Situated a few miles outside of Orvieto and Terni the Oasi di Alviano, or the Oasis of Alviano, is a wonderful natural habitat and WWF Nature Reserve. Our visit started early in the morning after a somewhat groggy departure from the nearby town of Citta della Pieve. Despite an overcast sky and light rain we decided to press forward and to proceed with our birding and nature walk around the lake.
As is usually the case when presented with these types of situations, I was glad we decided to brave the rain and press forward. While gray and a bit wet the colors were vibrant, and the vegetation incredibly rich. The vibrant red of the poppy blossoms had just begun which served as a delightful contrast against the rolling green of the fields that surround the oasis.
In addition to two local cats which served as slightly sleepy but utterly adorable volunteer hosts, a wonderful local guide and researcher met up with us and began to explain the history of the lake and region.
As it turns out the lake is actually artificial and was created in the early 60s when the Tiber River was dammed. By 1978 the Oasis of Alviano was officially established with an area of 800 hectares of land set aside.
The shallow waters of the reservoir quickly attracted a wealth of migratory birds and before long had become one of the best places in the area for bird watching. In 1990 the WWF took over the wildlife reserve, and since that time they have made a number of improvements and additions.
These include the creation of a number of birding blinds, camouflaged pathways and a resource center with information about the local flora and fauna.
While most of the birds we saw were non-migratory and fairly representative of your typical lake birds it was wonderful to see them in the rich, natural environment of the Oasis. There were large, gorgeous swans, heron, ducks, and a wide assortment of water birds.
While we were technically there to watch the birds, I found myself more drawn in by the local flowers and vegetation. The rich greens, diverse mixture of flowers and plants, and marshy nature along the path allowed me to re-connect with nature in a way I don’t get to enjoy often. Living in a major city, like Copenhagen, it’s always fascinating to me how quickly you end up feeling disconnected from true nature.
Add to that the rich colors that the rain brings out of plants, and the added texture of raindrops dotting the plants and flowers and the final equation is one that left me eager to take deep breaths of fresh, clean air while soaking up the small details that made the walk something special.
At one point I discovered this oddity. As far as I can tell the quick growing marsh grass grew up, and through an old dead leaf. The end result was this otherwise impossible combination of new/vibrant and old/dead growth. It looks a bit like the main plant wanted a a scarf, doesn’t it?
While far from idea for walking and photographing, the rain ended up being light enough that it didn’t drench us, and still heavy enough to allow for moments like this with water laden leaves greedily struggling to soak up as much water as they can before giving up their prized catch to gravity and the ground below.
I know it is a bit silly to say, given that it was a nature preserve but it was delightful how alive everything in the park was. While there were the usual greens, browns and grays the wealth of different types of flowering plant and Lilly presented the eyes with a feast of color and contrast.
At one point our guide paused at a small pond surrounded by flowers. She pulled out a big net, and began to scoop moss and floating debris from the nearby pool. Then with a skilled hand she carefully upended the nets into a water filled tub. This allowed us to look at and learn about all of the micro-organisms that call the local waters home.
If you’re a fan of birds and nature I highly recommended the Oasi di Alviano…yes, even or perhaps especially if its raining. The opportunity to spend time immersed in the local nature while still being in such convenient proximity to Umbria’s nearby towns was a welcome treat and one I’d gladly repeat given the chance.
My legs pumped furiously. The burn forced a slight grimace. Mossy step after mossy step I launched my 6’4″ 200 pound frame up the narrow staircase. Still damp from my swim in the falls and in a subtle supplication to the region’s tropic environment, I’d long since sacrificed my t-shirt. My jeans were darker around my waist, revealing where I’d lazily pulled them on over my still-wet boxer briefs. Pausing briefly to look up and take stock of my location, I quickly realized I was nearing the top of the island – the Isla de San Martin. A gorgeous spire of land that stands resolute against the falls. Located smack dab in the center of the river, the one-time peninsula has gradually been overwhelmed leaving a small island with steep cliff faces, a wealth of local wildlife, and incredible views of the falls.
As I reached the top and the narrow stairs gave way to a wider path, I found my attention swinging sharply to my right as a rustle in the underbrush startled me to alertness. As I hopped back slightly a large lizard about the same size as a fully grown iguana slowly stalked its way out of the underbrush. Harmless (to the best of my knowledge) I still kept my distance, quickly reaching for my camera and video equipment. All the while eyes locked with the creatures armored scaly flesh and piercing dark eyes. Tongue periodically flicking out, it carefully stalked across the path before being startled in turn by a passing tourist, at which point it launched itself forward and into the brush.
What had started as a perfectly cloudless day had now evolved into something far more picturesque. Still sweltering hot with leave-you-drenched humidity, puffy made-for-Hollywood clouds had formed up and drifted in. I found myself facing a fork in the road. Two paths, each to different sides of the island and different views of the falls.
With a chuckle at the decision facing me I quickly started to meander happily along the path to the right with a gentle hum on my lips and a skip to my step. My initial fears had been proven completely unfounded. This truly was a natural wonder of the world and a destination that I’d already realized would go down as one of my favorite experiences to date.
As the jungle gave way to bushes, small pools, and grassy areas it was obvious I had entered the more recently cut/oft flooded area of the island. I could hear – almost feel – the roar of the falls and found my glasses constantly misted by the water in the air.
Iguazu’s charm isn’t just that it’s one of the largest waterfalls in the world. It’s the contrast of stunning rich green moss and vegetation cut by vibrant white falls all set against incredibly blue skies. In some areas large clumps of moss and flower-covered stone appear to hover in space, suspended by white pillars of water.
The view from the lookout was incredible. Located immediately next to and over parts of one of the major falls the sound was thunderous, the spray from the falls invigorating, and the plant life in bloom. All the while, inexplicably, a small army of gorgeously colored butterflies survived the humid river air and waterfall spray, to flutter in and around my head.
After a few minutes spent in consideration and perhaps relaxed meditation I struck back to the center of the island where I came across the most peculiar of wild birds. Mostly black, the little creature had two vibrantly colored blue eyebrows which left it looking more like a comedian than avian predator. I slowly stalked the strange creature pausing to take several photos and enjoy its odd coloring before striking down the island’s second path.
The route wound me along the opposite side of the island and gave me a view of the Brazilian side of the falls, as well as my first taste of what I’d later come to learn was fondly called the Devil’s Throat. As I walked I paused, once again, to capture an incredible combination of sights. A large vulture was resting in one of the branches which left a view of the falls perfectly framed. All the while one of the local tour boats – boats like the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls – rushed at, and into one of the smaller falls before being driven back by the force of the water. Though obviously modern, I couldn’t help but feel as though I’d been transported back through time to a distant, wild, and undiscovered jungle. Places such as this must have served as ample inspiration for authors writing great romanticized texts like the Lost World.
As I wound back down, caught the small ferry back to the mainland and began my trek back up towards the top of the main falls I found the path full of wonderful delights. Small places that demand a brief pause, some to enjoy the brightly colored flowers, lazy fluttering of butterflies, and others a beautifully framed view of the falls.
The path back towards the top of the falls offered fantastic close-up views of the falls. The amount of water, and the sheer power of the falls themselves is staggering. It left me feeling small, insignificant, and fragile.
One of the things that makes the falls so gorgeous is the different types of falls present. Some are mighty chutes, others are long thin curtains, yet others are tiny streamers spitting out tiny trails of water.
Growing a bit tired from my hike and having already burned through my entire bottle of water I was thrilled to stumble across a small store and food stand sandwiched back and away from the falls. For a relatively reasonable price I was able to buy a mediocre sandwich, new bottle of water, and small soda. As I ravenously set upon my sandwich I quickly discovered a new friend – an odd grasshopper/cricket with incredibly long legs and antenna. As we enjoyed brunch together another of the area’s local creatures, a Coati, emerged from the underbrush and began to make his rounds. The raccoon-like creatures are the size of a mid-sized dog or large cat, have long noses, large tails and tend to be particularly friendly, though I avoided trying to give him a scratch on the head.
Re-fueled and ready to renew my adventure I struck out along the path that offered an incredible look out over/along the leading face of the falls. Viewed from the top, rather than the middle or bottom, it really dawned on me just how expansive the falls were and how much water was passing over them.
My next destination was the fall’s main cutting edge – the Devil’s Throat. The path to it was a small adventure in and of itself. A raised metal walkway which cut out and across the massive shallow-water river. The walk spanned a number of small islands, was mostly raised over the water, and lasted some 5-10 minutes. The small islands along the route (most the size of a small house) were full of gorgeous butterflies, and the water offered the periodic sight of a large catfish or turtle lazily relaxing in the gentle current.
As I approached the throat I could hear it roar, and see a small plume of mist. Obscured by the smooth curvature of the water’s forward face as it gently bent before breaking completely into a churning cauldron the true size of the Devil’s Throat was invisible until I got closer.
A giant V, there is a semi-dry island which serves as the secure base for the raised platform which stretches along one side of Devil’s Throat offering otherwise incredible views of the falls.
The thunder of the falls made conversation difficult as I paused to talk to several other travelers. The view out over the falls was spectacular. With thick mist obscuring everything down river, the whole area was turned into a magical wonderland. Decorated by rainbows, birds were diving in and out of the mists. It left me feeling as though I was floating in a magical city.
As spectacular as the rest of the falls were, I think the most magical part of Iguazu was the view out over Devil’s Throat. The way the water was ejected out off of moss and grass covered cliffs into the mists, with bottom in sight left me feeling as though I was on one of the floating islands from the recent blockbuster Avatar, or the magical Cloud City in Star Wars. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was….dare I say it? Mist-ical.
My state of awe seemed to slow time and left me enjoying the sheer wonder of the falls for what may have been a few minutes, but was more than likely closer to half an hour. Even now, several months later, as I think back to that moment I can close my eyes and feel a sense of awe wash over me. Aware that I was burning, hungry, and exhausted I eventually tore myself away from the falls, made the walk back to the small in-park shuttle train, and then found the bus back to Puerto Iguazu.
The falls at Iguazu are one of those places that I hope everyone will visit in their lifetime. The weather can be problematic, the route to get there expensive and time consuming, but I can say with complete confidence that it’s all worth it. Travel always touches us and leaves us changed. There are some places, however, that go beyond that and captivate our hearts. For me, Iguazu Falls was one such place.
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My shoes made a soft squishing noise as I stepped off the paved path and onto a narrow band of muddy earth which wound its way between the road and a small set of kiosks along Ushuaia’s main pier. The morning was crisp, partly cloudy and smelled fresh. The air prickled my skin and teased at a refreshing day. The sky over the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame was gorgeous and set the perfect backdrop for the day’s adventure.
I’d be using Pira Tours which is somewhat expensive but it is the only group that has rights and access to actually disembark on Martillo Island where the penguin colonies are located. Eager to begin the adventure, I tracked down the 16 person mini-bus that would transport us out to the Harberton Estate where we’d catch a zodiac out to a small island located in the middle of the Beagle Channel.
The drive east along the coast was a beautiful one. The first 1/3 was on pavement and wound through snow-capped mountains with lush but rugged vegetation on either side of the road. The trees were green and moss-covered with foliage and moss serving as a dense carpet below. Despite the lush verdant colors everything maintained a hearty look that hinted at the harshness of winter and the brutal nature of the landscape.
Our first stop – well, more of a pause really – was near the 2/3 mark. We’d wound through rich forest and along the base of tundra-esque valleys before eventually bursting out of the underbrush and returning to the coast. The scenery had been fascinating. I noticed recent work had been done on the road and there were whole stands of trees that had been blown over or literally snapped in half. I’d later learn that the damage had happened a mere 3 days previous during an incredible micro-burst. Yikes!
Our first pause was along a stone beach covered in horseshoe muscle shells, urchin bodies and other small, vibrantly colored seashells. The view looked out over an old fish smoking/drying stand at the Beagle Channel and the Chilean coastline to the south. The water was clear, fresh, and rich with life. It made for a grand start.
Eager to continue along our way we re-boarded and watched as the forest gave way to open grassy areas, small bogs with gnarly, protruding, sun-bleached branches, and a rugged mixture of hearty trees that stood valiantly with snarled branches and a perpetual tilt as if trying to shrug off the wind.
Shortly thereafter we arrived at the Harberton Estate – a fun little cluster of buildings with an old dock, a few animals and several boats. There we were introduced to our guide – a perky gal in her late 20s/early 30s whose face was decorated almost completely by a birthmark. Her wide smile and a twinkle in her eyes oozed character and hinted that she’d be every bit the spunky guide a trip out to spend time with penguins demanded. We boarded the hard-bottomed zodiac and let out a collective sigh of relief when we noticed that a plastic wind cabin had been installed to protect us from the cold weather.
The boat ride was fairly quick and smooth. The water was calm and largely protected from the harsher conditions one might expect. Eventually, we killed the motor and slowly floated in towards a black pebble beach dotted with thousands of tiny white and black feathered bodies.
One by one we awkwardly slid over the side of the zodiac’s rubber bow and down onto the beach. There we paused and took in the incredible world we’d arrived in. The island serves as home to a colony of some 4,000 Magellanic Penguins for 6 months of the year and another permanent colony of some 50 Gentoo Penguins who reside there year round.
I’d opted to use Pira Tours because the island has a cap which only allows around 40 visitors a day. Based on the advice received at the hostel, Pira Tours is the only group in the region with the rights to disembark passengers onto the island. Standing on the beach I knew my choice had been worthwhile.
As we paused and collected ourselves our guide explained the ground rules. No chasing, feeding or touching the penguins. Stay within the driftwood outlines which have been laid out. Don’t wander off. Watch where you step and make sure you don’t collapse a penguin burrow. Easy enough right?
Our first stop after the main beach was the Gentoo Penguin Colony. This smaller, permanent colony was located in the middle of the island in a flat space and offered a cluster of small craters built up into nests by the birds. A smaller and better established colony, the surrounding grass had been ground to dirt. The penguins stood with backs to the wind relaxing and periodically running some small errand or another. Larger and more colorful than the Magellanic penguins they have a more recognizable look which one might readily identify as a staple of animated films.
As we continued to make our way across the island I couldn’t help but pause and relish the view. At times it struck me as unique. Others moments I had to pinch myself and remember that I was at the southern-most continental point in the world…not the northern-most. The landscape could have easily been confused for a bay, mountains and island in the far north and reminded me of my time spent in Alaska above the Arctic Circle.
Unlike the Gentoos who built their nests above ground, the Magellanic penguins opt to dig small burrows. The island is covered in small holes, most of which have at least one baby penguin inside. The babies were adorable, fluffy little creatures that hunkered down in their holes for safety and relaxed under careful parental eyes.
The island’s penguins have two primary predators. The first are the large hawk-like Skua pictured above with two young hatchlings. These birds will raid penguin nests for eggs if the opportunity presents itself but don’t offer a significant threat to the birds once hatched. The other main predators, though far less common on the island, are elephant seals.
The Magellanic penguins are highly social creatures which can be seen in their general behavior. It was not uncommon to see a couple out strolling along the coast, or through the grass. I couldn’t help but chuckle and think they looked like human couples out for a stroll while dressed in their winter finery. I’ll admit the mountains, bay, tress and beach made for quite the romantic backdrop.
As we neared the central part of the island, we came upon a small wooden staircase which had been constructed to ease our way up onto a large grass field. Proving that even in nature some animals are more entrepreneurial than others, several penguins had burrowed out hollow spaces underneath the stairs allowing them well-protected nests.
The grassy area served as the primary nesting ground for the Magellanic penguins. They would take advantage of the large clumps of grass and burrow under them, or near them, while using the grass to block the wind, visibility and to reinforce their burrows.
As we walked along the small dirt path it was difficult to avoid recently dug penguin burrows and not uncommon to suddenly become aware of them as they moved mere inches away from your feet. Overall they were fairly apathetic about our presence and only spent a moment here or there to evaluate us with unblinking eyes before returning to their daily activities.
From there it was back down to the coast where we paused and watched the few penguins braving the windward side of the island go about their business.
Low and flat, the island is ringed by gnarled driftwood which adds a wild, natural, rugged feel to the environment. The penguins themselves don’t make much of it, other than winding their way through the bleached wood as a castle’s defender might make his way through bulwarks and small defenses.
Once back on the leeward side of the island, I was once again taken by just how many penguins there were and how different each looked. As I sat down and silently began to snap photos I noticed that one of the younger Gentoo penguins had ventured down and was intermingling with the Magellanics.
As I sat and enjoyed the tranquility of it all, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been transported to another world. This was the stuff of movies, of legends and of tall tales. A rare experience and one I was privileged to enjoy. I sat and relaxed and soaked in as much as I could.
…and then I was shaken from musings by the crunch of webbed feet on rocks as my young, colorful friend waddled his way towards me.
Curious, he made a casual circle down towards me, leveraging the slight incline from the hill to accelerate his haphazard waddle.
Then as quickly as he’d begun my way, he switched directions and began to backtrack. If I didn’t know better he was playing the role of a runway model.
He’d pause to stare, and made sure that he was never out of sight. Though on a pebbled beach, that’s not exactly a challenging undertaking.
Eventually he’d opt to make another quick drive-by. This time he decided to head down and take a close look at one of the women on the trip. In truth it was hard to know who was watching whom. He seemed to derive every bit of the enjoyment watching us, that we found watching him.
As our hour on the island wound to a close we let out a lament-filled sigh and then re-boarded the boat. Before long we were back on our bus and well on our way back to Ushuaia, but not before we paused for a few quick photos at the flag tree. It is one of a series of profoundly stubborn trees that have braved fierce winds and grown to embrace them. Shaped by the winds, they’ve naturally grown into wild shapes that mirror blown grass.
Even those that failed to survive the winds have continued on, adapting to what came their way. In truth, I’d almost say that the tree pictured above has not only survived the wind’s hash thrashing, but embraced it and thrived.
From there it was back to Ushuaia where we disembarked and made our way back to our respective hostels and hotels, but not before a few of us paused at a local restaurant for a delicious Bife de Chorizo (Argentinian steak).
Total cost for the tour? 285 Pesos or about 70 USD. Expensive as far as day tours go, but worth every penny.