Check out my footsteps from the top to the road.

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With one last meal at Huacafuckingchina, it was time to say goodbye and drive back to Lima. I was sad to leave the Huacachina oasis. No complaints.

Iceland – winter 2018

Just a few days in Iceland during winter with the hope to see the Aurora Borealis. When I last traveled to Iceland back in 2014, it was late June so there was midnight sun. But since its winter, I can finally experience the night and look up at a starry night sky and possibly some northern lights. We took the overnight flight from JFK to KEF airport. Couldn’t sleep on the plane so we slept for 4-5 hours at the hotel.

Day 1:
We woke up at 3pm and just walked around Reykjavik city for a while. During the day, the city’s weather feels similar to a NYC winter. However, the weather can change suddenly and hit you with windy rain/snow so bring your waterproof gear (umbrellas don’t work here) .

Of course there is the Hallgrimskirkja church and Laugavegur street (many shops) with Mt Esja in the background on a clear day. Restaurant Reykjavik is the only seafood buffet I know of so it had to be done. If you love seafood and skyr, then this country is for you. The food prices in general are high even for a New Yorker so brace yourself and your credit card.

So we booked a northern lights night tour like almost every tourist seems to do during winter. It turned out to be a cloudy and occasionally rainy night; not ideal conditions. However, all the tour buses seemed to have an idea of where there was some activity in the sky and we all headed there. After an hour, we all got out and looked up at the sky for an hour and a half in the cold. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. Even though I saw something that looked more like a moving cloud in the dark, the professional cameras were able to capture the green color with the right settings. So I suppose the aurora was above us even though it wasn’t as bright as we all hoped that night. At least the night tour was not cancelled. That happens on some nights when the weather is bad.

We got home a little after 1am. Just enough time to shower, pack, and get a few more hours of sleep for a 2 day south Iceland tour.

Day 2:
We met our tour guide and our travel companions early in the morning. We drove along the south coast of the country all the way to Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon while making several sightseeing stops in between. Unlike December with very few hours of daylight, February has 9-ish hours of daylight and I believe you can cover a lot in the South within that time.

Before reaching the southernmost town called Vik and before the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajokull, the first major stop is a waterfall called Seljalandsfoss. In the summer you can walk behind the waterfall but it is too dangerous in the winter. But still, it is nice to walk around and explore.

Then we stopped at the Eyjafjallajokull sightseeing spot. This is the monster that erupted in 2010 and stopped many flights for 2 weeks or so due to all of the ash in the air.

Not too far away is everyone’s favorite waterfall, Skogafoss. Winter, summer, always impressive.

Vik town was next and typically used as a lunch spot. Not too far from Vik is Reynisfjara black sand beach. The black sand beach doesn’t change much across the seasons. It’s always fun to climb the basalt columns, check out the giant cave, spell out your name in the sand, collect rocks, or just take a stroll along the coast without getting caught by the waves.

 

Afterwards, we proceeded along the coast having Vatnajokull glacier to our right. The largest glacier in Europe is quite massive. Right before Skaftafell is the Gigjukvisl bridge memorial. This bridge was washed away by glacial floods following an eruption of Vatnjokull glacier in 1996.
Hardly anyone around for miles.

We drove passed Skaftafell national park and headed to Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. If I return to Iceland, I would definitely allocate several days to explore the Skaftafell area. So anyway, the glacier lagoon during sunset is a wonderful sight.

On the other side of the bridge is Diamond beach. Some of the ice chunks that break off the glacier and float to sea can get pushed back onto the shore; ice diamonds. Pretty cool.

Our hotel was not too far from the glacier lagoon. After a tasty lamb/fish dinner, some of us waited outside for hours looking up at the night sky in the freezing cold. The conditions were ideal but unfortunately there was no aurora activity that night. And even worse news, a big storm was forecasted to hit Iceland during the following day. So many tours were cancelled, even some roads were closed off temporarily. The weather in Iceland does not play around. Our ice cave tour was also cancelled and we were looking forward to that. See some YouTube vids of the ice cave and you’ll agree that it’s impressive. Well, maybe next time.

Day 3:
The following day was pretty much a long drive back to Reykjavik through the storm waiting for roads to open back up. I wish I had more to share but the weather was actually that bad. Cars were slipping off the road and some of us didn’t even want to get out of the tour bus once we heard the wind and rain. It’s the third windiest country in the world, and I can see why. We at least got to stop by Dyrholaey which is very close to Reynisfjara black sand beach. Dyrholaey looks unique to any beach I’ve seen.

Once back at Reykjavik, we headed to the Resto restaurant. This was a good way to end a blah day, the ling and char were the best.

Day 4:
Before leaving Iceland, we had one more opportunity for a meal and headed to Saegreifinn to eat the best lobster soup and skewered fish. Then we just hopped on the Flybus airport shuttle back to the airport.

I would totally go back to Iceland, but in the summer. Winter tours are very sensitive to the weather conditions so it’s a roll of the dice for seeing the northern lights and other tours like ice caves. But if you’re feeling lucky, go for it!

 

Patagonia: Day 6 (final)

One week wasn’t enough. But if it is going to be my last day exploring these Patagonian lands, let’s go out; with a bang. So yesterday’s theme was the Perito Moreno glacier; the main attraction in Calafate. I dunno, when I was looking at it, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool if I had my lunch while sitting ON it. Well, let’s go.

After a drive back from Calafate to the glacier park and a short boat ride across the glacier lake, you arrive at the trail head for the … glacier walk. It’s about an hour until you reach the start of the ice but just check out the lunar surface to your right. Its like the pause button was pressed on a piece of ocean during a storm.

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Once you get close enough, the tour guides give a small tutorial and provide crampons. Ah, how I enjoy crunching the ice with my spikes. Welcome to the moon.

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My team had a whopping 3 hours on the glacier. We marched while avoiding small crevasses toward somewhere toward the center. The cracks in the ice are so juicy blue.

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Once we arrived at our lunch spot, I was surprised at where it was. I would’ve never guessed that there are small lagoons and lakes on the glacier. And the water is the super blue. This is perhaps one of my most scenic lunches ever.

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Ok, now its photo fun time.

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Yea, that’s me digesting my lunch, upside down hehe. There is still one more area to explore before heading back. The group marches toward a slightly higher peak toward the center to get a 360 panorama of the glacier and surrounding mountains. And Chile is just beyond those mountains there.

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So on the return trip, it’s never usually the same way since the glacier is always moving and there are no trails at all. Well, it only moves 2 meters per day but still, the guides make the trail based on their expertise. Every now and then, I noticed these networks of water flowing through the glacier like rivers on land.

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And then we all had to stop for this ice formation.

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Before you know it, you are back at the starting point where you first put on the crampons. You take them off and proceed the long journey back the to the trailhead through the area right off the glacier. Did I mention that there are some waterfalls on the way.

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I think it was a good way to spend my final day in Calafate and Patagonia. Well, it’s not officially over until you have the farewell dinner and feast like kings and queens with some steak. We dined at Esquina Varela and the food is very good. I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel with such a cool group of people. They were my family for a week and I hope to see them again on future travels. Be sure to check out the quality photos from one of our Patagonian companions: https://www.flickr.com/photos/martin-gt/sets/72157662800179278/

Well, that’s all folks. There is obviously so much more to explore in Patagonia. You can continue your journey into Chile and do the popular 4 day W-trek around Torres del Paine. You can do more trails in Chalten. You can go even further south to Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Falkland islands, or even Antarctica. The world is your playground, so get out there and explore it!

Patagonia: Day 4 and 5

We left our bags at the hotel to go rafting down the Rio de Vueltas. The rafting guides briefs us and then we put on our spacesuits; wetsuit and another outer layer.

 

It was a short drive to the rafting start point.

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The rapids are level 2 and 3 so it’s nothing scary. But still, you can fall off if taken by surprise. Once you survive the rapids, you celebrate with your comrades with a group photo.

After the rafting, we got our bags and headed back to Calafate to check in to our hotel. Calafate is bigger than Chalten with more hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops. We dined at La Zaina for dinner. It was perhaps the best lamb I ever had.

Perito Moreno glacier is about an hour drive from Calafate. The glacier is 3 miles wide and looks like a giant ice wall from the front (Game of Thrones?). This glacier is stable; nots not receding or growing. Once you reach the National park, you can go on the boat ride which takes you close to the glacier. It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll see pieces crack and fall off within your time here. It’s a lot bluer than other glaciers that I’ve seen.

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In addition to the boat, there are platform paths nearby to get different viewpoints of the glacier.

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There is a beach nearby where you can eat lunch by the icebergs.

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This is a highlight to any trip to Calafate. There are other activities to do in Calafate such as kayaking, hiking, biking, horseback riding, glacier walks, etc. Guess which one I chose for the following day.