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Destinations with views that are out of this world

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After 30 hours of bumping along on planes and buses, at long last I stood in the darkness and gazed upon an immense night sky. My long journey seemingly had brought me to the shoreline of interstellar space rather than the high-altitude plateau that is Chile’s Atacama Desert.

It was the first night of a month-long journey to visit astronomy observatories in Chile, Los Angeles and Hawaii. Whether designed for professional use or for the general public, observatories nurture humanity’s explorations of the cosmos. They spark wonder and discovery, but even before I set foot inside the first one, I was seeing outer space in a spellbinding new way.

That first night in the Atacama, arguably the best place in the world to see the night sky, the Milky Way proved true to its name: a milky-like smear stretching from horizon to horizon. The Southern Cross shone bright as candlelight. Both the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies glowed like stickers on a child’s bedroom ceiling, and Jupiter’s bands were easily visible with an amateur telescope, as were four of its moons.

However, the real surprise was our moon. I watched eagerly, all drowsiness gone, as it peeked above the horizon just before 11 p.m. Moonrise was an actual event — a pale, ethereal version of sunrise. Its light spread like brush fire across the night sky, and the desert landscape appeared as if a switch had been flipped.

It was early May, autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and our group had spent nearly five hours staring at the night sky. We had met in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town 7,900 feet above sea level near Chile’s border with Bolivia. Judging by the legions of backpacks, hostels and prominent Wi-Fi signs, it sits firmly astride the trekking circuit of Latin America. During the 24 hours I was there, I met people from the United States, Brazil, France, Canada, Italy, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Activities abound: There are mountain bikes to rent, salt flats to visit and pink flamingos to photograph.

However, I was there to stargaze. The Atacama, a plateau about the size of Pennsylvania, is the driest desert in the world. The combination of its aridity, high altitude and low population results in exceptional seeing, an astronomy term for the quality of observing conditions. San Pedro de Atacama offered several night sky tours, but this area isn’t just for amateurs. Chile — primarily in the Atacama — contains 70 per cent of the world’s professional astronomy observatories, if you count the massive new ones under construction like the Giant Magellan Telescope.

While in San Pedro de Atacama, I also wanted to visit the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA. Built by an international consortium of countries, ALMA is “the most complex astronomical observatory ever built on Earth,” according to its U.S. partner, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research on the outskirts of Geneva, which I visited several months ago, the ambition and scale of this facility make it a popular place to visit. Reservations are tough to get, although its isolation helps the last-minute traveller. Every Saturday and Sunday, a bus leaves San Pedro de Atacama and takes tourists to visit ALMA’s Operations Support Facility in the empty desert a half-hour away. Although free tickets are snapped up months in advance, those without reservations show up at the bus stop anyway and often are rewarded.

ALMA’s facility sits nearly three kilometres above sea level. It has the feeling of a space colony, maybe because of its cleanliness and the unforgiving terrain. Or maybe it’s because of the extremes of the environment. Based on my own brief experience, temperatures in the area range from freezing at night to boiling during the day. As tourists climbed off the bus, each was given a squirt of sunscreen, the way you’d apply hand sanitizer in a different setting.

The actual array of ALMA’s 66 movable antennas sat far above us — out of sight — on a plateau at 16,000 feet (although you can see them through a webcam). No one lives up there, and those working in that environment must use supplemental oxygen. We toured the base camp, the control centre and Otto, one of two German-built antenna movers. Imagine the campus of a widget-manufacturing company transferred to Mars, and you get the idea. The control room, operated 24 hours a day, had a cobbled-together look that seemed out of place with the facility’s $1.4-billion (U.S.) price tag. It was nothing more than a dozen or so tables and chairs, lots of computers and a lone humidifier that was the exact model of the humidifier in my children’s bedroom. I can’t imagine it was having much of an effect.

Like the particle colliders I visited, ALMA’s research is as complex as the motivation is simple. Basically, ALMA’s quest is to search for the reasons we are human beings instead of stardust floating in the void. For example, it found a simple form of sugar in the gas surrounding a young binary star, demonstrating that some of the chemical foundations of life on Earth also exist in faraway galaxies.

Of course, discoveries like that one only lead to more questions. To answer them, you have to keep building more advanced telescopes. After visiting ALMA, I flew across the Atacama to its southern edge to get a sense of astronomy’s audacious future goals. The Giant Magellan Telescope is one of two mega observatories under construction in Chile, along with the European-led Extremely Large Telescope. These two observatories belong to a new generation of observatories that will be able to analyze potential life-bearing planets light-years away. The GMT, as it is commonly called, promises to capture images 10 times sharper than those of the Hubble Space Telescope.

For the moment, though, it is nothing more than a construction project on a mountaintop, as well as several enormous mirrors in varying stages of production at the University of Arizona’s mirror lab. “First light,” as astronomers call the moment when an observatory begins operations, is scheduled for 2024.

The GMT is being built by a consortium of universities in the United States and other countries at a mountaintop site called Las Campanas. Owned by the Carnegie Institution, the site currently hosts eight other telescopes as well as staff housing that evokes a Swiss chalet. During the night I spent there, I met scientists working on the GMT’s instrumentation. One of them was Brian McLeod, astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. McLeod leads a team developing instrumentation to keep the GMT’s 14 primary and secondary mirrors correctly aligned. He started designing prototypes back in 2009, which means that at first light in 2024, he will have spent 15 years on this project. He ruefully noted that people change jobs more frequently than he changes projects.

McLeod traced his interest in astronomy back to high school in tiny Gambier, Ohio, when his chemistry teacher showed him the night sky through a telescope. I spoke with him in the control room of the Magellan Clay telescope at Las Campanas. He and his team were going to spend the entire night there testing their instruments. However, high wind speeds were spoiling their plans. When I saw them at breakfast the next day, they had spent the entire night in the control room and had been able to use the telescope for only a few hours at most.

When it begins operations, the GMT will welcome visitors but how exactly is still unclear, given the site’s remoteness. Plus, nighttime observation requires dim ground conditions — a hazard to driving — while daytime is the period when all the observatory staff sleep. Still, if ALMA is any guide, visits to the GMT will be popular. So many people want to visit ALMA that the external relations staff stay on-site for weeks at a time, doing shift work.

This is despite the fact that unlike observatories for the general public, there is nothing to “see” at places like ALMA and the GMT. Today’s professional facilities are long removed from the time when you look through a viewfinder and use the telescope as an extension of your eyeball. Instead, professional observatories use computers to capture data and images and send them to researchers around the world.

Nevertheless, visiting these observatories — like my previous visits to particle colliders — boggled my mind. After all, those who work at observatories operate time machines that can detect light emanating from the birth of our universe, billions of years in the past. Even with the naked eye, the light I saw from the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud was 200,000 years old.

I said goodbye to McLeod and his team and boarded a plane back to Santiago. As I stared out the window, looking down at the vast brown carpet of the Atacama below me, I considered my situation with strange clarity: I was a collection of bound-together atoms surrounded by other atoms hammered into the shape of a metal airplane tube. And this tube was propelling me through the sky by burning the remains of long-dead plants and animals. Thoughts like this did not come naturally to me before visiting ALMA and Las Campanas.

Stargazing in the Northern Hemisphere

Weeks later, my wife and I travelled to Los Angeles and Hawaii to take in astronomy experiences aimed at the general public, the entry point for budding astronomers like the high school version of McLeod. In Los Angeles, I visited one of the most prominent observatories in the world — the Griffith Observatory, built in 1935. Frequently spotted in movies and TV shows, and especially known for its starring role in “La La Land,” the Griffith Observatory welcomes ever-increasing numbers of visitors to its iconic building overlooking the city’s skyline. Like many other science facilities, access to the Griffith Observatory is free. It was a reminder that outside of the cost of getting there, science tourism is generally light on the wallet. And if travelling far distances is an issue, many universities in the United States have observatories on campus that offer public viewing hours.

We visited the jam-packed Griffith Observatory in the late afternoon. It was more than an hour until its 12-inch Zeiss Refracting telescope would open for viewing the night sky, but already a line was forming of people wanting to get a closer look at the planets, the moon and the larger stars. On its website, the Griffith Observatory claims “More people have looked though it than any other telescope in the world.”

I wondered whether the crowds at the Griffith Observatory were due mainly to its Hollywood celebrity. However, other astronomy sites were just as crowded. We experienced this the following day, when we flew to the island of Hawaii to visit Mauna Kea, one of the world’s top venues for astronomy. The Maunakea Visitor Information Station, located about two-thirds up the side of the dormant volcano, is base camp for the professional observatories on the summit. It is also a centre for public astronomy in Hawaii.

Four evenings a week, a mix of employees and volunteers trundle out telescopes for everyone to see. People drive up hours before, because the parking lot almost always runs out of room well before the 7 p.m. viewing start time. Hundreds of us stood patiently in long lines, clutched cups of hot chocolate, waiting for glimpses of Jupiter and the North Star. Meanwhile, people hiked up a nearby hill to catch the last rays of the setting sun. It turned chilly. People donned sweaters and hotel bath towels to ward off the cold. In the winter, snow often covers the summit while vacationers enjoy the tropical climate at ocean level.

The 14,000-foot-high summit at Mauna Kea holds 13 telescopes owned by a variety of countries and universities. Those with four-wheel drive vehicles can drive to the top and look around. We did this later in our trip. It was the middle of the day but it felt like evening. We drove through clouds, rain slicked the windshield, and the temperature dropped from 80 degrees to 40. Although I could sense the lack of oxygen at the visitors’ station, the real change came at the summit where there is 40 per cent less oxygen than at sea level. Walking felt laboured, and the world took on an acute sharpness, as if rocks and boulders and the air itself had grown an edge. We hiked to the high-altitude Lake Waiau, its brilliant blue water an intense contrast with the fiery sun.

Nearby stood the observatories, all of them closed to visitors. Only the Keck Observatory has a small gallery on-site, but it had closed indefinitely several weeks before we arrived. A staffer back at the Information Station said the reason was vandalism. It would have been nice to enter one of the observatories, but after weeks of being immersed in astronomy, it was enough to stand on the mountaintop and gaze at the observatory domes jutting into the piercing blue sky.

The observatories seemed like a direct link to temples built on high places by our prehistoric ancestors, usually to be closer to the gods. We probably have always felt the urge to climb hills and mountains and stare at the sky. There is something about going to these high places — to ALMA, Las Campanas and the summit of Mauna Kea — that touches the core of our existence. “Starstuff pondering the stars,” in the words of Carl Sagan.

It was the beginning of June, a few days later. A warm, early summer evening. Sirens rose in the distance. The air felt lethargic, unwilling to form a breeze. Street lights glowed orange as I stepped onto my porch and looked around. I saw the usual city haze that obscures nearly all of the night sky. But the pull of a month of stargazing lingered on, and I looked up. Eventually I perceived the faint but unmistakable trace of the Big Dipper. I don’t remember ever seeing it in the skies above Chicago, but of course it’s been there all along.

I kept looking, waiting for my eyes to become used to the dark. I thought about workers in astronomy observatories, getting ready for a night of exploration. More stars appeared. There was Jupiter like a beauty mark next to the moon. There was the North Star, twinkling just like in the lullaby. Standing in the middle of a city on our tiny planet, aware of my own fragile existence, I breathed a silent hello to the cosmos.

More places to look at the stars

Here are some additional observatories in the United States that are open to the public:

  • The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, benefits from the same high desert conditions as the Atacama in Chile. It was here, in 1930, that Kansas-farmer-turned-observatory-employee Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Daytime and nighttime tours take place every day of the week, as well as viewing of the night sky through the 24-inch Clark Refractor Telescope, weather permitting. Farther south, near Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory offers daytime and nighttime activities, including night sky viewing from telescopes located in their visitor centre.
  • In the mountains east of Silicon Valley stands the Lick Observatory, the world’s first permanently occupied summit observatory. In operation since 1888, the Lick Observatory is owned and operated by the University of California System. Admission is free to the complex, as well as to the visitor centre and gift shop. One highlight is the Summer Series, which are evening events that include night sky viewing through the 36-inch Great Refractor and the 40-inch Nickel Reflector telescopes. Tickets are required.
  • Located 725 kilometres west of Austin, Texas, the McDonald Observatory hosts wide-ranging scientific research as well as a robust series of public programs and tours. However, what sets the observatory apart from others is the ability to see the sky through some of the largest telescopes available for the public to view. During its special viewing nights, visitors with tickets can look through the 82-inch Otto Struve telescope, which was the second largest in the world when it opened in 1939. Best of all is the limited chance (nine to 12 times a year, around the full moon) to see the night sky through the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith telescope.
  • Another observatory that sometimes allows viewing through large telescopes is the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. Here, Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way Galaxy is only part of a much larger — and expanding — universe. In addition to public tours, there are limited opportunities to view the night sky through the observatory’s famed 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes.
  • Established in 1859, the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh offers free tours twice a week from April to October. The tours end with a viewing through the 13-inch Fitz-Clark, which was the third-largest telescope in the world when it was built in 1861. It also boasts an adventurous history as telescopes go — its lens was stolen and held for ransom in 1872. Samuel P. Langley, then the director of the observatory, feared that if the ransom was paid, “it would pave the way for other lens-knappings,” according to the observatory’s website. After meeting secretly with the thief, Langley successfully negotiated for the return of the lens.



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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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