Don’t eat the guanaco and go easy on the merlot: two pieces of advice that seem counterproductive to a trip through Chile. However, when you’re staying more than 2.4km above sea level, I advise soaking up all the tricks and tips to avoiding altitude sickness.
Recently, I chatted with Max Vera, the grandly titled Chief of Excursions at luxury lodge Tierra Atacama, about travelling at high altitudes. Based in San Pedro de Atacama, a village in Chile’s Atacama Desert, he helped me acclimatise with short, scenic walks and horse rides through landscapes that have been movie stand-ins for the moon, before I pushed up to the Geysers del Tatio, at 4.3km. To put that all into perspective, Latin America’s most visited site, Machu Picchu, in neighboring Peru, is the same altitude as San Pedro, at 2.4km.
A couple of years ago, I found myself on the Vava’u archipelago, in Tonga, ready to jump into the water with a whale.
With that gigantic dark shape moving around in the water below, I confess I was pretty nervous! No, we did not cavort, the humpback mum and her humpback calf decided they weren’t in a playful move, and, in the blink of an eye, one of the world’s largest animals simply sank down to the watery depths and disappeared.
Recently, I chatted with Carmen Ellis of Majestic Whale Encounters, for the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers. She says that if they don’t want to play, whales just don’t hang around. Drawing on her experience running whale swimming tours in Tonga, French Polynesia and Norway Carmen says, “If they don’t want to be there, they just turn their pectoral fin and, within seconds, they can be gone.”
However, every experience is amazing, she has had bumbling calves simply bump into her (the calves totally ignoring each country’s exclusion rule that applies about swimming with wild animals), and says that even sub-adults and dolphins are such curious creatures, they will interact with swimmers.
She has swum with orcas in Norway and pilot and humpback whales in Tahiti, where she’s also seen the unusual Reeso dolphins, while in Tonga, she has spotted the false killer whales (which are the same dark grey as an orca, but without the white patches), and lots of stingrays, sharks and turtles all round.
Her company’s next tour destination is Sri Lanka, swimming with blue whales. “We’re not the first, years ago, there was an industry shut down because it wasn’t being respectful to whales, but a new industry is developing in the country’s north, in Trincomalee.”
To read my story in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on swimming with orcas, humpbacks, pilot and other whales, click here