The Carretera Austral – Chile’s Southern Highway – begins nowhere and leads nowhere. Over 1000km in length, it was hewn and blasted through the wettest, greenest and narrowest part of the country. This sliver of Patagonia is a majestic land of snowcapped volcanoes, Ice Age glaciers, emerald fjords, turquoise lakes and jade-coloured rivers, set among lush temperate forest where giant trees seem to drip with rain the whole year long. The Carretera was built with the very purpose of settling this damp, secluded sliver of territory, but the only way to reach it from the rest of Chile is by boat or plane or overland from Argentina. Few roads can feel more remote.

Although some picturesquely rickety buses ply the route, they are irregular, unreliable and can’t take you everywhere you’ll want to go. It’s far more rewarding to rent a 4WD pick-up truck, pack a can of fuel and plentiful supplies and drive yourself. The slippery, loose-gravel surface demands the utmost respect, so don’t expect to average more than 50km/h. As the locals will tell you: hereabouts, if you hurry, you never arrive! Lashing rain, gales and passing vehicles – albeit few and far between – are the only likely hazards.

The pleasures, however, are many and varied: make pit stops to wallow in the thermal springs at Cahuelmó after the bone-rattling ride, enjoy the warm hospitality and delicious cakes at Casa Ludwig in Puyuhuapi, or feast on roast Patagonian lamb by the fireside at El Reloj in Coyhaique. Most of the route affords incredible views of the Andean cordillera, and along the way you’ll see dense groves of southern beech and immense lakes like miniature seas, as well as the amazing “hanging glacier” in the Parque Nacional Queulat and the Capilla de Mármol, a magical grotto carved into the blue and white limestone cliffs looming from Lago Carrera. But the best bit is the feeling of driving through utterly virgin lands – especially the southernmost stretch that leads to pioneering Villa O’Higgins, completed only in 2002. The road seems to fly over the barren crags to the place where, according to local legend, the devil left his
poncho.

Jan and Feb are the best months to drive the route. Casa Ludwig, Av Otto Uebel, Puyuhuapi; El Reloj, Baquedano 828, Coyhaique.

 

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Rapa Nui – Easter Island – is shrouded in mystery. How did its people get there? Where did they come from? How did they move those gigantic statues? Some of that enigma comes to life during January’s fortnight-long Tapati, a festival that combines ancient customs, such as carving and canoeing, with modern sports, such as the triathlon and horse racing.

First, the islanders form two competing teams, representing the age-old clans, so if you want to participate, it’s best to get to know one of the captains. The opening ceremony kicks off with Umu Tahu, a massive barbecue, followed by a parade of would-be carnival queens wearing traditional grass skirts.

Most of the sports events are for men only: one breathtaking highlight is the bareback horse race along Vaihu Beach. If you fancy your chances against the proud locals, be prepared to wear little more than a bandana, a skimpy sarong and copious body paint. Another event, staged in the majestic crater at Rano Raraku, has contestants – including the odd tourist – paddling across the lake in reed canoes, running round the muddy banks carrying two handfuls of bananas and finally swimming across, with huge crowds cheering them on.

Meanwhile, the womenfolk compete to weave the best basket, craft the most elegant shell necklace or produce the finest grass skirt; visitors are welcome to participate. Little girls and venerable matriarchs alike play leading roles in the after-dark singing and dancing contests. They croon and sway through the night until the judges declare the winning team, usually around daybreak.

But the true climax is Haka Pei, in which three-dozen foolhardy athletes slide down the steep slopes of Maunga Pu’i Hill – lying on banana trunks. Top speeds reach 80km/h, total chaos reigns and usually a limb or two is broken, but the crowds love it. Should they ask you to take part, learn two vital Rapa Nui words: “mauru uru”, “no thanks”.

Tapati begins every year at the end of January. Lan Chile (www.lan.com) makes the 5hr flight to Easter Island several times a week from Santiago.

 

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 Andrew Benson recently visited Ecuador for Rough Guides. A short break spotting rare and beautiful birds was one of the highlights…

Watching hummingbirds sip nectar while you breakfast is one of life’s greatest pleasures. At each of the three San Jorge eco-lodges located in the cloudforest to the northwest of Quito – the highest capital city in the world, at around 2500m (8200ft) above sea-level – this is how you start the day.

Housed in a rambling colonial hacienda in the Andean foothills, the Quito lodge is a fine place to spend a first night after arriving at Ecuador’s chaotic capital. The magic birding tour promised by San Jorge’s promoters begins as soon as you meander downhill from your rustic room. The mesmerizing buzz of nectar-thirsty hummers, including specimens of the endemic Ecuadorian hillstar, with its striking purple head, fills the dusk air.

That evening I met my birding companions, four US citizens, Elaine, Carol, Sam and Andrew, who all shared a love of nature and a fondness for the animal kingdom. Nobody was looking forward to the next day’s early start, but everyone was eager to see the Ecuadorian countryside and its treasures of flora and fauna.

The ornithological extravaganza got under way the following morning – a typical circuit lasts four days – as we set off with our driver and guide and bumped along the unmade Nono road, binoculars and viewing-scope at the ready. One of our first sightings was of the aptly named Sword-billed Hummingbird, the only bird whose beak is longer than its body. It was sitting proudly on a telegraph wire, brandishing its bayonet-like bill in the air with admirable elegance. I checked it off in the handy guidebook, The Birds of the Metropolitan District of Quito, written and illustrated by Dr George Cruz and his son, Jorge Jr., kindly given to everyone who books a San Jorge tour.

Birdwatching guides – especially the highly enthusiastic kind, such as George himself – have aptly hawk-like vision combined with an insider’s knowledge of where given birds are likely to be at any given time. This combination certainly gives them the aura of a magician, something demonstrated later that morning, when a pair of perfectly camouflaged burrowing owls was “spotted” on a hillside opposite. We all needed the scope to see them – just – but soon, after a short drive towards them, we were striding through fields of spiky artichokes to get a much closer look.

After lunch at the magnificently located San Jorge de Tandayapa Hummingbird Lodge, the magic was again conjured up, as we stopped in the middle of virgin cloudforest for a sighting of one of the prize species in the region, the strange and very shy Andean Cock-of-the-rock. We first heard them as a group of rival males strutted about and squawked deafeningly to attract the females’ attention. Our vantage point was across a deep valley from one of their leks – a Swedish word for assemblies of males of any species for the purpose of courting the opposite sex. Again thanks to the scope, we were able to see a number of male tunquis (as they are known locally) in vivid detail. The females are dullish brown birds, but their polygamous partners seem to come in two parts – a lower black-and-grey section topped by a spectacular orange-red top, that includes a weird rounded crest atop their heads that comically makes them look beakless. A very odd look but the ladies seem to like it…

Tandayapa Valley is a fair bit lower than Quito and feels decidedly more equatorial (which also means rainier). A short trail through dense jungle in the company of local guide Julio allowed us to marvel at orchids and other exotic-looking plants, while we saw – or in some cases only heard – dozens of bird species. One of the most common yet enchanting families of birds in these parts is the tanager clan – we spied the Grass-green Tanager, the White-winged Tanager, the Golden-napped Tanager, the Metallic-green Tanager and the Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, whose names mostly speak for themselves.

As at the San Jorge Quito Lodge, strategically located feeders plus bananas placed on tree branches attract a host of birds, including more of those hummingbirds. If I had to choose one, it would have to be the extremely cute Booted Racket-tail (pictured above) – emerald green, it has fluffy white booties and a long, slender tail terminating in paddle-shaped plumes, hence its descriptive name.

Lower down still, the San Jorge de Milpe Orchid & Bird Lodge, the last of the trio, overlooks a dramatic tree-cloaked ravine. Yet more feeders allow you to ogle at more racket-tails plus Brown Incas, White-whiskered Hermits and other beguilingly named hummers. On the approach to the lodge we walked along a stretch of road where there were so many bird species you really didn’t know which way to look – Chocó toucans here, Yellow-bellied Siskins there, White-thighed Swallows up above, Slaty Spinetails flitting hither and thither…

On our return to the urban turmoil of Quito we had certainly had a full dose of wildlife – numbers are not everything but I had counted a total of nearly 150 different bird species, ranging from familiar-sounding hawks and pigeons to mysteriously-named tapaculos and xenopses. We had returned to a world of traffic fumes and busy shopping-malls, but our minds were full of colourful images of darting plumage and the elusive sounds of shy wrens and never-to-be-seen antpittas.

It hadn’t always been easy, what with dawn rises and muddy trails, but it had been a magical insight into Ecuador’s incredible biodiversity. After all, it’s not every day you see a Pale-mandibled Araçari in its natural habitat.

Explore more of Ecuador with Rough Guides >

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In the northern half of Chile, the driest place on Earth, clouds are virtually unknown and the skies are of the brightest blue. At night, far away from the lights of major settlements, you can look up at a dark vault simply shimmering with stars. The near-perfect visibility almost every night of the year makes the region ideal for observing the universe – indeed, there are more astronomical observatories here than anywhere else on Earth – but you don’t need to be an astronomer to get a great view.

Some of the world’s most powerful computerized telescopes sit here, among the plains and hills, but you can also catch sight of constellations such as the Southern Cross and familiar heavenly bodies like Jupiter or Mars at more modest observatories, such as Mamalluca. Set aside one evening, resist that extra pisco sour and book one of the regular stargazing tours that depart in the wee hours. These take you high up on Cerro Mamalluca, where the darkness is absolute and the air is crisp. There’s the classic visit – a short talk giving you a grounding in basic astronomy, followed by a few minutes looking through a telescope – or the Andean Cosmovision tour, in which guides explain how the pre-Columbian peoples interpreted the night sky, and perform native songs, with flutes and drums accompanying mystic verses, speaking of a local cosmology dating back thousands of years.

The installations at Mamalluca (www.mamalluca.org) are easily accessible from the city of Vicuña.

 

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Upon first seeing Iguazú Falls, all Eleanor Roosevelt could manage was “Poor Niagara”. Every year, tens of thousands of visitors from around the world try to evaluate the sheer dimension of this natural miracle – a collection of more than two hundred cascades thundering over an 80m cliff – and usually fail. However you spell it – Iguazú, Iguaçu or Iguassu – the Guaraní name, translating as “Big Water”, is something of an understatement. Situated on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the falls are surrounded by lush tropical forest that’s home to more than 2000 species of flora, over 500 bird species and approximately 80 different mammals.

Many marvel at these massive falls from the relative dryness of the Brazilian side, but you are advised against looking down at them from a Brazilian helicopter for ecological reasons. Armchair travellers might watch these gushing waterfalls rival Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons for the leading role in the 1986 epic film The Mission. But the true way to experience the rapids, or cataratas as the locals call them, is to land right in the action and get soaked to the skin. Leave your digital camera and your iPod in your hotel room; think twice before wearing that new crimson top that might run or the T-shirt that gets transparent when wet; don’t even bother with the waterproof gear the guidebooks tell you to bring. Just give the boat crew the kick they never tire of: take a soothingly tepid bath in the world’s biggest open-air shower, the ominously named Devil’s Throat, the most majestic of Iguazú’s many cascades.

The best close-up experience to be had is in the Parque Nacional, outside Puerto Iguazú (Argentina). The rainy summer season (Nov–March) is the best time to go. For more, consult www.iguazuargentina.com.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

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28 Oct 2013 • Eleanor Aldridge camera_alt Gallery
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Pure air, tranquility and glacier-chilled cocktails – Andrew Benson sees Patagonia‘s icy wilderness in style.

An immense shield of pristine ice crowns the southernmost peaks of the Andes, where the Americas funnel down towards Antarctica. From this Southern Patagonian ice field gigantic glaciers toboggan into fjords and turquoise inlets set among the barren badlands of Santa Cruz province – forming landscapes that, when seen from the air, look like antique woodwork inlaid with semi-precious stones. As we descended into El Calafate airport, after a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires, we were treated to sweeping views of Lago Argentino, one of the continent’s biggest lakes, four times the size of Lake Geneva. A labyrinth of narrow channels wriggling at its western end forms a giant squid on maps. And after calving off glacial cliffs wind-sculpted icebergs bob around the lake’s chilly waters like toys in a giant bath.

The lower slopes of the Andes are cloaked in gnarled southern beeches, but not much else survives in these latitudes apart from the occasional bird and the descendants of hardy pioneers who barely a century ago battled the elements in the hope of making a fortune from sheep’s wool. Here and there wild fuchsias add a splash of crimson to the barren landscapes. This stark wilderness, and above all the drama of the glaciers, attracts thousands of visitors from around the globe in search of natural beauty at the far ends of the Earth. Whereas the most famous glacier in Argentina, the Perito Moreno, can be conveniently observed from the tip of a peninsula, just a short drive away from El Calafate, most of its counterparts are visible only from Lago Argentino – in other words, from a boat.

Photo: Andrew Benson

We went on one of the top-of-the-range two-night cruises that the Mar Patag company offers on this great inland sea, setting out on a long January evening from the company’s private jetty just west of El Calafate. By overnighting aboard their brand-new luxury catamaran, the Santa Cruz, you get to the sights before anyone else and, weather permitting, you can watch the sun rise and set over the lake’s mill pond waters. Moreover, Mar Patag take you to locations other operators cannot, plus the Santa Cruz, with its twenty or so snug cabins, has a capacity of only 44 – so no unseemly jostling to glimpse the breath-taking views. An added bonus is the delicious food – lovingly concocted in the galley by a master chef from Córdoba and his devoted team, who favour Patagonian products like venison, duck and trout.

Now you might think that once you’ve seen one glacier you’ve seen them all – but each giant tongue of slow-moving ice has its own personality. After a comfortable night at Bahía Alemana, we glided up Brazo Norte, one of Lago Argentino’s many tentacles, towards the Upsala glacier, a massive highway of compacted snow, with splinter-like seracs massed along its brittle front wall. Slaloming between bergs, we then sailed along the Spegazzini channel heading for its namesake glacier, a tumbling mass of Chantilly cream that foams into the lake seemingly from nowhere. On the way back towards the main body of the lake, the boat stops so that crew members can fish out great chunks of ice – kept aside to chill our pre-dinner cocktails later in the day. And, having anchored at Puesto Las Vacas, we disembark and hike up to an off-the-beaten-track viewpoint for superb panoramas of the Spegazzini glacier, building up our appetites for another spectacular dinner back on board the Santa Cruz.

Photo: Andrew Benson

As we savoured a creamy maize soup served with sheep’s cheese sorbet followed by succulent hake fillets in a saffron sauce, fellow voyager Carmen, a lawyer from São Paulo, agreed that the trip was worth every cent. Of course, there are no snow-capped mountains, glaciers or fjords in Brazil, and she and her husband were lapping up the pure air and tranquillity, far from the pollution and chaos of their home city. They had chosen the Mar Patag cruise because it also offered an opportunity to get some exercise on land and burn off the calories. The next day, after a hearty breakfast, Carmen was not disappointed – we were escorted off the catamaran and, having sped across gurgling rapids in dinghies towards the Mayo glacier, stomped over boulders and up a rocky path to another viewpoint, for a close-up vista of the majestic glacier itself.

The other glaciers may be stunning in their own ways, but the climax to our journey was inevitably our leisurely view of the imperial Perito Moreno from our boat. Its sheer mint-blue cliffs formed a suitable backdrop as we savoured our last meal aboard. Then, as we took in the frosty panorama for one last time, we toasted the crew with champagne from Mendoza and chewed purple calafate berries – El Calafate is named for Berberis microphylla, a native holly-like bush. Accordingly to Tehuelche legend, eating the purple fruit guarantees that one day you’ll return to Patagonia. Of course we all hoped we would.

Andrew Benson is co-author of the Rough Guide to Argentina

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Argentines are a superstitious lot – many taxi-drivers religiously garland their rear-view mirrors with rosaries; fur-clad ladies-that-lunch avidly read their horoscopes; busmen faithfully display images of the Virgin of Luján over their dashboards; nearly everyone routinely tucks a banknote under their plate of gnocchi at the end of each month in the hope of better financial fortunes. But all this pales in comparison to their fervent dedication to the people’s saint, Antonio Gil – better known as the Gauchito Gil.

Punctuating every roadside throughout this huge country, blood-hued monuments of all shapes and sizes record the Gauchito’s memory and attract his countless fans. Sometimes you will notice a few ragged crimson flags flapping from the branch of a tree. Other memorials are more elaborate, comprising a figurine of the Gauchito housed in a kind of dovecote decorated with copious bunting, the waxy vestiges of vermilion candles and all manner of offerings.

All photos by Andrew Benson

But who was this revered figure? Antonio Gil was essentially a nineteenth-century Robin Hood figure, who spent his life relieving the rich landowners of their goods and chattels and distributing them among the indentured labourers of the region. He reportedly died from stab wounds in the 1870s – possibly in a fight over a woman – along the main highway near Mercedes. A cross, later known as the Curuchú Gil, was erected in keeping with tradition by the roadside and, so the legend goes, became a place of unofficial cult worship.

Around the middle of the twentieth century – as part of the resistance to the reactionary military regime that ruled Argentina – folklore became a vehicle for progressive, even revolutionary ideas. Building on literature that glorified the gaucho – the cowboy of the Pampas – but emphasizing his independence and carefree spirit as opposed to the more romantic yet nationalistic schools of the 1920s and 1930s, this movement adopted Antonio Gil as a hero and he became known as the Gauchito, or Little Gaucho.


The national mega-shrine dedicated to Gauchito Gil stands a few kilometres west of the tradition-steeped Corrientes market town of Mercedes, way up towards the northern border with Paraguay. The mother of all Gauchito memorials is really more of a township, complete with shanty-style shacks, gaudy souvenir stalls, makeshift eateries and a stage used for music gigs. At weekends people flock to the shrine from miles around to pay tribute and leave a gift for their long-departed hero – a signed photograph of their kith and kin, a specially fashioned plaque thanking the Gauchito Gil for saving someone from death or another fate, blood-red candles guttering on a pagan altar. Fortunes are told, dozens of choripanes (local-style hotdogs) are munched and revellers dance to the bloodcurdling sounds of the chamamé, the local answer to the tango.

Over piping-hot empanadas (traditional Latin American patties containing meat, chicken or cheese) and a bottle of meaty Cabernet Sauvignon by a log fire in Mercedes, I listened to one of the town’s leading lights, Cambá Lacour, as he explained the whole backstory to me. At the ripe age of 82, Cambá is a repository of local history and a fascinating storyteller. The original legend – as so often, lost in the mists of time – has been embellished beyond recognition. A new version of his death began to circulate around five decades ago. Gil, about to be executed by the military for an unknown crime, told his executioner that, when he returned home, he would find that his son was sick, but that he would be cured. This turned out to be true, which explains why so many Argentines believe that Gil was a miraculous faith healer.

On 8 January every year some 300,000 believers, mostly from Buenos Aires, converge on the Mercedes shrine, camping along the main road, to celebrate their hero’s memory. With dancing and singing galore, it is quite a sight to behold and solid evidence that superstition, perhaps more than conventional religion, is alive and well in present-day Argentina. The Gauchito even has a female rival now, Difunta Correa, whose principal shrine is in San Juan Province – but I need more empanadas and wine before I can tell her story.

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