Patagonia

Sept 27 – Oct 19, 2014 in Chile and Argentina

The Whole Shebang: South America Photos and Videos

I’ve now culled and edited all the photos and videos from our Chile and Argentina sojourn and posted them to the web. You can see the whole set at http://www.isaacman.net/southamerica2014/sa2014.htm. Enjoy! (I hope.)

Next stop: Italy, next April.  Watch this space!

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The Big Splash and the Long Goodbye (Oct 17)

Today was our last full day of the trip and we spent it mostly doing one thing, which was getting very, very wet. We are still at Iguazú Falls and today was our visit to the Argentine side. This would have been a reprise of my own visit here 12 years ago but for one change that happened here in the past year, which is that the walkway that I trod at that time no longer exists, having been wiped out by a flood just last July. That’s a pity: the walkway was a dramatic catwalk that cantilevered way out over the gorge up to the face of the Devil’s Throat, the largest of the 270 cataracts. (We got pretty close to it yesterday from the Brazilian side, fortunately.) But last July’s rains were record-breakers, with water levels reaching unprecedented heights and doing damage to a number of the paths; indeed, we are still experiencing the aftermath of the rains in the form of exceptionally high water volumes over the falls, as I mentioned yesterday.

We arrived at the park in the morning, for the twin reasons of beating the crowds and beating the heat: the temperature hit 102°F today, and let me assure you that it is not a dry heat. It is in fact a sponge-soaking, sweltering, who-stole-all-the-oxygen, oh-my-god-why-am-I-here heat. So better the morning than the afternoon.

“Hand over the table scraps and no one gets hurt.”

There are a couple of ways in which the Argentine side of the park differs from the Brazilian side, one of which being the proliferation of raccoon-like coatimundis (universally called coatis, pronounced co-AH-tees). They’re everywhere, big family groups scampering in the woods, ambling across the walking paths, and wrestling each other on the ground and in the trees. They are about the size of raccoons, somewhat more lithe-looking, and with pointier snouts. (Here’s one at left.)

They’re cute, they’re great marketing material — you got your coati hats and tee shirts in the gift shop — and they’re brazen, hanging around the various snack bars to look for food targets of opportunity. And so of course the inevitable happens, which is that numbskull tourists try and hand-feed them and end up with an impressive collection of souvenir bite marks and lacerations. The park authorities, needless to say, try to discourage this, primarily by means of extremely graphic, medical grade warning signs depicting said bite marks and lacerations.

A suspicious butterfly, signaling his gang

Another attraction that distinguishes the Argentine park is butterflies, lots of them. We saw quite a few yesterday but many, many more today, probably ten varieties if not more. Like the coatis, they’re pretty brazen too, alighting everywhere and on everyone. I am not aware of any serious injuries resulting from butterfly attacks, however. (But I can see how it would happen. You’re crossing one of the metal catwalks across a high gorge with a roaring cataract below. Suddenly a cloud of butterflies comes fluttering out of nowhere, harassing you around the eyes! You swat at them but there are too many, and you’re not watching where you’re going so you bump into a lady in a wheelchair and stumble over the railing, plummeting a hundred feet, screaming and flailing, into the roiling whitecapped cascade below.)

Sorry, I got a little distracted there. What I was thinking of was something that did in fact happen today, which is that a woman in a wheelchair bumped into something whilst on a catwalk and her camera went flying over the edge and into liquid oblivion. No butterflies were involved. At least, none that we know of; they all have alibis. Anyway, here is one of the fearless butterflies, pictured at right.

Lost in all this talk about dangerous creatures are the falls themselves, which are about as spectacular on the Argentine side as in Brazil. So here they are, or more accurately a small part of them:

*Part* of the Argentine falls at Iguazú

Our goal today was a boat ride, in particular a boat ride straight into the bottom of the falls. This is about as insane and fun as it sounds. It’s rather hard to convey — you’ll have to wait till we post the video after we get home — but here’s what it looks like from above, as another boat enters the falls. The boat is that barely visible mist-cloaked triangular shape to the left of the rocks at the right side of the picture.

People paying to get very wet

The boats are open and hold maybe 25 people, all wearing life vests (of course), and all having stored their wallets, cameras, etc., etc., in sealed oilskin bags provided by the operators.

A prelude to getting lots more wet than this

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first thing that happens is that you have to get down to the river from the walkways way up at the tops of the falls. This involves, first, a long gentle traversing pathway that takes you about halfway down the cliffside, followed by a large number of stone steps down to river’s edge, followed by a rocky walkway along the river and about 30 feet above it. There are a number of spectacular viewpoints along the way, such as this one at right.

The problem with walking down all those steps, of course, is that (a) you are doing it in 102° heat, and (b) you are going to have to walk back up those steps later, when you are soaked to the skin. This is the price we pay for adventure tourism.

Once at the boarding point, we are issued life vests, the aforementioned dry bags, and we march aboard and sit down. As we cast off we receive a loud and insistent safety briefing entirely in Spanish, which we assume pretty much says, “Don’t do anything that a drunken 19 year old fraternity pledge would do.”

Blub blub, gurgle gurgle

The current is strong, the cataracts deafening, and the boat’s engine nearly a match for them. We charge up the river, make a few tight turns for the hell of it, then gun the motor and charge straight into the falls. WHHOOOSH!! Instant hurricane, pounding, blinding rain and swirling mist, the falls barely visible, looming directly atop us and thundering down onto us like a swimming pool dropped onto our heads from 100 feet up, which is pretty much what it is. Everybody screams and laughs as the irresistible current pushes us back out of the falls, the water pressure overwhelming the engine thrust. What a rush! I think even my internal organs got wet.

Julio had instructed everyone to chant “Uno mas!” (“One more time!”) over and over again as we came out of the falls to induce the boat driver to give us an encore. Which he did: we went under the falls four times and came out looking like drowned rats. (See my spousal drowned rat at left, partly obscured by drops on our thankfully waterproof camera lens.)

Exhilarated and soaked to the skin as we were, the task before us was to retrace our steps back up the cliffside. The water, of course, was wonderfully refreshing and its gradual evaporation as we hiked back up provided some cooling against the otherwise oppressive heat. By the time we reached the top, we were about 2/3 dry and ready to start sweating and stifling again. So we took a lunch break at the inevitable snack bar at the top (taking care not to feed the coatis lest mutilation ensue), rode the van back to the hotel, and variously showered, napped, and vegged out for the rst of the day.

Which brings us to the end of our adventure. Tomorrow morning we fly back to Buenos Aires, kill most of the day there, and fly home on a red eye via Miami tomorrow (Saturday) night. We’ve got a several-hour layover there, so we’ll walk through the door of our home near dinnertime on Sunday.

We have seen and some so much that it seems like forever ago that we landed in Santiago and struck out for the Atacama desert. Here are several stats for the South America part of the trip:

 Highest temperature  102° today and yesterday at Iguazú Falls
 Lowest temperature  20° at Tatio Geyser Field in the Atacama Desert
 Highest elevation  14,020′ at Tatio Geyser Field
 Lowest elevation  Sea level! (On the Via Australis Zodiacs, of course)
 Strongest wind  56 mph at Torres del Paine National Park
 Northernmost latitude   -25° 41′ at Iguazú Falls
 Southernmost latitude  -55° 59′ at Cape Horn
 Number of hotel rooms  11
 Plane flights  7 (plus 4 more to and from the US)

So we’ve spanned 30° of latitude, 14,020′ of elevation, and 82° of temperature. We saw calving glaciers and flamingoes living in desert salt flats; we walked on the southernmost point of land outside Antarctica; watched penguins; power-boated under a 200′ waterfall; rode a Zodiac through an ice-choked fjord; saw herds of guanáco and llamas roaming desert hillsides; drove across the Argentine pampas; and made an offering to some crazy semi-Catholic idol who isn’t even an official saint.

We took 2850 pictures. It was a great vacation.

 

 

  

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Buenos Aires (Oct 15) and Iguazú Falls (Oct 16): Mucho Agua

Stephen King’s market place in Santelmo

Alice is recovering from a mild to moderate cold (that she caught from me) and so passed on a few of yesterday’s goings-on, starting with an indoor marketplace. A somewhat grungier version of Baltimore’s Lexington Market or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Buenos Aires’ Santelmo market is housed in a cavernous warehouse space that, but for being too small, might in some other life have been an abandoned railway station. As it is, most of the stalls were closed since we we there on a weekday — weekends are the big market time — which gave the place a somewhat forlorn and slightly spooky aura; you get the idea from the photo at left.

But there were nonetheless a fair number of places open, mostly butchers and produce stalls (with very nice looking produce, I should add), as well as a certain number of hard-to-describe places selling extremely random odds and ends: antique dolls, mismatched china sets, pots and pans, household utensils and tools of uncertain purpose, long-obscure toys (anybody remember Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet from the Ed Sullivan Show? He’s here.), etc., etc.

   

It was an unusual but strangely interesting way to spend an hour or so. So to continue…

Buenos Aires sits on the Rio La Plata, or “silver river”. Why that name? Is it silver-colored? No. In fact, because of an enormous amount of suspended sediment, the whole river and the delta at its mouth are the color of chocolate milk. It is a very odd sight, the broad and tranquil river flowing into a wide delta stretching to the horizon, all the water a pleasant but surreal café au lait brown that makes it feel like someone has Photoshopped your retina by somehow shifting the color scale. In any case it is definitely not silver.

Ah then, perhaps there are some big silver mines along it. Nope, not that either. Turns out that the Argentines are prone to hyperbole and the original settlers were misled by the natives into thinking that somewhere at the headwaters of the river there were major silver deposits. So they optimistically named the river after them and basically got stuck with the name even after the eponymous silver turned out to be mostly nonexistent.

We spent a pleasant sunny morning on a boat out on that earthy-looking water, or rather I did; Alice had that cold and decided to sleep in that day. But the rest of us boarded our van and drove for an hour to the town of Tigre, first passing some of Buenos Aires’ extensive and remarkably constructed shantytowns, as you see here.

No plumbing, no problem — we got cable!

The slum is vast, dense and essentially improvised, with surprisingly sophisticated structures constructed mostly out of scrounged materials, and sustained by bootleg connections to city utilities. They may not all have water, but you better believe they all have TV.

Liquid bus stop

We continued pass the tenements for another half hour or so to the town of Tigre, whose mascot and town logo is exactly what you think it would be. Tigre is a pleasant resort town near the delta of the river whose claim to fame is an entire community that lives on the water. The delta is crisscrossed by river channels — again that chocolate brown water — that are perhaps 50 or 75 yards wide and lined by a mix of residences and vacation houses whose condition ranges from luxurious to caved-in. There is a local “bus” service rather like a water taxi with fixed stops; you can see one at right. Note the color of the water and the elegant wooden structure of the boat itself; a large fraction of boats plying these waters are genteel-looking low-slung dark wooden hulls, most of them dating back 50 or 60 years.

Groceries on the river

Some are are aquatic school buses, ferrying children to a school on the river bank; others, floating hardware and landscape stores selling tools and plants; and still others, floating grocery stores. (We pulled up to one of the latter  and bought some crackers and fruit through a port hole…kinda cool to do.) You can see one of the grocery boats at left; the one we stopped at resembled the dark, low-riding ones. The proprietors were greatly amused at the dozen or so childlike tourists sticking their arms through the window and trying to call out orders in execrable Spanish. But we did get our crackers and fruit.

It was a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the low 70’s, a welcome respite from the literal glacial conditions that we had been trekking around in for the past several days. Indeed, when we pulled back into port we stopped for ice cream — Chileans and Argentines love their ice cream — which made the whole outing feel like some kind of cross between summer vacation and a school class trip.

When I returned to the hotel Alice was up and about and ready to explore the city a bit more, which is to say go shopping. She had her eye on a purse that she had seen briefly in a store window that we had driven past, quite close to our hotel, and when we walked there we were delighted to learn that the store was called “Carpincho”, which is the Spanish word for capybara (the world’s largest rodent…look it up!) and specialized in leather from the that particular beast. This was a wonderful thing because I myself am the longtime proud owner of a capybara leather jacket that I bought here in Buenos Aires about a dozen years ago whilst attending a conference. We have long called it my “rat coat”, and Alice now has a “rat purse” that complements it perfectly. It is a speckled suede-like leather, very beautiful and soft to the touch. We are now fully rodent-accessorized.

Our next goal was a well-known synagogue, Buenos Aires having a large Jewish population and this particular temple supposedly very elaborate and offering guided tours. But not, as it turned out, on Wednesdays. So we pounded on the door and when an Orthodox-looking gentleman answered I tried to talk our way in by playing the “I’m a Jewish tourist” card. He trumped it by playing the “Today is a Jewish holiday” card and said I could come to Sukkot services that evening if I wanted to see the place. Since I am extremely committed to avoiding religious services of any kind, we didn’t get to see the synagogue. So we visited the Teatro de Colón instead, Buenos Aires’ famous opera house and performing venue, hooking up with an English language tour of the building. It is beautiful and elaborate, built about 60 years ago in the style of the palace of Versailles.

This morning we continued our northward march towards the tropics, leaving Buenos Aires for Iguazú Falls (also spelled Iguassu and Iguaçu, in all cases with the accent on the last syllable). We’re now up at 26° latitude, just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, which is a fancy way of saying that in stark contrast to our glacier visits of just a few days ago it is now 102° F and greater than 70% humidity. Or to put it even more simply, we are in Major Schvitzing Territory now.

I have been hyping the falls to Alice since I visited them on my previous trip here, and they did not disappoint. They are both higher than Niagara Falls (with cataracts ranging up to 280′ high), and with a higher water volume. As it happens, due to recent rainfalls the current volume is far higher than usual, with several million gallons per second thundering over the sides among all 270 cataracts. It is simply stunning, and you get up close and personal on a walkway that takes you right up into the spray of one of the larger cataracts. I will let a few photos do the talking:

See the boats? We will be on one tomorrow, getting very, very wet. But to continue…

…and to get a little more up close…

After completing the walkway up to the falls, we were not sated and so took a helicopter ride, from which vantage point they look like this:

I should mention that the falls are located at the “corner” where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet, and that this all took place on the Brazil side of the border. (We had to change to a Brazilian bus and go through passport control to cross the border; we applied for and received Brazilian visas for this purpose a few months ago.) Tomorrow we will explore the Argentine side, which is to say we will ride on one of those boats right up to the fall, which as I recall from my experience 12 years ago is like having a swimming pool dropped from 200 feet onto your head. Wet fun!

Tomorrow will also be our last night here. On Saturday the journey home begins, with a flight to Buenos Aires in the morning, and an evening red eye home.

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No Relation to Rita Moreno (Oct 13)

Today is our last day in Patagonia before moving on to Iguassu Falls (warm! tropical!) via a day back in Buenos Aires tomorrow. We spent the night in a nice hotel in El Calafate, as I mentioned yesterday, and awoke this morning to cloudless skies and a crisp beginning-of-winter bite in the air, plus dusting of snow on the ground, cars, rooftops, and of course the distant mountains. But it isn’t winter: this is what passes for springtime here. It hardly matters; as I’ve already mentioned, the weather changes dramatically about every 20 minutes.

Our goal today was Perito Moreno glacier, a significantly larger chunk of ice than those we have see so far. (My previous posts  misspelled the name with too many R’s.) It is one of several enormous glaciers that fill a strip roughly 10 miles wide and 100 miles long, running north-south along Argentina’s border with Chile and collectively comprising Glacier National Park.

Julio and our Argentine local guide (a talkative local named Sebastian, stocky, bearded, and jolly) decided to take a slightly indirect road to the park in order to avoid the most heavily traveled tourist route and show us some scenic byways. This was a real good move; we drove past dramatic snowy mountains and cyan lakes, past herds of horses and flocks of sheep on the snow covered, windswept ground. Here is the scene, in two photos a few minutes and miles apart:

Home on the Argentine range


Ditto. Note the color of the lake at the foot of the mountains

The temperature was brisk, probably around 40F, and the wind typically ferocious, blowing so hard that it was very difficult to hold the camera steady enough to take pictures.

The hillsides were dotted with sheep, and this (being spring) is lambing season, with lots of young frolicking around, or at least frolicking as much as one can in weather like this. We were grateful for the sun.

No Greeks around here, so he must be Basque

The animals all come from assorted estancias, or ranch estates, in the area. Some raise horses or cattle, some sheep, and some a combination. (This is actually unusual in our very limited experience: in New Zealand we experienced a lot of hostility between “sheep people” and “cattle people”, and no one raised both. The same was true in the American West in the mid- and late 19th century; in fact, that was part of the impetus for the invention of barbed wire in 1874. That is today’s Fun Factoid.)

We made a brief stop at a small estancia, which had a cozy little restaurant and café. It was owned by a Basque family; for reasons that are not altogether clear to me, Argentina has a significant Basque enclave. But Basque they are, and if you don’t believe me then take a look a look at the portrait at left that I took of one of one of the owners, and tell me that he does not look like everyone’s idea of a Basque.

The house had a couple of nearly newborn lambs running around (inside the house), and the restaurant was heated by a wood burning stove, so the operative word was “rustic”. (The bathrooms were fully modern, happily.) The scene went momentarily crazy when one woman in our group — one of the “Boise girls” — stood too close to the stove while still wearing her quilted down coat. One side of the synthetic coat instantly melted, releasing a large cloud of down feathers that swirled around the room on the air currents from the stove. Chaos erupts! Everyone who didn’t see it happen suddenly wondered why it was snowing tiny feathers indoors. The baby lamb went crazy, chasing after the floating white whisps, apparently under the tragic misapprehension that its mother had exploded.

The owners happily took the disaster in stride, sweeping up the feathers and patching the afflicted coat with — wait for it– duct tape.

We arrived at Perito Moreno at about noon, stopping first at a vantage about 4 miles from the face of the glacier. Simply stepping out of the bus was a challenge: although the sun was still out, a 2 billion ton ice cube sitting at the confluence of two lakes is pretty much guaranteed to create a local microclimate, which in this case meant a freezing monster wind that could practically tear your ears off the side of your head. Our 4 mile distance from the face probably made things worse instead of better, since we were on a high lookout across the lake, which gave the wind plenty of space to pick up speed and energy from the thermal gradient off the ice. And indeed, as we got closer to the glacier the conditions — though still fiercely windy — were not nearly as ablative. (But of course, the sun went away; a completely sunny day is always too much to ask in Patagonia.)

There are a number of metal walkways that define paths of various lengths along the face of the glacier and through the woods on the hillside facing it. This gives you the idea:

One of several walkways that afford views of the glacier face

That is a narrow ice-choked river in front of the glacier, connecting the two lakes at whose junction Perito Moreno sits. As usual, the perspective in the photo gives a deceptive sense of scale, since the walkway is in the foreground, nearly 1000 ft in front of the glacier. The ice wall is 200 ft high, and the full width of the face (you see maybe 1/4 of it here) is about 3 miles. It also extends something like 8 miles into the distance, which means that from the initial distant vantage point at the park entrance you are looking at something like half a cubic mile of ice. And this is just one of the glaciers in the park, the most accessible but not the largest.

The path itself is a relatively recent addition, constructed in the late 1980’s. Prior to then, you could walk all the way down the hillside to the river in front of the glacier, and if the river was frozen you could walk the few hundred feet across it and actually touch the face of the glacier….at which point several tons of ice would fall on top of you, thereby spoiling the fun. Remember how I reported that we saw calving events on all the glaciers we saw? This one is no exception, and after losing about two idiotic tourists per year over a 20 year period starting in the 1960’s, they finally built the walkway. 

And speaking of calving events, here are two that we saw, both accompanied by thunderous echoing reports as hundreds of tons of ice fell perhaps 100 ft into the river; they look rather like waterfalls of ice as the chunks tumble down the face:

Do not be hiking underneath when this happens


I said DON’T WALK ACROSS THE RIV…oh, never mind.


We’re having fun! We’re freezing!

We walked a number of the paths, spending about 2 1/2 hours gawking at the glacier from various vantage points. It was spectacular and a fitting end to our Patagonia sojourn before we move on to warmer climes. Tomorrow is a travel day and unless something exciting happens in Buenos Aires I may not post anything until we get to Iguassu Falls. (Or, being longwinded, I might.) So I will close this entry with the photo of the two of us (right) enjoying the comfort and convenience of the six layers of clothing we are wearing against the wind and cold.

But hey, it’s a GLACIER! Awesomeness quota fulfilled.

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The Answer is Hikin’ in the Wind

Today was mostly a riding-in-the-bus day as we made the several-hour semicircle around the mountains to get from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile to the Argentine town of El Calafate. This involved driving back across the park in conditions that were noticeably gloomier and windier than yesterday. We passed by the mountain range again, past scenes like this:

Torres del Paine in the wind

The wind was ferocious today, clocking in at 56 mph. You can see the ripples and some whitecaps on the lake in the picture above. But hey, they don’t call it adventure travel for nothing, and Julio promised that the threatened hike would be through a valley that was sheltered from the wind. Uh huh. And so it was that we found ourselves hiking through a high valley that, if this was what they call “sheltered”, I don’t want to see “exposed”, as we were basically sandblasted every inch of the way. Here we are making our way through the valley, looking for our lost Sherpas:

We paid good money to do this. Auntie Em’s house blew by a few moments later.

It is possible that at some time in your life you have wondered what it would be like to hike through a hurricane in the lower Andes mountains. If so, you probably concluded that it would not be physically pleasant. You were right. 

This guy should not have hiked on this path

It did have its rewards in the form of the view, the proliferation of interesting plants and rock formations, and the occasional gaunáco carcass such as the skull and fur at left. There were forensic artifacts like that all over the place: rib cages, vertebrae, mostly-intact bodies.  Seems that there is a population of pumas in the area, and we were walking through their happy hunting grounds. Happy for the pumas, anyway. For an awful lot of guanácos, not so much.

The hike was blissfully short — less than an hour — and we gratefully re-boarded our bus at the far end for the trip across the Chile-Argentina border, both sides of which were manned by bored-looking guards who stamped our passports. The Argentine guards in particular looked pretty miserable; their station was a windowless shack whose only power source was a generator that had failed, leaving them to inspect our visas in the cold and drafty dark. (Julio had cautioned us to say as little as possible if they asked us any questions at all, not because they were hostile but because they were starved for human contact and would keep us their for hours for the sole purpose of engaging in conversation.)

By the time we reached the border, an hour or so after our hike, the weather had gone full-blown (and I do mean blown) Patagonian Nasty, with the previous intermittent cold drizzle replaced by a hard blowing snowstorm that rocked the bus as we drove. We nonetheless stopped for a few minutes at yet another shrine to Gauchito Gil (remember him?), it being an OAT tradition to thank him for having had non-miserable weather during the trip, at least up to this point. This was more than a little ironic since both we and the shrine were being torn apart by gale-force winds and blizzard-like snow at the time.

We continued on to the 20,000-person town of El Calafate, whose primary economic base is tourism for the Perrito Moreno glacier, our destination for tomorrow. That will mark the end of the Patagonia leg of the trip; on Tuesday we return to Buenos Aires for a day before heading up to Iguassu Falls, where, mirabile dictu, it will be tropically warm.

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The Windiest National Park Anywhere (Oct 11)

A few hour bus ride brought us to Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, and we spent a good part of the day hiking around, so this post will be longer on pictures than words…lucky you.

The park is pretty big, a little under 900 square miles, and is dominated by a spectacular craggy mountain range that looks like it should be part of the Andes but actually isn’t. (It’s a younger range than the Andes and runs east-west instead of north-south.) Here’s the view as we approached the park; the buildings in the foreground are a ranch.

The big peak is called Almirante Nieto

The weather today was uncharacteristically sunny, at least to start out with since conditions in Patagonia are astonishingly and notoriously changeable. (The locals like to say, with unfortunate accuracy, that weather forecasts are useless here since every possible weather condition representing all four seasons will occur at least once every day.) But the clear skies brought out some very exotic visitors: Andean condors, the second largest flying bird in the world. (The “flying” codicil excludes ostriches, which of course are enormous but flightless; the largest flying bird is the wandering albatross.)

One of 36 Andean condors that we saw today

Andean condors are normally sighted in small numbers, but we saw groups of up to five of them soaring all over the place, a glorious and exciting sight. In the end we counted 36 of them including a juvenile, a huge number that amazed our trip lead Julio. Here’s one of them at left.

Although the weather was sunny — a condition that son changed, as promised — the winds were gale-force. Stepping out of the bus was stepping into a wind tunnel, and the was at least one viewpoint where the driver would not even let us out of the vehicle for fear that we would be blown off the lookout and into the valley below. Sounds unlikely but his concern was not unwarranted; during our long hike later in the day the woman I was walking with — a fellow photo hobbyist who like myself lingered behind the rest of the group — literally got blown over onto her back by a strong gust. In short, winds are a seriously big deal here.

(I asked Julio whether any serious efforts have been made to capitalize on wind power to satisfy Chile’s energy needs. The short answer is no: though very strong on average in this part of the country, they are also unreliable, and nearly disappear altogether for about half the year.)

The wind also ensures that fires can get very quickly out of hand, and there have been a couple of serious wildfires that have damaged the extensive beech forests in this part of the park. One fire, set by a careless Czech backpacker who knocked over a camping stove in 2005, burned 20,000 acres. A second, started by an even more careless Israeli camper who decided to burn some trash, burned 40,000 acres in 2011. Both accidental arsonists were fined $200 and kicked out of the country. Interestingly, both became very active in the reforestation effort, raising money and planting trees (and eventually being allowed to return in order to help, and to educate the public to the dangers).

“Hey, I ordered by beech trees rare. These are well done.”

The upshot of all this is that our hike took us through some seriously blasted landscapes. The burnt areas used to be the home of herds of guanácos, who,love to eat beech bark. You may remember them from my posts for the Atacama desert: they are camelids, closely related to llamas. This is about as far south as they are found, and we saw large numbers of them grazing on the hillsides as we drove into the park. To our surprise we encountered one moving hesitantly among the burnt-out beech trunks; I left the hiking trail to stalk him for a couple of minutes to get the shot that you see at right.

The park has a number of lakes of various sizes, and they host large concentrations of Cyanobacteria. Those are very ancient and primitive organisms which back in the day (the day being billions of years ago) helped convert the Earth’s atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen. The other thing about them is that they are a striking blue color, and so the lakes practically glow with a deep cerulean blue. There are a number of small waterfalls in the area too, so the effect is striking, as you can see in the three photos below.

Blue lake, happy non-campers

Striking contrasts in the terrain

Postcard scenery amidst devastation from wildfires

The happy skies in the above pictures did not last; they never do around here. The clouds rolled in and we got the authentic Patagonian variable-weather experience, which is to say that it started to snow. Not very hard, and not for very long, but…c’mon. The temperature eventually climbed to about 50 but the clouds stuck around, and of course the wind never left.

We arrived at a hiking trailhead at about 2 PM and set off over an occasionally rocky path through the burnt out beech forest, towards some peaks collectively called Cuernos del Paine. (“Cuernos” means “horns”, from the shape of the peaks.) the goal was not the peaks themselves, which are high and forbidding and many miles away, but rather a lookout point from which to view them. We covered about 4.5 miles in total, fighting a howling wind for much of the time. The clouds moved in and swirled around the jagged peaks, giving us the sense that we had undertaken some quest through Mordor that no one had told us about. Here’s a scene from along the way:

Did someone lose a ring?

Notice how the branches on the tree have grown: the wind blows pretty much all the time here, and it is never a gentle breeze.

We are spending the night at one of a small number of rustic but comfortably appointed hotels (with wonderful mountain views) that are within the park boundaries. They’re hard to get into because the total number of rooms is small and so reservations must be made far in advance. But thank you, OAT, and here we are. 

Tomorrow is mostly a travel day. The are no roads over the mountains so we will be taking a lengthy roundabout bus ride on a counterclockwise semicircular route around them, south to north, to reach the city of El Calafate where we will be spending the next two nights (hopefully with wifi again so I can actually post this).

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Penguin Extravaganza (Oct 10)

Postscript to yesterday’s entry: the ship’s navigation map went at auction for $400 to a very determined elderly Australian lady. She started the bidding at $200 and the room went silent for about five minutes as every other potential bidder cowered under their respective chairs. Finally, after repeated pleading by the auctioneer one brave Chilean gent tentatively hazarded $220, at which point the Aussie iron lady leapfrogged her own bid all the way to $400, and that was that.

“Marvin, is that you?”

Today is our last day aboard ship, heading into port at Punta Arenas. This morning was our visit to Magdalena Island, a gently sloped windswept rock occupied by a small lighthouse, a carpet of short dry grass and sand, and about 8 billion Magellan penguins, or so it seemed. The things were literally underfoot so the cuteness quotient was astronomical. It is moreover mating season so we saw them in various courtship displays, nest building, burrow digging, and what appeared to be the occasional lover’s quarrel that involves much pecking and one of the parties (hard to tell which one) storming off:

Her: “You call that pathetic pile of dried grass and stones a nest? How are we supposed to raise a family here?” 

Him: “Hey, gimme a break! That is top quality dried grass!” 

Her: “I don’t care! The Goldbergs have kelp!”

And so on. She then goes on to say that she should have married Marvin like mother wanted, and it turns out that he is Marvin and she never realized it because they all look alike. In any case, here’s the crowd on the beach (above right).

16″ tall and 9 lbs of domesticity

And here is Marvin, at left. Or at least, I assume so. There is in fact no easy way to differentiate male and female penguins unless you are either an ornithologist working up close, or another penguin.

I should mention the sounds of the island. First and foremost, as you might guess, is howling wind. But competing with that sound for attention was the vocalizations of the tuxedoed sea of penguins: they hoot, they squawk, and — in a bit of déjà vu for us — they bray. Almost exactly a year ago we saw the Boulders penguins of Cape Town, South Africa, which for good reason are informally called “jackass penguins”. Much like them, the Magellan penguins make a loud and unmistakeable HEE HAW, pointing their beaks straight up to the sky, swelling their throats, and letting loose.

The island, like most of Tierra del Fuego, has a fragile ecology. To protect it, i.e. to avoid an Exxon Valdez kind of disaster and countless petroleum-covered penguins, the Chilean government forbids tanker ships from using the Strait of Magellan. They have to sail to the southwest in the open Pacific, where weather conditions are even harsher.

We stayed on the island for an hour or so, exposing every uncovered inch of ourselves to the gale-force freezing wind. The Zodiac ride both to and from the Australis was choppy and wet, and based on that experience we are both able to testify from personal experience that the Strait of Magellen is filled with very salty water.

This having been a sunrise excursion, we were back on the ship by about 8:30 AM and enjoying the very good breakfast buffet just a few minutes after that. The Australis weighed anchor while we were eating, and we docked in Punta Arenas about two hours later, bringing the sea leg of our trip to a close.

“OK guys, the tourists are gone now. Back to the poker game.”

(By the way, that out-of-focus gnat-like cloud seemingly surrounding the penguin’s head in this photo is in fact an enormous flock of seagulls hanging around the ship in the distance. We picked them up an hour or two before our arrival at Magdalene Island.)

We cleared customs in Punta Arenas — remember that we boarded ship in Ushuaia, Argentina and are now re-entering Chile — and boarded a bus for a brief city tour before lunch. Punta Arenas is Julio’s home town, though his job as a tour lead does not give him much time at home. He introduced us to our local guide who, remarkably, turned out to be his father!

Punta Arenas is an attractive medium-sized town with a population of about 180,000. It has a small, pleasant central square surrounded by wind-twisted trees, and whose main feature is a statue commemorating Magellan. Many of the buildings are quite elaborate, colonial-style mansions that were once private residences of the wealthy but are now mostly government buildings and museums. Its glory days are somewhat past; up until about 1960 the region was dominated by a small number of robber-baron-type families, notably the Menendez family that at its peak owned fully 10% of the land in Patagonia. But the real slide began well before then, with the completion of the Panama Canal. Up till then, of course, every cargo and passenger ship moving between the east and west coasts of North America had to go around Cape Horn, and Punta Arenas was a major stopover point on that route. When the canal opened, Punta Arenas’ raison d’être pretty much evaporated.

But the port town still has its wind, and lots of it. Already situated in a place that pretty much guarantees a permanent hurricane, the effect is amplified by the existence of the town itself, whose buildings deflect and focus the wind down the streets. Walking down the street is like taking a stroll behind a jet engine, and we saw a few street corners where the authorities have strung rope along the sidewalks for the purpose of giving pedestrians something to hold onto lest they get blown into traffic as they walk. (Yes, really.)

Our bus took us to a rustic-looking but actually modern and comfortable asador (wood-smoked barbecue) restaurant located next to a small horse farm at the edge of town. Lunch was an excellent mixed grill of chorizo, chicken, all cooked over a wood fire in the same room in which we ate. 

We hit the road at about 3 PM (meals are a leisurely affair here) for the two and a half hour drive to our hotel. The terrain is flat and mostly empty — we are in the pampas now — but giving way to rolling hills in the distance. There are few people; this part of the country has an average population density of fewer than 5 people per square mile. The ground cover is yellowish grass, low bushes, and very small trees. This vegetation is of poor nutritional value, hard to digest because of a high silica content, but nonetheless hosts an interesting variety of life. Within the first hour of the bus ride we saw a flock of sheep and, far more interestingly, a flock of Chilean flamingos like the ones we saw in Atacama; a caracara, which is a puffin-like raptor about 16″ tall; and several rheas, which are very large brown emu-like flightless birds about two-thirds the height of an ostrich.

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Blue, Blue, My Glacier Is Blue (Oct 9)

In our continuing series of Glaciers of Patagonia, today we bring you Piloto Glacier located at the head of Alacalufe fjord here in not-so-sunny Patagonia. But first, we had to get there.

Late last night we exited the Beagle Passage on the Pacific side of Tierra del Fuego. We were warned at dinner that this would be the windiest part of the passage with the highest waves — this part of the Pacific is anything but pacific (with a lowercase p) — and that for this reason the passage would be made late at night when we were safely tucked into bed. They elaborated that it might be hard to move around the cabin during this time, which turned out to be spectacularly true.

Up to this point the seas have been quite calm, and the motion of the boat correspondingly gentle, even soothing. But I awakened in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and it took me about a minute to get to the bathroom, which is about eight feet from the foot of the bed. I could hear the wind howling outside the window, and even lying in bed felt like a roller coaster ride, with momentary periods of near-weightlessness followed by an abrupt thud and crash as the bow of the ship pitched down from the crest of a wave into the trough. It was remarkable, and after navigating back to bed from the bathroom, a journey that took another minute or so as I weaved around the pitching and rolling floor, I opened the curtains to watch the show outside for a while. (I chose not to wake Alice, who was still sound asleep.) The boat has running lights on the side so it was possible to see the waves from the window, and there was faint moonlight filtering through the heavy clouds, illuminating the island on our starboard side. It was quite the display.

At this point a number of you might be saying, “I’d never make it through the night because I get seasick really easily.” But the powers that be have thought of you, and it is not for nothing that the passage was in the middle of the night: you don’t get seasick in your sleep. In the event, by morning we were back in calm seas at the mouth of the fjord.

Ernest Shackelton, call your office

This excursion would not involve landing the Zodiac; we would remain in it to motor up the glacier and approach as close as we safely could to the face of Piloto while the Australis remained at anchor at the mouth of the fjord. Since we would not be doing much moving around we are advised to layer up as much as we could; the weather would be cold, wet, and raw, and absent any hiking we would not be keeping ourselves warm. So we suited up like brightly colored Michelin Men. The air temperature was about 40 F, and the water temperature about the same. The wind was modest and it was raining lightly but steadily.

Apparently in anticipation of our arrival, Piloto glacier had a major calving event a few hours earlier, and the fjord was choked with ice to the point that it appeared as though you could practically step out of the boat and walk down the channel. (We were advised not to try this.) The Zodiacs struggled against all the ice; you can see two of our four boats in the photo at left, practically locked in the ice. There were, needless to say, the expected Shackelton jokes.

It took about 20 minutes to negotiate the ice floes and make our way up to the glacier. It was spectacular, the most striking one we have seen because of its unearthly opalescent blue color throughout, as you can see below. (I should emphasize that I haven’t done any color enhancement in these shots.)

Piloto Glacier, bringing new meaning to the term “ice blue”

As in yesterday’s photos of Pia Glacier, the perspective in this shot is very deceptive because the boat is much closer to the foreground than the glacier, which is several hundred feet high. We maneuvered around the floating ice to get as close as we could, ignoring the pelting rain and trying to avoid being hemmed in by the floes that completely surrounded us. And while we were ogling the blue giant, it put in another show for us, calving once again with a lightning crack and thunderous explosion, and bringing our calving record to 3-for-3. I caught part of the event on camera; you can see it right in the middle of the picture below, resembling a waterfall on the glacier face. But it is actually a huge “icefall”, a good 100 ft high.

You do not want to be much closer than this when this happens


Nesting crested cormorants, scavenging each other

We lingered for a while longer to see if any more would fall, but only a small amount did so we turned around and made a short stop to admire the bird life: gulls, skuas, and lots and lots of crested cormorants, the latter perched in rows on the cliff sides among their nests and squawking and dancing (mating dances) at each other. Here they are at left.

One peculiarity of their behavior is that they steal building material from each others’ nests in order to improve their own. This tactic works pretty poorly, because while Joe Cormorant is off stealing some sticks from Bob Cormorant’s nest, his nest is in turn being raided by Harpo Cormorant. So when not out hunting for fish these guys basically spend all day either dancing to woo women or picking each others’ pockets.

A very not-tropical waterfall

In part because of the rain and also because the (barely) above freezing temperatures cause a lot of glacial melt, the dark granite walls of the fjord were decorated with a multitude of waterfalls. As we motored back up the channel towards our starting point,mew stopped along the way to get close to a couple of small cataracts (whose waters, were, well, as cold as ice). They ran in rivulets of varying width from all the way at the tops of the cliffs down to the sea.

After returning to the Via Australis we were warmed with a cup of hot chocolate (with optional whiskey added, which we declined). A few minutes later we were offered a tour of the engine room, which of course appealed to the geek in both of us. It was pretty unprepossessing, far from the cavernous space housing rows of diesel behemoths that you would find on a big cruise ship. This was far more modest,mid deafeningly loud; they gave us earmuff-style ear protection while we we in there. And of course they gave us statistics: two 850 horsepower Diesel engines, two 385 kW main generators plus a 120 kW backup, ship is 237 ft in length, etc., etc. It was interesting and enjoyable enough, I suppose, but suffered from comparison to the one-hour adrenaline rush we had just experienced.

Aguila glacier and two wet tourists

Our afternoon shore excursion was to the Aguilar glacier, which unlike either the Pia or Piloto glaciers empties out onto a small alluvial plain, meaning that we could walk nearly right up to it. The Zodiacs dropped us off on the rocky beach, and we hiked along it for about 45 minutes until we came to the mouth of the plain; the glacier was perhaps a quarter mile inland from there. It does not have a recent history of calving and so viewing it was a somewhat more passive experience than the others, but it was nonetheless gratifyingly blue and carved into arches and spires.

The weather for this afternoon excursion was not quite as cooperative as it had been; though the temperature was not horribly cold (low 40s), there was a steady pelting rain that made the Zodiac ride and subsequent hike very wet affairs. We were well equipped with all the requisite layers of clothing that we had brought for the trip, notably our happily waterproof top-to-bottom rain gear. Even so, the hot post-excursion shower in our room was a little slice of heaven. 

And here’s a panorama of Aguila just because. For scale, it’s about 500 ft high.

More ice!

Tonight is our last night aboard ship, with a farewell dinner and some late night activities, notably auctioning off the ship’s official navigation map showing our route and the various waypoints. In the past this has gone for insane amounts of money, the highest that Julio can recall being $800. So we won’t be bidding. We have a morning excursion to a Magdalena Islland, home to a large population of Magellanic penguins. Be on the lookout for excessively cute photos as we then proceed to Punta Arenas to resume the land portion of our journey.

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Nice Ice, Baby (Oct 8)

We are in glacier country now, for real, and today was a two-glacier day. Even more excitingly, it was a two calving glacier day, as we were lucky enough to see both of our target glaciers explosively shed office-building sized chunks of ice sufficient to keep you and all your friends in piña coladas for the rest of your life. (By the way, since we’ve been on the subject for a couple of days now, I highly recommend the documentary “Chasing Ice”, which is about glaciers and has some truly amazing and beautiful photography.)

The weather has been cloudy with some light misting rain all day, the mountaintops shrouded in fog. But the glaciers are down at the sea and our visibility is unimpeded. The Australis is working its way down the Beagle Channel into the ice fields, and as we approach the glaciers the sea around us is densely littered with floating chunks of ice ranging in size from “cantaloupe” to “minivan”. Many of the larger pieces have been sculpted by wind and water into gently curving baroque shapes, and some of them have football-sized chunks of rock embedded in them. We push slowly through them, and since our cabin is on the bottom deck we can hear frequent thumps as the larger pieces brush against the ship’s hull. The water is dark gray and the floes range in color from light gray to sky blue…glacier blue, I suppose, a striking and incongruously cheerful hue against the cold and light drizzle.

The Zodiacs have pretty tough hulls themselves, the inflatable rubber sides being thick enough to repel collisions with small objects. Even so, a scout crew always goes out first to ascertain the safety of the surroundings before we board our own boats. You can see one returning, below. Note that the boat has a rope mesh at the front. This serves two purposes, one being a hand grip for beaching and shoving off, the other being a wave-breaker-upper (for lack of a better term); waves that splash into the front as we motor forward get dissipated on the mesh, which thus minimizes the amount of water splashed into the boat.

“Is it safe?”

We had come in sight of our first destination, Pia Glacier, an hour or two earlier. It’s a massive thing whose scale is difficult to appreciate against the mountains that surround it. Here’s the approach to the glacier from abovedecks. You can also see all the ice “debris” in the water around us.     

Approaching Pia Glacier (just right of center) on the Via Australis

To give you an idea of the scale, the mouth of the glacier is about 3/4 mile wide, and it is about 1000 ft high.

Storming the beaches at Pia Glacier

Today was not quite such an early day, and we set off in the boats at about 9 AM, motoring first directly alongside the  Australis and then powering out into the open channel. The driver steers clear of the larger floes but we run straight over the little ones, feeling the bumps and thumps as they run across the bottom of the craft.

The beach landing is easy once we navigate the ice; the slope of the beach is gentle and the crew is waiting with a little aluminum gangplank that they hoist onto the bow of the Zodiac for us. We exit the craft one-by-one with striking efficiency and then walk up the sloping granite “beach” to an assembly point.

The granite is interesting in itself. Nearly black in color and striated with gray and white, it’s surprisingly skid-proof even when wet; we can walk on it very easily, even on a slope. There are patches covered with white, green, and occasional orange lichen, and there are large exceptionally flat areas maybe 20 ft on a side that are covered with scratches and striations all running parallel to one another — scars on the rock from the glacier’s ancient retreat. 

(While contemplating this I notice Alice ambling slowly across the granite, peering straight down in evident concentration. She sees me observing her and explains, “I am researching kitchen countertops, ” stating it in such a strikingly matter-of-fact tone that it takes me a moment to realize that she is a total loonball. Kitchen countertops, of course! What else would we be doing at the foot of a thousand foot tall glacier, 600 miles from Antarctica?)

We walk along the granite beach to a point that is perhaps a quarter mile from the face of the glacier, so the view looks like this. (The perspective is very deceiving in this image: bear in mind that our cohort in the orange life vests at left are a quarter mile from the ice; the central formations in the middle of the face are 1000 ft high.)

Ice the height of a skyscraper

And there is sound, lots of it. Loud cracks and pops like gunfire, and the occasional small explosion as some unseen mass of ice breaks off and falls somewhere onto a jagged surface, also out of sight. A lot of the cacophony seems to emanate from the cavelike formation that you can see on the left side of the picture. Every now and then we can see and hear a piece fall from the roof of the arch into the water; the smallest of these is about the size of a car and it makes a deep and thunderous >>FOOM!!!<< as it crashes into the sea. These events seem to occur with increasing frequency even as we watch, making us wonder whether there will be a larger calving event later (answer: yes).

“I’d like to buy a vowel and 2 billion tons of ice, Pat.”

There’s a viewpoint at an elevation of a few hundred feet on the hillside, and so we set out along a hiking trail. The weather is holding: heavily overcast and cold but not too raw, with the barely-there drizzle kind of coming and going. The hiking trail is as steep as yesterday’s, but not as long; there are short muddy stretches but tree roots are a bigger impediment, and there are uneven hunks of granite interspersed with the roots and the mud, so we have to pick our way. There are a couple of particularly steep stretches with rope strung along the edge of the path, such as it is; we use the ropes to help haul ourselves up, and we reach the lookout in about 20 minutes. And so here is Alice at the lookout, doing her best Vanna White imitation to present the glacier to you.

Even as we watched from the lookout, the rate of explosive pops and crackles from the left part of the glacier seemed to be increasing. So we waited — I’d like to say patiently, but we were anything but — and were rewarded, as the entire ceiling of the arch came loose with the crackling sound of a dead tree being splintered by a lightning bolt. This was a slab of ice bigger than a football field, and it seemed to fall in slow motion. Perhaps 4 seconds in free fall, it hit the water like an earthquake, sending a tiny tsunami towards the Zodiac and washing dozens of boulder-sized floes up onto the beach. We all clapped and cheered. Alice had been on the ball and caught it on video; we’ll post it upon our return.

Not everyone in our party had made the hike to the lookout, so when we returned to the beach we regaled the unfortunates with what we had witnessed. We were still hopped up on adrenaline by the time the Zodiac came to ferry us back to the Australis, though we had passed the time productively by drinking hot chocolate and variously chewing and licking a hunk of glacier that had washed up onto the beach, and which I had picked up and brought back to the group for inspection. After all, how could you not want to taste a glacier? I can report that it tastes a great deal like a hunk of ice, quite cold and fresh with no chlorine or additives of any kind. It was kind of neat to both hold and behold, though: you could see strata in it from various formative snow depositions over the years, and it had a lot of suspended air bubbles. This particular chunk was not blue, however.

We dodged floating ice all the way back to the ship and enjoyed a buffet lunch (assorted Italian dishes today, quite good) in preparation for the afternoon excursion to our next glacier, called Garibaldi. Most of our group, including ourselves, elected not to go ashore for this one since we were told that the hike was quite arduous and the reward at the top (a waterfall) not altogether commensurate with the effort. This was a wise choice,mat least for us: while the shore party(only 7 people, including the father and daughter from our group) was doing the hike, the captain took the Australis further up the channel nearly up to the face of Garibaldi itself, an enormous ice wall much bluer than Pia though slightly smaller in size. It is about 1500 ft wide and 500 feet high. The channel was practically choked with ice, which we pushed slowly through for a spectacular view. 

Garibaldi is bifurcated by a vertical moraine; it is essentially two glaciers merged together with a visible seam, a jagged brown channel that runs down the face. And while we were observed this, Garibaldi calved too! We had seen some large pieces falling off so in anticipation I was more or less at the ready with my camera set in burst mode (3.6 shots per second for three seconds at a time), and managed to capture a few thousand tons of ice as it hit the water with just a bit of a splash:

Kersplash! Garibaldi Glacier calves. 

That’s the impact billowing at the waterline just to the right of center. You can also see how very blue Garibadi is, and how very clogged the channel is with small ice floes. And of course you can also see the moraine making a dark S-shaped channel through the glacier. 

We spent most of the rest of the day congratulating ourselves on our glaciological luck. At 6 PM there was a knot-tying demonstration at the bar/observation deck, which was a lot more entertaining than it sounds. The lesson was given by the boatswain, a beefy guy with a shaved head who could probably have a second career as a nightclub bouncer. He was a hoot, at least in translation by another crew member since he himself spoke little English. And I am proud to say that for at least the next 24 hours until I forget how, I know how to tie a bowline knot as well as a “novelty” knot called a “devil’s staircase”. This is a sort of a trick whereby with a few economic motions you simultaneously create multiple knots at a time strung along the length of rope like beads on a string. As nearly as I can tell its practical application is for wowing guests at very dull parties. But I am confident that I will be able to amaze the kindergarten crowd at, say, our grandson’s fifth birthday in 2 1/2 years.

 

 

 

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Reaching the Bottom: Cape Horn (Oct 7)

End of the Earth

The big unknown about our reaching Cape Horn was whether we would actually be able to stand at the fabled point itself or merely view it from the boat, the determining factors being weather, weather, and weather. (More accurately, the factors would be wind, waves, and beach conditions. Rain and snow are not considered unless extreme.) From the Australis we could already see the Cape Horn monument atop the island, silhouetted against the dawn: a 15′ tall metal square, standing on one corner, with an albatross-shaped hole in the middle. 

But we got lucky, as the day dawned partly sunny and the swells, though very noticeable, we’re not too high for safety in the Zodiacs. We were warned about a number of things, starting with clothing: wear every layer we had (we were told); the weather is ferociously changeable. Truer words were ne’er spoke.

And so we bundled up in five or so layers, the outermost being rain slickers and waterproof pants and boots, and our life vests on top of that. The life vests had been hanging in the closet of our cabin, each one with a red tag clipped to it displaying our room number. Adjacent to the Zodiacs was a pegboard with corresponding numbered hooks: the idea is to hang up your tag on the hook before barring the Zodiac and collect it when you return, thereby giving the crew an immediate heads-up if someone is still on the island. (This is a a rare to nonexistent occurrence.)

We received our instructions for entering and exiting the Zodiacs, climbed in when instructed, and away we went though the chop and into the wind. There was uncharacteristically no rain, though that would change as predicted; the weather here is spectacularly, dramatically volatile.

First the waves, then the stairs

We motored through the chop and beached at the bottom of a very long flight of precarious wooden steps up the cliff side, something like 156 of them as you see at right.

It was a long, steep way up, exciting not only for the reality of where we were but for the more prosaic fact that the steps were rickety and slippery, and it was an awfully long tumble down to the rocky surf below.

The Chilean navy station at the top marked the prelude to another climb, this time much shallower over a long wooden boardwalk with a few step risers along the way, wending its way over scrubby grass and stunted trees and up some hillocks to a vantage point fro which we could get a view, not only of the sea and snowy peaks behind us, but of the monument itself and a small lighthouse on a promontory nearby.

Getting closer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene was striking in its own right, amplified by the increasingly hellacious wind that tore into us now that we are atop the unprotected bluff. It is fortunate that our trip leader Julio had managed to pull a few strings to get us out on the first Zodiac, because we and the other ten folks in our Zodiac thus had the place to ourselves for a few minutes, and it was kind of exciting to realize that we were nearly alone at the this very point, which is the well-and-truly actual southernmost anything outside of Antarctica itself, about as close to the actual end of the Earth as you can really be. No doubt about it, it was more than a little cool. And so here we are (photo below) being awesome at this particular bucket list location.

“Bottom of the world, ma!”


Hail in a 40mph wind…travel at its finest

Speaking of “pretty cool” the weather — already more than pretty cool in the literal sense — almost immediately turned to “hideous” with genuinely remarkable speed at just about the moment we stepped away from the monument to allow the newcomers to have their pictures taken. Clouds moved in, the temperature dropped like a stone, it started to hail and snow, and in short order we looked like the picture at right.

You haven’t really appreciated hail until you have had it driven into your face by a 40 mph wind in near-freezing temperatures. It was like being stung continuously by about 200 angry bees, and it disinclined us to linger too long at the top.

But first we had to see the lighthouse. And who, you might ask, is the lighthouse keeper? Who could possibly have a life in this ridiculously remote location with no newspapers, cell phones, or indeed much of anything at all? And the answer is: a young Chilean naval officer who, in full dress uniform, mans the tiny gift shop at the base of the lighthouse, along with his wife, teenage son, and little dog. He cheerfully signs “I visited Cape Horn” certificates in the gift shop, no doubt wondering exactly who in the Chilean Navy he offended that caused him to draw this particular assignment. His wife and kid no doubt think the same thing. (“Dad, I hate my life!”)

In fairness I should say that this assignment is actually considered an honor, or at least that’s what they tell everybody. But regardless, it seems to me that you better get along with your wife and kid really, really well to avoid thoughts of throwing yourself off the cliff.

We made our way back down the rickety and now ice-covered cliffside stairs, squinting against the hail and biting wind while trying not to slip and tumble down all 156 steps. (Our waterproof Wellington boots by this time were doing more harm than good, offering virtually no traction on the rime. Alice slipped and fell 4 times along the way, none of them seriously.) but we were high-fiving to hell and gone by the time we reached the Zodiac for the windy trip back to the Australis, and there were plenty of stories to swap at breakfast at our return (but first…remember to clip your red room tag back onto your life vest!).

The storm passed, and the afternoon was markedly milder. During breakfast and lunch the boat had moved a few tens of miles back up the island towards the Beagle Channel, and our afternoon Zodiac excursion was at Wulaia Bay along the way. This was one of the areas where Darwin did some of his research, and it is a striking setting ringed by mountains and dotted by a number of small islands. The island that we docked at (their was a small pier that could accommodate the Zodiacs) was dominated by a ridge about 600 ft above the bay, and we undertook a real workout of a hike to the top of it. We had had three options: an easy hike along the coast, a very strenuous “fast hike” to the the top, or a “moderate to difficult” hike, also to the top. Most people, including ourselves, chose the last.

It was no walk on the park. Though we took about 45 minutes to make the ascent — including a couple of pauses for nature talks by the guide — there were parts that were so steep that it was necessary to use a rope strung alongside the trail for assistance.  One of the nature stops included a beaver dam, of all things. Fun fact: in 1947 someone who had never heard about rabbits in Australia, mongoose in the Caribbean, or rats in Hawaii had the brilliant idea of importing 25 pairs of beavers from Canada and releasing them in Ushuaia, figuring that in the absence of any local predators they would reproduce without interference and create a whole new industry of lucrative beaver pelts. They got it half right: there is now an out-of-control population of 100,000 beavers living throughout the archipelago…. whose pelts are worthless because it is the hormone-laden oils secreted in fear of the predators that gives them their valuable sheen. For a while the government was paying a $10 bounty on them, but it didn’t help much. Truly, we are in the Golden Age of Invasive Species.

Rampant beavers notwithstanding, we huffed and puffed our way to the top — not everyone made it — and our reward was this view.

This is why we travel

That’s the Via Australis on the water about halfway up and two thirds of the way to the right. Here’s another view, with the ship at lower left.

Ditto.

Upon our return to the ship a crew member with a power washer hosed off the bottoms of our shoes. This is done after every island visit to keep our hallway and cabin floors mud-free.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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