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São Tomé and Príncipe, where nature has the upper hand

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The immense wall of crumbling, whitewashed stone might have belonged to an abandoned castle. Turrets lined a roof that was no longer there and watchtowers poked the sky at each corner. This had been the province of horses, though, not kings, servicing a Portuguese cocoa plantation on the tiny island of Príncipe. All that remained inside the stone stables was rain forest overgrowth in shades of green and purple.

“This,” said my host, Claudio Torres, “is the place where you can finally confirm that nature wins.”

The former horse stable at the Roca Sundy hotel, on the island of Principe, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 18. Owner Mark Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel, on the site of a former plantation, as a kind of living museum.
The former horse stable at the Roca Sundy hotel, on the island of Principe, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 18. Owner Mark Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel, on the site of a former plantation, as a kind of living museum.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Looking at a map of the dual-island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, Africa’s second-smallest country — some 225 kilometres off the coast of Gabon, right on the equator — cannot prepare you for the otherworldly feeling you get when stepping off a plane there. Even before you land, it is difficult to imagine that those two dots of dense, tropical forest in the expanse of blue below are an entire nation.

São Tomé, the larger of the two islands, has an international airport and a Portuguese-speaking population of 200,000. Roosters wander past pink and turquoise facades threaded with wild foliage in the capital city (also called São Tomé). Drive 10 minutes and urbanity gives way to quiet fishing villages and banana groves.

It wasn’t until I got there that I realized I should have brought euros to either use or to convert to dobras — since, like many places in West and Central Africa, cash is king. Luckily, my lovely hotel, Omali Lodge, was one of the places that took credit cards. And when the banks opened after the weekend, I was able to exchange some British pounds.

Príncipe, an impossibly green island

My plan had been to stick to the main island, which is filled with enough lush rainforest, volcanic peaks and cocoa plantations to keep an intrepid tourist interested for days. But at the airport I met some workers for UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency in charge of improving human settlements, who had just returned from a project in Príncipe. One of the workers connected me with Torres, the ebullient Chilean running the project. Within a day, I was on a propeller plane to an impossibly green island with a population of around 8,000.

The only way to get to Príncipe is infrequent flights from São Tomé, or a 24-hour boat ride that locals advised me not to take. But, oh, does that effort come with rewards. UNESCO designated the entire island a biosphere reserve, and at times it feels uninhabited. The largest gathering of people I saw was at the airport watching the spectacle of our plane touching down.

Tourists, too, are relatively rare, coming from mainly Europe or elsewhere in Africa to stay at isolated eco-resorts with access to some of the world’s most pristine beaches, like the hilltop Roça Belo Monte, Bom Bom, the island’s oldest resort; or the new five-star luxury tent complex Sundy Praia, with an infinity pool right on the ocean.

I had chosen the least resort-y option, Roça Sundy, both because its lack of beach access made it more affordable and because it’s the location of the UN-Habitat project. A hotel driver picked me up for a half-hour SUV ride on a red-dirt road, past bright, elevated homes and children running to school in cream-and-navy uniforms.

Some of those children live in a community on the Roça Sundy property, just opposite the hotel entrance. When I arrived, adults were cooking breadfruit in a wood-fired, outdoor kitchen. Young men passed a soccer ball back and forth. Many others were gathered at a bench under a large tree. “It’s called banco ma’ língua,” Torres said, “which is where people go to gossip.”

I was learning many Portuguese words. A roça is a plantation. And senzalas, the small cluster of buildings where those cooks and athletes and gossipers live, were once slave quarters.

Slavery is inextricably linked to these islands. Portuguese colonialists began using São Tomé and Príncipe as slave outposts in the 15th century, bringing forced labour from African countries like Angola and Guinea there to be sent to Brazil and the West. Many captives were kept on the islands to work the fertile volcanic soil, eventually leading São Tomé and Príncipe to become the biggest cocoa producer in the world — with labour exploitation continuing long after the official abolition of slavery. Before the islands achieved independence in 1975, almost all of the land had been divided into roças.

A street view in the city of São Tomé, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 17.
A street view in the city of São Tomé, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 17.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Roça Sundy, the hotel, just opened last year. It is a project of the South African tech entrepreneur (and second tourist in space) Mark Shuttleworth. Before his HBD (Here Be Dragons) venture capital firm swooped in, it was on the verge of being acquired by a palm oil company — a business that has led to the destruction of rainforests in São Tomé. Príncipe’s citizens were so against the idea, said Torres, they went to their capital city to protest.

“Príncipe’s government has taken another path,” said Torres. “They want to preserve the island.”

Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel as a kind of living museum. He’s preserved the plantation house’s facade and its original grand wooden staircase and ornate ceilings. Outside, a plaque commemorates the spot where astronomer Arthur Eddington came during a solar eclipse in May 1919 and took photographs that were the first experimental test to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.

I certainly felt conflicted staying in a former plantation house, not just as an American whose country is still reckoning with its own history of slavery, but also as a tourist who is constantly assessing the privilege of being able to travel to a place as beautiful as this. By supporting their economy and telling their stories, could I, in a very small way, help those who live here move forward?

When Príncipe’s economy collapsed after independence, its people adapted to living off the land — but that doesn’t mean they have adequate living conditions. Families of four are crammed into one-room senzalas. Most children have respiratory issues because the unelevated senzalas are filled with mould from Príncipe’s frequent rains. By request of the regional government, and with funding from HBD, U.N.-Habitat has proposed a voluntary resettlement project, with new, sustainable housing that has basic amenities. All but three of 136 households have signed on. In an effort to cater to individual needs and to give the town some character, each household has chosen its future dwelling from four designs.

As I wandered through the senzalas with Torres and Danilson Gomes, a young manfrom the community who serves as a liaison, we got a warm welcome. One woman in her 70s grabbed my hand and held it as we walked around. Others, who were introduced to me as community leaders, invited us into their homes. There is some concern that the resettlement is a way of clearing up the senzalas to accommodate expansion of the hotel. But Dani, our young guide, told me that he and his family are excited about the move. He will be leaving the island for the first time to attend a university in Portugal, but plans to come back, he said, “to help my country and help my people.”

Back to São Tomé

I thought a lot about the spirit of community here on my last day back in São Tomé. I had hired a local guide, Juliano Pina, to take me to the beaches and villages on the southern end of the island. On the way back, our SUV got hopelessly stuck in mud, three hours before my flight. A man named Ricardo who had been fishing nearby, came over and began gathering palm fronds and rocks to help with traction. More friends from his village joined in, as did another guide taking a tourist to the beach, until we had a team of nine or 10, many of them children, pushing with all their might. The car broke free. I handed out the last of my dobras, and made my flight with time to spare.

This, Juliano said, was the São Tomé way: Leave no one behind. I like to think of it as a moment when nature could have won, but chose to give us a break.



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Travel & Escape

6 Places To Visit In Italy That Aren’t Rome

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Rome is often touted as the place to go in Italy, which is well-deserved thanks to its rich history and mouthwatering food. But there are several other spots throughout the country that give travelers a look at Italy’s dynamic culture.

To gear up for 2019, several travel-focused sites rounded up the best places to go for the year, and quite a few Italian spots that weren’t the typical locations of Rome, Venice and Florence made the cut.

Below, check out the cities and regions they recommended that are a bit under the radar for the average traveler.

Matera

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The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The European Commission named Matera this year’s European Capital of Culture (alongside Plovdiv in Bulgaria). The city also earned a spot on multiple 2019 travel lists, including Travel and Leisure’s “50 Best Places to Travel in 2019,” National Geographic’s “Best Trips 2019” and Architectural Digest’s “Top 20 Places to Travel in 2019.” It’s home to the Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches, a system of cave structures UNESCO collectively named a World Heritage site in 1993.

Ischia

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Ischia is a volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples. 

Ischia, a volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples, is one of 50 places on Travel and Leisure’s “50 Best Places to Travel in 2019” list. Its stunning beaches attract many tourists looking for a day in the sun, while the Aragonese Castle brings sightseers and history buffs. But if you’re looking for a real view, Mount Epomeo offers a look from the highest peak on the island.

Piedmont

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Italy’s region of Piedmont, which features the Mole Antonelliana landmark building in Turin, ranked at the very top of Lonely Planet’s “Top Regions” list this year.

Lonely Planet’s team named Piedmont 2019′s No. 1 region to visit. Bordering France and Switzerland, it boasts several ski resorts and gorgeous views of the Alps. Turin, the region’s capital, is home to the National Automobile Museum as well as the former Lingotto Fiat factory, which featured a test track on the roof. Ivrea also has a massive food fight every year, if that’s more your thing.

Puglia

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Lecce, a city in Italy’s Puglia region, has been called the country’s “Florence of the South.”

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot formation, made Fodor’s “Go List 2019” as well as The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2019.” The region features Alberobello’s limestone homes known as “trulli,” one of several locations in Italy that have earned a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Last year, GQ described Puglia as “Italy’s most overlooked food destination.” It also offers several gorgeous beaches as well as the Baroque city of Lecce, a popular tourist destination in the region.

Emilia-Romagna

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Emilia-Romagna is an Italian region that houses Bologna, which Vogue called the spot for the “ultimate Italian foodie tour.”

The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy made The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go” list for 2018, and this year, a few of its cities made an appearance on 2019 travel recommendations from Mic and Forbes. Italy as a whole is arguably one of the best countries for food lovers, and this region in particular ― with its signature prosciutto di Parma and tagliatelle Bolognese ― definitely makes the case. Lonely Planet called it the country’s “gastronomic paradise,” and Vogue described Bologna, the region’s capital, as the spot for the “ultimate Italian foodie tour.”

Palermo

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Piazza Pretoria in Palermo features a gorgeous fountain and several statues.

The capital of Sicily, Palermo made Condé Nast Traveler’s list of “The 19 Best Places to Go in 2019.” The Cathedral of Palermo, which features royal tombs, is often a pull for tourists visiting Sicily, as are the Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel. For more of a local look, travelers can head to the Ballarò Street Market. And if you’re looking for an envy-inducing view, Mount Pellegrino offers a photo-worthy look over the city.

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15 State Parks You Can Visit During The Government Shutdown

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It’s day 25 of the partial government shutdown ― the longest in U.S. history. The shutdown has affected the U.S. travel industry in many ways, from TSA checkpoint closures to vandalism in national parks.

Unfortunately, a large number of national parks have been forced to close during the shutdown. But if you’re a fan of the great outdoors, you can turn to the many state-run options. With this in mind, the travel site Atlas Obscura put together a list of “wondrous state parks,” drawn from its user-generated database of destinations.

“The news is inundated with how our national parks are being affected by the partial government shutdown, and this inspired us to look at what our users have submitted for state parks across the country and encourage our audience to explore those instead,” assistant places editor Kerry Wolfe told HuffPost.

“State parks are particularly great because of their hidden historical aspects, proximity to home (no extensive travel needed!), and they’re often filled with unexpected flora and fauna and intriguing natural environments,” Wolfe added. “For example, New York’s Green Lakes State Park contains meromictic lakes, which are rare geologic features only found in a few places across the United States.”

Without further ado, here’s a sample of 15 beautiful state parks you can visit during the government shutdown, with descriptions from Atlas Obscura. Check out Atlas Obscura’s list of 70 parks for more.

ʻAkaka Falls State Park, Hawaii (Big Island)

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“These picturesque Hawaiian falls are home to a rare species of fish that uses a special sucker to climb up cliffs.”

Medicine Rocks State Park, Montana

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“This beautiful ancient site dotted with unusual perforated sandstone pillars was considered sacred by American Indian tribes.”

Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, Nevada

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“These huge stone ovens in the desert fueled the Nevada silver boom, and may have also been a hideout for outlaws.”

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

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“This Big Sur waterfall drops 80 feet directly into the Pacific Ocean, and inspired the hillside house up top.”

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Florida

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“Located within a historic park, the [Cape Florida Lighthouse] is the oldest standing structure in Miami.”

Caddo Lake State Park, Texas

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“Foragers once flocked to this big beautiful bayou to hunt for pearls.”

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

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“Even Henry David Thoreau found this glacial pothole [The Basin] irresistible.”

Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

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“This quiet park’s strange sedimentary spires were named after Kodak’s color film.”

Natural Bridge State Park, Virginia

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“A sacred site for Native Americans surveyed by George Washington and owned by both King George III and Thomas Jefferson.”

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Minnesota

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“This picturesque cliffside beacon no longer calls to sailors but shines once a year in honor of a famous shipwreck.”

Totem Bight State Historical Park, Alaska

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“This historic collection of Native Alaskan artifacts was resurrected through a partnership between the WPA and tribal artisans.”

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Kentucky

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“Moonbows over Kentucky.”

Providence Canyon State Outdoor Recreation Area, Georgia

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“Providence Canyon, affectionately known as ‘Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon,’ is one of Georgia’s most treasured locations.”

Ecola State Park, Oregon

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“Hidden behind two regal viewing points, Crescent Beach offers a private, misty retreat into prehistory in the heart of Oregon’s bustling Ecola State Park.”

Baxter State Park, Maine

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“The highest point in Maine is a grand gift to the state’s citizens that also happens to be one end of the Appalachian Trail.”

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In Chilean Patagonia, following a track to the end of the world

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The hiking trail leading to the Moradadel Diablo volcano (the Devil’s Dwelling) crossed a field of blackened lava, congealed during the last ice age. Black lizards covered with white speckles, known as lagartijas Magallanicas, skittered across the ground, and the desiccated corpse of a guanaco, a wild grazer related to the llama, baked beneath the sun. A puma had probably killed it, my Chilean companion, Alvaro Soto, said.

I picked my way across the crust, pocked by holes just large enough to twist an ankle. After a mile, we climbed over a heap of rocks that slid beneath our feet and emerged at the summit of the crater.

A volcano field at the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
A volcano field at the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA / The New York Times)

Soto and I gazed across the maw at a scene of otherworldly bleakness: A curving wall, tinted green, splattered with bird feces, or whitewash, and riven with crevices, formed the volcano’s lip. Steep slopes of scree and soil laden with red-tinted hematite fell away into the abyss. The cries of buff-necked ibises, large rodent eaters with cream-and-russet throats and curving grey bills, echoed off the canyon. A peregrine falcon rose, plummeted into the crater, circled back up and disappeared inside a crevice.

We were deep inside Pali Aike National Park, one of the least visited yet most dramatic reserves in Chile, 175 kilometres north of Punta Arenas. The Tehuelche hunter-gatherers who once dwelled here called this moonscape both “the place of desolation” and “the devil’s country” and believed that evil spirits possessed it. It’s not hard to see why. The area is studded with volcanoes, formed during the Jurassic era 100 million years ago, by the collision of the Chile Rise and the Peru-Chile oceanic trench.

Three eruptions — the first taking place 3.8 million years ago, the most recent 15,000 years ago — covered the steppe with spills of black lava and pillars, columns and parapets of basalt, which glow yellow, red and greenish-gray in the harsh desert sunlight. Half a dozen craters and collapsed cones loom over the terrain like broken teeth.

An obscure stop on the route of parks

Despite the bleakness, this 31-square-mile reserve, established by the Chilean government in 1970, teems with wildlife: hares, tuco-tucos (molelike rodents), skunks, armadillos, grey foxes, pumas, guanacos, lizards and dozens of species of birds unique to Patagonia. Chilean flamingos, splashes of pink and orange in a charred landscape, gather in the park’s soda lakes. Buff-necked ibises build nests high in trees or inside the extinct volcanoes, sharing the ledges with peregrines — a symbiotic relationship rare among birds of prey.

Pali Aike is among the most obscure attractions on Chile’s new Route of Parks, a 1,740-mile wilderness trail that was unveiled earlier this year. The route was the culmination of a yearlong process that began in April 2017, when Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of the North Face founder, Douglas Tompkins, donated to the Chilean government 1 million acres of Patagonian wilderness through Tompkins Conservation, the non-profit umbrella group of conservation initiatives that she co-founded and now leads. Out of that land, Chile carved two new reserves, Pumalín National Park Douglas Tompkins and Patagonia National Park Chile.

As part of the deal, the government set aside an additional 9 million acres to enhance the country’s national park network. A total of 17 national parks have now been linked by the Route of Parks, a hiking trail that winds past mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, forests and arid steppe, and roughly follows the Carretera Austral, the country’s storied Southern Highway (also known as Route 7) through Patagonia.

Travellers who want an unmitigated dose of Chile’s wilderness can now travel from Alerce Andino National Park, near the city of Puerto Montt, to Cabo de Hornos National Park at the southern tip of the country. The new route reflects the Chilean government’s growing commitment to preserving Patagonia’s pristine landscapes — and its unparalleled bird life.

Caiqu�n (also known as Magellan or Upland) geese in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
Caiqu�n (also known as Magellan or Upland) geese in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA)

The birds were mainly what I had come to see. While doing research on an ornithological-related book over the past 18 months, I’ve travelled around the world, exploring bird-rich countryside in Scotland, the Rhondda Valley of southern Wales, and MatoboNational Park in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe. None of those regions, however, compares with Patagonia, home not only to the pallid peregrine — a rare, white-breasted morph of the southern peregrine — but also to passerines, waders and carrion-eaters found only at the bottom of South America.

I made my forays from Punta Arenas, a windswept city of about 125,000 on the Strait of Magellan. Navigated by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, the strait remained one of only three options, along with the Drake Passage and Beagle Channel, to sail between the Atlantic and Pacific until the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

I stayed at the Hotel Plaza, a gaudy French neoclassical villa built by a family of cattle barons in the early 1920s, adjacent to the Plaza de Armas, otherwise known as the Plaza Muñoz Gamero, a leafy square in the city centre. There I met Soto, a young photographer, bird-watcher and son of the local representative of the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadera (Department of Agriculture and Livestock), the government agency responsible for protecting Chile’s wildlife. He had agreed to be my guide for the trip. We rented a pickup truck and set out on a chilly spring morning at the height of nesting season through the Patagonian Steppe on the two-lane highway known as La Ruta del Fin del Mundo (The Highway at the End of the World).

Lesser rheas, known locally as ñandús, grey flightless birds that resemble ostriches, scurried away from our pickup truck amid clouds of dust. (Charles Darwin heard about them during the Beagle expedition of 1831-36, and after searching fruitlessly for months, realized that he had been served one for a post-New Year’s Day meal; he preserved the head, legs and a wing for study and classification back in England.)

Guanacos, with brown coats and creamy white bellies, placidly munched the hardy yellow grass known as coirón. A few panic-stricken beasts leapt over the fences of cattle ranches along the road. “Some of them get snagged and can’t extricate themselves,” Soto said. They become easy prey for the pumas that prowl the pampas at dawn and dusk.

The less-traveled route

The caldera of the volcano Morada del Diablo, (the Devil's Dwelling) in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
The caldera of the volcano Morada del Diablo, (the Devil’s Dwelling) in the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA)

A fork in the road presented two options. One branch bore left toward Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine, a 700-square-mile expanse of glaciers, lakes and mountains, and one of the most popular parks in Patagonia. The less-traveled route, which we took, bore to the right in the direction of Pali Aike, and farther north, the Argentine town of Río Gallégos. The asphalt soon ran out, and a gravel track dipped and rose through bush-covered hills for about 24 kilometres. Then we arrived at a one-room ranger hut and a sign for the national park. I paid the gatekeeper 3,000 Chilean pesos (about $4.50), while Soto, as a Chilean citizen, paid nothing.

“You’re the first visitors in the park today,” the gatekeeper told us. It was 1 p.m. According to Chile’s National Forest Corp., which administers the park, Pali Aike received just 2,537 visitors in 2016, half of whom were foreigners. That works out to seven people a day.

“This isn’t a park for everybody,” the gatekeeper said, adding that many visitors have a particular interest in volcanic geology or the fauna of Patagonia. He said he had started working at Pali Aike only two weeks earlier, after spending most of his life as a gaucho in southern Patagonia. Now in his 60s, he had decided he wanted a more sedentary existence. He invited us inside the hut to share a mate — the caffeine-rich drink consumed everywhere on the pampas — and served it the traditional way, repeatedly pouring boiling water into a mug stuffed with leaves, and inviting us to sip through a metal straw.

“Gracias,” I said, after the first sip. Then, when I asked for more, he gave me a lesson in mate-drinking etiquette. “We only say ‘gracias’ when we’re finished,” he said.

We spent an hour inside the caldera of the Morada del Diablo, perched behind a guardrail at the edge of the drop-off. Huge, encrusted pillars of basaltic lava loomed behind us, and the green, fissure-ridden lip of the collapsed volcano rose before us across the abyss. Savoring the silences, we watched three breeding pairs of buff-necked ibises cavorting in the cloudless sky. An inspection through binoculars of the lone peregrine falcon revealed the greyish underparts of the common cassini, and not the rarer pallid morph. Then we returned to the dirt lot where we had left our car, drove down the road, and hiked up a second extinct volcano, reaching the summit by a winding ascent up a dirt path.

In the late afternoon, the sun cast the elongated shadows of Pali Aike’s pyramidal hills and asymmetrical volcanic mounds on the desiccated grass. The rising trail skirted a caveonce used by the Tehuelche, otherwise known as the Aónikenk, hunters who migrated here after the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago. Drawn to Pali Aike because of its abundant game, they were also fearful of it, seeing in the blackened ground and dead volcanoes the ubiquitous presence of el diablo.

On the yellow plain now far below us, a long line of guanacos — the Tehuelche’s sole source of protein, clothing and shelter — headed toward a pocket of water. Soto, armed with a guidebook to the birds of Chile, silently pointed to a small passerine with a brilliant red breast that had settled atop a lichen-covered lava tower beside us: It was a long-tailed meadowlark, a rare species found only in southern Patagonia and the Falkland Islands. A least seedsnipe, a small gray-and-brown bird, one of Patagonia’s most common, swooped down beside it.

As a late-afternoon chill set in, we drove across the plain to Laguna Ana, a salt lagoon near the park entrance. I walked along the soggy shore, drawn by a blur of orange at the other end of the lake. Sinking to my shins in the ooze, I extracted my legs with an unpleasant sucking sound, briefly panicking at the thought that I had stumbled into a pool of quicksand. Veering onto firmer ground, I peered through binoculars at what now revealed itself to be a flock of Chilean flamingos — slightly pinker than their North American cousins, with greyish legs, red joints and a mostly black bill — at the water’s edge. Driving outside the park near sunset, Soto pointed out Southern caracaras, also called carrion hawks — imposing, vaguely menacing birds of prey with black crests, scarlet faces and sleek, black-and-gray feathers — perched on a dozen fence posts along the road.

We spent the night in Punta Delgada, a ramshackle settlement in a saddle between bare hills, near the narrowest crossing between the Chilean mainland, El Continente, and Tierra del Fuego. At the family-owned Hostal San Gregorio, we ate a hearty meal of noodles and roasted chicken, and received directions from the aged owners to the best spot in the area for seeing the rare peregrina pallida. I thanked the hostess for her hospitality the next morning, blurting out that I was not expecting to find such comfortable accommodations at the end of the world. She shrugged. “For us it’s not the end of the world, but for you we understand.”

An avian spectacle

A Magellanic snipe in Bahia Posesi�n, near the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.
A Magellanic snipe in Bahia Posesi�n, near the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile.  (TOMAS MUNITA)

Soto and I drove down a dirt road toward Bahía Posesíon, Possession Bay, an inlet of the Strait of Magellan, sandwiched between the mainland and Isla Grande, the largest of Tierra del Fuego’s islands. Sixty-foot sandstone cliffs, perfect falcon-nesting territory, run for miles along a deserted beach here. “This is not a tourist area,” Soto said.

Descending to the shore via a steep trail cut into the cliff, we approached a plywood shanty sheltered behind boulders. “I saw a pair of pallidos flying above the cliffs this morning,” the occupant, a fisherman in a black gaucho hat, told us. “Just head down the beach and you’ll find them.”

We hiked along a shoreline carpeted with mussel shells while scanning the cliffs — some bare, some blanketed in scrub and dwarf pine — for the aerie. Waves lapped over the shoal just off shore. Magellanic oystercatchers, black-and-white birds with elongated orange beaks, the better for plucking the meat from the bivalves’ shells, peeped hysterically over our heads. Southern giant petrels, big black seabirds also called Antarctic giant petrels, giant fulmars, stinkers and stinkpots, flew in formation. Soto pointed out southern lapwings, cinnamon-bellied ground tyrants, and Austral negritos. The pallidos, alas, remained well concealed.

As we headed back toward Punta Arenas, one more avian spectacle awaited us. On a stretch of dirt road through the pampas, running parallel to the Bahía Posesíon, Soto motioned for me to pull over. Here, not marked on any map, lay a nondescript puddle, just a few dozen yards across, that seemed to have attracted every species of water bird in Patagonia. Thumbing through his guidebook, Soto identified red-gartered coots, white-tufted grebes, four varieties of ducks, blue-winged teals, silver teals, oystercatchers, upland and crested geese, tawny-throated dotterels, Magellanic snipe and, on hard ground yards past the pond, another cluster of flamingos.

We lingered for an hour, alone on the pampa, fascinated by the variety of avian life squeezed into such a small space. Our disappointment over missing the elusive pallid peregrine had receded. Soto tossed his bird book in the back seat, and we continued down the dirt track toward the Ruta del Fin del Mundo.

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