Chasing Lights

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Chasing Lights

Without a doubt, one of our most magical memories together was watching the night sky light up with the swirling and snaking green tendrils of the aurora borealis. It was a sight that cemented our love for Iceland and ensured that we'd return time and again. We've often joked to each other that if ever a favorable aurora forecast (more on that later) coincided with cheap airfare, we'd hop back over for a quick weekend jaunt. It's been over 5 years since, with a single summer visit to Iceland in between (although Ann will gladly remind me of her layover without me). And then it happened. Kp 4-5. $270 roundtrip. It was time to return to the land of Ice and Fire. 

At the outset, the mission was simple: a trek into the Vatnajökull ice caves and a night of basking under the northern lights. But as word got around about our upcoming venture, our intimate weekend getaway quickly snowballed into a bit of an unruly party: Matt, our ever faithful third-wheel, and Ravi from the 2011 trip that started it all, plus their respective significant others Jenn and Elizabeth. And then there were Julia and Yin, not to be left out of the action, who joined in less than two days before departure (but only after Yin realized that he could make it back in time to still see the Superbowl). Heading into the weekend we closely monitored the Kp index and weather. All looked well and the excitement was palpable.

We should have known better.

The first inkling of trouble came with an email from Pink Iceland, who was (again) helping us with our travel arrangements: our tour to the crystal ice cave was canceled due to flooding from recent rains, but we could visit a different "black ice" cave nearby. Not ideal, but we'll take it.

The flight to Reykjavik itself was rather nondescript and we actually arrived ahead of schedule. Ravi reported, to our collective envy, that he'd seen the aurora from the plane. After loading up on caffeine and picking up the car, we headed due east towards Jökulsárlón. It was around 5:30am and we had plenty of time before our afternoon tour. Unlike our first winter visit, the road was mostly free of snow and ice and the landscape surprisingly green. We made good speed past Reykjavik, and it seemed like smooth sailing. Then it hit us. Hard, driving, pelting snow–a perfect storm of wintry mix came down sideways at our small convoy. Through the furiously working windshield wipers we could barely see ahead; it was somewhat terrifying, but beautiful at the same time. It went away as quickly as it came, and before long we saw Seljalandsfoss in the distance, lit from beneath with enormous lights that must have been a new addition since we were last here. This called for our first pit-stop on the trip. We fumbled through our carryon bags for warm clothing, and in the pre-dawn light took some photos by the waterfall. 

We continued onwards, hoping to make it to Vik in time to see the sunrise. About half an hour out of Seljalandsfoss, I had the sudden, heart-stopping realization that my wedding ring wasn't on my finger! We pulled over, and after a panicked deliberation decided to return straightaway to Seljalandsfoss to search the grounds of the parking lot. We found nothing. About to return to the car disheartened, I heard someone call out "found it!" Ann proved to be my savior as she doggedly searched through our bags and found the errant ring at the bottom of our backpack: it must have slipped off my finger in the cold while I was grabbing our gear out. Disaster averted but having taken a one-hour detour (sorry guys!), we raced on towards the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. We made it barely in time to catch some of the first morning rays touch the familiar basalt pillars of Reynisdrangar.

Sunrise over Reynisfjara, at 9:49AM.

To our surprise, a throng of Asian tourists had already assembled on the beach by the time we got to it. Between the  dangerous 'sneaker' waves and people jostling for spots to take the best photos, the beach was anything but tranquil.

Unfortunately, we were a bit too early to eat at the fantastic Black Beach Restaurant and because of the ring affair running short on time. So, as is par for the course for an Icelandic road trip, we found ourselves at the N1, picking up a few hotdogs for sustenance, and refueling on gas as well as more caffeine to keep the drivers going.

A mad race later we arrived at Jökulsárlón. The tour, lead by Siggi of South East Iceland, was a lot of fun. It was our first time walking on a glacier, which was essentially a giant sheet of slippery, glassy ice in varying shades of blue and gray. With the crampons providing firm footing, we clambered along Breiðamerkurjökull for a good two hours, stopping by various ice formations, peeking into the flooded entrance of the crystal cave (Sad!), and ending with a visit to the Black Diamond ice cave. 

The tour ended just as the sun was setting. Despite growing hunger and fatigue, we swung by the nearby Diamond Beach to admire some of the beached 'bergs before heading off to the aptly-named Skyrhusid in search of hot food and shower. After dinner, the weather worsened. We drove back out anyway in an attempt to find a hole in the cloud cover. Alas, it was not meant to be. 

We woke early the next morning after not-enough sleep. The first car had a long drive back to Reykjavik to catch return flights; we wanted to go back to the Diamond Beach for some more pictures. Ann had had the bright (hah...) idea of bringing along our 1200 lumen SCUBA light, which, in addition to being conveniently waterproof, lit the icebergs in dramatic fashion. I, on the other hand, almost sacrificed myself to the Drowned God.

We were back on the road, rushing yet again to catch our second tour. Julia gave us periodic updates from the other car: heavy snow ahead; traffic slowed to a crawl. They wanted to see Winter Iceland, now they got it.

We made it to Sólheimajökull (Sun-home-glacier) just as our group was gearing up. Overnight a thick blanket of snow had fallen and painted it white. We dutifully trudged behind our guide, taking care to avoid the hidden crevasses and moulins.

As luck would have it, a tiny hole had opened up inside Sólheimajökull. So we got a tour of a blue ice cave after all.

Everybody took a bite (or a lick) of glacial ice and snow:

By mid-afternoon the weather had improved (after a few hiccups). For the first time on this trip, we were also not rushing to get somewhere. So after the tour we backtracked to Vik, and finally got to satisfy my cravings for lamb soup and Skyr cake at Black Beach Restaurant, which was now open.

Back at the Skogar Guesthouse, we discovered to our delight that it had an outdoor hot tub. After two days of being cold, wet, and tired, soaking our weary souls in its warmth–as fluffy snow came down–was exactly what we needed. It was amaaaazing. We were rejuvenated, and ready to go out aurora hunting once again.

This time we were armed with a bit more info, and the weather was better, though sadly the solar storm had largely subsided by the evening (and we were running out of gas with no gas station open nearby). So we did the best we could by driving down the nearest inland-bound, not-F road near Seljalandsfoss. Julia will never believe any of our photos ever again. This was after some long exposure, but we did manage to see or hallucinate some green...

Photos from the road. Icelandic winter days are short and dramatic. We experienced sunshine, snow, hail, and rain in the span of hours. On the way out the lava fields were black and hraun green, and on the return everything had turned into a sheet of white. The light changed constantly. In exchange for the brief window of daylight, it was always golden hour...

So ends another trip. Some general observations:

  • This was supposedly the warmest winter in 160+ years of weather records. We stood no chance with the Jokulsarlon ice caves.
  • Solheimajokull is still receding, even since our last visit there, at the pace of ~300m a year. Go watch Chasing Ice.
  • There were WAY more tourists (probably because of Chinese New Years around this time of the year). We were surprised to learn that hotels and guesthouses are now booked full year-round.
  • Food remains expensive. Icelandic lamb is still incredibly delicious. As is Mountain House.
  • Weather and space weather forecasts are not to be trusted. More on that later.
  • They find our president situation incredibly funny...
  • GLOBAL WARMING!

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Christmas in Paradise

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Christmas in Paradise

2016.12.25 Sunday

The trip’s come to an end, and we’re back down the Pan-American, spending one last day in the colorful port city of Valparaiso. It's a port city that's undergone a sort of pop-cultural, graffiti-fueled renaissance.

“Valpo” is a bit of a mess. But it’s a lovely mess. Garbled plazas masquerade as junctions, from which one-way roads, unpaved paths, and pedestrian stairs sprawl in organically chaotic ways. They elude directions, defy gravity, and lead the bewildered tourist on a trippy ramble up and down an Escheresque universe of colorful hills.

Today is Christmas, and just about everything is closed. It doesn’t matter. We’re here to admire the street art.

Ann unwittingly dressed to match the murals...

We walked through some grittier parts of town. The graffiti became more... graffiti-like. But here we met a street artist in action.

Some of our favorites:

Of course we'd like this.

Piano stairs off of Beethoven Street. Ann is trying to play something...

Gato. They like cats here. So do we.

Brain in a cage.

Chewie riding a slide in the most whimsical playground.

We'd like to know what they're having.

Not sure what this is either.

So there's the end of our first trip to South America. We did a numbers comparison with last year's trip to Iceland:

Chile by the numbers

  • 16 days and 15 nights
  • ~10,000 km from home
  • ~3000 photos kept, >6000 taken
  • 6 Calafate Sours drunk
  • 6 guesthouses and hotels, longest stay at Alfa Aldea in Vicuña
  • 2 60L backpacks, 1 suitcase, 2 camera bags, all carry-on
  • 2 cameras, 4 lenses, 1 tripod, and 2 iPhones
  • 3 guided tours: Astro, Isla Damas, and Paso de Agua Negra
  • 4 fox encounters, too many guanacos and hares to count!
  • New highest elevation: 4753m (Paso de Agua Negra) and southernmost latitude: 51.7309° S, 72.4977° W (Puerto Natales).
  • No speeding tickets, still

In Patagonia:

  • 53.1 miles walked, ~10,000ft elevation change
  • 6 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of shoes (one left behind at the hotel, 2 unnecessarily towed along), 4 shirts, 2 down jackets, 4 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of sunglasses.
  • 6 packs of ramen, 16 servings of Mountain House breakfast and dinners brought, all eaten.
  • 1 wild mushroom foraged and tasted. Didn't die.
  • ~1500 photos kept, >3000 taken.

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Pan-American Roadtrip

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Pan-American Roadtrip

2016.12.22 Vicuña

So long Patagonia. It happened that on the way to Santiago we flew directly overhead Torres del Paine. The Cordilleras are ever as elusive, even from the sky, but under the clouds the two giant Grey and Tyndall glaciers emerged in their full magnificence.  

We could smell Santiago before we got off the plane. It’s that slightly acrid, smoky smell that permeates so many cities in the throes of industrialization and growth. And then we stepped off the plane into a thick, red haze that has completely obscured the many hills of the metropolitan area, not to mention the high Andes in the background (or so we’ve been told).  

We picked up our rental car and almost immediately noticed that we’re can’t drive like we’re from Boston. People here are all about “no you go,” even hitting the brakes to let us take a picture of a random church. But after spending one night and one morning in town, we decided that for the rest of the week we’d get out of the smog and fly somewhere by the seat of our pants. 

That very afternoon, Chewie plowed–in one six-hour-long breath­–a heroic 500km on the Pan-American Highway (Ruta 5) from Santiago to Vicuña. We arrived at Alfa Aldea, a sort of basic but charming hostel in the back of a vineyard, with… a giant telescope. And that’s part of the reason we came here: The Elqui Valley, mostly known for growing Pisco grapes, has for whatever reason also collected a critical mass of entrepreneurial stargazers. Having hardly dropped off our bags, we jumped into a guided, outdoor tour of the Southern Skies. The many, many photos (yet to be deciphered) on Chewie’s camera will be a testament to his newfound enthusiasm for stargazing.

On Day 2 in Chico Norte, we drove further north (could’ve probably planned our routes better, oh well) to the coastal town of Punta de Choros. The scenery got only increasingly desolate as shrubs turned into patches of cacti, growing ever more scarce just like the roadside fruit peddlers.

Two and half hours and a few guanacos later, we found ourselves in a ghost town with nothing open (the week before Christmas really seems to be more dead than shoulder season here). By some miracle we found the docks and, not only got on the last boat tour of the day, but with just enough passengers for the captain to deem the trip worthwhile.

Our efforts thankfully not in vain. Along the rocky cliffs of Isla Damas and Isla Choros we spotted lazy puppy-faced sea lions with flippers like Force Fins and more species of birds than we’d ever seen. They range from the graceful aerodynamic kinds, to big-bodied or big-throated predators, to plump and not-so-flighty ones like Humboldt penguins; apparently there are fishes of sizes and shapes for everyone. 

But the real highlight were the pods of bottlenose dolphins jumping out of water and twirling alongside our boat, one of which was brown…? Oh wait that’s not a dolphin, that’s a sea lion masquerading as one! 

We docked on Isla Damas and walked around for a bit. There are more birds, and these impressive cacti a needles...

The trip back would’ve been a lot more monotonous had Chewie not spotted a pair of long ears. A mountain hare! Or… is that actually a fox? We got tricked again. They were just two Zorros trying to chillax on a hilltop, their faces pointed towards the gathering evening wind, eyes delightfully squinted. Leave us be, no molestar, they seemed to say.

2016.12.23 The High Andes

Paso de Aguas Negras is the highest Andean pass connecting Chile and Argentina via a windy dirt track, which up to a few years ago was still (and is?) considered one of the most dangerous roads in the world.  

We decided not to drive it ourselves.

Lincoln (from Elki Magic) picked us a up in a more sensible 4x4, and up the Elqui Valley we went with another couple from Germany (one of whom may or may not be Ser Jorah traveling incognito). We got a bit of history lesson about the region: half a century ago this entire area was just another arid valley carved out by a glacial river. In the 90s two enormous dams were constructed and irrigation systems put in to collect the melt off. And thus were born the burgeoning grape growing communities we now see all along the riverbanks. (But with the glaciers receding farther each year, one's got to wonder how long will this solution last?) Even so, the place is sun-beaten and windy, prone to snow in the winter, so supposedly only a few grape cultivars can grow here. About 100km in, Lincoln pointed out the “last village” before the mountains took over. Though higher up, there are seasonal migrants holed up in shanty huts to pasture their horses and goats. 

Soon after we got past the customs and border control (still at least 100km away from the international boundary), the road ended, and we were to become inured to bumpy rides and altitude. We’re at ~3000m (!) but the air is already thinner and drier, sucking all the moisture out of the lungs. We made another acclimatization stop at the upper dam, with a picnic.

Past the dam we’re ascending in earnest, teetering on dirt roads just at the edge of steep valleys. We’re so glad we’re not driving. Gone are the trees but the mountains are blossoming in mineral-laden layers of red, green, and yellow, and the sky has become unnaturally (and alarmingly) blue.

Hugging the mountainsides are also remnants of glaciers and patches of partially sublimated, meringue-like snow mounds.

So excited were we to see the beginning of the penitentes...

Another few hundred feet up, the snow banks are deeper and their white peaks much more jagged. This is what we've come to see: penitentes in the high Andes!

Above 4000m, we're also getting our first taste of altitude effects. It's easy to get light-headed with any movement, and walking as little as 20ft has become an exertion.

We finally reached the top around 4700m. There's another car here. Not starting because apparently there's not enough oxygen for the engine. What?! Umm not a good place to breakdown... By the time we pushed the car 10ft to get it going again, all six people were out of breath...

So here we are, briefly in Argentina and Chile on top of the mountains.

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Tomorrow, we go back South for our last day in Chile.

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