Saturday, June 18, 2011

To the North: Ash-Free Argentina & Chile

After writing three separate posts about the eruption of Volcán Puyehue, which remains on red alert, I’m suffering from volcano fatigue. Since southern Chile and Argentina are lesser winter than summer destinations anyway, I’ll use today’s post to make suggestions about ash-free travel in the northern deserts and moist forests and wetlands of the two countries, where it’s presently possible to make air connections from Buenos Aires and Santiago, where international airports are once again open. The destinations that follow are actually better in winter, when milder temperatures are the rule.

Esteros del Iberá

Perhaps the most underrated destination in all of Argentina, the Iberá marshes of Corrientes province are a cornucopia of subtropical wildlife, where it’s possible to come face-to-face with caimans, capybaras, howler monkeys, marsh deer, and perhaps even a maned wolf - not to mention nearly 350 bird species. Estancia Rincón del Socorro offers expensive luxury tours and accommodations, but nearby Colonia Pellegrini offer alternative services for every budget from shoestring backpackers up.

Cataratas del Iguazú

Unlike Iberá, the Iguazú falls are world-famous, even appearing in commercial cinema epics such as Moonraker (1979), The Mission (1986), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Recent theme-park transformations have made visiting the falls a less adventurous experience than it once was, but there’s no denying the visual and aural impact of thunderous whitewater that plunges vertically over a basalt escarpment half again as high as Niagara, and more than twice as wide. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Quebrada de Humahuaca

Like Iguazú, the Humahuaca canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its imposing natural landscapes, archaeological sites, and an indigenous heritage that recalls the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States. At its highest altitudes, winter nights can get cold, but July and August are warm and dry during the daytime.

Iquique

The capital of Chile’s Tarapacá region, the coastal city of Iquique has a mild dry climate all year - even as the winter solstice approaches, the forecast daytime temperatures for the coming week are in the mid-60s (around 18° C). That may not be warm enough to swim in the chilly Pacific - though wet-suited surfers enjoy big winter waves from storms at sea - but it’s warm enough to enjoy the city’s Victorian architecture, the nearby nitrate ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura (another UNESCO World Heritage Site, pictured above), and the pre-Columbian geoglyphs that cover the hillsides of the Cerros Pintados.

San Pedro de Atacama

The best-known destination in the Atacama desert, San Pedro is a genuine colonial village that’s also become a magnet for travelers ranging from full-moon party-goers to the most selective of those for whom cost is no object - at the all-inclusive Hotel Awasi, for instance, the guest to guide ratio is one to one. Like Iberá, though, San Pedro also offers cheap to moderately priced alternatives for everybody to visit sights such as the frigid but flamingo-filled lakes of the altiplano, the geyser fields at El Tatio, and pre-Columbian ruins at Catarpe and Quitor.

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