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Chile Patagonia II

Horseback ride Lago Nordenskjöld/ Mt Almirante Nieto; Laguna Amarga stromatolites, Laguna Azul, guanacos, Paine waterfall; Lago Sarmiento thrombolites, Paine Massif

24th Feb Horseback ride Lago Nordenskjöld/ Mt Almirante Nieto

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We woke to a beautiful rainbow across the mountain behind us, very pretty and atmospheric. We had already been told that our horse ride to Lago Nordenskjöld had been moved from the afternoon to the morning, so we arrived at the meeting room at 9am. We went to their stables, just a 2 minute walk and found our horses; mine was called Tomato! The kit was similar to ours, apart from the stirrups (much larger and worn lower than we would) and a simpler bridle (you are meant to hold the reins in one hand only and use it to turn left or right; you other hand sat on your hip, saddle, or whatever). The banquerana (a girl) had a typical ‘saddle’ of a folded blanket held on by what can only be described as a belt and two ropes to hold a metal circle for a stirrup.
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Baqueanos have a uniform of beret, baggy trousers, neckerchief, sash and all-purpose knife. As we headed along the guide explained about the horses and baqueanos at the lodge. Learn Patagonian cowboy ways with the baqueanos, who lead the Hotel Las Torres rides and look after the horses/ stables of Estancia Cerro Paine. During your time with these local vaqueros (descendants of horsemen who came to work in this remote region over 100 years ago), learn about their clothing, saddles and horse tack, and get a chance to share a mate (herbal tea from yerba mate leaves). Enjoy a typical breakfast of sopapiillas (type of bread) with pebre (Chilean condiment) and chat about Patagonian culture. The baqueanos demonstrate how to saddle and shoe a horse, and ride. If you have riding experience you can join them looking for the tropilla (horse herd). The herd is in 5 groups and each baqueano/a is responsible for 2 groups (2 or 3 baqueanos each group). They can choose 1 personal horse for each of their 2 groups. Towards the end of the 19th century, Torres del Paine started being explored by ‘Baqueanos’ (horsemen from southern Chile, commonly translated as Chilean cowboys). The Baqueanos were based around Punta Arenas and began exploring the region extensively in the 1870s on hunting quests, selling animals skins and feathers to colonials. One of the most famous Baqueanos was Santiago Zamora, known as ‘el baqueano Zamora’. Originally from central Chile, Zamora arrived in Punta Arenas in 1868 and integrated himself with colonists in the region. He spent his life exploring the region north of Punta Arenas, including Torres del Paine, acting as a guide for travellers and explorers. Other notable Baqueanos include Francisco Poivre and Augusto Guillaume (French), Guillermo Greenwood (English) and Avelino Arias, Luis Navarro and Juan Alvarado (Chilean). We rode through the bridleway of the W trail, crossing streams and rivers, past Nordenskjöld lake’s gorgeous north shore and up to a mirador on Monte Almirante Nieto, the glacier and snow-covered mountain that anchors the southeastern extreme of the Paine Massif.
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Nordenskjöld Lake at the foot of the Paine Massif is named after Otto Nordenskjöld (1869-1928), a Finnish-Swedish explorer who probed much of the Antarctic, Greenland, Chile and Peru in the early 20th century. We saw quite a number of birds, attracted by the myriad mosquitoes, including a Chilean Swallow (Golondrina Chilena) Tachycineta meyeni. The glossy blue-grey bird had a white underside and forked tail. It’s very common around Patagonia. Another bird we spotted was the Rufous-collared Sparrow (Chincol) Zonotrichia capensis, again a common bird in Central and South America. It was grey & black with red breast and white throat. The last bird was considerably less common despite its name, a Common Diuca Finch (Diuca) Diuca diuca. This small bird lives only in high altitude scrubland. It has a plump grey body, white throat & white tail patch. We took a similar route back, but but diverted through the tussock grass before getting a (short) canter back to the stables in time for lunch. As we untacked the baqueanos were cooking and when I asked what it was they explained about sopapillas (fried bread filled with ground meat) and cooked me one without me even asking. We ate the hot food with a chilli type salsa, very nice. Apparently hardly anyone ever asks them about their lives, so they were surprised we were interested.
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Lunch in the bar was lovely and we had the whole afternoon to wander, so we took ourselves off on a trip to see wildlife and generally just enjoy the sunshine. The area around here was mainly Pre-Andean shrubland (also seen on our trip up Ascencio Valley), although we also visited the Magellanic Deciduous Forest (on our horse ride on the 27th), Patagonian Steppe (on our Laguna Azul trip on the 25th) and the Andean Desert (on our Patagon trip on the 26th).

Torres del Paine has four different types of vegetation:
● Pre-Andean Shrubland - Evergreen shrubs like the edible calafate
● Magellanic Deciduous forest - Deciduous Antarctic Beech trees lining the park’s gorges
● Patagonian Steppe - Desert shrubs and tuft grasses resistant to harsh winds & weather
● Andean Desert - Species tolerant to low temperatures and high precipitation
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1. Pre-Andean Scrubland
This type of vegetation is found on river/ lake edges, particularly Sarmiento Lake, Salto Grande and Nordenskjold viewpoint. Plants in pre-Andean scrubland have adapted to save water and survive fierce Patagonian winds.
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From our walk on 21st Feb
Chilean Firetree (Notro) Embothrium coccineum pic 1
Small evergreen tree which blooms every spring with deep red flowers. Grows up to 15m tall and 20cm diameter. The bark is famous for its beauty and ease of working.
Box-leaf Barberry (Calafate) Berberis buxifolia pic 2. A typical evergreen found in clearings in forest steppe and Southern Beech trees. It has yellow flowers and edible small bittersweet blue berries, used for jam and liquor. Prickly Heath (Chaura)
Gaultheria mucronata pic 3. An evergreen shrub native to Southern Chile, growing up to 2m near Southern Beech forests. The edible plum-like fruit (varying red to white) is also used ornamentally.
Holly-leaved barberry (Michay) Berberis ilicifolia pic 4 (the annoying prickly one in our garden) Yellowy-orange flowers, dark shiny green leaves, dark purple berries. Dwarf barberry (Calafatlillo)
Berberis empetrifolia pic 5. Yellowy-orange flowers, fleshier lighter leaves and dark purple berries.
Crimson Spire (Siete Camisas) Escalonia rubra pic 6. Evergreen shrub with white & pink flowers and long fruit capsules.
Porcelain Orchid (Orquide Porcelana)
Chloraea magellanica pic 7. Fleshy green stem, white flowers with green veins and fruit in late summer.
Muddy Shrub (Mata Barrosa) Mullinum spinosum. Shrub with hard branches, sharp leaves and clusters of yellow flowers.
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It was a pleasant afternoon walk and we arrived back at the hotel in time for a relax before supper which was in the bar (due to a kitchen problem), but luckily we discovered the Danish string quartet were performing, which made for a nice evening.

25th Feb Laguna Amarga stromatolites, Laguna Azul, guanacos, Paine waterfall; Lago Sarmiento thrombolites, Paine Massif

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As usual we met in the meeting room for our morning trip, which was to Laguna Azul (trip 8). As we headed out we saw quite a number of birds of prey, including the Andean Condor (Cóndor Andino) Vultur gryphus. With a wingspan of up to 3.2m, it can fly at altitudes over 4,500m at speeds up to 56kph. They nest in high mountain rocks and circle overhead looking for carrion. Females are smaller than males, both are black and males have a red or black crest. The Lesser Horned Owl (Tucúquere) Bubo magellanicus is smaller than the Great Horned Owl, with grey and brown feathers and two ear tufts. The Black-chested Buzzard Eagle (Águila Mora) Geranoaetus melanoleucus has a powerful build, long broad wings, and can live at high altitudes in the mountain ranges. Finally the Austral Pygmy Owl (Chuncho) Glaucidium nanum has a grey and brown body with white patches, short beak and large yellow eyes.
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As before we crossed the Black Bridge and arrived at the CONAF offices, but this time we turned left instead of right. After 15 minutes we came to Laguna Amarga where we saw a small of pink Chilean Flamingo (Flamenco Chileno) Phoenicopterus chilensis. These flamingo are different from the two Phoenicoparrus flamingo species found in northern Chile as they have grey legs with pink knees and a largely black beak. Laguna Amarga is interesting in having rare cyano-bacteria causing stromatolite flock formations. The name Amarga means bitter, which is due to the highly concentrated salts (it is Ph 9.1) in the water (a result of high evaporation). No creatures can live there except the bacteria. The shore was salty white sand, which contrasted to the turquoise blue waters.
Continuing on we spotted a flock of Lesser Rhea (Ñandú) Rhea pennata. These are flightless birds, which spread out their wings when running. Those living on the Patagonian Steppe are known as Lesser Rhea. They were happily grazing around a fresh puma kill! After the inevitable photo opp we set off through the highlands and “desert” towards Laguna Azul. Crossing over a pass we several large guanaco herds. Guanaco or Lama guanicoe are friendly camelids native to South America. They migrate throughout the park in large herds except for lone males ousted from the group by a dominant male during breeding season. They are 1.20m in height and 110-120kg in weight and can spit when feeling threatened. Young (chulengos) are born 11 months after breeding season and stay with the herd for one year. We looked hard for the rare South Andean Deer (Huemul) Hippocamelus bisulcus that live in this far eastern part of the park. Possibly we saw one from a distance, but it wasn’t certain. These deer live in small groups in high mountain forests, feeding mainly on herbs and shrubs. They only reach 85cm tall, and 100kg weight. They feature on Chile's national coat of arms and are endangered with just 100 remaining in the park.

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We drove down from here to Laguna Azul, which was very windy today. A herd of guanaco had just arrived to join a herd already there and we watched the two lead males have a fight. We walked along the lake shore, with the view of Torres behind. Gazing from the east, the perspective of famous 3 towers is different from elsewhere in the Park, and more awe inspiring. The towers were originally called “Cleopatra’s Needles” because they resembled the obelisks of ancient Egypt. In fact the wind was so strong the poor Spectacled Ducks (pic 1) were flying backwards! Spectacled or Bronze-wing (Pato Anteojillo) Anas specularis is a Dabbling duck with bronze speculum feathers. The lake had lots of bird life, especially some beautiful Buff-necked ibis (Bandurria) Theristicus caudatus (pic 2). Given their name for the buff coloured neck, they have black feathers, a white patch on the wing and a red bill and legs. We spotted a pair of Black-necked Swans (Cisne de cuello negro) Cygnus melanocoryphus, a pair of Patagonian Crested Ducks (pic 3), which at first I thought were geese, and several South American Snipe (Becasina) Gallinago paraguaiae (pic 4). These small wading birds were hiding from the wind in the rushes. They breed in South America and migrate north for winter. They have long straight bills, short legs and buff coloured feathers. Also in the rushes were Pintails, Coots, and a solitary Grebe.
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The sole member of genus Speculanas, a Yellow-billed Pintail (Pato jergón) Anas georgica has a brown head, long yellow bill, light brown body and dark brown outer feather; a subspecie Chilean Pintail also exists. The Red-gartered Coot (Tagua común) Fulica armillata is a large species of coot, 55cm long, black with a red garter separating a yellow beak and yellow forehead shield. The Great Grebe (Huala) Podiceps major is the biggest grebe, reaching up to 80cm long and 2kg in weight, with a red neck, grey face, black back and white underside. After our walk we went back up (while a 3rd guanaco herd was coming down to join the others) towards the Paine River, with views of the Paine Massif. We ended at the spectacular Paine Waterfall thundering around a central rock. The Cuernos shone in the sunshine behind as a beautiful backdrop. Paine River connects most of the lakes and rivers inside the park. The river begins at Dickson Lake and travels 9 km to Paine Lake, where it keeps its name and through Paine Waterfall another 15 km to lake Nordenskjold. From Salto Grande it goes to Lake Pehoé and from here through another fall, Salto Chico, and 6 km more to finish in Toro Lake. The other main river of the park, Serrano River, begins at Toro Lake and flows to Ultima Esperanza gulf. It is the principal fluvial network and natural border of Torres del Paine National Park. Its 38 km long allow and ideal for walking or bird watching.
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Laguna Azul (Blue Lagoon) with Steve and with guanaco herd Paine Waterfall
3. Patagonian steppe
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The flora in the more rugged steppe (or pampas) area includes desert shrubs and tuft grasses (Coirón) resistant to harsh winds and weather, accompanied by bent-over bushes in pastureland. The steppe is mainly in the Eastern sector of the park in areas where there are no trees due to the poor humidity and harsh winds. Coirón (festuca gracillima rothm) grasses were heavily used by the indigenous people to weave baskets and to help insulate their tents. This tufted or tussock-forming grass (pic next page) is related to rye, and can also cause ergot poisoning.
Characteristic plants of the pampas include:
A. Hotel B. Laguna Amarga C. Laguna Azul
D. Paine Waterfall E. Black Bridge
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Black Shrub (Mata Negra) Junellia Tridens pic 1
Forms dense communities in wet areas in the steppe. Petals are white- pink and fruit is capsular.
Fachine (Mata Verde) Chiliotrichum diffusum pic 2. Daisy family. White petals with yellow centre. Flowers were used medicinally by the Patagonian natives due to their antiseptic properties.
Guanaco Bush (Neneo Macho) Anarthrophyllum Desideratum pic 3 Cushion-like shrub in rocky soils in the steppe with red-orange flowers. Streaked Maiden (Campanilla) Olsynium Biflorum pic 4. Herb with flowering stems and white flowers with small yellow fruit capsule.
Lady’s slipper (Capachito) Calceolaria biflora pic 5. Herb with leaves in rosette and distinctive yellow slipper-shaped flowers.
Paramela (Paramela) Adesmia boronioides. Shrub with bright yellow flowers growing in arid and exposed areas of the steppe. Has antipyretic properties.
Purple-spored Puffball (Hongo de polvera)
Calvatia Ciathiformis. Fleshy texture and cracked surface. Edible when young, smooth and purple, but matures to become pear shaped and darker in colour.
The third picture, taken on our way back shows some classic (and often unique) endemic flora including:- (front) Philippiella patagonica, Xerodraba (unique to Patagonia, white flowers), Eriachaenium magellicum (centre) and Duseniella patagonica (yellow flowers). Both Eriachaenium and Duseniella are in the daisy family and are the only ones of their species. All these low growing plants (similar to alpine flowers), are flowering plants producing small-tiny flowers for brief periods when conditions are perfect.
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Typical steppe scene by Laguna Azul showing low bushes, tussock type plants and shingle shoreline
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Paine Falls; Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine)

The North Tower (left of photo) is 2,260m was first climbed by Guido Monzino (1957), the Central Tower (2,460m) by Chris Bonington (1963) and the tallest (though it doesn’t look it!) South Tower, 2,500m, by Armando Aste in 1954. Our guide said she thought the Salto Grande trip we’d booked for the afternoon would repeat a lot of what we’d already seen, so when we got back we asked if we could change. As it turned out, the other people who’d booked had already cancelled, so it was no problem. We asked if we could go to Lake Sarmiento instead and as we had a snack lunch in the bar, he confirmed that this was fine. So, after a bibulous lunch we met our (reticent) guide and drove to the drop off point for the hike to the lake. Now, to say our guide was a man of few words would be pushing it. He maybe said 10 sentences in the whole trip and boy he took no prisoners. He marched straight off across the steppe and down quite a steep slope to the first lake. It wasn’t that we couldn’t keep up, because we could, it’s just maybe 1 or 2 photos would have been nice. Geology and flora are the focus of this 2.5 hr trek around the Park’s largest lake, named after Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532–92), author of The History of the Incas, a detailed description of Inca history, culture, religion. Gamboa was the first to attempt to colonise the Magallanes region at the tip of Tierra del Fuego (at Hunger Port, now one of the most tragic stories of Patagonia). Start with a 40-min drive to a trailhead, then hike down a steep valley with small flowering bushes. At the lake are thrombolites, calcium carbonate formations whose coral-like shapes are ancient fossils formed 7000 years ago by bacteria growing in saline lakes. Thrombolites were microbial communities and the first photosynthesizers on earth- Lago Sarmiento is one of the few places in the world they are found. The glacial lake of Sarmiento is surrounded by hills of turbidites from the 80-million-year-old Cerro Toro Formation. The white ring which surrounds the lake consists of nodular limestone which is secreted by lake-dwelling microbial thrombolites. At Lake Amarga (which we also visited), the white ring is even clearer, but these microbial communities secrete stromatolites. Thrombolites and stromatolites both formed extensively early in Earth’s history. The cyanobacteria which created thrombolites and stromatolites also injected the first oxygen into Earth’s atmosphere billions of years ago; allowing animals to evolve, although the animals kindly paid them back by eating them! The specific conditions required for thrombolite formation are rare today, so they are only found in only a few places worldwide. Thrombolite formation requires an abundance of calcium and carbonate ions in the water and here the weathering of surrounding marine turbidites fulfils that requirement. A series of glacial moraines cut Lake Sarmiento, Armarga and 5 smaller lakes off from the regional drainage network which ensured they were hydrologically isolated, preventing ion dilution. Finally, the rate of evaporation exceeds precipitation into the lake; this leads to sufficient ion concentration to trigger microbially mediated limestone precipitation. Lake Sarmiento and the others are in the rain shadow of the Andes. Oxygen isotope ratio analysis of Sarmiento’s thrombolites since glacial retreat 20,000 years ago, proves an average lake temperature 1,200 years ago of 9.3° C. In the Little Ice Age of 183 years ago (proving it wasn’t just in Europea) it cooled to 7.7° C.
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Stromatolites are Earth's oldest fossils (except for some nucleic acid sequences and possible molecular fossils) and show biological activity spanning thousands of years. They are fossil evidence of the prokaryotic life that even today dominates the biomass; maintaining the homeostasis of the earth, and rendering the biosphere habitable as they maintain/ recycle oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. Humans are basically water, proteins and prokaryotic bacteria (the ration of bacteria to cells 10:1). Eukaryotic animals, evolved from a prokaryotic world, have retained in their mitochondria the cellular machinery to power cells (endosymbiosis) from prokaryotes.
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The definition of stromatolites is still tenuous, but they are basically laminated rock formed from the growth of cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae). Cyanobacteria’s metabolic byproduct, oxygen, pumped enormous amounts of poisonous (to them) oxygen into the atmosphere, paving the way for aerobic-based life eukaryotic to evolve. Stromatolites, thrombolites and oncoids (algal biscuits/ Girvanella) form microbial mats in limestone environments by trapping communities of bacteria and algae. Stromatolite-building communities include the oldest fossils, dating back 3.5 billion years; we assume a more diverse range of species with differing metabolic needs. Competition for the limited resources (and varying degrees of motility) led to the creation of intricate structures. Stromatolites are the only fossils from the first 7/8th of earth’s history, some 4 billion years of geological time, once occupying every environment, but becoming rare in the Archaean Era.
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Archaea, Eubacteria, and Eukaryotes appeared in the Archaean Era, and microbial mats contained representatives of all three. Just how and when the split into these 3 main branches happened is uncertain; of the prokaryotes, Archaeans and Eubacteria it’s unclear which evolved first, but they did exchange genes, which makes it even harder to decide. While formation by colonies of cyanobacteria is the primary mechanism for modern stromatolite formation, in the ancient Archaean and early Proterozoic, it is unlikely to have been the only one. All prokaryotes, Eubacteria and Archaeans, reproduce by cell division and are extremely slow to evolve. Some microfossils suggest primitive Eukaryotic microorganisms possibly appeared prior to 3.5 billion years ago, and by the end of the Archaean, 2.5 Ba, all three domains of life (Eubacteria, Archaea, Eukaryotes) co-existed and were already quite diverse. Ascribing all stromatolite formation in the Archaean and Proterozoic to cyanobacteria, is probably incorrect. Molecular fossil traces suggests that micro-organisms with nuclei appeared before 3.8 Ba. Bacteria, Archaea, Eukarya Stromatolites may hold the key to determining how and when the tree of life branched into 3 domains; Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. It is very unclear as to when micro-organisms with advanced photo-synthesis first appeared, or when the eukaryotic nuclear genome became a chimera with contributions from both Archaea and Bacteria. Certainly photosynthetic cyanobacteria became very common in the Archaean, as shown by the rusting of the earth and oxygenation of the atmosphere. Stromatolitic structures can be explained by both biogenic and abiotic processes. Regardless of when cyano-bacteria appeared, they comprised the predominant form of life on earth for 2 billion years, consuming CO2 and releasing O2 by photosynthetic metabolism. Creation of the modern atmosphere powered the Cambrian Explosion and evolution of aerobic life. During Precambrian times, bacterial mats formed large platforms, depleting CO2 in the surrounding water and precipitating calcium carbonate into sediment trapped within sticky layers of mucilage that cyano-bacteria form as a film as protection from ultraviolet radiation. These layers grew one above the other, with the living bacterial colony on the top. The resulting layers assume a variety of shapes growing upward toward the sunlight. Cyanobacteria are prokaryotic bacteria (domain Eubacteria). Eukaryotic algae did not appear until 1.5 Ba, 2 billion years after stromatolites, so stromatolite formation by algae was insignificant until the Phanerozoic or Late Proterozoic. Environments where modern stromatolites are found are often have hypersaline, high alkalinity, low nutrients, high or low temperatures, and strong wave actions; mainly areas that are undesirable or intolerable.
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Grasses and Sarmiento Chico in the eastern corner of the park
We only have a sketchy understanding of the paleoenvironments in which stromatolites formed in Precambrian time.
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It was sunny, but windy as we walked along the lake edge, and very beautiful with bright blue water, white shining crystal shores and red cliffs. The wind was strong enough to whip up water devils high in the sky. We then hiked back through marsh land to the bus and back to the hotel. The evening meal was a bit of a disaster as they had overbooked, and after waiting +30 minutes for our order to be taken we found a waiter. As it happened they were taking a survey in the restaurant that night and we mentioned the issue (and how good the guides and drivers were) and were promptly given drinks vouchers. We got to the bar in time for the quintet.
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Posted by PetersF 13:22 Archived in Chile Tagged mountains animals birds chile patagonia torres_del_paine

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