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.

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!



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