Sometimes, Patagonia = New Zealand

11 02 2015

In November 2011 I was in Patagonia with my Dutch friends Angelique and Elwin. Witnessing many eye popping scenes, we often pinched ourselves, saying, “This looks like a postcard from New Zealand!” So in 2012 we made plans to go to New Zealand to find out if we were right. By December 2012 and all of January 2013 we were in New Zealand! And in this blog, I’ve got photo comparisons. While there are major differences in terms of sheer size of the territory and size of geologic features, the view often seems nearly identical.

torres del paine,chile,patagonia

Torres del Paine Chile

tasman glacier,mt cook,new zealand

Tasman Glacier Trail New Zealand

Patagonia and New Zealand are full of trails winding through glaciated valleys. Both have mountain ranges where the western slopes are wetter, with fjords, and the eastern side has landlocked glaciated lakes and the weather is much drier.

They’re both subjected to blasts from frequent Antarctic storms. New Zealand’s South Island is especially impacted in a similar fashion to Patagonia.

te anau,lake te anau,new zealand

Lake Te Anau New Zealand

Here are two pictures of gigantic inland lakes. In both regions, ice age glaciers cut deep valleys on the east side and west side. Today both New Zealand and Patagonia have massive inland lakes fed by glaciers. In Patagonia, many of these lakes have ice bergs!

los alerces national park argentina

Los Alerces National Park Argentina

On the west side of Patagonia and New Zealand the ice age glaciers carved fjords leading to the sea. In Patagonia these fjords wend their way for more than 1,000 miles. In New Zealand they also form magical vistas.

Doubtful Sound New Zealand

Doubtful Sound New Zealand

puerto natales,chile,patagonia

Puerto Natales, Chile

Believe it or not, both regions even have some of the same trees! They both just happen to have the purple-flowered Jacaranda tree!

jacaranda tree,hastings new zealand

Hastings New Zealand


Blooming jacaranda tree Buenos Aires

The Jacaranda tree blooms its beautiful purple flowers in spring.

They can be glimpsed in drier areas of New Zealand, as well as Buenos Aires, Argentina.

So many times viewing a landscape we’d swear we were seeing the other country!

Many of New Zealand’s inland lakes are a light colored “glacier blue,” as are many in Patagonia. And driving through the dry inland valleys, whether you’re headed toward the Andes or the Southern Alps, often times you’d swear you were several thousand miles from where you actually were!

mount cook

Left sided driving to Mt Cook…


Argentina, heading into the Patagonian Andes – right side driving!

Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego Argentina: We Made It!

2 02 2012

This morning we get the GO signal! Aerolineas Argentinas has seats for all of us on a plane headed to El Calafate! That plane will continue to Ushuaia! For some of us, reaching the most southern place on Planet Earth outside Antarctica is a highlight. It turns out that yesterday a plane did depart Buenos Aires and go through El Calafate, but we did not get seats on it, because there were not enough available to accommodate our entire group.

We’ll arrive in Ushuaia in early afternoon and because sunset is past 10:00 p.m. we’ll have plenty of time to get in a hike at the bottom of the world!

As the plane nears its destination, the terrain appears out of the clouds, and it’s very rugged. Snow capped valley after valley flows below us, then giving way to a fjord. A factory fishing boat is plying the waters, no doubt headed toward Ushuaia. This is the Beagle Channel. One more turn, and Ushuaia reveals itself. It’s a city of about 60,000 carved out of mountain and sea. There is a ski area above, and one part of the city appears to be literally climbing into the forest above – looks like people are simply cutting the forest and plunking down any shanty as a land claim.

Our hostel is a big one. Christof and I get our keys and head to our “room,” which is in fact like a condominium! It’s by far the biggest of this trip. It is three bedrooms, separate bath, a living room, separate kitchen, wow! Huge! Not only that, the living room has a panoramic view of the city and mountains behind!

We gather in the lobby for our activity, which is a hike “to the end of civilization.” That is, to the southernmost continental place before Antarctica. A 45-minute minibus ride later, we are there ready to hike.

The hike winds up and down through trails with views of the Tierra del Fuego landscape. To the east and west, the sky lightens, meaning it’s good weather. Overhead, it’s cloudy. But, it’s not raining. It’s not windy. That is good weather down here!

Here and there we see evidence of the Indians that used to live here. They lived by foraging the clams/mussels from the seabed. They discarded shells, and these shells became mounds we see all throughout our hike.

There are also freshwater rivers reaching the sea here, and there are fly fishermen casting these streams.

All along are views to the east and west. It’s not far to the Atlantic. Not far to the Pacific, either!

Today I am the first to reach the end! I actually cheated. Twice. The trail was so close to the road I hitched a ride for maybe 3/4 of a mile. The driver let me off at a cut-off trail. Taking this trail, I cut an hour off the hike!



At the end of the trail, and there is a sign commemorating the place. Over 17,000 kilometers from Alaska! This is the END of Argentina Route 3.

Well, I’ve made it. I am at the bottom of the Americas!

I wait around and check out the decked walkway going all the way out to the end. There are some local ladies down there sharing a bottle of bubbly celebrating something!

Other then them, though, the only company I’ve got right now is some Patagonian geese! They are really interesting…they always are seen in “married pairs.” And they don’t ever seem to mind people being nearby.

Yap and Angelique at the end of civilization!

Ahh-familiar faces! Everybody finally shows up…

Everyone spends some time in thought, thinking about where we are on Planet Earth, for this is truly the southernmost continental place outside the poles. This is several hundred miles and a major latitude parallel below New Zealand. MUCH farther south than Cape of Good Hope. If you have a globe, go look at it now. At this spot, Antarctica reaches up toward Tierra del Fuego.

This is close to Cape Horn. Cape Horn is one of the most notoriously stormy places on Earth – before the Panama Canal was built, countless clipper ships were lost rounding “The Horn.” For here, the Southern Ocean, the most stormy on Earth, gets squeezed between Antarctica and South America. The Southern Ocean is famous for ceaseless storms, 70-ft seas, and…icebergs in between.

Tomorrow, we are to take a boat to explore islands, and see wildlife living on islands in the Beagle Channel.

It’s past 8 p.m. and still very bright outside. We board our van, which takes us back to town. Although most are going out to eat, I am utterly spent. I spend maybe an hour watching TV in the room, and then sleep like a rock all night….

Andes Lakes and Fjords: Los Alerces National Park

15 12 2011

Into the Andes

I awake early to try and catch a sunrise picture of the Andes before breakfast! Guess what? It’s clear again! Wow! I walk all over Esquel, but can’t get a worthy shot. There are always trees or a building in the way! Where I have a good view of a mountain, it is only partly sunlit as it’s so early. Not photo worthy. Defeated, I head back to the hotel for breakfast. We’re going to Los Alerces National Park today. Everyone’s excited to see lakes, fjords, snow capped mountains and to get out and hike!

Off we go. The road winds and climbs through spectacular valleys with ranches, surrounded with white peaks. Along a bend in the road, we pass a gaucho with his sheep dogs. Some views remind me of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

A gaucho, but without a herd...

When we get to the park entrance, it turns out to be closed for winter – we are here early. It opens in a couple of weeks. Although facilities are not open yet we can still enjoy the park’s trails and lake shores. Los Alerces National Park was established to protect a tree of national significance, the Alerces tree, a giant of the cypress family. It can grow to 220 feet high and live 2,500 years. The slow-growing trees were prized for building materials, and thus most were logged. This national park protects one of the last stands.

We had the park to ourselves. It covers 500,000 acres, and there are several fjord-like lakes that seem to stretch forever. It’s beautiful!


We stop at several beaches to take in the spectacular scenery! Popular with fishermen, for its rainbow and brown trout, the area is also a magnet for backpackers, mountain bikers and swimmers.

Other flora includes the Patagonian Beech and bamboo. The Patagonian Beech towers over everything in the forest!

Most of the park is untouched, because there are only roads in the east. The ecosystem is best described as a temperate rainforest.

The beaches have lifeguard towers, which are now empty but signal that the area must be popular in summer.

The highlight of the day is a hike! After so much road time, I’m happy the trip is going to include a lot of hiking from now on. I love to be out on the trail!

So, we hit the trail, and it’s not long before we reach a suspension bridge over a river which connects two of these big lakes.

It’s so picturesque! And looking down I can see 20 trout.

I have never been to New Zealand, but I continue to wonder if this looks like parts of New Zealand’s South Island? I’ll just have to go there to find out.

Well, I didn’t know the name of the exact spot in this video, but it was on the trail in the park! Very pretty.

The clarity of the water and its blue green color was incredible!

Just another gorgeous day!

Our walk winds up and down, along the rivers – it’s a big circuit taking a couple of hours.

We’ll have lunch on the lake, and then it’ll be on to our end-of-day destination, Bariloche, capital of Argentina’s Lake District.

We continue on to El Bolson, where we stop for a break. I mail some post cards, and we also get some of that yummy Argentine ice cream.

The empty road crests at the outskirts of Bariloche, and we can look above to see the ski area – the Lake District is happening in winter with several ski areas around, plus it sits on the mega huge Lago Nahuel Huapi. When we can see from this crest, a distinct change in the weather is obvious! We can see a haze in the distance. Is it changing weather? Nope. In fact it is a cloud of volcanic ash! I had heard there was a volcano in Chile that was erupting since June, and we have arrived in its domain. This is the infamous Puyehue Volcano, which has cancelled flights all summer! We’ll be directly dealing with this pesky villain in the next couple of days!

Yerba Mate – An Argentine Rite!

13 12 2011

Mate (pronounced mah-tey) is nothing less than a national passion in Argentina! What is Yerba Mate? Physically, is like a primitive tea. It has stimulant properties. Yet consumption of this beverage is a ritualized affair! Young and old, all demographics in Argentina consume this beverage which transcends ethnicity and class. Sharing the beverage is its purpose.

Argentina is the world’s largest producer and consumer of Yerba Mate. It’s a “tea” made from the plant ilex paraguayensis. Argentines consume more mate than coffee. It is definitely a stimulant. It has been swilled for generations, being hailed for health benefits. Yerba Mate may promote weight loss, reduce fatigue, pain and headaches, and has even been claimed to alleviate health problems caused by the Argentine diet, which is very meat-based.

But simply drinking mate is not something Argentinians do alone. Mate is a social ritual. It’s a high social affair. Something to be shared. Sometimes between a woman and her husband. Most times, it is a group ritual. It’s rarely served in restaurants, except in mate “tea bags.” It can be prepared flavored, though most often it’s brewed plain. Some say a good wife is one that can make good mate for her husband.

Sharing mate!

Mate is consumed from a small cup, like a gourd. The gourd itself is the subject of much attention. A brand new mate gourd will not do. It must be prepared. The gourd should be filled with near-boiling water and mate and soaked for at least a day. How does one drink mate? Another essential tool is the mate straw. It’s a metal straw, called a bombilla, with a filter at the bottom, to the participant does not imbibe the leaves. The hot water for the mate is heated to just under boiling-and kept in a thermos.

So, get the picture? To even begin to indulge in this cultural treat, you’ll need 1) a properly prepared gourd; 2) your bombilla; 3) your yerba mate; 4) a thermos filled with hot water and 5) some thirsty participants! Now you can begin!

In a mate ritual, one person, called the cebador, makes the mate and everyone else drinks from the gourd. They fill the gourd with mate, and then pour piping hot water over the herbs.

The gourd is passed to the first participant, who is expected to finish the entire gourd dry. It’s then passed back to the cebador, where it’s recharged with water and passed on to the next participant. This continues until the thermos is empty.

Out in Patagonia, gas stations often have hot water heaters for travelers needing to fill thermoses for their mate!

Nobody wants to be out on the highway driving without mate by their side, right? This guy in Patagonia has two thermoses!

And these young portenos in Buenos Aires are sharing some mate on a nice 85-degree Saturday afternoon!

Buenos Aires – First Impressions

1 12 2011

We had Sunday afternoon to ourselves to explore vibrant Buenos Aires, a city of 13 million situated on the muddy colored Rio de la Plata. Residents refer to themselves at Portenos, or “people of the port.”

It was a warm, sunny late spring day. Saskia gave us our roommate assignments and we settled in. My roommate was Christof, from Belgium, and I was thankful as he is a great traveling companion! During the journey he earned the moniker “Universal Translator,” as time after time, he could communicate on a number of linguistic levels. After making acquaintances, some of us agreed to meet in the Hotel Castelar lobby and head out.

Ivo, Rod, Eray, Elwyn, Angelique and Christof

Those of us that explored that first day would stick together the rest of the trip. We were myself (American), Elwin (Dutch), Eray (Turkish), Christof (Belgian), Angelique (Dutch), and Ivo (Dutch). All single. As a side note, aside from two not-married couples, the whole group was there as singles!

The one plan for the day was to meet for dinner to experience the famous Argentine beef. But for the afternoon, Saskia suggested a walk to a classic Beunos Aires barrio called San Telmo, to check out the Antiques Market.

The area around the hotel had me concerned at first, as did some of the area home to the older French-style government buildings. Signs of political unrest abounded. First story shops on the buildings were not just closed, but armored shutters protected them – and these were mostly splattered with graffiti. All the graffiti and lack of people gave it an apocalyptic feel. One place that was open was actually a political party action center.

I reassured myself it was Sunday. On Monday businesses would open.

First, we check out the nearby district, which is full of French style architecture and is home to government buildings. On the way we pass some kind of “Occupy Buenos Aires” on the Avenue 9 de Julio.

We see the Congress, Justice Ministry, Finance Ministry and the Casa Rosada, or “Pink House,” where heads of state used to live, and make speeches from the balconies. This area demonstrates clearly the ambitions of Buenos Aires a kind of Madrid or Paris in the new hemisphere.

Indeed, one cannot help but feel it is truly a Euro city in America.

The Plaza de Mayo is surrounded by government ministries, and at one end is the Pink House. The area surrounding is called microcentral.

Eva Peron would deliver her famous speeches from the balcony of the Pink House. It’s the official seat of the executive branch of government, though the president lives elsewhere. It is open for the public to tour.

We stepped inside but the wait to tour was too long, especially for an English guide.

Inside, the walls are covered with images of famous, or infamous, Argentine political figures such as Evita or Che Guevara.

"Don't cry for me Argentina!"

San Telmo is the oldest barrio in the city. In its early days the waterfront was not far from here. I felt like I was in Europe. Narrow, cobblestone streets are lined with southern European style buildings. First stories are usually cafes, antique shops or restaurants with apartments above. Not everything is in good shape – and there is a fair amount of graffiti. Yet it’s got a seasoned feel to it – definitely authentic, tons of character!

Sidewalks are challenging to negotiate anywhere in the city. They are not always smooth, and often riddled with gaps. You need to be looking down as well as forward!

I enjoyed these narrow, cobblestone streets. Tucked in amongst were various churches of varying levels of ornateness.

All along you see lovely European style apartments, but often some are in

bad need of repair. Soon we came to the antiques market. It seemed to stretch forever and I think it’s the busiest/biggest one I’ve ever seen. Although the shops in the buildings sold antiques, the vendors on the streets mostly didn’t offer much more than touristy or souvenir stuff. There were the few selling some old Argentine collectibles, though.

No matter, it was fun to people watch and take in the lovely neighborhood.

People were in a generally gregarious mood! One thing I noticed this first day was something I’d heard about. I’d heard Argentina was ethnically European. This was borne out by what I saw this day and elsewhere. Though everybody speaks Spanish, ethnicity showed the Italian, Welsh, Spanish, and general European roots. Lighter skinned, tall and lots of blonde and redheads! Argentina encouraged immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries and it shows.

TLC needed!

We stopped first for a refreshment at a coffee house inside an indoor food market. Later, we got a table at a cafe on the street near the antiques market. It was here we had our first experience with the Argentine ham and cheese sandwich. I didn’t get one, as I don’t eat ham and cheese. Little did I know this is some kind of national “dish”…we were to encounter it in virtually every corner of the country, it is even served on the airline! I distinctly recall Christof and Elwin remarking, “This bread is awfully dry, and it’s only got one piece of ham and one cheese?” We thought it must be the restaurant, little did we know that IS the way they eat them! I think one of them didn’t even finish theirs and offered it to me but I don’t eat ham & cheese. I ordered a dessert, but the waiter forgot about it. I just held off for the sure-to-be gigantasaourus dinner!

That evening we were to partake in an Argentine ritual – the bife de chorizo – served no earlier than 9:00 p.m. This is a grilled cut of beef, quite huge, most of the time. It does not come with sides. You must order your sides separately. Argentinians consume 56kg of beef per year per citizen. That’s a lot of red meat. And not just the steaks. They consume other parts of the cow as well. They say one reason the beef is so good is because the cows are raised “free,” meaning they roam the flat Pampas region and eat the pampas grass. Nuff said. How do they eat so much red meat and not have all kinds of cancers and diseases? Saskia said studies have shown that one other Argentine indulgence, Yerba Mate, may actually ward off the ills of the un-balanced diet. More on Yerba Mate later!

We sit down and are immediately confused by the menu. The beef comes in various cuts, all written down in Spanish. “Chorizo, Lomo, de ancho, de costilla.” Then there is the matter of how one wants it cooked, but of course the server can’t translate. This is where Saskia came to the rescue, as she knows all the local terms for these issues! When my meal comes the meat is so big, it overlaps my plate. A quarter of it was so raw as to be inedible. Truthfully, I did not find mine all that memorable, except for its size! At the end of the trip, I did have a heavenly steak, however! It was very interesting watching Portenos at the restaurant…passionate, talkative, all indulging in the late-night over eating experience.

A good meal in Argentina is best accompanied with in-country wine. The ubiquitous Argentinian beer, Quilmes, comes in several varieties, all forgettable (click for the Beer Advocate Reviews). For reasons unknown to me, imported Stella Artois seems to be present everywhere, but for this author, who’s become spoiled by the robust packed-with-flavor Pacific Northwest microbrews, it just cannot satisfy. So wine it would be. Argentinian wine is produced in the region of Mendoza, and it’s often Malbec or Malbec blends. It’s delicious, and super cheap! The grapes arrived from France in the 19th Century and spawned a burgeoning wine industry! We did not see Mendoza, but its wineries are certainly hot spots for many visits to Argentina! As an aside, the region is also boasts Aconcagua, at just under 23,000 feet; it’s South America’s tallest peak.

Portland, Oregon to Buenos Aires, Argentina

30 11 2011

Travel on this trip was complimentary, courtesy of United Airlines’ Mileage Plus frequent flier program. My route was Portland, Oregon, through Dulles, Washington, DC, to Buenos Aires. The layover in Dulles was 8 hours. Not one to complain on a free flight, I just hung around the DC airport reading, eating, web surfing, whatever, to occupy myself. My arrival time in Argentina was just an hour later than the Iberia flight bringing the rest of the group.

My dear paddling buddy Jessie picked me up at 4:45 a.m. and delivered me to the Portland, Oregon airport. She remarked, “your bag is small, isn’t it?” And I kind of agreed. I opted to use the same Mountain Travel Sobek bag I got for a 2007 trek and frankly wondered how I managed to fit 12 days of trekking stuff into that bag. But my gear fit into it with room to spare. Still, on this trip, I had the smallest bag by far! My neighbor on the Portland to Dulles segment was headed to Bangalore, India – he was training for Adobe Systems.

The United Airlines flight to Buenos Aires was a Boeing 767. I was surprised they’d use a smaller plane for such a long flight! It was definitely older than the planes I’d experienced on the trans Pacific flights, which were Boeing 747s or Airbus A330s. It had no on demand entertainment. It had old style “tune into the movie that started twenty minutes ago” system. But it did the job. No delays for the start of the trip. I sure wished they’d given us more films and overnight kits like the Asian airlines!

Landing on a sunny Sunday morning, I was due to get to my hotel and immediately catch up with my group…no rest whatsoever!

One indignity Americans suffer is the “reciprocity” tax when entering Argentina via air. It’s a whopping $140 – but it’s good for 10 years. Once clearing passport control I was off to the Castelar Hotel.  From my taxi I noticed differences from the Asian Countries I’d visited previously. People were out exercising. They were jogging. Couples were in amorous embraces in public. They rode high tech road bicycles, clad in brightly colored biking apparel. And the vehicles were mostly European! Dominant makes are Renault, Citroen, Peugot, Volkswagen, Mercedez-Benz, with some Chevrolet and Ford. Toyota and Honda were present, but not in the numbers like in Asia or in the USA. And almost no representation from Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan.

Driving style is aggressive. My taxi driver clung to the bumper of whatever lay ahead, darting around to get to the destination asap! As we entered the infamous 12-lane Avenue 9 de Julio, the largest avenue in the world, I learned pedestrians just don’t have the right of way in this place as elsewhere. When a light is about to turn green, the yellow ‘caution’ light comes on for a second, letting everyone know it’s time to step on the gas! And that they do. Time and time again I’d witness cars drive right up to pedestrians and blare the horn! It’s not like Bangkok, Denpasar or Phnom Penh, where a pedestrian can walk across through the ‘stream’ of traffic and allow it to move around them. Here you risk everything if you step out when the traffic is moving! The only thing missing on cars is a cow catcher. When I saw riot police trucks, I noticed those DO have cow catchers!

Another issue I encountered right away is language barrier. Unlike many other capital cities, English is not commonly spoken in Buenos Aires. Even the concierge at the Castelar Hotel had difficulty with English. But he had been alerted by my guide, Saskia, that I would be arriving. My group had checked in and gone out for a coffee when I arrived, and he did the best he could to direct me to them.

So once checked in, I was right out there on the street in Buenos Aires – all jet lagged but full of adrenaline! Being Sunday most businesses near the hotel were shuttered, and the shutters were splattered with political graffiti. Testament to the turbulence of political and economic life in Argentina! Later on the trip we were to experience this for ourselves on more than one occasion.

So fair warning to those considering a vacation in Argentina: Once in-country, your trip may fall victim to the whims of Argentine politics. Be prepared and be flexible!

I found the group four or five blocks away sitting outside a cafe. They were getting introduced, and Saskia recognized me right away as I strode up. It was a sunny morning, and at that time maybe 60 degrees outside. Across from where we sat was a plaza. At its end was the Argentine Congress building.

As we were all gathered and accounted for and a day yet to be experienced, Saskia had us head back to the hotel to get refreshed, and then spend the afternoon exploring Buenos Aires! It was this day several of us headed out and became travel buddies.