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.





Walking on the Viedma Glacier

21 01 2012

Last night we partied! It was Patricia’s birthday and the hostel was festooned with festive decorations. We had cake and champagne. Then everybody hung out and either played board games or watched videos. Meanwhile the wind outside howled, and occasionally whistled through any cracks in the insulation.

The Patagonian Ice Cap (left) feeds the Viedma Glacier

The Viedma Glacier is our destination today. We all get those box lunches, and this time I just toss my ham and cheese in the waste basket. But it’s got empanadas too, and I like those! We’re up and out the door by 9:30. We head down to a marina on Lago Viedma.

Lago Viedma is another huge glacier-fed lake that sits right out in the high desert. It’s 50 miles long, and is dotted with blue icebergs borne from the Viedma Glacier.

We are to board a boat which will take us around a point and into the lake, and then to the snout of the glacier.

Then, we’ll disembark for a few hours walking on the glacier itself!

The Viedma Glacier is the largest in Argentina. It doesn’t look as large at its snout as Perito Moreno, but above, it’s a bigger sheet of ice.

While it’s sunny back in El Chalten, here out near the Patagonian Ice Sheet, the weather’s so different. It gets even windier, and stormier. The lake is punctuated by beautiful indigo ice bergs. It still seems weird to me to see ice bergs in a lake! But here they are.

As we round a point and the boat swings west, we’re no longer protected by the land, and we face directly into the wind racing down the Andes. The sea state instantly changes into a storm, and the captain races the engine to push through the waves. Many of us had been up above on deck enjoying the weather, but we’re ordered to stay inside now!

As we near the glacier, many more icebergs come into view and of course the glacier’s snout. I am told that boats do not get close to this glacier for views, because instead of calving from the visible end, this glacier has an underwater shelf where it calves, and massive ice sheets suddenly shoot up from below. No boat wants to be on top of one of those!

A berg near the glacier's terminusThis should be really interesting – walking on the ice. Others here have done this before, but for me, this is my first time. I’ve used crampons climbing mountains in the Cascades but nothing like this river of ice.

So I’m pretty excited to give it a try.

We disembark and walk up the rocks near the end of the ice. This glacier has retreated, unlike Perito Moreno.

We are told the ice was moving over these very rocks 20 years ago. The rocks are all smooth. They have streaks across them and deposits ground in. These streaks are scours called glacial striations. They are where rocks embedded in the glacier cut down on the bedrock.

Our guides meet up with us and we get lots of information on the glacier, the ice cap that feeds the glacier, climate change, and about the upcoming hike and equipment we’ll be using today.

The main piece is crampons.

You wear crampons over your other shoes, and it’s best to put crampons on over hiking boots.

The ice today is a bit slushy/wet. It’s full of grit from its journey scraping along, plus winds carrying dust that has settled on the ice. The ice has cracked into thousands of vertical spires of ice. It looks un-hikeable, but we’re about to find out it can be done.

Our guide! Super cute.Crampons securely tied on, we head out onto the ice. These shoes bite into the ice, giving a firm grip. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the rivers of water gushing everywhere and the deep cracks. One slip and it looks like you’d be lost forever!

We climb all over and we’re not the only ones up here.

There are others learning how to use ropes to climb the ice walls. It’s interesting to watch them. We climb up and down “trails” the guides know.

We walk all over, and after a time I realize how easily one could become lost out here.

You lose track of your trail, and everything looks the same.

The ice flows up and down, and you feel like you are walled in. I’m super thankful we have the guides here. They are really professional; they guard any spot where you could slip and fall into a cravasse.

The guides take us into a dead end, and I kind of wonder what’s up.

They start digging holes into the ice. Then, their true plan is revealed…they have a little celebration in store for us.

They pull out some Bailey’s Irish Whiskey from their packs. We are treated to a toast of Bailey’s on glacier ice! Very nice.

Glacier ice and Bailey’s!

This was a fine hike.

Some said they wanted it to last much longer, but I found it a good introduction.

After all, I’d never done this before.

I felt satisfied with my first time on a g00d sized glacier! Up close these are really fascinating natural phenomena. After all, the ice we’re walking on is hundreds of thousands of years old.

Certainly something to celebrate!

With the Bailey’s finished we lumbered back to our starting point, to lunch on those ham and cheese sandwiches (except myself, of course). Then it was back to the wind tunnel (El Chalten).

Tomorrow is the big hike to Cerro Fitz Roy! I’m stoked to tackle it! I’m really enjoying being in the moment, taking each amazing day as it comes! Bring it on!





To El Chalten and The Fitz Roy Range

15 01 2012

Cerro Torre

We depart El Calafate on a public bus. It is several hours on the road to El Chalten. The route takes us along Lago Argentino and then Lago Viedma. I am overwhelmed with the sight of the steppe, these enormous lakes, the emptiness, and the mountains visible north to south for hundreds of miles. It’s not something we’re used to in North America. As before, it looks like the American West, so desolate and dry. Except for no vehicles on the road.

El Chalten is a frontier town. It was established in the 1980s by Argentina to resolve a border dispute. It sits underneath two of the world’s coveted climbing prizes, 10,262 ft Cerro Torre and 11,070 Cerro Fitz Roy. These vertical fangs are renowned for vertical difficulty combined with abominable weather. They’ve claimed a lot of lives. The town is renowned as one of the windiest in the world, and we are about to experience it for ourselves. It’s not cold right now. But the wind is supposed to be epic. It sits at the gateway to the north entrance to Los Glaciers National Park. El Calafate was at the southern end. It contains world class hiking and opportunities to climb on the Viedma glacier, largest in Argentina. We will do it all!

All during the drive I keep an eye peeled for the Fitz Roys. Something catches my eye, and I cannot believe it! I am seeing a river of ice which ends in the desert. It is the Viedma Glacier! I never imagined anything was possible. It makes its own lake, but everything around it is desert! Click on the image to see all of it.

And to the right of the glacier, this sight also made my jaw drop! It is the Fitz Roy Range! We will hike it!

For the umpteenth time in as many days my eyes tear up with what I am seeing. I just cannot imagine. We get closer. The road stays empty. This afternoon, we will be hiking in these incredible mountains!

El Chalten (Cerro Fitz Roy) front and center!

We reach town, where it’s windy beyond belief! The entire town seems to be under construction. It’s a magnet for adventure travelers. Wind blown backpackers can be seen walking the streets. We stay at the Ailen Aike hostel, six to a room. It’s got a small common area with flat screen TV, a bar, and tables. The whole time we’re there, the wind is moaning, trying to lift the roof off!

It’s mid day. We hit the trail for Laguna Torre.

This trail is perfect for an afternoon. It climbs steeply out of town, but after the first mile, begins a more rolling climb, much more tolerable. The wind up on the trail isn’t so bad.

In fact the sun is out, and things are pretty nice! But up above, Cerro Fitz Roy is in the thick of a maelstrom. Its other name is Cerro Chalten, meaning smoking mountain. The wind runs vertically on all sides of the peak, creating a constant cloud which blows off of it. It looks like it’s smoking!

I’m sore from the climb at Torres del Paine. We have a big hike in two days, and I don’t want to overdo it. So my plan today is to get to the first viewpoint, lunch, watch the mountains, and head back to town. The others are going to go all the way to Laguna Torre, to the lake where a glacier ends. This way it’s like a workout.

This is a truly lovely park. And not as busy as Torres del Paine.

Yours truly, on the trail

There are glaciers cascading down from the mountains. And of course pretty azul colored rivers flowing from them. There’s also a small plain below everything, which looks great for walking.

We reach the viewpoint and have lunch.

The others depart and I stay put watching the scenery.

What is apparent is the violence of the winds aloft. There is a stationary cloud behind the peaks – It’s formed by the permanent ice sheet above. The unpredictable, violent weather here is driven be four factors: 1) Latitude – we’re not far from Antarctica; 2) the bottom of South America is not all that wide – we’re simply a giant finger in between two oceans, so the trade wind blows across; 3) factors 1 and 2 combine to create the ice sheet, which makes the air so cold above; 4) the desert is lower and drier…so the cold air rushes downward off the mountains to the desert all the time.

As I sat watching, an upside down atomic bomb mushroom cloud explodes downward over Cerro Torre! Holy cow. I wouldn’t want to be on ropes climbing! Here is a video I took as I was watching Cerro Chalten. In it, you can see the cloud moving downward over Cerro Torre, if you look carefully!

After an hour, the wind begins to pick up so I decide it’s time to head back. I think I’m walking a good pace. But then, I hear some footsteps behind, and it’s a woman jogging down the trail! Down she runs, at a good pace, dodging the rocks, and passes me by. My goodness! She made me look like a slug!

After two hours I reach the top of the beginning of the trail. From here, there is a good view of El Chalten.

I think that part of the reason it’s so windy in town, is that it’s in a valley. The wind must get funneled through there!

 

 





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.