Posts Tagged With: 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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Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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.

 

 

  

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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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I Go, You Go, Tierra del Fuego (Oct 6)

“You are here”, quite precisely

I am dating these next few entries because we are aboard ship as I type this and will not be be able to send them out for at least another few days. (Our ship, the Via Australis, is a small (126 passenger) “expedition” passenger ship devoid of a lot of big cruise ship amenities: no internet, no swimming pool, no movie theater, etc. It does however have an open bar; this ain’t exactly the Shackelton expedition. Anyway, more on the ship shortly.)

Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WAH-yuh, by the way) takes its reputation as the southernmost city on the world pretty seriously, to the point of indicating the latitude and longitude of the major intersections on its street signs, as you see at left. One second of latitude is about 100 feet, and one second of longitude is only about 55 feet or so at this latitude, so you can actually see the differences in the coordinates on the signs as you walk from block to block. (The main drag of Ushuaia is a single street of crappy souvenir shops and much better restaurants, about 16 blocks long.)

The problem with the whole “southernmost” self-image — we drove past a sign advertising “the world’s most southernmost golf course” today — is that unless you are actually in Antarctica you are always on slightly shaky ground. And indeed, there is a Chilean town called Port Williams that is slightly further south than Ushuaia (which is Argentine). But Port Williams has only 1500 inhabitants versus Ushuaia’s 65,000, and so a gentlemen’s agreement — and I swear this is true — was reached whereunder each gets uncontested bragging rights:  Port Williams bills itself as the world’s most southernmost town, whereas Ushuaia is agreed to be the southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have a contentious and sometimes bellicose history, so this counts as a small victory for peace.

This is our southernmost picture, until the next one

Our main activity on Monday morning was a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park (proof at right) which in the spirit of things I suppose is the world’s most southernmost national park. The are a number of cool things about the place, but one of them is the entrance sign itself. Note the third line from the bottom, which means “Here is the end of National Route #3”, that being the designation of the Argentine portion of the Pan American Highway. In other words, this sign sign is REALLY the end of the road.

The park itself is beautiful, the vistas strongly reminiscent of both the Pacific Northwest and many parts of Alaska: glacial moraine, cold clear lakes, snow capped mountains. We made a few easy hikes, ogled the views, got educated by our local guide Laura and the flora and fauna. The vegetation is noticeably different than the temperate zone stuff that we are used to: lots of orange-colored spherical edible fungi on the trees, Calafata berry bushes (from which one makes Calafata Sours, Patagonia’s answer to the otherwise ubiquitous Pisco Sour). The picture below gives a pretty typical sense of the place:

Nature at its almost southernmost

There was a little bit of conversational confusion with Laura as she kept referring to “Fire Land”. She was trying to be helpful, since that is the literal translation of “Tierra del Fuego”, named after the fires lit on the beach by the native Yamana and first seen by Magellan. We assured her that we called the place by its Spanish Name.

The Yamana were a hardy crew, though not hardy enough to avoid being wiped out by the Spanish. They were master canoe builders, and their designs have not yet been successfully duplicated. They were also naked, since clothes in this environment tend to get wet and stay wet, thus keeping you cold. They smeared animal fat on their bods instead. (It makes me wonder if, much as the Inuit are said to have many words for snow, the Yamana had dozens of ways to say, “Holy crap, I’m freezing my butt off.”) 

Speaking of being wiped out, another member of our traveling party did more or less that at about by tripping on a step as we were boarding the bus to leave the park. Broken wrist — she flew home from Ushuaia today. That’s our second loss, which brings the group down to 19. Julio’s not happy about it; he’s never lost two before. (And though he doesn’t know it, he’s going to get more bad news tomorrow: one of our party took sick with a cold or flu and is having trouble shaking it off. She has pretty much isolated herself in her hotel room and boat cabin, and told us in the hallway an hour ago that she is punching out too as soon as we come into port in Punta Arenas in two days.)

La specialité de maison, medieval but quite delicious

We got back from the park in time to have a late lunch before boarding the ship and decided to go full native in much the same way that we ate a whole fresh king crab for dinner the night before. The local specialty this time was barbecued lamb, and there are a large number of local restaurants dedicated to cooking mammals over wood fires and displaying the process in their windows as at left.

The waiter told us that a portion was suitable for one person, so we ordered two portions plus an appetizer. But as soon as we mentioned the appetizer (empanadas) he backpedaled and suggested that one portion of lamb might be enough, and we went with that. This turned out to be about 3 lbs of lamb on the bone, and we couldn’t finish it. But it was really good…

After lunch we walked all 16 blocks of downtown, then to the port to rendezvous with our group and board the Via Australis, which you see at right.

De boat, boss, de boat!

It’s a small, attractive ship that as I mentioned carries about 126 passengers. It has four decks plus an open top deck for panoramic viewing if you enjoy being out in the open in 40 degree weather in a 20 mph wind. The interior is quite beautifully appointed, all dark wood and brass. Our cabin is comfortable, about 11′ x 16′, on the lowermost deck right down the hall from the main dining room. (The rooms are identical on all decks, so lower down is good: less rocking.) One of the ship’s prominent features is not visible in the photo: a row of 4 Zodiacs in the back, to be used to ferry us 12 at a time to islands and glaciers. (As we shall see in our next installment.) Here we are looking back at Ushuaia as we leave port at about 7pm. Note the sterns of the Zodiacs at the bottom.

Cape Horn, here we come

 

 

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Not The End of the World, But You Can See It From Here

This will be a short post (postscript: apparently not), and definitely our last for at least 5 days and possibly longer since as of tomorrow evening we will be aboard ship rounding Cape Horn and heading up the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields.

We flew today to Ushuaia, at 55 degrees south latitude supposedly the southernmost city in the world. It is a town of 65,000 people squeezed in between the bottom of the Andes and Ushuaia Bay. Here is the view from our hotel room:

This is one of THREE mountain ranges separating Ushuaia from the rest of civilization

It might have struck you that “Ushuaia” is not a very Spanish-sounding name. That’s because it isn’t: it means “westward-facing bay” in the language of the original indigenes, the Yanama. And where are the Yanama now, you may ask? Silly question: remember that the Spanish colonized this place. The natives were wiped out by imported disease, conflict with the settlers, and over-hunting by the settlers of the sea lion population, which was the Yanama’s primary food source.

After another dramatic flight over the southern Andes we arrived at about noon today and started exploring the area. The town itself as you can see from the picture looks sort of like a ski resort from the Pacific Northwest, and there is indeed a ski resort here (though the season is just over, it being early spring here). We got lucky on the weather, at least for today: it is partly sunny with temperatures in the low 50’s. We are assured that this is unlikely to last. The wind is extremely gusty, which we are told is typical.

Our hostess exhorts us to share, and pretend to enjoy

Our first stop was lunch at a private home, a beautiful chalet-style house on the hillside overlooking the town and the mountains on the other side of the bay. The hostess and her family (husband and two small daughters) prepared a wonderful lunch — lentil stew with achingly sweet tres leches cake for dessert — and gave us the run of the house so we could chat with the family and admire the view. Afterwards we were presented with the Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony, in this sharing the communal pot of Yerba mate. In case you have not heard of it, mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a very bitter herbal tea made from the Yerba shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. There is a whole social ritual and vocabulary associated with partaking of it; our gracious hostess explained all this whilst preparing it, and we passed around the communal cup while pretending that it did not taste like pencil shavings soaked in motor oil.

Good grief, St. Charlie Brown!

Our first stop after lunch was at a bizarre collection of shrines along a roadway just outside of town; the prevailing style seemed to be Snoopy Doghouse, as you can see at left. Some are much more elaborate, though: as a bastion of a particular idolatrous form of Latin American Catholicism, Argentina has a couple of favorite saints that seem to generate a proliferation of shrines and legends. The

Don’t kill Gil

 first is “Gauchito Gil” who lived a virtuous life in the north as a landowner and sort of  Robin Hood figure, fighting against the evil Paraguayans and corrupt local sherriff. When finally captured he warned his killer-to-be that if he (Gil) were murderd then the killer’s son would also die. The killer reconsidered and checked up on his son, who was indeed suddenly gravely ill. So he prayed to Gil, his son recovered, and the lesson learned was Don’t Mess Around With The Gauchito. So now Gil’s got big roadside shrines about the size of beach cabañas, all draped in red, which was his symbolic color. The deal is that you offer him some wine by pouring it out of the bottle while making a wish. I’m not sure where any of this occurs in the Bible but we did it anyway. Julio warned us not to wish for good weather because that was probably a lost cause, so Alice wisely asked to be protected against seasickness. At right you can see her making her offering in front of the Big Red Shrine.

Arguably even more bizarre than Kill Gil is the shrine to La Defunte (“Deceased”) Correa, a woman beatified for breast feeding her baby while she herself starved to death in the wilderness. The child survived, and her shrine consists of many, many statuettes depicting her corpse cradling a baby. You make an offering of drinks to her too, and her shrine is copiously littered, both within and without, with hundreds if not thousands of empty bottles, mostly one- and two-liter soda bottles. Tell me that this isn’t an inspirational scene:

Becoming a saint really works up a thirst

OK, I think I’ve spent enough words on the local religion, at least the supernatural one. The other local religion — more accurately, one of several national obsessions — is obsessing over the 1982 Falklands War. But you damn well better not call it the Falklands War: those islands are the Malvinas in this country, and no substitute name is accepted.

“Yep, we lost.”

The Falklands/Malvinas were originally colonized by Argentina but conquered by Britain in 1833, and Argentina has been pining for them ever since. Problem is, under standards of international law once you own a place for 150 years it is well and truly legally yours, and the clock was running out. So at the 149 year mark — this is all true — the Argentine government decided to increase its abysmal popularity by making a grab for them, figuring that (a) Britain wouldn’t respond militarily, and (b) the US would support Argentina. Wrong on both counts; Margaret Thatcher wanted to increase her abysmal popularity too. Final score: the British lost about 230 men, plus 100 or so taken prisoner; the Argentines lost 649 men and 11 thousand taken prisoner; and the Falklands are still owned by the UK. Thirty two years later, Argentina is still gnashing its national teeth and trying to think of a clever comeback.

And so it came to pass that our last event of the day was an interview with a Malvinas war veteran, a pleasant 50 year old man who served on a naval vessel during that war when he was only 18 years old. His ship was sunk, and 300 men were lost out of a crew of about 1100; he survived in a covered lifeboat for 44 hours with 22 other men, huddled together for warmth. He related his experiences through our latest local guide, Laura, who acted as interpreter. It was interesting to hear, but in the end (a) he was only 18 at the time and (b) c’mon Argentina, get over it already.

Dinner tonight was a serious treat: King crab is found in these Antarctic waters, and so we went to a seafood restaurant where you can pick live ones from a tank for steaming, just like lobsters at home. If you have never been to either Alaska or Patagonia then you have probably never had fresh king crab, which is wholly unlike the frozen stuff you get in every store or restaurant or home. It’s like a transcendent experience in your mouth. Dessert was a stroll into a local ice cream store; remember that Argentines do a really good job on ice cream. So all in all a great end to the day.

So that’s been our introduction to Patagonia, here in Ushuaia. We’ll be off the grid and o’er the hopefully-not-too-bounding main starting late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll keep up my notes offline and post the batch of them the next time we have Internet access. Till then, our best regards to everyone!

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Buenos Aires: Insert In-“Evita”-ble Pun Here

We arrived in Buenos Aires yesterday and met up with the rest of our group, so in total we now number 20. They are mostly women from their mid-50’s to early 70’s; we are now 5 men and 15 women, which made for a rather unbalanced tango lesson in the hour after Julio welcomed the group together and briefed us on the trip. My contribution was to flee the room as soon as the lesson started.

There was a welcome dinner later that evening, and through a series of miscommunications we managed to get separated from the group. After assorted phone calls and map consultations we rejoined them at the restaurant and had an Argentine steak dinner; Argentines are really big on beef. The highlight, though, was dessert: you probably didn’t know this, but Argentines are really big on ice cream, too, and do an excellent job of making it. In fact — I am not making this up — ice cream stores in Buenos Aires deliver. You can call them up, tell them what flavors and quantity you want, and they show up at your door a few minutes later. This to me represents one of the pinnacles of Western civilization.

Buenos Aires, though it considers itself the center of the universe, has a somewhat Norma Desmond-esque feel to much of it, a dowager trying to hold on to past glories. It does have it’s charm, particularly the French and Italian architecture that earned it its nickname as “the Paris of South America”. But Argentinians are very proud of their capital; it would not surprise me if they called Paris “the Buenos Aires of Europe”. But judge for yourself: here is the view from our hotel room.

The Paris of South America, after the zombie apocalypse

This picture is actually a little unfair, since there are also beautiful districts of the city with shiny high rises, upscale shopping, and the like. Regardless, the current calamitous state of affairs stems from a long history of bad governance and economic policy incompetence that has left the country in a badly crippled state, perpetually either in or about to be in a state of default. As I type this the government is embroiled in a monster lawsuit with a couple of US hedge funds who bought billions of dollars of Argentine bonds which have now come due. The Argentines are trying to pay off the bond holders in pesos, and the bond holders are having none of it; they want the payoff in US dollars per the original terms of the bonds.

Symbol of the missing, as the grandmothers still march

Certainly the nadir of Argentine governance was during the 7-year “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983 when the generals were running the country and thousands of their political opponents, as well their opponents’ friends, families, and probably even pizza deliver guys simply “disappeared”. The most tragic of these many cases involved pregnant women whose babies were taken from them and given away, after which the women were (presumably) killed. The situation was so egregious that the mothers of the disappeared started protesting in front of the presidential palace, marching with diapers tied around their heads to symbolize their lost children and grandchildren. They became a powerful force, and when the government was overturned in 1983 they continued to march — successfully — to force the authorities to attempt to identify and recover the lost identities of the missing, and of the stolen children. The effort continues to this day, and hundreds have been identified. The women, some quite aged, still March every Thursday, now with the blessing of the the government. They wear white handkerchiefs on their heads now, and the plaza in front of the palace is dotted with painted versions of their symbol: a stylized white handkerchief (photo at right). Our local guide, a voluble Argentine woman named Sylvana, had difficulty maintaining her composure as she explained all this to us.

One of the consequences of the collapsed economy is a thriving currency black market. The official exchange rate is 8.4 Argentine pesos to the dollar. But Julio and Sylvana said, screw that, you can do a lot better. They took us to a so-called “blue market” exchange, where a scruffy looking guy behind a thick glass window gave us 13 pesos per dollar. That’s a big difference, and so he makes his profit by in turn selling the dollars one more layer down the economic food chain, on the actual black market, where he gets God knows what for them. His blue market operation is technically illegal but winked-at as long as he keeps a low profile; there was not a single sign indicating a currency exchange, but rather a dusty display of sunglasses in a plexiglass case. So he is notionally selling sunglasses, though I would be shocked to learn that the display case had ever once been opened.

Madonna sang here

The presidential palace has a baroque architecture and is an unattractive pinkish color. On the second floor are a series of balconies facing the plaza, which the president can use to address the presumably adoring throngs. The balconies are dark, except for one (photo at left), that being the one from which Eva Peron addressed her particular adoring throngs. The lights are kept on in her memory, and no president since then has had the cojones to use that balcony. (For one thing, explained Sylvana, you don’t want to do that unless you’re quite certain that the crowds below are entirely on your side, and that just does not happen anymore.)

Eva “Evita” Peron was a much loved character, as you know, who in the seven years that she was married to Juan Peron (26 years her senior) was a transformative influence for workers and women’s rights. She died in 1952 of cervical cancer at the age of only 33 and to this day remains a controversial and iconic part of the Argentine national psyche.

(True story: Julio tells that us that in a previous tour group when he told them that Eva Peron died in 1952, a woman in the group said, “That’s impossible! I just saw her perform in a show!” I neglected to ask whether Madonna was loved or loathed here.)

Adjacent to the plaza in front of the palace is a Catholic church (the country is 80% Catholic) with an unusual display: a memorial to Jewish terror victims. In 1992 Hezbollah blew up a synagogue in Buenos Aires, and to memorialize the victims the bishop of this church created a display consisting mostly of pieces of paper: loose pages from prayer books, notebooks, and music sheets from the synagogue that were strewn about the street in the blast. 

After leaving the church, we rode a few stops on the Metro — from 1913, the oldest in South America, and strongly resembling the Paris Metro with its tiled walls and murals by local artists — and then boarded a bus for a few hour city tour.

I’ll take dinner here, thanks

Now you might wonder why we had to get on the Metro to reach the bus. And the answer is that from a purely practical perspective we didn’t; the bus could have picked us up at the palace. But our tour operator OAT goes out of their way to find out everyone’s individual interests and accommodate them — they ask us to fill out “expectation cards” with that kind of information — and at least one member of our group had expressed an interest in experiencing local public transpiration. So we did!

The bus took us to a number of districts around the city, but our first stop was a heavenly little bakery where we marched inside to breathe in the sugar and the butter and the calories, and where Julio and Sylvana bought a couple arm loads of assorted pastries for us. They were seriously good (photo of one variety at right).

Boca district, touristy but fun

Our next stop was the Boca district, originally populated by Italian immigrants and still very colorful. It’s a large residential area but also has a tourist-centric neighborhood, all brightly colored walls, artists displaying their wares, and tango dancers in the streets. The picture at left gives you the idea.

The street was alive with people, probably half tourists and half people trying to make money off the tourists; the latter include shop and restaurant owners exhorting passers-by to enter; shills passing out leaflets for other shops and restaurants; and tango dancers inveigling you into having your picture taken with them. (The tango pairs were all in 1930’s tango garb; men in low-slouched fedoras and right three-piece suits; women with black air, diaphanous thigh-high-cut dresses, and 7′-long legs.)

One of the curious tropes of this particular area was a proliferation of somewhat grotesque statues, sometimes of famous people and sometimes not (an example of the latter being, say, a chef statue in front of a restaurant.)

Three local gods smiling upon the hoi polloi

The pope is a popular subject of these three-dimensional caricatures since he is Argentine; one street corner had one of these statues of him leaning out a second story window apparently giving a benediction to the crowd below. But he popped up in a number of other places along the street as well. At right you can see three of these statues smiling down from a balcony, a sort of Argentine pop culture trinity. From left to right they are soccer superstar Maradona; the inevitable Eva Peron; and tango demigod Carlos Gardel (who has a whole tango theater named after him.)

Our final stop on the bus tour was the Recoleta District, an upscale shopping and park area whose most famous venue is the city cemetery. The cemetery is kind of an odd place, rather different in appearance and atmosphere from most you have seen. It has no open green space at all, but is instead a narrow gray maze of tall mausoleums and columbariums. A network of pathways barely six feet wide winds in shadow among the discolored marble, gray slate, and black granite tombs. A small number are clearly still maintained, with recently fresh flowers placed at their doors. Most look more like props from a vampire movie. Adding to the general eeriness is a number of feral cats who sort of keep watch over the place, like this:

No, this is not an illustration from a Stephen King novel


Oh, what the hell, go ahead and cry for me, Argentina

You get a sense of the layout from the tombs in the background. Thee are a number of locally famous personages at rest in this particular cemetery but the big draw is Evita herself, the mausoleum of Eva Peron. It is very unprepossessing, situated in the middle of an unremarkable row of other tombs. She is not even there by herself; it’s actually her family mausoleum, the family Duarte (her maiden name). Part of the reason that she is not more prominently placed is that after her death her body went walkabout, not in the zombie sense but more like in the grave robbing sense: her supporters didn’t want her enemies (of which she had many) getting a hold of her and so shipped her body abroad. Despite being dead she ended up making a grand tour of about four different countries over a period of something like 21 years. By the time her remains made it back to Argentina, hubby Juan had not only outlived her by a long time but had gone through another wife in the interim. So when her family requested that she be placed in the family tomb, General Peron said, like, whatever. So they did, and here is the proof that we visited her (pic at right). There were a number of wilted flowers at the front of the tomb; apparently they get refreshed every Sunday, and we were visiting the day before that was scheduled to happen.

Our final event of the day was a home dinner visit to a local family. This kind of cultural immersion is a feature of every OAT trip (we visited a family compound and a school in Zimbabwe two years ago). The 20 of were divided among four host families. Our host family was extremely pleasant and probably rather atypical in being clearly very well off. The family consisted of the mother (our hostess), father (a lawyer who was not present), and two teenage (16 and 17) daughters, only the younger of whom was present. They live in a very nicely appointed 1750 square foot, 4BR 3 bath condo with a private elevator down to the lobby. So not exactly peasant stock, in other words. Mother and daughter spoke articulate English, had strong political views (they hate the corrupt, incompetent government), and were excellent hosts. I’m not sure how well they represented the views and overall life situation of the general population, but we enjoyed the evening.

Tomorrow we fly more or less literally to the ends of the Earth: Ushuaia, billed as the southernmost city in the world and the jumping off point for our boat trip around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields. It is likely that we will fall off the grid when we arrive there, so I will try and keep this blog updated offline and post it when Internet access allows.

 

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(Fire) Truckin’ Back to Santiago

Yesterday was our last day in Santiago, and today our first in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t a huge touring-around day, but it had its share of ups and downs. First the downs:

The oldest member of our group — June, age 83 — has with some gentle encouragement from Julio pulled the metaphorical ripcord and decided (correctly) that she has bitten off more than she could chew in selecting this trip. She has traveled around the world multiple times on QE2 cruises, but the physical rigors of this trip were way too much for her; she’s the one who nearly fainted on the street on our first day in Santiago, last Sunday. A stout, grandmotherly woman, she was a real sweetheart but always a few steps behind the rest of the group both physically and conversationally. (She does not have a cell phone or email, and asked Alice what the simplest smartphone would be for a techno-naïf. Alice suggested an iPhone and she responded, “What’s an iPhone?” So you know what we’re dealing with.)

Julio spent a fair amount of time scrambling around yesterday getting her booked on a flight out of Santiago today. She flies home this afternoon (Friday), to her own — and to be honest, everyone else’s — relief.

Our second bump in the road was a delay in our flight from Calama back to Santiago, due to heavy fog at the latter airport. (Which was strange to hear, since Calama is up in the Atacama desert and the skies were cloudless there when we were informed of the problem.) But one of the virtues of this kind of group travel is that once you write the check you magically transform such glitches into Somebody Else’s Problem. We had nothing waiting for us in Santiago yesterday afternoon, any logistical rearrangements were Julio’s job, and so we took the news with Zen-like equanimity. The airline shuttled us all to a nearby hotel where we had a nice buffet lunch. So no biggie.

But in between those two events we enjoyed one of those offbeat experiences that are the rewards of traveling with an open mind. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut (in Cat’s Cradle): “Unexpected travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And in the words of Julio Llamos, our tour lead: “You gotta bring the magic.”

It happens that Mario, our driver in San Pedro, is a volunteer firefighter in that tiny place. He is rightfully proud of that, and asked (via Julio, since he speaks no English) whether we would like to see the fire station en route to the airport in Calama. The collective sentiment was sure, why not? And this turned out to be quite the gem of an experience.

When I asked for a pole dance, this wasn’t what I had in mind

The fire station was small but modern and well equipped, thanks to a government grant and a number of fund raisers. Mario showed us the break room (complete with pool table), the crew quarters, and the garage with the trucks. And then the real wonderfulness started, for the entrance to the garage was on a mezzanine overlooking the engines, which you could get to either by walking down a ramp or — and who among us has not wanted to do this — sliding down a fireman’s pole. And so like screeching 6 year olds we slid one by one down the fireman’s pole, thereby checking off a bucket list item that we didn’t even know we had. It was great. See Alice in action at left.

Mario next marched us into the equipment room, where we got to try on the stuff. This was also cool in the extreme: I got to don the whole ensemble: boots, coveralls, coat, oxygen tank, and mask. Here I am in full regalia.:

Burning building, anyone?

Finally we climbed onto one of the fire trucks, and Mario ran the siren for a few moments to complete the experience. The whole thing was a like a decades-buried childhood fantasy, and everybody loved every minute of it. We all donated some money to the station as we left, which was very gratefully received. We definitely brought the magic.

We arrived at our hotel in Santiago at 6:30pm or so, about three hours later than originally planned. No matter. The hotel desk gave us a list of recommended nearby restaurants, and at about 8:00 — people eat dinner here very late — Alice and I struck out on our own to find a seafood restaurant that was on the list. We failed; turns out the place was no longer there. So we ambled around the area looking for someplace suitably inviting, and eventually settled on a tiny and very authentically local place where no one spoke a word of English but where we were heartily welcomed. We had a perfectly nice seafood dinner for about $30 for the two us and, feeling very self-satisfied, retired back to the hotel.

I am typing this on our flight to Buenos Aires, about a 90 minute hop from Santiago. But that 90 minutes takes you straight across the spine of the Andes, and the view is dramatic. Here is a shot that I took with the iPad a few minutes ago while typing this:

The Andes from above

When we arrive in Buenos Aires we will meet up with the rest of our group, another 13 people, for the main leg of the trip. That’s sort of a shame, since it’s been really enjoyable having an intimate 8-person group this far, small enough that everyone gets to know each other and Julio very quickly. But I will at least no longer be the youngest person in the group: Julio informs me that the larger group includes a couple traveling with their 43 year old daughter.

I have not said much about the our fellow travelers, so I’ll belatedly introduce them now. (This isn’t going to be very travelogue-y and is more for my own mental record, so feel free to stop reading here.)

I have already described Julio, our tour lead, who as it happens turns 34 today. (I am planning on exhorting the full group into singing a doubtless painful rendition of Happy Birthday at dinner tonight.) He is a real gem, and addresses us as “team”. Every briefing begins with the words, “Okey dokey, team…” When I return home I plan on having an “Okey Dokey Team Julio” tee shirt made for him as a belated birthday gift. On the back it will say “Bring the Magic”

I also described poor June, who bailed out this morning. In addition, we have:

  • Dick (75) and Jean (75), from near us in Maryland. Jean is compact and bustles around, and by virtue of their long history (22 trips, as I mentioned earlier) often has some interesting anecdote to contribute from their own experience. Dick is tall and fit-looking and appears to be filming practically every moment of the trip on video. He speaks almost not at all — it’s so extreme that we actually tease him about it — but is genial and knowledgeable on the rare occasions when he actually opens his mouth.
  • Christie and Becky (~65, inferred from a conversation about high school classes), close friends from Boise whose husbands/significant others declined to make the trip. Becky has about the same physique as Alice, while Christie is taller and thinner. Both have short gray hair and glasses, and since I am genuinely lousy at names and faces it took me two or three days to tell them apart. Before my prosopagnosiac brain (look it up) finally sorted them out, I simply referred to them as “the Boise girls”. They’re lively, good-humored, and outgoing, certainly the ones we’ve connected with most strongly so far. Christie is a dedicated diarist, always writing in a notebook and always asking for details to include. (Last night after firelding a bunch of questions about an observatory in the mountains that we passed in the van — the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA — I commandeered her notebook and wrote a 4-page treatise on millimeter-wave astronomy and how ALMA works. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on our trips.)
  • Lynn, mid- to upper 60’s at a guess. She’s divorced, with short curly gray hair and a wry sharp tongue and an appealing (to us) “do not suffer fools gladly” outlook.

So that’s who we are. It’s a good group, and I hope the remaining 13 click as well. We’ve arrived in Buenos Aires since I started typing this (weather is upper 50’s and cloudy with some light drizzle) so I guess we’ll find out tonight.

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Heading to the Deep South – the REALLY Deep South

We never do things simply.

We never do things simply.

It’s time to hit the road again, and by “road” I mean “about ten different airline flights to get someplace really really far away.” Our destination is Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America, named after a line of expensive thermal underwear (or possibly vice versa).

Our route is shown in red on the image above, which in case you are disoriented is the southern part of South America, tilted 45 degrees clockwise to fit in the frame. We leave on Sept 27, starting in Santiago, Chile, and our route follows the red line in a sort-of-clockwise way, with the following high points:

  • Santiago
  • Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest in the world
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Our tour includes a tango lesson, which I look forward to not participating in.)
  • Tierra del Fuego
  • Cape Horn
  • 5 days on a boat through the Beagle Passage from Cape Horn to the southern Patagonia ice fields (seasickness alert!)
  • Iguassu Falls (highest volume waterfalls in the Western Hemisphere – about twice the size of Niagara)

Cape Horn, of course, is the southernmost point in the world outside of Antarctica itself. At just shy of 56 degrees south latitude, it is by a wide margin the furthest south we will ever have been. (Our current record is Lake Manipouri, New Zealand, at 45.5 degrees south.)

We return home on October 19.

Packing for this trip is proving to be a challenge for much the same reason that our Australia/New Zealand trip was a year ago: we will be experiencing a ridiculously wide range of climates. The Atacama Desert will by dry with moderate temperatures during the day and chilly at night; Buenos Aires will be warm and humid; Cape Horn and the boat ride will likely be cold, rainy, and very windy; and Iguassu Falls will be a tropical rainforest with temperatures in the 90’s. And so of course we are allowed only one suitcase, which just about holds my camera equipment.

We will be off the grid for at least part of the trip, but when we are blessed with Internet connectivity I will try and keep the blog updated.

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