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….

Stranded in El Calafate, Argentina: Day Two

30 01 2012

We’re supposed to be leaving on a mid-day flight to Ushuaia. We’re told to gather about 11:00 in the hotel for our flight out. When we gather, the concierge announces some news in Spanish…I cannot understand, but the crowd gathered in the lobby is not looking happy…and then Saskia darts out the hotel door…headed for downtown!

The concierge, speaking in English, tells us the airline is completely shut down today! The strike is continuing and we are not going anywhere today. He says that it is possible the President of Argentina may intervene – might order the Army to take over the airline. There will be an authentic Argentine barbeque tonight at the hotel. That sounds interesting to me, especially since it’s free!

Rumors are that it is spreading beyond the airlines. A general work stoppage for higher benefits. Saskia was headed downtown because that is where the airline offices are. She returns and gives us news. She demanded assurances we will really get on the next flights out. But we do not really know, we are pawns in the greater political game right now!

Some decide to head downtown for dinner, but Elwyn and I try for the complimentary meal. We see the staff firing up the barbeques, getting the wood and charcoal going. We share a bottle of wine to pass the time. But then the concierge announces that dinner will not start until past 9:00 p.m.! It seems they have it timed for some other group arriving. We cannot stand it! We need to eat right away! We cancel our dinner and walk downtown to a pizzeria, which is pretty busy.

Our table is right by a flat screen TV showing a soccer game. It’s Chile vs Paraguay, and this couple at the table nearest us are intensely interested. When Chile scores, they are all excited but try to conceal their delight. Elwyn asks them a couple of questions, and it turns out they are from Chile. They look Argentinian (look European) but they do NOT want the Argentinians to know they come from Chile! Too funny. The girl is super nice.

This night was a complete wash. We stumbled down the avenue to a bar we’d seen the day before and went upstairs, and what do you know? We found others in our group – Patricia, Eray, Angelique, Yap, and more. More drinks…and before long I felt “tanked” up, I could not have any more! All of us just want to get to Ushuaia…it’s difficult. We’re trying to make the most of it!

We’ll just have to see what happens in the morning…!

Standed! Aerolineas Argentinas Airline Strike! We Wait for Tierra del Fuego

29 01 2012

Before I went to Argentina, I visited the United States State Department Website for its country brief on Argentina. Here is a quote, one which borne out to be true for us:

“Domestic flight schedules can be unreliable. Occasional work stoppages, over-scheduling of flights and other technical problems can result in flight delays, cancellations, or missed connections. Consult local media for information about possible strikes or [work] slow downs before planning travel…”

Our trip’s fate was about to fall victim to Argentine politics. Nothing like experiencing the good, bad, and the ugly of your host country for real, right?

We leave El Chalten, and head back for an evening in El Calafate, staying at Calafate Hostel. Our flight is to depart for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, the next afternoon. We’re really excited to be there!

Breakfast done, we are free to spend the morning roaming El Calafate. Basically, our aim is to burn some time waiting for the flight. To be frank, El Calafate is a kind of “oasis” in the middle of high desert-bleak steppe Patagonia. There is nothing around but for this town. As it has access to the southern part of Los Glaciers National Park, the city is a magnet for outdoor freaks from all over the Earth. That means it’s mostly a city catering to travelers. There’s not much local culture. So roaming El Calafate means roaming restaurants, gift shops, tour guide offices, banks, and it’s even got a casino. The one thing we found interesting is that there is the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary on Lago Argentina.

We paid it a visit, and were impressed! While not something worth driving hours for, it’s surely something good to do, if you’ve got an afternoon to spend in El Calafate. It’s more than it appears at first glance. Its value is discovered in the subtle side trails along the shore. There, you can see a surprising variety of birds. The reserve lightly financed, but big bang for the buck. A trail wends its way around wetlands and we could see Flamingos, Geese, Caracaras, ducks, Black Necked Swans, and many others. As it’s late spring many were tending eggs or chicks. The caracaras were not bothered by us one bit – they’d perch on bushes just beyond the trail and wouldn’t flinch if you got within ten feet of them.

We gather back at the hostel, board a bus and head for the airport. Once there, we check in, get our boarding passes and check our luggage. We’re going to the “end of the earth”! We are going to the farthest south anyone can go before Antarctica. 15 minutes pass. Then something goes horribly wrong. There is a commotion stirring in the airport. We’re delayed an hour. And then  we hear that Aerolineas Argentinas has suddenly gone on strike! We are not going to Ushuaia today. We do not know when we are going.

The airline puts us, and other passengers, on a bus to a hotel they have contracted for such situations. We head to this hotel, which is just outside the end of the town’s main strip. There, we learn the whole country is stranded! This isn’t just an airline strike, it’s a strike that started in the general labor sector. It may even spread to Chile. We’re informed we’ll have a table-service three course dinner tonight. That’s a far cry from what one gets on a cancelled flight in America! We all take it. It is a chicken schnitzel. Not bad!

So tonight, we wonder when we will get to the “end of the world.” We don’t even know how our connection back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia will go. The airline tells us we will be leaving tomorrow.

To entertain ourselves, we walk away from the city lights to look at the southern constellations. One strange thing is moving across the sky, and it’s the International Space Station! It moves steadily from southwest to northeast. It is very bright and does not blink. We see other orbiting objects like satellites. And we see in full view the iconic Southern Cross plus hazy cloudy things we think are the Magellenic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are micro galaxies just outside the Milky Way – they can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

We’ll just have to cross our fingers that we will leave tomorrow….

We’re hopeful that tomorrow the strike will be over and we will be on our way to the bottom of the world.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina – My First River of Ice

11 01 2012

From Torres del Paine we head into Argentina, across the empty Patagonian steppe to El Calafate. It’s the lodging headquarters for those visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier. El Calafate is the biggest town for hundreds of miles around.

We stay in the centrally located Calafate Hostel. Its guests are all visiting the outdoor spectacles in the area. Lago Argentina, a 1,640-ft deep, twenty mile wide glacial lake sits to one side of this town. This lake is as deep and much larger than Lake Tahoe. It is 566 sq miles in surface area, and Tahoe is 191.  This morning, we head to the dining area and things are not going well. The coffee is just about un-drinkable, the milk is hot. There are not enough coffee cups or cereal bowls or anything. Yaap complains to the staff. And again, the fruit is canned. I make up my mind to bring my own stuff tomorrow, I cannot stand it. I love breakfast and this is hard. Still, a surprise! An attractive young woman comes to sit at my table. We introduce ourselves, and she is from my home town in NY! Her name is Andrea, she works in Australia. She’s really excited to see the glacier today and will be on my bus! We talked all the way to the glacier.

I’ve never seen a glacier of this magnitude. The Southern Patagonian Ice Sheet feeds 300 glaciers in Argentina, including Perito Moreno. This is a famous glacier because it moves 10 feet per day, and calves ice bergs all day long. It’s also got viewing decks built along its face so you can see it up close. Saskia, our guide, says it’s really exciting to watch.

So without further adieu, here are some nice photos of this magnificent force of nature!

This is the left half of the mile-wide glacier terminus.

The terminus of the glacier is three miles wide, and 16 stories tall. It dwarfs tourist boats coming to view it. It’s one of three in the world that is growing. It’s 580 feet thick. It’s a sky blue color! Riddled with dirt. The front is 16 story tall saw tooths of ice. Utterly un-walkable. We take walks all along the decks built to people can view. It’s incredible how tall the wall of ice is.

I can see down more than 100 feet and yet the glacier towers above me.

A view along the north side of the glacier shows how wide it is. On the viewing platform there are places to sit. Many are having lunch, some writing, but most are watching the glacier, because this one is known to send off ice bergs all day long. I sit down and wait. I can hear explosions all around. Those are cracks in the glacier which appear as it moves over the ground.

Several times I see ice falling off the glacier, and it slams into the water, as if in slow motion, and then bobs up only to reveal maybe 10% of itself once it floats. Ivo was able to catch one of the moments with a fast action camera, and put together this compilation! Enjoy! It’s fantastic.

Ans, Margaret, Monique P, Anne Marie, Monique

The ice field behind the glacier, and the glacier itself, make their own weather. Several miles away from the glacier, the weather turns sunny again. In the days to come we’ll see again and again how the ice sheet affects this part of South America.

The lake, which is probably a hundred miles long,

is peppered with ice blue glaciers from these glaciers.


At the parking area, I see some friends from Bariloche! It’s Matt and Rob, our British friends who are doing the walking tour! They took a ride down here, but plan to walk back to Bariloche. Nice to see them!

After we get back to Calafate, we stroll the town in search of dinner and a drink. It takes a while, but we find an outdoor table in the sun. Of course, it’s popular, but we manage to grab a table. As this town is a magnet for the outdoor seekers in Patagonia, it’s got visitors from all over the world.

We meet two guys at the next table, who are from Reunion. If you know where Reunion is, you are a geography buff! It’s off the coast of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean!

Enjoying a cold one after a day outdoors

Puerto Natales, Chile: Patagonia’s Outdoor Ground Zero

30 12 2011

Looking east from the Puerto Natales waterfront

Today the next phase of our Patagonian odyssey begins! By tonight, we’ll be near the bottom of South America! Sunset will be after 10 p.m. We are flying from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Punte Arenas, and will drive to Puerto Natales, Chile. We’re going to the heart of Chilean fjord country! If you have thought what you’ve read about on this blog so far is amazing, well, it’s time to step it up a few more notches! The days ahead are filled with HIKING, glaciers, desert icebergs, wildlife, we’ll be right in the midst of the best of it!

The Puerto Montt airport is unexpectedly modern, as is the airport in Punte Arenas. We fly an Airbus A320 on Sky Airlines. The route takes us over the Patagonian Andes. Below, I can see the Pacific, and even where the Andes meets Argentina. You can see rivers of ice flowing into blue lakes and the desert. It’s an incredible spectacle! We’ll be starting in Puerto Natales, and each destination will take us further north, Torres del Paine National Park, then El Calafate, and then El Chalten.

After touchdown, it’s a couple of hours to Puerto Natales, which sits right on the water with endless fjords visible from its waterfront. We’re staying in a backpacker hostel, called Hostel Natales, several to a room. It’s big, and has a comfy atrium to hang out in.

Puerto Natales is the gateway to Torres del Paine and O’Higgins National Parks. It attracts so many outdoors enthusiasts that the grocery stores have stocked backpacker food!

Looking out from Puerto Natales, glacier-cloaked mountains jump right from the water. A NaviMag ferry is tied up at the waterfront. These ferries ply these fjords. It is several days ferry ride from Puerto Montt to here. Take a gander at the Navimag website to see the incredible journeys.

Even though it’s early evening, the sun fools us. It is so bright we’d think it’s mid afternoon!  We’ve heard about an interesting Patagonian/African restaurant called Afrigonia-and we are all gonna check it out.  I will disclose here and now that this restaurant deserves the 5-star rating! I had seasoned rice and ostrich, accompanied by a to-die for house Malbec. If you are in Puerto Natales you should pay this establishment a visit! Service is just as good. Do not be deterred that this place is frequented by people just like you-outdoors enthusiasts, and not so much locals. It’s too good to pass up. OK wind the clock back. Before we go out, we’ve got some time to burn so we shop at the supermarket, walk the streets, and pose for pictures.

We check out the waterfront. We stroll up and down, and marvel at the views.

We find this broken down life boat!

I’s too cool to pass up and even has working oars!

Perfect for a photo opportunity.

Since we’re going to spend more time hiking tomorrow, we ventured through the town to the grocery stores to get picnic supplies.

It is here I witness for the first time the global attraction of Patagonia! I hear Russian, French, Japanese, Italian, and some language I cannot distinguish. Portuguese? And Hebrew? All these people are dressed in hiking boots and Goretex. They are all here to do what we are to do – experience the wonders of the spectacular Patagonian outdoors! Not just backpacking – ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, rafting are great here.

Walking around town, I see tour operators. Some are offering multiday kayak trips…

Others, a hard to understand mix of jet skis and kayaking?

In any event, it’s clear Puerto Natales is a magnet, a hub for the outdoors activities that make this region so popular.

We are on the doorstep of  Torres del Paine National Park. That is our destination tomorrow! It is South America’s Numero Uno National Park.

We’re excited to get into the outdoors ourselves. In the morning I get out before breakfast to catch the morning light as it will be shining on the opposite side from last evening. I just love the lighting on the boats I see from the waterfront. There are fishermen using hand lines and some professional fisherman are readying their boats for a day of fishing for a living.