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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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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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