Chile & Peru: In the Wake of Humboldt & Darwin

2013 West Coast of South America Field Report

Kevin Clement|December 1, 2013|Field Report

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - Quito, Ecuador: Wherever you were coming from, or where your flight originated, it’s a safe bet that when your plane made its descent into Quito, it didn’t have to descend as far as it originally climbed. This is because Quito sits at 9,350 feet, on the lower slopes of the volcano Pichincha. If you were near a window during that descent, your first image of Quito was of a whitewashed colonial-style city with few tall buildings, sprawling across emerald green slopes and canyons.

It is not only one of the highest capital cities, but also the oldest South American capital; it has the best preserved colonial district; and it was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked around the balconied old town, stopping in richly ornamented and gilded churches.

Another image I came away with could serve as an emblem for not only our days in Quito, but for the entire trip—a cluster of ancient and elegant towers belonging to various historic churches, rising against the backdrop of snow-covered Andean volcanoes and a clear sky, shading to indigo.

Thursday, October 10 - Quito / Guayaquíl / Salinas / Embark Sea Adventurer: Anyone who has had a younger sibling who eventually outgrew them—who has watched their sibling start out as a tiny infant but then grow and grow, until that gut-wrenching day when they realize their sibling is actually bigger and taller than they are—anyone who has had that experience can appreciate what Quiteňos feel when they look toward Guayaquíl.

Guayaquíl is but a young upstart, having been founded at its present location only in 1537. But its growth has outpaced the old capital, and though it remains the seat of government and culture, Guayaquíl is the port of commerce and the economic engine for the country. And yes, there is a distinct rivalry between the two.

We hope that Quito did not mind too much when we departed, or feel jealous when we admired Guayaquíl’s iguana-draped parks and enjoyed a drive along the lively Malecón waterfront. Or even when we dove into a tasty lunch in a historic restaurant (with an equally historic saxophone player). But after all, ours was a seagoing expedition, and the Sea Adventurer rode at anchor awaiting us, and, well, Quito just doesn’t have an ocean.

Friday & Saturday, October 11 & 12 - At Sea / Salaverry, Peru / Chan Chán: Who ever heard of Salaverry? Or Chan Chán? Or Trujillo, for that matter? And yet two times in history, this area was the seat of great civilizations. Two different great civilizations. And today we went to see the traces they left behind.

The first we encountered was the Chimu people, who flourished from around 1100-1470. Their capital, known as Chan Chán, was the largest city ever in pre-Columbian America. Today it is a sprawling edifice of adobe and mud plaster, with rooms, plazas, and monuments artfully arranged.

Long before the Chimu people, came the Moche. From their heyday between 100 and 700AD, they left us the huge ruins called the Temple of the Sun and of the Moon, although there is no evidence the Chimu thought of them that way. They are massive structures, one built into the side of a hill, the other an artificial hill in itself, with tremendous and elaborate frescoes.

After viewing all the above ruins, we decamped to a nearby hacienda for lunch, a display of Peruvian horses and dancing, and a Pisco sour. And for me, my head spinning as I tried to comprehend the fullness of time and the vastness of the earth, and how not one but two mighty societies could vanish into the sand of this desert, that Pisco came just in time.

Sunday, October 13 - Lima: Lima is a big city, by far the biggest we would encounter. The reason people come to big cities is to have options and opportunities; and so it was for us.

We arrived at Callao, the storied and once pirate-haunted port for the great city, and diverged on our various missions. Those who wanted to experience the ancient history of the area went to Pueblo Libre with our archaeologist, Hector Williams, and visited the private Rafael Larco Herrera Museum, housed in an 18th-century mansion built over a 7th-century pre-Columbian pyramid, and displaying 3,000 years of ancient Peruvian art and artifacts.

Those who were interested in the colonial period of Peru’s history went on the Colonial Sites Excursion, strolled through the gorgeous Plaza de Armas, examined the Casa Aliaga, and delved into the dark catacombs beneath the monastery of San Francisco.

And the birders, well, they went out and saw birds. At a place called Pantanos de Villa, and they reported the findings excellent.

All of us got back barely in time for the ship to sail…because when you have opportunities like these, you have to milk them for all they’re worth.

Monday, October 14 - Pisco / Paracas National Reserve / Nazca Lines: I remember as a kid lying on the floor in front of the TV, my eyes glued to a fascinating documentary special, narrated by Rod Serling, called Chariots of the Gods. Among many pieces of pseudo-scientific evidence the program advanced to “prove” its claim that “ancient astronauts” had visited Earth, one stood out as the most compelling and convincing. And today, after all these years, we saw that evidence firsthand—the Nazca Lines.

Actually, not all of us saw it, since some chose instead to visit an ancient Inca roadhouse called Tambo Colorado. No ancient astronauts have been known to visit there. And some of us couldn’t go directly for our flights to the Lines, since the air service’s equipment was limited. In the meantime we drove out onto the Paracas Peninsula, a beautiful place, but as barren and lifeless as the moon, or, perhaps, as the aliens’ home world.

For those who did fly over the Lines, the most astonishing thing about the gigantic spidery drawings in the desert was the fact that they cannot be recognized as coherent figures from the ground—you must be able to fly to comprehend them. And for those who remember Chariots, they remain a fascinating enigma and a symbol of the mystery that still remains in the world.

Tuesday & Wednesday, October 15 & 16 - At Sea / Arica, Chile: When you arrive in Arica, you know you are in the desert. The driest desert on earth, in fact—the Atacama. The hills are sere and brown, the sky is clear and blue, the sun is sharp and bright, and the air is warm and devoid of the slightest thought of humidity. It is not a place where people should live.

And yet people have lived here for a very long time. The city was built on a pre-Columbian site, and a few of the former residents remained behind—in the form of some strikingly well-preserved mummies, as now housed in the Museo de San Miguel.

What made (and still makes) life possible here is a concentration of living energy around the margins of the town, all of it made possible by the presence of water. Water flows down from the Andes and enlivens the fertile Azapa Valley, which would otherwise be as lifeless as the El Morro headland that looms over the town.

Our birders found the delta of the river teeming with life. Ocean water, specifically the nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, is another source of biological productivity, and of the town’s current prosperity. Of all the ways that nature bestows its bounty on humankind, perhaps water in the desert is the most manifest.

Thursday, October 17 - Arica / Lauca National Park: We awoke on this long-awaited morning still in Arica, anticipating a day of drama. And we were not to be disappointed. We set out early (the birders at 0430!) and drove toward the Andes. This part of the West Coast of South America is a thin strip of seashore and desert, a mere fringe of land fenced off from the rest of the continent by the towering ridge of the longest and second highest mountain range on earth. Today we would ascend to those heights, to the high altiplano of Lauca National Park. In other words, from the coast to over 15,000 feet—all in the course of a morning.

It was a punishing experience for some, but the rewards were many. Strangely, we started in fog, then burst into clear, clean Andean air. We made several stops at an old church, an Inca fortress that once guarded the pass, a tiny white-stone high-altitude town, a boardwalk that led us to a colony of odd high country animals called vizcachas, and viewpoints revealing, of all things, flamingos.

It was breathtaking—literally. At last, gasping with amazement, or maybe just for air, we reached our goal: Lauca’s Lago Chungará, a large lake speckled with Andean waterfowl. The perfect cone of majestic Parinacota presided over the scene, allowing itself to be reflected in the lake.

Then we turned and descended, switchback after hairpin turn, down and down, falling like an arrow from the sky, until we reached the coast again and our comfortable ship. Drama is all very well during the day, but it’s best to leave it behind when night comes.

Friday, October 18 - Iquique / Calama / San Pedro de Atacama: Deserts are an acquired taste. Everyone, it seems, enjoys a rocky seacoast or a field of flowers. But deserts are so definitively inhospitable and lifeless that not many can relate to them. Nevertheless, with a sense of anticipation or morbid fascination, most of us packed our bags and flew today into the heart of the most deserty desert on earth.

We landed in the major mining town of Calama and had time to visit the old church at Chiu Chiu and the Inca fortress of Pukara de Lasana before driving into the even higher and drier region of San Pedro de Atacama.

We had lunch at our hotel and then strolled to the Plaza Principal and the Archaeological Museum. We spent the rest of the day on the moon—or at least in the Earth’s closest equivalent, a place aptly called the Valley of the Moon. The Valley is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust, a desert landscape just as otherworldly as its namesake, but much more colorful, and at least as dramatic. Especially when the real moon, in a ridiculously appropriate gesture, full and round on this night of all nights, rose from directly behind Licancabur Volcano…as we watched, spellbound, from the top of an enormous sand dune. At that moment, if you did not acquire a taste for deserts, well, you never will.

Saturday, October 19 - San Pedro de Atacama / Antofagasta: In the desert, water is life. This is something we all know intellectually, but today provided a graphic, visceral demonstration.

San Pedro de Atacama, where we awoke, is an oasis, a place where some vast underground sheet of water flowing down from the mountains breaks the surface. So the pretty adobe town has trees and flowers and a few birds. But look beyond the edge of the settlement, and you look out across a lifeless wasteland extending to the summits of the Andes, or to the next oasis. We set out to visit two of these.

The first is known as Lago Chaxa, and was perhaps the strangest lake any of us had ever seen. It was hundreds of yards wide and about a foot deep, and several times saltier than seawater—we crossed miles of salt flats to get there—and full of flamingos. Yes, flamingos. Sure, we all expected to see them, but still, the sight of giant pink birds in a salt flat in the high mountains was a little startling. What’s more, we soon realized that we were seeing three species—Chilean, Andean, and Puna.

In fact, the whole lake was teeming with life. Besides the flamingos, there were Andean avocets, Baird’s sandpipers, Wilson’s phalaropes, olive-backed mice, and orange-bellied Fabian’s lizards.

Before returning to San Pedro to start our drive down to the coast, we stopped at the village of Tocanao. Its church and bell tower dated from the 1600s, and featured cactuswood trim. The line of willows and tamarugos along the edge of town announced the remarkable presence of running water. It drove home the point that in the Atacama, where there’s water, there’s life, and where there’s life, there’s water. You do not find one without the other.

Sunday, October 20 - Isla Pan de Azúcar: It was as though we were traveling through some vast outdoor Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. What could possibly be more amazing to find in this region of scorching desert and arid mountains than flamingos? Well, the only thing you could conceivably name would be penguins. And lo and behold, here they were. Multitudes of penguins, scampering down the shore or sitting on their “front porches” in front of their burrows. These were Humboldt penguins, the most northerly species in the world barring their close relatives in the Galápagos.

We were cruising in our Zodiacs around an island called Pan de Azúcar. The island got its name, which means “Sugar Loaf”, from its blinding white color, and it got its white color from the guano produced by its many avian residents. Besides the penguins, these included Peruvian boobies, red-legged cormorants, and the eponymous guanay cormorant.

And while we were looking across at the penguins and up at the cormorants, quick and sinuous movement from the water ’s surface attracted our attention. Pan de Azúcar, it turns out, also hosts a population of the seldom seen South American marine otter, one of only two maritime species in the world, along with the northern sea otter. We watched these rare and elusive creatures swim in the kelp, dive, climb out on rocks, and even eat pieces of crabs they’d caught. Unheard-of, never-before-seen photographs were taken.

This coast had amazed us yet again.

Monday, October 21 - Islotes Pajaros / Coquimbo / La Serena: For a strange, brief period in the early 20th century, the excrement of certain seabirds was one of the most valuable materials on earth. The world was starving for nitrogen, and the only source of it was guano of various kinds. Large-scale agriculture had come to depend on it, and without it there would be massive crop failures. At the same time, WWI loomed on the horizon, and nations were building stocks of munitions, and nitrogen puts the “N” in “TNT.” Guano is the only substance ever to be in demand simultaneously for the preservation and destruction of human life.

It was then that the attention of the world focused on places like Islotes Pajaros. The evidence of that attention was visible to us on our Zodiac cruise in the form of white-coated ruins, all that was left of the once huge guano mining operation.

We also found, on this larger island, the same wild profusion of life as the day before: Humboldt penguins, three species of cormorant, boobies, pelicans, and also a real sea lion rookery (as opposed to the haul-out we had seen previously).

The river of wealth produced by the guano flowed through the nearby port of Coquimbo and its sister city of La Serena, a lovely place that we visited in the afternoon. These towns benefited enormously from the mining operations, operations which must’ve been devastating for the birds and seals that lived on Pajaros. What does it say about us that we might value the effluent of a creature more than the creatures themselves?

Tuesday & Wednesday, October 22 & 23 - At Sea: Quo me cunque rapit tempestas, deforor hospes. “For as the tempest drives, so I shape my course.” This ancient saying, quoted by Boswell as a motto of Dr. Jonson’s, could be the motto for all expedition travel, and the saying of the day for us. But we faced a tempest not of wind, but of bureaucracy.

It seems there had been a small plane crash in the ocean somewhere near Isla Mocha, our intended destination, some weeks before. An intensive search by the Chilean military had proven fruitless. Meanwhile, the eyes of the nation and its news media had been singularly focused on this remote and normally disregarded area—to the point that the president of Chile found it expedient to schedule a visit to Mocha. And he chose the very day that we were supposed to be there. So our permission to land was summarily revoked.

Next we set our sights on the nearest island down the coast, Santa Maria; but the military denied us landing permission at the last minute.

So we toodled over to the mainland, hoping to land at a town called Lota. We asked for the blessing of the harbormaster…who passed our request on to the local Coast Guard commander… who bumped it back over to the municipality. These entities continued to bounce our humble request back and forth like a volleyball, none of them willing to make a decision…until we ran out of time and had to sail for our next destination.

We could console ourselves with the fact there were worse places to be than on this wildlife-rich ocean with an able lecture team—and, as we learned at that night’s Liar’s Club contest, a hilariously disingenuous one. And also with the fact that we had been witnesses to a classic demonstration of South American bureaucratic paralysis.

Thursday, October 24 - Valdivia: There seems to be almost a rule on this itinerary that the more violent a history a place has had, the more peaceful and charming it is today. Pedro de Valdivia, ruthless conqueror of what is now Chile, waged a brutal campaign against the native people of the area, particularly the fierce Mapuche tribes—until he was captured and executed by a Mapuche chief.

Today, the town founded by him and bears his name is a pleasant regional center. It is a city graced by rivers; our ship anchored in one, and we landed by Zodiac on the bank. Then as you drive into town, if you’re not crossing one river, you’re driving along the bank of another.

Valdivia also boasts a fine botanical garden with many native trees, and many in full spring bloom when we were there, plus an ancient clay fortress (Torreon de Barro), a great museum, a fascinating fish market with many edible oddities, and, treasure of treasures, a renowned chocolate factory. We did all of it.

As we made ready to leave the Hotel Villa del Rio, where we had lunch, we got word that student demonstrators had blocked off the bridge we needed to cross to get back to the landing. They were protesting the high cost and poor funding of education in Chile. So we hung out at the hotel a while longer.

In the end, the incident afforded us only a slight delay. But it did provide us an indication that the old Mapuche spirit of rebellion is not entirely dead. Fortunately, however, Pedro de Valdivia is.

Friday, October 25 - Chiloé Island: Chiloé Island has always been a world unto itself, as any Chilean will tell you. As movements toward national independence swept through Latin America in the early 19th century, the Spanish Crown lost more and more ground. Finally the royalists were left with just one spot—Chiloé. The town of Ancud, where we landed, overlooked the strategic strait leading to the Gulf of Corcovado, and the fortress of San Antonio felt the thud of many cannonballs.

Chiloé has always had its own distinctive culture. Chilotes (island residents) still believe in a unique set of myths and spirits, some helpful, some malicious, but all their own. Our program for the afternoon was to hunt one of those spirits.

The goddess in question was the voluptuous mermaid called Pincoya. We found a big statue of her in Ancud, and another representation in Dalcahue, where we drove for lunch. But the manifestation that interested us at present was a small seabird that bears her name, the Pincoya storm petrel. That name had been given to the bird only very recently by its discoverer and designator, our own Peter Harrison, world seabird expert.

Surely Pincoya, honored by Peter’s application of her name, had invested the bird with her true spirit. Which might explain why it proved so difficult to find. For in the legends, Pincoya is the sort of being who, the harder you seek for her, the more elusive she becomes.

Saturday, October 26 - Puerto Montt / Lake District / Disembark: At last the hour had come when we had to leave our floating home behind. But standing on the shore in Puerto Montt, you have wondered if something had gone terribly wrong—were we disembarking in southern Chile or at some lake port in the Swiss Alps? For many of the place names, the surnames of the people, and even the items on menus in the restaurants were distinctly German, and the scenery consisted of Germanic-looking mountains and a profusion of lakes scattered over the forested landscape. Our short drive to Puerto Varas offered no reassurance, for that town was even more European, its architecture and surroundings straight out of the Black Forest.

Not to worry. We were still in Chile, but in the region known as the Lake District, which, owing to its resemblance to parts of the Alps, had received huge waves of German and Swiss colonists in the 19th century.

It was the icing on the cake—a cake of many, many layers. Most itineraries take you to see one single specific environment. We had started this journey in the equatorial cloud forest; had embarked the ship in the humid tropics; had sailed through temperate seas and into the driest desert on earth; had ventured up into the High Andes; and now found ourselves in a temperate rain forest, on the verge of a colder, Antarctic-influenced climate zone. It was truly a huge breadth of environments to experience on one trip down one coast.

What true travelers collect and horde is not gold but experiences, and the West Coast of South America has been a treasure trove.

Related Blog Posts