ELEPHANT TOURISM MYTHS DISPELLED

As you decide what kind of elephant experience you want to have, you'll hear opinions from all over.

I have to be clear: I'm not an expert on the subject. My knowledge is limited to what I've read on the topic, as well as the insights I've gleaned from my own experience at Chai Lai Orchid.

With that very important caveat in mind, let me dispel a few common elephant myths for you.

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Myth #1: Elephant tourism is irresponsible, so it's better to avoid elephant camps entirely.

There was a point during my trip planning when I questioned whether it was a good idea to see the elephants. Selfishly, I was dying to interact and see them. But I wondered if I was contributing to a negative cycle of abuse.

Myth #2: Riding elephants is harmful to them, so you should find an elephant camp that prohibits riding.

Riding elephants is not inherently bad. Some camps place chairs on the elephants' backs for you to sit in -- these

Myth #3: Ethical elephant camps do not use chains.

The use of chains is not unequivocally bad. Sorry, folks—it's just not that simple.

Chains can serve many positive purposes. They also keep elephants from raiding nearby farmland, which can be devastating to farmers' livelihood.

Camps that keep their elephants on 5' chains all day long aren't good. But to say that the use of chains is entirely unethical is untrue.

Elephants can weigh between 2-7 tons (that's up to 14,000 lbs). And while mahouts are trained to control the elephants, they're still wild animals.

Myth #4: Elephants doing tricks is bad for them. 

The use of chains is not unequivocally bad. Sorry, folks—it's just not that simple.

Myth #5: Ethical elephant camps do not use chains.

Chains are a responsible part of elephant tourism. Elephants can weigh between 2-7 tons (that's up to 14,000 lbs). And while mahouts are trained to control the elephants.

 

TOURISM FOR GOOD IN THAILAND

, while fighting injustices faced by several groups in Thailand.

Elephants and their caretakers, known as mahouts, are exposed to harsh conditions in much of Thailand's elephant tourism industry. Many elephants in Southeast Asia are forced to work 14+ hour days, 365 days/year, in arduous conditions and without breaks. Alongside them, their mahouts are clocking torturously long days for meager wages, often struggling to support their families. After witnessing the way the industry operates, Pham set out to make change however she could. Chai Laid Orchid now rents elephants from the owner of a nearby camp during daytime hours. Mahouts are provided fair compensation and improved working conditions, and elephants are given the space and time to rest and relax.

This jungle oasis offers not only a humane respite for elephants and mahouts, but it's also home to an important social movement to protect and empower women. Daughters Rising is a nonprofit working to end sex trafficking by empowering at-risk women through education. Pham created the organization in partnership with her eco-lodge to provide an alternative path for refugees and indigenous women who are at risk of falling into Thailand's sex trafficking industry. The organization runs a training program for young women, paying them a fair wage and providing valuable hospitality experience, skills training, English classes, and health education. Program graduates are eligible for an interest free loan to pursue their own enterprise if they choose.

After completing the Daughters Rising empowerment program, Nukul Jorlopo founded Chai Lai Sisters, the first trekking and homestay company in Northern Thailand run by indigenous Karen women. Chai Lai Sisters now offers trekking expeditions, jungle accommodations, and cultural immersion trips as part of the Chai Lai portfolio.

SLEEPING IN THE MAE WANG JUNGLE

If you're visiting Chiang Mai and are hoping to spend time with the elephants in Northern Thailand, check out my article on the Chai Lai Orchid elephant experience. For those adventurous enough to sleep among the elephants, Chai Lai offers a variety of accommodations choices, each of which has its own unique specialness.


CHAI LAI ORCHID JUNGLE BUNGALOWS

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Chai Lai Orchid Bungalows is an eco-lodge situated on the Mae Wang River, about an hour south of Chiang Mai. The lodge has nine comfortable bungalows, accommodating groups from 1-5 people. The common area is wrapped in colorful rugs and has panoramic views of the river. Breakfast is included, and there's an adjacent restaurant serving great Thai food. 

Though the Bungalows are your cushiest option, don't expect room service or an infinity pool. You won't forget you're in the jungle—key features include mosquito nets and constant dampness. Some rooms have A/C and private bathrooms, but not all. 

The Bungalows are also home to 11 rescued elephants, who roam the grounds and like to say hello to visitors. You can bathe and feed them as part of their elephant experiences.


CHAI LAI SISTERS NATURE RETREAT

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Chai Lai Sisters Nature Retreat is a bit closer to camping on the lodging spectrum, though what it lacks in amenities it makes up for in pure magic. Located deep in the Doi Inthanon mountains, the Nature Retreat has no address and is only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle or by foot. It's off the beaten path, literally. 

The seven bamboo huts are equipped with plush beds, solar-powered lighting, and mosquito nets. Our cabin in particular had only three walls—the fourth was open to the river, making for a pretty surreal wakeup call. Guests can swim in the waterfall on property, and evenings are spent around the fire pit with locally distilled "happy water." Cell service at the Nature Retreat is essentially non-existent, so you can live in the moment and not on Instagram. 

There are several retired elephants on the property, giving you plenty of opportunities for up-close-and-personal interactions. 


KAREN VILLAGE HOMESTAY

For a true cultural immersion experience, you can also request a village homestay, spending the night in the home of a local Karen hill tribe family. The accommodations are very basic—you'll sleep on a mat on the floor with a mosquito net and outdoor bathrooms. You'll learn about the traditional Karen way of life, eat a home cooked dinner, and get to know your new friends over a few beers. This isn't just a place to sleep—it's an education in the Karen culture. It's not for everyone, but it's a truly special experience. 


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ELEPHANTS [YOU'LL] NEVER FORGET

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Meet Phu Teng. He lives in the jungle south of Chiang Mai with his female companion and their caretaker. He's gentle, yet assertive. (Read: if you have food in your hand, don't expect to hold onto it.) Sugarcane and bamboo are his favorite snacks, and he has several hidden talents, including turning on his own water faucet with his trunk. His wife's name is Moh Kha Pah, and she's 5 months into her 2-year pregnancy with their calf. Though she's blind in one eye, she's playful and attentive.

If you're traveling to Thailand, chances are you're excited about spending some 1:1 time with these big guys. You may have already spent hours researching the various camps and rescues, unsure about which one to choose for the best possible experience. I'll save you the angst—go with Chai Lai.

Chai Lai Orchid is an eco-lodge and elephant camp located in the Mae Wang District of Northern Thailand, just south of Chiang Mai. Started by Alexa Pham, an American who now lives in Thailand with her husband and son, Chai Lai Orchid is a one-of-a-kind sanctuary. The multi-faceted operation offers travelers an ethically responsible way to interact with elephants and experience jungle life. 

The Elephant Experience

Our day started with an early pickup at our hotel in Chiang Mai, organized ahead of time with Chai Lai. We shared an open air truck with a group of five awesomely fun Canadians who ended up being our travel companions for several days. We opted for a multi-day overnight jungle adventure, though single day trips are also available with transportation to and from Chiang Mai.

Upon arriving at Chai Lai Orchid, we changed into traditional Karen attire and headed out to meet the elephants. One by one, we met our new friends, treated them to a mid-morning banana snack, and received trunk hugs as gratitude. We then headed out on a short trek near the property with the herd. With a small group of just seven travelers and our guides, we were able to get ample personal time with the elephants. I buddied up with Mae Sak Tong, a big gal with gold eyes and a pink speckled trunk. We bonded over our love of massages, as she stopped periodically to give herself a tree trunk back rub. 

Following the trek, it was bathing time with the baby elephants, Chai Lai and Watermelon. A short stroll down to the river, and the duo was ready for a swim. We gave them a full body scrub down, and the babies reciprocated with kisses and trunk showers. Our guide, Alex, doubled as the photographer and snapped some pretty amazing photos of us throughout the day. 

I should acknowledge that elephant tricks can be a difficult subject in Thailand. Many tourist "shows" feature elephants doing dangerous or backbreaking stunts, in which they're often confined to tiny enclosures and given inadequate care. However, elephant tourism and training is a much broader topic than just these camps. After careful research and speaking with experts on the subject during my trip, I've come to a better understanding of the impact of tourism on Asian elephants. The truth is that there isn't anything inherently bad about training elephants to do tricks like giving kisses, spouting water from their trunks, or even painting (yes, painting!)—as long as they're trained and supervised responsibly and humanely. I learned quite a bit about the topic during my trip, and have dispelled a few other common elephant tourism myths here

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Later in the afternoon, we relocated to the Chai Lai Sisters Nature Retreat, a beautiful eco-camp about an hour and half further into the jungle. This off-the-grid retreat is situated along a secluded river and is home to several retired elephants who have been rescued from working camps. The retirees—including Phu Teng and Moh Kha Pah—live quiet lives in the jungle, enjoying walks with visitors and a daily diet of 200 kilos of bamboo. 

The truly magical part of the experience was spending time with the elephants in an unstructured, spontaneous way. On our second day at the Nature Retreat, we woke up to find the elephants having a bamboo breakfast just steps from our huts. As we brushed our teeth at the outdoor sinks, Phu Teng drank from the faucets, playing and poking at us with his trunk. Our interactions with the elephants at the Nature Retreat were impromptu, intimate, and flexible. There were no agendas, no time limits. After breakfast, we hiked with Phu Teng and Moh Kha Pah through the unkempt jungle, keeping them fueled along the way with sugarcane and words of encouragement. But mostly sugarcane.

When we weren't feeding, bathing, or trekking with the elephants, the Doi Inthanon mountains had plenty of other activities to offer. We rafted down the Mae Wang River with a local guide, tasted home distilled rice whisky in an indigenous Karen hill tribe village, and swam at the base of hidden waterfalls. More on those adventures at another time...

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Booking Your Elephant Experience

To book your elephant adventure, visit ChaiLaiOrchid.com. I highly recommend the overnight experience, with at least one night at the Bungalows and one at the Nature Retreat, though a day visit is better than nothing! For those adventurous enough to sleep among the elephants, check out this post about Sleeping in the Mae Wang Jungle. Of course, you can customize your own trip based on your interests, activity level, and adventure barometer.

Our itinerary can be found on their website as Elephant Rescue and Mountain Homestay with Jungle Orchid Bungalow. It includes the following:

  • 1 night at Chai Lai Orchid Bungalows
  • 1 night at Chai Lai Sisters Nature Retreat
  • Elephant Caretaker Experience (feed + bathe the elephants)
  • Elephant Trekking
  • Bamboo Rafting
  • Karen Hill Tribe Village

Chai Lai is wonderfully unique in that they not only give travelers an avenue to understand and positively impact human rights and animal welfare in Thailand, but they also manage to provide an unparalleled adventure experience. To learn more about the Chai Lai organization and the human rights work they're doing in Thailand, visit my post Tourism for Good. 

THE CHICAGO BLUES: A BRIEF HISTORY

Chicago has long since been known as the Blues Capital of the World — and for good reason. Almost all of the genre’s most influential and talented musicians either came out of Chicago or hit their peak after moving to the city.

But to be fair, it’s important to note that Chicago is not the birthplace of the Blues. Long before patrons were jamming in the bar basements of the Windy City, big guys with acoustic guitars and harmonicas were heating up venues in the south of the country. Though the exact origins of the Blues were never recorded, it’s generally accepted that this influential genre of music was born in the North Mississippi River Delta in the late 19th century, just after the Civil War. The original Delta Blues are heavily influenced by its creators’ African roots, as well as their daily lives, expressing feelings of both hope and despair, freedom and oppression. Many assert that Blues originated in the fields, as plantation slaves sang field hollers to each other, creating rhythms by stomping their feet and clapping their hands.

Wherever you choose to pinpoint its origins, by the turn of the century the Delta Blues was becoming a fully-formed musical genre, complete with budding famous players. But while the Blues were alive and kicking in the South, Jazz still reigned as king of the Chicago music world.

In the early 20th century 1.4 million African-Americans, many of which were newly-freed slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation, began heading North in what is known as The Great Migration. Moving to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, they left the South in search of better opportunities and less discrimination. After huge success hosting the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair, Chicago had become home to a flourishing art scene and was receiving international acclaim. This new found reputation called to musicians in the South, promising opportunities for success and a new home for Blues in Chicago.

Among the musicians who had success in Chicago in the early 20th century are Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Georgia Tom, and the legendary Big Bill Broonzy. An early innovator, Broonzy created his own Blues sound which became a predecessor to the genre as we know it today. Many of today’s most renowned Blues musicians have named him as their inspiration.

Throughout the 20s and 30s Chicago acted as an incubator for Blues music, but it wasn’t until the arrival of another influx of southern migrants that Chicago arose as the new official home of Blues. With the end of World War II, African-Americans were essentially ousted from their jobs to make room for white soldiers returning from war. The resulting lack of available jobs, combined with an intensifying racial situation, fueled a second mass exodus from the South, this time even more notably to Chicago.

It was in the following decades that the true Chicago Blues came into being. As Blues musicians moved from places like Mississippi and Tennessee to Chicago, the traditional country blues began to evolve into a more urban sound. New electric guitars replaced the acoustic guitars of the Delta Blues, and an amplified, more dynamic style was born. This was the sound of the Chicago Blues.

At the time, the majority of Chicago residents lived on the South Side of the city, with most of the city’s activity happening in the Loop. However, as the influx of black residents arrived, many current Chicagoans headed to northern neighborhoods in what is now called the “White Flight.” As the South and West Sides filled with African-American migrants, the Blues found its new home in the small bars and venues in these areas.

From 1940 until about 1975 the Blues was thriving in Chicago, and some of the most famous black musicians in history were finding their place in the world of entertainment. While the Blues of the South Side was often more rowdy and raw, the Blues that developed on the West Side was a smoother, jazz-influenced sound. Among these guitar-playing, harmonica-toting innovators were Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Kansas Joe McCoy and Buddy Guy. Though each had the Deep south in their hearts, the soul of the Chicago Blues shone through them.

As the years passed, local bars became acclaimed Blues venues, and dingy storefronts grew into full-blown record companies. Founded in 1950, Chess Records, along with its subsidiary Checker Records, remains known as a trailblazer for the Blues genre. Delmark Records and Alligator Records also made their names in Chicago Blues history, recording big names like Junior Wells, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks.

Though the Blues had found a new home and audiences were growing across the country, Chicago was undergoing some changes that would essentially halt the rapid growth of the Blues. Between the 50s and 70s, Mayor Richard J. Daley notably neglected the cultural development and growing music scene in developing the West and South Sides, putting almost all of the city’s money into reshaping the city around the new North Side. As a result, the South and West Sides of Chicago became the sites of more and more conflicts between residents and police. Eventually, due to redistricting and new taxes, many of the Blues joints that had made the city and the genre famous were closed.

Sadly, along with many of the original bars, clubs and venues, the first Blues record labels — those credited as being the founding locations of Chicago Blues — have since closed down. Much of the city’s original Blues scene is now only legend. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of great places where locals and tourists alike can enjoy authentic Chicago Blues. Check out UPchicago's list of recommended Blues venues in the city, or head out and explore on your own!

A HOLIDAY FOR ALL: ÑOQUIS DEL 29

One of my favorite things about travel is getting to experience new holidays and indulge in local traditions. The unlimited number of unique holidays around the world allows visitors to immerse themselves in the culture of a city or country in an entirely new way.

In Valencia, Spain the week-long celebration of Las Fallas culminates when hundreds of huge wooden structures around the city are burned in the streets as crowds of people watch, drink, dance, and enjoy. In town of Tübingen, Germany, citizens celebrate an annual rubber ducky race. Over 6,000 yellow rubber ducks float along the city’s river, all battling to win a grand prize holiday voucher.

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Of course, Buenos Aires cannot be outdone, and has thus come up with a holiday to rival all others. Gnocchi Day is the monthly celebration of all that is good in life. And by that I mean pasta and potatoes, or really anything related to carbohydrates for that matter. Mmmm bread, spaghetti, french fries, potato dumplings [Cue Julie Andrews: “…these are a few of my favorite things…”] Ok, sorry, getting back on topic.

If you haven’t tried gnocchi (or ñoquis in Spanish) you are severely missing out and I suggest you remedy the situation ASAP. Gnocchi are small potato dumplings that are turned into pasta and covered in your choice of sauce — alfredo, marinara, rosé, bolognese, pesto. Is your mouth watering yet? Though it’s definitely a meal that will have you unbuttoning your pants at the table, it’s a beloved food that has become an event here in Buenos Aires.

On the 29th of each month restaurants across the city prepare this tasty mountain of carbs and wait for the crowds to shuffle in. A rather interesting affair, it’s the only day that gnocchi is available on the menu at many restaurants. Known as ñoquis del 29, this holiday of sorts is not only a good excuse to stuff your face with delicious food, but it also has a rather interesting history. To be fair, there are several different theories about the origins of Gnocchi Day, so I’ll give you a quick run-down.

Some say that the gnocchi celebration originated because at the end of the month people were at their poorest and couldn’t afford expensive meals. So, on the 29th day of the month — the day before payday — they chose to indulge in gnocchi, a filling and tasty food that is also quite cheap to prepare, since it’s mostly made from potato. Over time, the ritual stuck, and now porteños and visitors alike flock to restaurants to enjoy this time-honored local tradition.

Another theory takes a dig at the city’s “ghost payrollers.” The word ñoquis doesn’t only refer to the yummy dish, but also to a city worker who only appears on payday to collect his check. These lazy dudes — like ñoquis in Buenos Aires — only show up once a month. While some name this as the origin of the holiday, it seems more likely to me that the once-a-month food gave these workers their name.

Yet another theory pins the holiday’s origins on the gnocchi industry. An Argentine version of a “Hallmark Holiday,” this hypothesis suggests that Gnocchi Day was contrived by a large pasta-making company in hopes of increasing sales.

And of course, we could always blame the Italians for a day based around pasta. Due to the large number of Italian immigrants in Argentina, it is a likely possibility that the tradition was carried over as a celebration of the patron saint of Venice, San Pantaleon, which falls on the 29th.

Whatever its origin may be, ñoquis del 29 is one celebration in Buenos Aires that I anticipate sticking around for a while. And I am more than happy to oblige… I mean, what’s better than a holiday that comes once a month AND includes my much-loved carbs?

Oh, and if you do have the pleasure of indulging in this tradition, be sure to place a coin under your plate while you eat – a ritual which is said to attract prosperity and luck.

¡Qué aprovechen!

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This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.

THE BANDONEÓN, TANGO'S BREATH OF LIFE

Experiencing the bandoneón for the first time was a defining moment in my understanding of tango. Like many newcomers to Argentina and the tango scene, at first glance I recognized this contraption as an accordion. Yet there was something pressing the back of my mind: I had never been so captivated, so enchanted by an accordion before. In fact, there’s something about the accordion that tends to grate against my ears. But this was different. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the four men on stage who held on their knees and in their hands one of the most legendary pieces of tango history.

The bandoneón is not only an instrument. The bandoneón is the intangible, raw passion of tango encapsulated in an inanimate object. It’s the lungs that fill and empty in cadence with its dancers.

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The bandoneón was invented in Germany around 1840, and later made its way to Argentina with the influx of German immigrants in the late 19th century. At first, local musicians attempted to integrate the instrument into the emerging style of music known as milonga, which was a fast-paced hum produced by flutes, guitars, and violins. When the slow and undulating pace of the bandoneón couldn’t keep up with the quick step of the milonga, the music slowed, and tango as we know it today was born.

So, how to do you distinguish a bandoneón from an accordion? Well, for starters, they are in two different families of instruments. Though both are free reed instruments, unlike the accordion, the bandoneón is a part of the concertina family. It also does not the have piano-like keys found on the accordion, but instead buttons on both sides of the instrument. Each button plays a different note depending on whether the bellows (the main folding section) is opened or closed. What’s more, the bandoneón is a two-voice instrument, meaning each note played also plays one octave higher at the same time, creating a much richer, more pleasant sound than the accordion. With over 70 buttons in total, the range of sounds that the bandoneón can produce is astonishing.

Throughout the last century, the bandoneón has kept its central role in the orchesta típica, the traditional tango orchestra. While some orchestras have only one or two bandoneónistas, some have up to four or five, which produces a sound so complex and powerful that it transforms the show into something spectacular.

Much like watching a great pair of tango dancers, to see a bandoneón player in action is to truly feel the emotion of tango music. You can often physically see the passion he feels for the music move through his body and the bandoneón in a rhythmic undulation. It’s as if a mini orchestra resides within the bellows of the bandoneón, and only with the help of a dedicated – and not to mention, incredibly talented! – musician can the notes be set free.

Am I sounding a bit too love struck? Maybe so, but I’ve found that this instrument is one of my favorite discoveries about Argentine tango. Whether you’re a music buff or a simple layperson who likes to hear a good tune every once in a while, I suggest you get to know the bandoneón. You may just fall in love, too. Just don’t count on taking one of these puppies home as a souvenir – they cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 and are quite difficult to find these days.

If you have the opportunity, I also highly recommend checking out the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro. This surprisingly young tango orchestra boasts several bandoneón players, and puts on an energetic, distinct show.

Happy listening!

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This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.

MIRADOR TORRES DEL PAINE

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If you make the trip to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile, there is one thing you MUST do while there whether you’re hiking the circuit, the W, or staying just one night. I personally demand that you visit the Mirador Torres del Paine at sunrise. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, and unique sights you will ever experience in your life. If that claim isn’t enough to get you there, I don’t know what is.

The Mirador Torres del Paine is a lookout point that gives a breathtaking, up-close view of the park’s namesake massive granite towers. Of course, you can visit this gem of a spot any time of day, but the best views are at sunrise when the towers turn a shockingly bright orange. (Photos don’t do it justice, so you’ll have to check it our for yourself.)

The best way to know if the sunrise trek is worth it is to wake up at around three or four in the morning and check if you can see stars. This alone is a heart-stopping experience, as you’ll likely see more stars and in a clearer sky than you’ve ever seen before. If you do, in fact, see thousands of luminous stars, you’re in luck – chances are good that the view at the Torres will be lovely. However, if you see a sea of blackness and clouds, go back to sleep – the view won’t be worth it. At least this is what the park guides promised us.

If you’re lucky and find yourself under a blanket of twinkling lights, get your camera and get ready to go. Depending on where you sleep, your trek will be between an hour and a half to three hours. For those of you out there who aren’t frequent hikers, this won’t be an easy few hours... but it will be worth it. Trust me. The first part is simply walking through the pitch black woods. Not too difficult. The last hour of the hike, though, is a tough one. All uphill, you’ll be traversing hands and knees over rocks at some points. At other points you’ll be literally hiking up streaming waterfalls, and walking next to massive drop-offs. Needless to say, be aware of your footing! I highly doubt there’s much of a history of hikers falling off the mountain, but it’s worthy of note, just for good measure. The trek can be tough on the knees, especially on the way down, but again -- it’s worth it.

One last (important!) piece of advice: at the end of the hike, you’ll come to a quite steep rocky incline. You need not scale this dangerous stretch, especially if you’re an inexperienced hiker. There is a path marked by orange poles, and though it’s hard to find at this last part, it is much easier, safer, and faster.

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The best way to access the Mirador at sunrise is by camping the night before at Campamento Torres del Paine, which is situated at the foot of the mountain. If you don’t have camping gear of your own, you’ll have to stay at Lodge El Chileno (the nearest refugio) or rent camping gear. If you stay at the refugio, plan to wake up around 3:30 or 4am to start your trek to the Mirador, depending on the time of year and when the sun will be rising. The trip should take you two and a half to three hours. Remember, you’ll be hiking in the dark, so be sure to bring a headlamp or a flashlight, or rent one before you get there.

Good luck, and don’t forget your camera. This is certainly a frame-worthy sight.

SLEEPING IN TORRES DEL PAINE

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If you’re planning a trip to Torres del Paine, you’ll most likely be needing somewhere to rest your head at night. There are several options, based on what you’re carrying with you and how much cash you’re willing to drop.

BYO Camping

For the real outdoorsy hiker types, you'll probably be carrying your own tent and gear. This will prove to be a huge advantage, as you can camp much closer to some of the best sights.

If you bring your own camping gear, you’ll have two options for where to set up camp. The first option is at a refugio-run campground, where you will find showers and bathrooms, and have the option of purchasing meals. Of course, if you choose to stay at one of these places, you have to pay a small fee to use the campgrounds, but it is usually reasonable (around $10 USD). The other option is to camp in the non-refugio-run campgrounds, which have no facilities or guides available. These sites are usually excellently located, so if you don’t need a shower or breakfast, this is your best bet. They’re also free!

If you do choose to carry your own equipment, be sure to spend a night at Campamento Torres – it gives you the best access to the lookout point for the massive granite towers and makes it a whole lot easier to get up to the top for the beautiful sunrise view (a must-see!).

Camping Rentals

If you want to camp but don’t have the gear, fear not. Most of the refugios have an adjacent camping area, where they will rent you a tent, mat, and sleeping bag for a reasonable price. This is a great option for people who don’t have gear or don’t want to carry it with them for the duration of their trek. The fee for camping includes showers and bathrooms, and is a much better deal than staying inside the actual refugio.

You can also rent camping gear in the town of Puerto Natales, in which case you will carry it with you for the extent of your trek. If you choose this, refer back to the Bring-Your-Own Camping section.

Refugios

If you have a decent amount of money to spend and aren’t that into camping, refugios are the way to go. Of course, they will lower your bragging rights a bit, but a real bed and shower might be worth it to you. There are several refugios in the park, giving you plenty of options depending on what path you choose to take.

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Most refugios are relatively pricey, running fromm $40 to $75 USD a night, depending on if you want sheets, a sleeping bag, breakfast, lunch, etc. All of them include a shower and a bed. During high season it’s usually recommended to reserve your spot ahead of time so you don’t end up bedless -- many allow you to reserve online, or you can go directly to the company offices in Puerto Natales. Fantástico Sur owns the refugios on the east side of the park near Sector Las Torres, whereas Vertice Patagonia owns those on the west side within the park.

If you are hiking the W or the Circuit, you may want to spend a night in a refugio somewhere along the way to reboot and reenergize. But if not, more power to ya.

Hotels & Hosterías

If you’re really not into the idea of “roughing it” but you want to stay in the park, there are various hotels and hosterías. They will, however, cost you a pretty penny. Rates can be anywhere from $150 to $250 USD a night, and we’re talking pretty basic accommodations here. Still, it’s a good option for those who physically can’t camp and have the cash to drop on a nicer bed.

No matter what your timeline and preferred accommodations may be, spending at least one night in the park is definitely recommended, as there’s nothing more beautiful than the mountains at sunrise. Trust us, you won’t regret that 4am wakeup call!

PARQUE NACIONAL TORRES DEL PAINE

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South America is home to some of the most beautiful national parks on Earth. One such park is located in Chilean Patagonia, and boasts 1,810 square kilometers of crystal-clear, blue lakes, dense green forests, soaring peaks and babbling brooks at every turn. As part of Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine rests peacefully as a mecca for nature lovers from around the globe.

There are tons of activities to be enjoyed inside the park, including horseback riding, kayaking, and even ice trekking on the park’s radiant glacier. The main attraction, of course, is some good old-fashioned hiking. I recommend a minimum of three days in the park, though if you want to fully enjoy all the breathtaking sights (and have the stamina for a longer trek), plan to stay seven to ten days.

Entry to the park ranges from $15,000 Chilean pesos in the high season to $5,000 in low season. The best time to visit is between November and March. Keep in mind that January and February bring the most visitors, so if you choose to go then you may be trekking amongst larger crowds.

Check out my posts on Parque Nacional Torres el Paine: 

  • Puerto Natales as an Entry Point to Torres del Paine
  • Camping & Refugios in Torres del Paine
  • Mirador Torres del Paine

EXPLORING PUERTO VARAS

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If you’re making your way through Chile, try to schedule a stop in Puerto Varas. There are several other options in this region, including Osorno and Puerto Montt, and even the slightly further Pucón. These towns are popular destinations because of the two towering volcanoes that dominate the landscape– Osorno and Calbuco. However, in this article I’ll tell you why Puerto Varas is the best destination for a layover if you’re trying to travel between Santiago and Bariloche.

Located in the Lakes District and just across the Argentine border, my travel companion and I stopped here planning to spend only one night. We ended up enjoying the town and surrounding areas so much that we extended our stay an extra night… and in all honesty, we could have stayed longer. If you’re interested in spending time in Puerto Montt and Osorno, I recommend staying in Puerto Varas and making the 20-30 minute commute. The other towns certainly have something to offer, but for the best views of the volcanoes and Lake Llanquihue and access to the Río Petrohué, Puerto Varas is where it’s at. Some have billed this lakeside town as the new Pucón, but somehow it seems to have avoided allowing tourism to overrun its quaint streets.

The town, which was originally occupied by German farmers and acted as the main port along the Lake Llanquihue, has managed to preserve much of its original colonial German architecture. At times you might even feel more like you’re in Europe than South America. A good German beer and some hearty food isn’t hard to find here either.

If you do spend time in Puerto Varas, you’ll most certainly get out of town for a bit to explore nature’s nearby treasures. Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park is a small, yet beautiful park that offers excellent vistas of the Osorno Volcano, raging rapids and serene lagoons. If the weather’s nice you can easily spend half a day here, taking in the views and relaxing somewhere between the waterfalls and mountains.

The natural landscape surrounding Puerto Varas offers excellent outdoor activities, including trekking, fishing, horseback riding, kayaking and white-water rafting. Pristine lakes and rivers are the sites for high-quality water sports that promise not to disappoint. I highly recommend checking out Ko’Kayak for any water sports you’re interested in. The guides, Coco and Matias, are young, fun, knowledgeable and experienced. And after your excursion they treat you to a celebratory Pisco Sour and snacks! What’s better than that?!

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If you choose to partake in the activities Ko’Kayak offers, you’ll have to take a bus down the winding seaside road to Ensenada. Don’t mourn the extra hour of commuting, though– the destination is the ideal setting for rafting and kayaking. We’re talking crystal-clear waters accented by snow-capped mountaintops. The rapids along the Río Petrohué are class III, IV, and V, so an experienced rafter will enjoy the run as much as a first-timer.

At the risk of coming off as pushy and more informed than I actually am, I have to say that Puerto Varas is one of the top destinations on my list for anyone traveling in Chile. If you have the chance to enjoy this town’s unique energy and gorgeous location, do it.

 

VALPARAÍSO VIEWS

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It’s no surprise that Valparaíso has the word “paradise” in its name, though it may not be the type of paradise you’re used to – it’s not all palm trees, daiquiris and white sand beaches. But if you’re into deep-rooted culture, vibrant color, and sweeping, beautiful vistas, look no further than this lively port city.

The city of Valparaíso is built on 42 hills along the Pacific coast. A port city by nature, it has all the characteristics of a city run by sailors– port life is still alive and kicking, especially in the flat neighborhoods adjacent to the waterfront. The main attraction of the city is its colorful hillsides, spotted with bright pastel-painted homes, unique street art, and century-old funiculars (ascensors). In fact, the town is so culturally intriguing that it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003.

If you’re looking to shed a couple pounds or work on those calves, you’ve come to the right place. Almost everything you’ll want to do or see will require scaling the city’s many hills, a tough but worthy feat. Most hills have funiculars that will take you to the top, but be sure to walk up a few! The winding roads that lead to the hilltops are filled with street art and culture.

Best Photo-Ops:

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1. Paseo 21 de Mayo on Cerro Artillería gives a nice view of they bay and the cranes and containers stacked on the bustling Valpo port. Take the Acensor Artillería to the top from Plaza Aduana.

2. Mirador Diego Portales on Cerro Barón is one of the best views of all of Valparaíso’s vibrant hillsides. Take the bus or metro to Barón– no need to use the ascensor, as the walk up is short and easy.

3. Cerro Cordillera can be somewhat seedy, so be careful. However, there’s a beautiful viewpoint on Calle Merlet.

When you get sick of the colorful cityscapes (as if that were possible), there are plenty of other options to get you through the day. An open-air art museum, Museo a Cielo Abierto, is situated on Cerro Bellavista, and is directly accessible via the Asensor Espíritu Santo.

In the true spirit of the country, you may also decide to take a day to honor one of Chile’s favorite celebrities. Beloved Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is not only known for his beautiful words, but his fabulous houses. Yes, he owned many homes, several of which are accessible from Valparaiso. Although, the truth is that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. So, unless you are Neruda’s biggest diehard fan, take my advice and visit Isla Negra. Though it certainly isn’t the most convenient of his homes to get to, I’d wager that Neruda’s estate in Isla Negra is one of the prettiest. A beachside cottage, his home sits next to the crashing waves of the Pacific. 

Public transportation in the city isn’t fancy, but it’s easy to use and a good way to get around. The buses will take you most anywhere and are an affordable alternative to taxis. The newly constructed metro system runs along the shore and is clean, fast, and modern.

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If you’re looking for great budget accommodations, I highly recommend Angel Hostel, which is located at the bottom of Cerro Cárcel and just next to the Cerro Concepción funicular. I spent five nights there and thoroughly enjoyed my stay. The staff is wonderful, the beds are surprisingly comfortable, and the location is ideal. Some might try to convince you that staying on Cerro Concepción is the way to go, but I have to disagree. Being on top of the hill requires that you descend every time you want to go anywhere. Staying at the base of the hill gives you easy access to all public transportation, grocery stores, and funiculars. If you have a bit more cash to spend, I recommend staying in the same area– Cerro Concepción is a central spot that will give you a lot of freedom.

A note on safety: Valparaíso is a safe place, and you shouldn’t feel intimidated or scared to explore this fascinating cultural hotspot. However, as in anywhere in the world, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and be cautious of your belongings. Don’t whip out your iPhone on the bus or when strolling the port. It’s simply a matter of street smarts. At one point on our trip, we were shooed away from Cerro Cordillera by a police officer who felt that it was unsafe for three young girls to be there alone. I’m not saying don’t visit that hill (as it does have some lovely views)– just be smart. The port area of town is also still lively and traditional in nature. To put it bluntly, here’s where you’ll find lots of liquor stores and brothels. Though it’s not dangerous, this is the seediest part of town, and you should be aware of that when strolling its narrow corridors.

If you have an extra day or two in Valparaíso, be sure it check out Viña del Mar, a lovely beach town just minutes away!

DAY TRIP: VIÑA DEL MAR

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If during your travels you find yourself in Valparaíso, reserve an extra day or two to check out its nearby sister city, Viña del Mar. Just 20 minutes up the coast, this small beach town is a popular vacation destination for Chileans, and a great place to wile away a few days in the sun.

The easiest way to get there is by taking the metro, which runs from Valparaíso along the shoreline to Viña del Mar. If you’re going straight to the beach, get off at Estación Miramar and walk the few blocks to the water. If you prefer to check out the town first, stay on the metro one stop further until Estación Viña del Mar, which will drop you at the main town square.

The beach is reason enough to schedule an extra day here. Full of colorful umbrellas, tanned bodies and big blue crashing waves, this stretch of sand is both lively and relaxing at the same time.

After spending the day in town and on the beach, your hard work deserves a nice cocktail. Check out Enjoy del Mar on the water at Avenida Peru. This seaside spot is perfect for sunset drinks and a tasty dinner if you hang around long enough.

Unless you plan to enjoy the Viña beaches for more than a couple days, there’s no real reason to stay in town. You’re better off staying in Valparaíso and taking the short train ride to the beach. If you do, however, choose to stay in Viña del Mar (and have a few extra bucks to throw down), I recommend the Sheraton Hotel, which is located right on the water and boasts beautiful seaside views.

SANTIAGO DE CHILE IN 3 DAYS

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Santiago’s a big city. You could spend weeks discovering every corner of town and still find new restaurants to try and streets to wander. But if you’re working with a time constraint (like we travelers usually are), you’ll want to maximize your time to see the best spots. Three days will give you enough time to visit the main attractions, as well as explore some of santiago’s hidden gems.

Day 1: Bellavista & Cerro San Cristobal

Bellavista is likely where you’ll want to spend much of your time. Cobblestone roads, graffiti-adorned walls and an abundance of al fresco dining spots makes this a tourist’s dream.

Your best bet is to allow yourself a few hours to simply wander the charming neighborhood and enjoy the atmosphere. When you get hungry for lunch, calle constitución is lined with great restaurants where you can try the chilean staple, lomo a lo pobre.

Patio Bellavista is a shopping and dining complex located in the heart of the neighborhood. As a relatively new construction, it doesn’t have the quaint feeling of the rest of the area, but it does have lots of swanky options and a cool vibe. I recommend grabbing dinner elsewhere and then stopping by patio bellavista for a drink later in the evening.

The famous chilean poet pablo neruda loved bellavista’s charm so much that he built a house here where his affairs could go on undetected. He aptly named the home la chascona after his mistress’s crazy hair. (On a personal note, i’m a big fan of the house’s name– i myself have some highly uncooperative curls.) However, if you plan to spend some time in valparaiso, i suggest you skip this one and check out isla negra instead.

After you explore bellavista, make your way to Plaza Caupolican, where you will take the funicular to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. At the top you’ll find a 14-meter-high statue of the virgin mary and sweeping views of the entire city. The hill hosts a system of cable cars and funiculars, but if you feel like walking, it’s a great place to do some light trekking. There are also two public pools on the hill– check out piscina tupahue for a little r&r.

Day 2: A Walking Tour & Barrio Brasil

Today you’re going to put your legs to work and check out the city’s many plazas and neighborhoods. Depending on where you’re staying, you may want to modify the route, but be sure to hit these main attractions.

Starting at plaza de las armas, stroll the massive square shaded by over a hundred palm trees and crowded with locals, tourists, clowns and street vendors. The plaza is flanked by the central post office, the city’s largest cathedral and the national history museum.

Next you’ll be heading southwest, straight into the barrio civico, home to all of the main government buildings. Plaza constitución is the site of the palacio de la moneda, which houses the country’s presidential offices. You’ll recognize it by the many, many chilean flags waving proudly on the lawn. Behind it is plaza ciudadania, which shows off the facade of the palace.

After checking out the plaza, head east on avenida o’higgins (often referred to as alameda). This main vein of the city will give you a decent picture of urban life in chile, and leads straight to the next stop: cerro santa lucía. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you see a massive marble fountain at the base of a large lush hill. After admiring it’s beauty, trek up to the top of the hill, where landscaped paths lead to a lookout tower providing a sweeping view of downtown santiago.

Coming down the other side of cerro santa lucía, you’ll end your self-guided tour in santiago’s historic quarter, which is really just one street: calle lastarria. Now would be a good time to reward yourself with a glass of wine. Hey, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, right?

Depending on your pace, you’ll likely have time to check out another part of the city before naptime. There are several neighborhoods that don’t boast many attractions, but paint a nice picture of residential life in santiago. Located on the west side of town, barrio brasil is one of them. Though it offers nothing special in particular, it’s a nice place to stroll and get a feel for the real santiago. If you want to check it out, you can take the metro from santa lucía to república and meander north toward plaza brasil.

Day 3: Providencia

Day three is time to pick and choose what interests you in the city that you haven’t done yet. Shopping? Art? Museums? There are a multitude of options, and you can spend your day doing a combination of any.

But before we get to that, i recommend taking some time in the morning to stroll santiago’s parque de las esculturas, an interesting attempt to overshadow the murky waters of the rio mapocho, which runs through the heart of the city. This free, public green space is an open-air museum containing sculptures created by chilean artists. It’s a nice spot to wander if the weather’s nice, and if you’re up for it, a good place for a picnic lunch.

The park is just due north of the upscale neighborhood of providencia, so that is the logical next stop. Like barrio brasil, providencia doesn’t boast many attractions or activities, but is a great place to wine and dine.

I personally don’t think santiago is the best museum town, but if you’ve had enough meandering and prefer a little a/c, the city does have several quality museums. Check out the museo de bellas artes (museum of fine arts), museo de artes contemporáneo (museum of contemporary art) or the museuo histórico nacional (national history museum).

For those who’ve had enough cultural enlightenment for the day, head back to bellavista or over to las condes to drop some cash at the city’s best shopping spots.

A WEEKEND IN MENDOZA

If you’re looking for a weekend away that promises both relaxation and exuberance, head to Mendoza. To get there, most brave a lengthy, yet manageable if done overnight, 14-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires. Mendoza is situated near the border of Argentina and Chile, and is just a few hours from Santiago. With a population of just over 112,000, this city on the edge of the Andes has a lot to offer. Whether you’re up for an adventure in the mountains, or are looking for a weekend of wine sipping and lounging in the park, Mendoza will not disappoint.

The city is situated around five main plazas with the largest, Plaza Independencia, at the center. Of the four smaller surrounding plazas, the most impressive is Plaza España, known for it’s beautiful hand-painted Spanish tiles. Worth a visit, Paseo Sarmiento is a lively pedestrian street, filled with sidewalk cafés, heladerías, and shops—a perfect spot for lunch and people watching.

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But we all know the real reason you’re in Mendoza: el vino (the wine). Mendoza is best known as the biggest wine-producing region of Argentina, and the home of the world’s finest Malbecs. Thanks to ideal weather conditions for grape growing, the area produces exceptional red and white wines year after year. There are several companies that offer a variety of winery, or bodega tours, ranging from an all-day drinking event, to a three-hour modest excursion. For AR$50, Mancagua Viajes offers an afternoon tour of excellent value, which includes tastings at two wineries and a visit to an olive-oil factory. You can also hop on a bike or public transportation and be your own tour guide.

Many of the boutique, family-owned wineries sell their wine exclusively at their own vineyards. These are the best places to buy wines if you’re looking to bring some back home, since you won’t find these labels in stores.

If you fancy yourself the outdoorsy type (or even just moderately interested in nature), there’s plenty to keep you going in Mendoza. First-rate white-water rafting, paragliding, biking, horseback riding, and hiking are readily available in Mendoza. Take note: most businesses shut down on Sundays, including many tours operators and other activities. The city also almost universally takes advantage of siesta, with most businesses closing between the hours of 13:00 and 17:00 daily. Though this limits your options of city activities, it makes for a perfect window of time to get outside the city and explore the many opportunities the nearby Andes offer.

Got an extra day to kill? Check out the thermal baths just outside the city, nestled among the mountains. Though on crowded weekends they end up being more like a water park (there’s even a wave pool), the location is nothing short of stunning, with picturesque views in all directions.

Nightlife in Mendoza centers around one main street: Aristides Villanueva. There, bars, clubs, and patio restaurants stretch for several blocks, offering visitors an array of spots to taste the local wines, or down a few bottles of Quilmes with friends.

There are a handful of hostels scattered throughout the city—some quite humdrum, and others late-night party spots. If you’re in the market for a happy medium, Hostel Lao is the best bang for your buck. With reasonable prices, comfy beds, amazing staff, good music, and a funky backyard with hammocks and a pool, you can’t go wrong. They even offer free wine and host weekly backyard asados. I should mention that the owners have two great dogs that like to hang with travelers in the common areas, but are harmless and pretty much always cool as a cucumber.

A recommendation: if your travel plans are flexible, head to Mendoza between February and April. During summer the river is higher (eg. better for rafting), and you can also catch the wineries harvesting their grapes. Though the bodegas offer tours year-round, visiting during the harvest promises picturesque grape-covered vines and the spectacle of wine making, including grape crushing.

BIKING IN BARILOCHE

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One of Argentina’s most-visited destinations is the beautiful Bariloche. A haven for nature lovers, this town couldn’t be more perfectly located between the picturesque Nahuel Huapi Lake and the Andes Mountains. With world-class trekking and water sports, there are endless ways to enjoy nature’s wonders. One of the best options for exploring the town’s outlying areas is by bicycle — it allows you to cover a lot of ground in little time and provides a unique way to experience the mountains.

The main bike trail which offers countless photo-ops is called the Circuito Chico, a circuit tour running about 60 kilometers. Sound daunting? You don’t have to do the whole thing. There’s a shorter route that still hits the best viewpoints.

If you choose to start your ride in town, there are several bike rental companies to choose from, some of which also offer guided cycling tours. I recommend taking the bus a bit out of town and starting your ride right in the middle of the hills. The best way to do this is to take the #20 bus from town to Kilometer 18. There are two companies located there, both of which offer mountain bike rental for 45-65 pesos. I went with Cordillera Bike Rentals & Tours, located at Avenida Bustillo, Km 18.6. They also operate a refugio (or hostel) if you’d like to spend a night outside of town.

The Circuito Chico is not hugely difficult, but there are several points that will have you huffing and puffing. You won’t be the only one if you have to walk your bike up a few hills. But if you can make it through the literal uphill battle, the downhill is easy breezy and offers fantastic views. Stop for a picnic lunch at a hillside lookout point, or park your bike on the beach and dip your toes in the crystal clear lago.

Don’t forget to ask your rental company for a bike lock before taking off — if you stop along the way you may want to leave your bike while you grab a bite or relax.

TREKKING GLACIAR PERITO MORENO

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I can’t help but reiterate how remarkable this enormous ice mass truly is. With a surface area of over 250 square kilometers, Perito Moreno is one of the world’s most well-known glaciers.

The glacier is located within the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, which offers all kinds of other activities, like horseback riding, kayaking and world-class hiking. But, of course, the main event is the bright blue hunk of ice that gives the park its name.

If you spend a day at the glacier, you’re bound to hear ice falling from all sides, and if you’re lucky enough, you might see a large chunk fall crashing into the icy water below. Don’t worry, though– this isn’t another effect of global warming; the regeneration that occurs is part of the natural cycle of the glacier. And, wow, is it a powerful sight.

One company, Hielo y Aventura, monopolizes the glacier trekking business at Perito Moreno, but luckily they do a pretty darn good job. The guides are young, friendly and, most importantly, knowledgeable. There are three choices for you to see the glacier: Safari Náutico, Mini-Trekking and Big Ice.

Safari Náutico: The view of Glaciar Perito Moreno from the water is unlike any other. Boats carrying up to 130 passengers will take you along Lake Rico to view the front side of the glacier. The boats depart hourly from 10am to 4pm, except June through September, when they only leave at noon. This is a great way to see the glacier from afar, but if you wanna get up close and personal with this ice mass, you’ve gotta do one of the trekking adventures.

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Mini-Trekking: I have to put in my two cents here: this trek is not aptly named in the slightest. It sounds rather cute, doesn’t? Prissy, even. “Mini-trekking” seems to invite you to bring the kids and ice cream cones and we’ll all go skipping along in the snow. Well, I’m here to tell you, friends, that the “mini-trek” is not kidding around. It begins with a short boat ride offering a view of the south side of the glacier, dropping you at the opposite shore, where you’ll meet your trekking guides. A short explanation of the glacier and the surrounding flora and fauna is given, crampons are distributed, and then it’s time to get to work. The mini-trek is a two-hour ice trek, where you’ll see streams, lagoons, and magnificent ice formations. Be sure to try a sip of the water... it’s delicious! The trekking isn’t extreme, but for most people two hours will be plenty of time to enjoy the glacier and get the gist of what ice trekking is all about.

Big Ice: This is the real deal. The big kahuna. If you wanna know what ice trekking is really about, then you want to tackle Big Ice. Think twice before signing on for this adventure, though– it’s seven hours of walking over rough terrain. If you think you can handle it, then prepare yourself to see some of the most incredible sights nature provides. You’ll see all the usual suspects– lagoons, streams, and ice formations– but you’ll also traverse into the center of the glacier, where you’ll encounter caves and crevices, and learn “the ways of the ice.” This is a serious trek, but well worth the effort if you can do it.

Both the Mini-Trekking and Big Ice culminate with a special treat: whiskey served over glaciar ice. Now, I don’t know if it was the fancy schmancy ice, but I’m pretty darn sure that was some of the tastiest (and most deserved!) whiskey I’ve ever had.

Be sure to wear close-toed athletic or hiking shoes for the treks, and warm outerwear. Also note: none of the excursions include the National Park entrance fee or lunch. Hielo y Aventura is headquartered at Avenida Libertador 935 in El Calafate, but you can also book these tours and treks through your hostel or hotel.

USHUAIA: EL FIN DEL MUNDO

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Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, located on the Beagle Channel at the tip of Argentina. This sleepy town is quaint and friendly, maintaining an almost untouched feel to it– though, of course, it sees millions of tourists every year.

There are several activities to keep you occupied in Ushuaia for a few days, whether you want to bum around town or get out into the wilderness.

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego is a must-see if you visit Ushuaia. Among several ways to access the park is El Tren del Fin del Mundo, which was used way back in the day by Ushuaia prisoners who worked in the forests. The ride on the whole is unexciting but still worth doing, if for no other reason than to say you took the Train to the End of the World. There are also city buses that will take you to the park, or you can hire a taxi to drop you off and pick you up at the end of your excursion.

Planning a trip to the park requires making a few decisions: Do you want to camp? Do you want to hike? Do you prefer to see all that the park has to offer from the comforts of a minivan with a multilingual tour guide? There are several options, so you’ll want to investigate each before heading over there.

We had just come from a strenuous hike in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, so we opted for the guided van tour. Some may see this as a cop-out, but we actually found it to be the most cost- and time-efficient way to see the entire park. Plus, with a knowledgeable guide, we had the pleasure of learning exactly what we were looking at. The tour ran from nine in the morning until about three in the afternoon, giving us ample time to enjoy the park. Most tour companies will offer a two options: just transfer to and from the park, or transfer plus a fully-guided tour within the park. If you would like to take the Tren del Fin del Mundo, your guide will drop you off at the train and meet you inside the park when you disembark. Within the Tierra del Fuego national park, you’ll learn about all the most important flora and fauna, as well as some interesting tidbits like how the province got its name.

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This area is also known for its Magellanic penguin colonies. Though the largest colonies are located a bit north along the Strait of Magellan, there are some in the region that reach the thousands. If you’d like to see these little tuxedo-wearing guys waddle around a bit, you have a few options. Your best bet is to do the “Walk with the Penguins” tour, which is pretty accurate in name– you literally walk, hang, chill, lay down, do whatever with the penguins. If you’re pressed for time and/or cash, you can take a boat tour that gets you close to the shore, but doesn’t allow you to disembark. Definitely not as fun, but still an option.

If you’re not into well-dressed birds, fear not... there’s a tour for you, too. A Beagle Channel boat tour will take you the the Isla de Los Lobos, where hundreds of sea lions lounge lazily for your photo-taking pleasure. On these tours you also can visit the Ushuaia historic lighthouse, as well as the sea birds island.

If you spend some time in Ushuaia, you MUST stay at Freestyle Backpackers’ Hostel. Rasta Max will greet you with a hug and welcome you to the fam, and then leave you to relax in the airy common room. With hotel-like accommodations, you really can’t go wrong here. The people are great, breakfast is hearty, and the place is comfy and clean.

Ushuaia is also a popular departure point for many trips to Antarctica, though it’ll cost you a pretty penny.