High, dry, with our eyes on the sky in Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, our next destination, was 1000 miles away. We set off from Cusco to Arequipa, once again on a night bus. We arrived at 6.30 am, and went from groggy and half asleep to jogging with rucksacks on front and back to catch our newly discovered next bus in the space of fifteen minutes. Safely ensconced on our way to Tacna in Peru’s far south, we once again gawked at incredible desert scenery – red sand stretching to the horizon, followed by mountains and canyons making it look like we were on the moon – while trying to ignore the Bollywood and tsunami disaster films that were being played at top volume throughout the six hour journey. Once in Tacna, roasting at midday, we found a shared taxi making trips across the border into Chile, going as far as Arica. This crossing, in view of the Pacific, in a baking hot desert under a high sun, felt very different from our humid, dusky, subtropical crossing into Peru a few weeks earlier.

Arica felt modern and almost European in contrast to the Peruvian cities of the past few weeks. As all buses to San Pedro were at night, and there was not much keeping us in town, we booked for our second night bus in a row… and then enjoyed a few hours simply walking and not sitting on a bus. And eating pizza, and ice cream. And being in the vicinity of a normal, flushing toilet.

Back on the road again, we contorted ourselves into small seats, and then shivered in the dark at 5 am at a check point that wanted to see all our bags. The sun came up over the Atacama, and we saw yet more desert. At last, with mountains on the horizon, and trucks kicking up a plume of dust as they drove ahead of us, we arrived in San Pedro, a tourist mecca in Chile’s north east. We found it very strange. A pleasant little place, in the middle of nowhere, whitewashed and mud brick buildings lining the small grid of streets, a pretty plaza and church. But inside these buildings were posh tourist restaurants and bars that would not look out of place in a big city. Chile (1)Chile (2)

We traipsed the streets, as the sun got hotter and we felt more and more in need of a good big sleep, finding even grotty hostels out of our budget. Eventually, swayed by a smattering of resident backpackers making the place look normal, we ended up in a small hostel, with a couple of dorms and rooms around a dusty courtyard. We soon discovered that everything in San Pedro was crazy expensive. But they did have the first good wine of the trip.

We had come here to explore the incredible landscapes in the region, from salt and flamingo filled lakes, and the highest geyser field in the world, to desert valleys, and volcanic peaks. We had also come to see the stars. Being the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert is the place with the clearest view of space it is possible to have.

We started with a trip to Death Valley, scrambling up to a viewpoint above one of the driest places in the whole Atacama. Then we visited the white landscape of the Valley of the Moon, where we climbed a huge dune in time to watch the setting sun turn the valley golden, and then distant peaks pink and purple, as a sliver of a new moon brightened in the darkening sky. Chile (9)Chile (12)Chile (25)Chile (33)Chile (30)

Back in our dorm, ahead of a 4 am start for the tour the next morning, we were dismayed to discover all the beds were now full. When the time came it was a relief to stagger out into the cool, fresh, quiet darkness to escape a deathbed gurgling snorer. We drove for two hours, first dazzled by the brilliance of the Milky Way, then fighting to stay awake, and arrived with just enough time to pounce on the buffet breakfast of cake and tea before quickly freezing in subzero temperatures. We were now at about 4000m, 2000m higher than San Pedro, and arriving this early, while it was still cold, was necessary in order to see the geysers in their full glory.

We were led around the bizarre valley floor, from fumarole to hot spring to geyser, watching water splutter and steam from the ground, as the rising sun illuminated the rising steam. It was so cold (we were wearing more or less all the clothes that we had brought on the trip) that the thought of undressing to get into a thermal pool was too much, and instead we watched a shallow river quietly steaming as flowed past us, and an enormous geyser burst into life. Chile (46)Chile (45)Chile (57)

As we drove back, we saw the scenery that we had missed in the dark, vivid green giving way to bare ground on its way up to volcanic peaks, blue pools ringed with green, vicunas dotting the landscape.

That night we headed out of San Pedro once more, this time to explore the sky. Away from the lights of the town we were met by a Canadian astronomer who proceeded to tell us about the stars, and our long history of noticing, studying and understanding them. We stood in a circle as he spoke, faces to the sky, seeing more stars and shooting stars than we had ever seen before. As he spoke, our guide used a laser pointer that would be illegal in many countries and that seemed to reach to the stars themselves to point out particular stars, constellations, and signs of the zodiac. He told us the difference between stars and planets, why stars twinkle and planets don’t, how Orion’s belt and sword together make an arrow that points north, that warm-coloured stars are cold, and cold-coloured stars are warm (I could barely see colour differences but most people could), that the patches of the Milky Way that looked like they could be clouds were in fact two galaxies that were orbiting ours (huh?), that a distant splodge was a galaxy whose light had started travelling towards us halfway back to the dinosaurs… there was a lot more, but it was too much to remember.

Then we were let loose on an array of huge telescopes, each pointing at something special. We saw Saturn, complete with rings, which was jaw-dropping, a star that looked like one but was actually two orbiting each other, the ‘jewel box’, a star cluster containing different coloured stars, a tarantula nebula, and many more. Then we retreated to the cosiest little building, with a large hole in the roof, where we drank delicious hot chocolate and the astronomer answered questions while I kept an eye on the Southern Cross through the skylight. There we learnt that a shooting star is no bigger than a grain of salt.

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Quito to Rio: the cloudforests and hummingbirds of Ecuador

We landed in Quito just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, watching tiny fireworks silently exploding over the city. At that point, the full extent of our plan was to reach Rio in time for a return flight 15 weeks later. After a couple of days wandering in a jet-lag and high-altitude daze around Quito’s busy streets, we escaped to Mindo, two hours away by bus. This journey took us up and out of the valley in which Quito sits between volcanic peaks, and then wound down into the wet and lush cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. Mindo is a quiet little place, surrounded by forests and hills which often disappear into the clouds. We arrived in the rain at dusk, and made our way along virtually deserted streets to our accommodation at Cabanas Armonia. This is an orchid garden masquerading as jungle, and we were led to our little cabin, one of a handful tucked away amongst the plants. After the dry, thin air of Quito, the humidity, the smell of the wet vegetation, and the chorus of frogs, were wonderful.
The path to our cabin, Cabanas Armonia, Mindo, EcuadorPrivate ensuite cabin with hammock, Cabanas Armonia, Mindo, Ecuador

Highlights of our stay at Cabanas Armonia included lazy birdwatching from our private hammock, with toucans and hummingbirds among the many species that regularly passed by. Wandering through the garden finding some of the roughly 200 species of orchid that are grown here was fascinating. Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador

Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo EcuadorAnd having a delicious breakfast, outside, with a frenzy of hummingbirds zipping around so close to us that we could feel the air from their wings, made getting out of bed easy. Breakfast terrace Cabanas Armonia Mindo Ecuador

Breakfast Cabanas Armonia Mindo Ecuador

The family that owns Armonia maintains feeders for the hummingbirds, and these tiny birds drink litres of sugar water between them every day. Watching and listening to them whirr, chirp and squeak is hypnotic. 

And catching them with your camera becomes an endless challenge.

Hummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo Ecuador

Hummingbirds have co-evolved with the flowers that they feed from, sometimes resulting in such close relationships that the length and curve of a beak perfectly matches the dimensions of the host flower. This ensures that the bird has access to nectar and the flower is guaranteed a pollinator. However, in other cases, as in one frequent visitor to a flower next to our cabin, species bypass this reciprocal relationship and simply pierce the base of the flower to access the nectar without any pollination benefit to the plant. Hummingbirds were a frequent sight on our Andean journey south, through Ecuador and Peru, and as ever Attenborough explains it best:

In between poring over our guidebooks and hatching a tentative plan to visit Ecuadorian jungles, volcanoes and colonial cities en route south to Peru, we went for walks in the countryside around Mindo. Strolls along the roads leading out of town led through verdant green valleys, coffee plantations, dripping tropical vegetation, and sightings of gaudy tanagers, toucans and aracaris, and a stunning quetzal. We took a rickety ‘cable car’, more accurately a cage on a wire, across a steep valley to walk along trails that linked a series of waterfalls in the forest. And we tried to reconcile the warmth and tropical surroundings with Twelfth Night celebrations in the church, and the curious nativity scene outside it.

On our way back to Quito a week later we had arranged to visit Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, 1000m higher up the mountains than Mindo. We got off the bus at a small village called Nanegalito, and were quickly approached by the driver of a pick-up truck taxi who drove us up the steep and winding single track lane to the lodge. The lodge is an incredible place, within a private reserve that protects 700 hectares of hugely biodiverse cloud forest. There is an extensive trail system, comfortable accommodation, excellent food, and it is renowned for its birding. Such luxury and biodiversity meant that the lodge itself was way beyond our tight backpacker budget – but it is still possible to stay and explore the reserve: a small research station doubles as basic hostel accommodation, but incredibly, very few people make use of this. This is a big shame because the forest around Bellavista is like nothing we had seen before – huge tree ferns, and trees dripping with multiple layers of vegetation, shrouded in ethereal mist and cloud which sometimes broke to reveal the  precipitous view down to the valleys below. The trails were easy to follow, and took us up and down steep ravines to hidden streams. Bellavista cloudforest Ecuador Bellavista cloudforest EcuadorBellavista cloudforest EcuadorBellavista cloudforest Ecuador

Bellavista cloudforest Ecuador

Ecuador (108) Ecuador (102)The research station accommodation was basic, but we had a warm bed and a hot shower, and pots and pans to cook with over a gas stove. Fellow residents included scientists from the States, their Ecuadorian research assistants, a couple of temporarily captive birds that were the focus of their studies, a sink-full of beetles collected for a small project, and a noisy mouse who helped itself to a chunk of banana in the kitchen. The captive birds were, of course, early risers and woke us from their room next to ours with an ear-splitting duet at dawn. Electricity is from a generator that is only run for a few hours a day, and as we were virtually on the equator it got dark about 6. Evenings were spent quietly by the light of candles and headtorches, listening to the myriad noises coming from the forest.  Ecuador (97) Ecuador (96)Ecuador (95) Ecuador (94) Ecuador (93)

It was the duetting of the birds that interested the scientists, as explained by Dr Eric Fortune in this video. The song he plays is the one that woke us each morning. It would wake the dead.

After ten days of cloudforest meanderings we made our way back to Quito, pausing to pose at the equator for a photo, bedraggled in wet and muddy clothes from the last hike along the trails that morning. Everything we had was damp, and had been for days, and just as the humidity had been so welcome after the dryness of Quito, returning to dry land was also a great relief after such a soggy time. Our clothes soon covered every available surface in our hostel room, and were dry by the morning.