From the Atlantic to the Andes, and Esquel (via Arizona)

11 12 2011

The adventure turns west. We leave the Atlantic behind, and will continue to make our way over the Andes mountains, to the Pacific. Of course, we’ll not be doing this in a day! We’ll be stopping in Esquel, a small ski town, then Bariloche, Argentina’s ski mecca, and then stop in Puerto Montt, Chile, which sits at the top of Chile’s vast fjord system.

Let's not have a breakdown out here!

Today we have a lot of territory to cover. Leaving Puerto Madryn, we’ll spend hours crossing the Argentinian steppe, a vast flat area said to be the 7th largest desert in the world, with flora like Central Oregon. Crossing this region, you sometimes imagine hills, when there are none. And it’s empty – which is normal in Patagonia!

At long last we do see hills.

Arizona? Nope. Argentina!

The road takes us into a region completely overlooked by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. It has areas resembling Arizona, or the John Day River!

Where's Clint Eastwood?

Or Oregon’s Painted Hills! Only more of them.

It takes us a couple of hours to pass through this fascinating area.

I was really surprised it isn’t mention, and it’s totally unpopulated.

Activate your zoom to find the guanaco to the right of the summit!

We pass through a valley and we can see painted hills everywhere.

I’m thinking they are like the ones in Oregon – they are ash deposits from distant volcanoes – in this case they are Andes volcanoes.

I am very excited to witness the Andes for real! I wonder if they will look anything like the Himalayas.

After spending so much time in the steppe, all of us are looking forward to seeing mountains all around.

And then we round a bend, and there they are!

Lonely highway with Andes! We are there at last!

It’s not long before snowy, craggy peaks stretch from south to north horizon to horizon – and we are quite far away. I must be looking 70 miles in each direction. And then, what’s this? Something not supposed to be here. But there it (they) are! Pink flamingos all hanging out in this pond way up here?

Flamingos out of nowhere!

It doesn’t take long for me to get used to seeing mountains all around. As they loom closer, I can see lots of snow up above. We are told it will melt and by summer, except for the glaciers, it will all be gone. The mountains look like they must be above 10,000 feet, yet Saskia says they are no more than 6,000.

Toward 5 p.m. we arrive in Esquel, a small ski town, with the La Hoya resort sitting above. It’s late spring, so it’s pretty quiet. But everywhere there are signs of alpine tourism. Esquel is the gateway to Los Alerces National Park.

There are chocolate shops, ski shops, rental shops and tour guides.

There are lots and lots of restaurants, and we are HUNGRY!

But we are in Argentina. We must remember that restaurants won’t be open until 8:00 at the earliest!

So we bide our time, talking in the hotel lobby and then walking around.

This young lady walks into the hotel looking very tired, and a bit sad. She sits down on the couch, across the coffee table from me. I ask what has she seen today? She turns out to be from Spain, and was part of a Spanish version of the reality show “Survivor!” She just got voted off! They had spent three weeks being shuttled around blind in the back of a truck from one “survivor venue” to another. They had practically nothing to eat. She had gotten very close to her teammates! She was pretty bummed, and was going home shortly. But she was glad for the experience.

Well, it was getting near “dinner time,” so we wended our way through Esquel’s streets in search of a meal. We dug up one spot with a likely menu – one that actually had fresh salads! We poked our heads inside, and nobody spoke English. Christof, our universal translator, stepped in and somehow worked everything out. They were not open yet but they took us. Then we got some beer while they got the table ready. And when it came time to read the un-readable menu Christof was there to help out and order, and make diplomatic amends with our server, who turned out to be super cute.

This was one memorable meal full of giggles and laughs, the conversation degenerated on both the female and male sides to less-than formal, more like stories of early life encounters with the opposite sex, and preferences, and such! Soon another bottle of wine was on the table, and we began to wonder what the other people in the restaurant thought of us.

And that was only the beginning. Afterward we ran into Yap and Patricia and all of us went on a pub crawl, winding up at this totally cool old style bar with all kinds of Patagonian mementos hanging from the walls. We succeeded in persuading the proprietors to play dance music and went on from there!

On the way home I saw the Southern Cross for the first time! Or so I thought. What I saw was what turns out to be a “false” Southern Cross!” No matter. I would continue to search for it!

Looking forward to hiking in Los Alerces National Park tomorrow!

Valdes Peninsula: Southern Right Whales, Elephant Seals, and Ice Cream!

8 12 2011

Another day dawns clear and bright! I stroll along the Puerto Madryn waterfront for 30 minutes before breakfast, watching the comings and goings of people who live here. There aren’t many out yet, but some are jogging, others on bicycles, and some taking in the fresh air along the beach. It’s a significant bay, you can’t see the other side from the beach. It’s going to be a big day starting with Southern Right Whales!

Our breakfast at the Hotel Costenara is a source of displeasure for many (follow the link and you can see the breakfast for real). There are no eggs, no hot cereal. It’s just dry bread, croissants, some cold cereal, some orange “cool aid,” and bitter coffee. The “fruit” is canned. For those of us who love breakfast, this is a hard time of day.

Off to see wildlife! On the way, we catch sight of guanacos! I’ve never seen them in person. We see lots and lots of guanacos! They live in herds of up to two dozen.

I’m looking forward to seeing marine mammals!  The Valdes Peninsula is such a treasure trove of marine species that its preservation has global significance. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its importance, particularly for the endangered Southern Right Whales that rear their young there.

By 9:00 we arrive at Puerto Piramides, a hamlet which is ground zero for whale watching.  While we wait for things to get going, I watch a 60-ft sailboat lying at anchor offshore. And wow! Whales are right in front of the boat, clearly visible, spy-hopping and I even sight a breach! I see another several hundred yards from the first. The whale watching boat makes us wear these ridiculous PFDs that I will not show on the internet! I doubt they would do any good in the water – they’ll just float right off my body, instead of holding me up! We’re dressed for potential cold spray and wind, but it’s going to be a warm, still, beautiful morning. Perfect!

Once out on the water, it isn’t long before we catch sight of a southern right whale and its calf! I’m delighted there are quite a few whales within view! We have two pairs, two mother whales going along and calves following. Other times, mom rolls over on her back allowing calf to suckle.

Then the breaching begins, and cameras whir! What magnificent creatures!

Photo Monique Poesiat

They don’t move off because of us, and I’m thinking they are just accustomed to the boats, and know that the boats are not a threat.

Then a full breach! Lots of ooohs and ahhs!

The mother whales engage in tail-slapping and fin-slapping. This behavior is thought to be some kind of communication.

Photo Monique Poesiat

The “show” did not disappoint! I think this goes on all day long. The cows and calves use the bay as a rearing area. It’s plenty big, and protected from the ocean.

See that the fins on the Southern Right whale are more squared off than on Humpbacks, which are very elongated!

About lunch time, we returned to Puerto Piramides. Saskia suggested we get lunch at one of the restaurants, because it’s going to be a long time before the next opportunity to eat. So we went ahead.

The menu had many options. Since I was already beginning to feel what would become the “Patagonia blahs,” meaning not having enough fresh fruit/veggies, I instinctively ordered a giant “Insalata Complete,” or complete mixed salad.

That was a good idea. Here is what some of the others got…those who ordered pizza had to wait a long time. And we were to discover those green olives they put on pizza in Argentina? Well, it’s what they do…

Then it was on to see elephant seals. We went to the north side of the peninsula. Out there, there are cliffs, affording these marine mammals protection from land predators.

He has quite the nose!

We make it to some southern elephant seal colonies. Elephant seals are the largest seals in the world. Bulls can weigh over 6,000 lbs. They can dive to 7,000 ft, though an average dive takes them to 2,000 ft. Like all the marine mammals, elephant seals have a seasonal routine. They spend months at sea. Then they come to land, to “haul out,” mate and rear their young. Male elephant seals get to the beach and establish a “harem” of females and defend it to the death. A bull absolutely will not allow another male into its harem. Other males, desperate, will push the boundaries, try to mate with females, and if the dominant male catches them, it’s a fight!

Elephant seals spend a lot of time lying around when on land. When they move, they look like loose-skinned inch worms. I can’t imagine the amount of blubber they carry!

They seem to spend a lot of time resting. We see both males and females, and their young.

A youngster in the "pool" behind the beach

So, the cows come ashore. They give birth. The young are left behind on their own to figure out swimming on their own. Some of the young use quiet backwaters behind the beach to learn to swim. But for all of them, they have to go to sea eventually, to forage the seasonal feeding with the other seals.

This is the world famous place where Orcas have learned to swim close to the beach to catch baby seals trying to learn to swim at sea!

The job of the bull seals is to make sure every female in his harem is pregnant before they go out to sea for seasonal feeding. The bulls stay on the beach waiting for every female to come in to heat so they can mate with them before all head to sea.

I was able to catch an bull defending against what was probably an upstart adolescent bull. Much smaller, at first I thought it was a female! (Click to see)


We also saw sea lions up close, here was this bull, who didn’t have a care in the world about us!

As we drove back to town, the show continued. All along the road, we saw numerous guanacos, and even this little hairy armadillo.

Then something totally unexpected!

We catch a glimpse of something ostrich-like!

Well, we’re not in the Galapagos, but I guess we might as well be!

This bird is a Lesser Rhea, but it is also known as Darwin’s Rhea!

It was so completely unexpected, it totally made my day!

Lesser Rhea or Darwin's Rhea

These birds are native to this part of Patagonia and are also found as far away as Chile. They are not as big as Ostriches. It really made me think about how these similar birds like Emus can evolve in distant lands!

That evening we ventured out for a taste of an Argentine treat!

Argentinian’s are serious about ice cream! Called helado, it is not just a dessert. It is a ritual! The tradition likely has its roots in Italian immigrants. It’s wonderfully airy and smooth and comes in limitless varieties. Here is a video on the details:

All about ice cream in Argentina and Buenos Aires!

Tomorrow, it will be time to start our transcontinental journey. By the end of the day we will be in the Andes!

Coastal Patagonia: Valdes Peninsula and Puerto Madryn – Penguins!

6 12 2011

Photo by Monique Poesiat

The ride on the double-decker sleeper bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn is a positive learning experience for me! It’s got lots of leg room, entertainment, food, and as long as one has ear plugs and sleeping mask, one can manage quite fine. We are on Route 3 (Ruta 3), which goes all the way to the end at Tierra del Fuego. The gentle rocking of the bus and distant engine noise seems to aid in sleeping. Most of us sleep through the night, and are up at dawn marveling at the sunrise. Still, even then, nothing to break the horizon. Over fourteen hours and no hills, no ocean, just what looks like sage from horizon to horizon.

After what seems like an eternity or a mirage, billboards emerge, shouting for all to see: “PUERTO MADRYN” in so many kilometers. We learn that the reason we don’t see trees is the area is nutrient poor. Incredibly, everything around us is volcanic ash, devoid of good nutrients. This is why there are no trees. We finally pass through some “painted hills” like in Oregon, though the colors are different. The layers are ash. This means ash deposited here came from the other side of the continent, the Andes!

Finally things descend and the Atlantic Ocean emerges, viewable to the east from north to south. As the road drops, a city emerges into view; it’s Puerto Madryn. Cargo ships lie at anchor offshore, and there’s a long pier with more ships tied up.

Semi trucks are coming and going from the pier with cargo. Industrial sized fishing boats, and Argentinian Coast Guard ships are also docked. As we navigate the town’s roads, we see auto dealerships, restaurants, banks; on the waterfront I see kayak rentals, some kite boarders, and hotels – signs this place is a beach destination in summer season.

It’s about 9:00 a.m. We come to a stop on the waterfront boulevard at the Hotel Costanera. Seems a right place to be, steps from the beach! We’ll spend two nights here. So we disembark, to check in and get right back out because we are headed south, to see a Magellanic Penguin colony this afternoon! We are going to the Reserva Provincial Putna Tombo, the largest Magellanic Penguin colony in South America!

The hotel room is a bit outdated, but at least the bathroom has been recently overhauled. It will be OK for a couple of nights. The “window” of the room looks out onto a narrow interior column of other hotel “windows.” So, we cannot see the beach from here.

Although it’s on the Atlantic coast, Puerto Madryn is situated in one of the bays of the Valdes Peninsula. It was founded by the Welsh in 1886.

So it’s, nestled in the Golfo Nuevo, sheltered from the force of ocean waves. The beach is pleasant, and we would be taking strolls along the sand. The tourist business is year round. In summer (January to March) it’s popular with Portenos from Buenos Aires seeking beach time. In August to early November, wildlife tourists flock here to witness the spectacle of Elephant Seals, Southern Right Whales, Southern Sea Lions and Magellanic Penguins rearing their young.

Well, it’s off to the penguin colony! I’m very excited to see the penguins in action. Having seen so many documentaries I imagine myself immersed on the beach with tens of thousands of squawking tuxedo-clad flightless birds. We are all horrified to learn it’s a two hour ride to get there. O-M-G. I don’t have to tell you what we just finished! But as I was to learn, this is Patagonia, and it’s often a long way between highlights!

The nothing-ness of Patagonia continued until we arrived on a dusty, windy road at the Reserva Provincial Putna Tombo, where the Atlantic coast, with its wind and waves, is in full force. So, if you can imagine, it’s like Eastern Oregon right up to the sandy beach! Soon, something unexpected emerges.

There are penguins! There are penguins walking amongst the growth that looks like sage or juniper. We walk along trails built for viewing. We’re told that right now, the penguins have come in for mating season, paired up, mated, and eggs have been laid. We’ve arrived at the egg-tending part of the reproductive cycle. That means that at any given time, one parent is at sea foraging, and the other is on the nest tending. Here, Magellanic Penguins dig burrows for their nests. I don’t know why. It sure is windy. Maybe that’s why? But instead of a million penguins fighting for real estate on a beach, the penguins walk up to a half mile inland and dig burrows amongst the little hills behind the coast.

Penguins don’t walk. They waddle. They are so cute!

Check out this waddling video! Penguin finding home!

And here, I’ve got them coming home from foraging at sea. They are all coming home to their spouses.

Got to love these guys! They were not at all bothered by us! They would just stop, look at us, and then go on their way home. We never could figure out how they find home!

There’s never a boring moment with penguins!

They were coming and going all afternoon. We were respectful of their paths. They were here for business…to get to their nests so their partner could go to sea and eat!

Tomorrow, we are to visit Peninsula Valdes proper. We will see the elephant seals, seal lions and other wildlife! Can’t wait!

Buenos Aires – Halloween!

3 12 2011

Monday in Buenos Aires broke clear and bright.  I was now in the southern hemisphere of course, and unlike home in Oregon, days are growing longer, instead of shorter, so morning light comes in early!

Things are going to be interesting, as we spend time in the city but then we are set for a 17-hour overnight bus ride to Puerto Madryn tonight – in coastal Patagonia. Once there we are to simply check in and head out. I wonder how I am going to handle that? Will adrenaline just keep me going?

Today we are going to see other parts of the city. We’ll get to see some parks, and the rehabilitated and upmarket Puerto Madero riverfront area, plus the Rio de la Plata, and the cemetery where Evita is buried, a soccer stadium, and take a peek at where Tango is done. Today is Halloween in America, so I am excited to get to the cemetery!

We gather and head out into the city. The weather is unimaginably perfect. Smog-free, smoke-free, cloud-free, no humidity, a light breeze, and 80 degrees! Shorts weather! I ask if this is typical and the answer is no. I’m told that the Chilean volcano sent ashes this way not long ago, obscuring everything. And it can get humid! No matter. Today is incredible!

A high quality of life is evident as I see plenty of joggers and cyclists in the parks, one of the biggest is Parque 3 de Febrero, and another smaller one is Parque de la Flur. It’s clear somebody has planned parks into the city architecture. These parks are huge. They have rows and rows of flowering plants and trees, and plenty of lagoons. Birds are attracted – parrots, doves, swans, geese, swallows and swifts. The parks are filled with statues of all kinds.

In fact the city was planned by a French landscape architecht, Carlos Thays. He directed the planting of the thousands of Jacaranda trees that line the avenues. These trees put out beautiful purple flowers in November. We will see them when we return! He also directed the fantastic assortment of other trees I saw, such as palms and magnolias.

We don’t have a ton of time, so we have to see a lot of it by bus. We do stop in the parks, we get to see Puerto Madera, we walk through several of these beauties.

It’s obvious people have a quality of life here. People are out roller blading, or jogging, or enjoying the parks. There are sailboats.

I also notice a marked difference from Mexico and some of the Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to. People here have breeded dogs. Instead of “street dogs,” or what I call “generic dogs,” those light brown dogs ubiquitous in these other countries, in Argentina I see black labs, german shepherds, beagles, afghans, etc. Not only that, I see dog walkers! Imagine that. Things can’t be all that bad, right?

Take a peek at the video of a nice day in Buenos Aires!

It is Halloween, so we’ve got to visit a cemetery! The cemetery we see is full of mausoleums – above ground. It’s absolutely perfect, and I’m filled with glee that it is Halloween. I scamper around and my fun is only increased by the the discovery that many have coffins visible. Some have glass doors with stairs leading down to the ? underground. Others in disrepair had broken glass, making it look like spirits had escaped.

And many had cobwebs covering the inside, or chains “locking” opened doors, making it look like something was trying to get out! It can’t get any better than this.

Something tried to escape!

So, I just couldn’t help myself. So here’s a nice video of what I saw: .

And of course the obligatory Halloween mausoleum video:

Later I saw some folks trying the tango for gawkers…

Well, that’s it for our time in Buenos Aires, until we return in three weeks!

We are about to embark on a 17-hour bus ride. Prior to heading to the bus station, we get take-out empanadas for everyone.

Empanadas...good stuff!Now the empanada is something I can deal with for lunch. They are like mini-calzones.  They can be stuffed with cheese, pork, chicken, beef, onion, all sorts of good stuff!

OK. Now we get to the bus station. Bus travel in South America is something else. They have these double decker overnight buses. Ours was such a bus.

The seats almost fully recline. Leg room is almost like airline business class. The bus is equipped with flat screen televisions – we saw at least four movies. If you have earphones, you have awesome sound. And get this! There is a steward! That’s right. We have a uniformed guy who comes around and serves snacks and dinner! And free wine/beer!

So, bus travel ain’t so bad after all. I quickly discover the best seats are 2nd floor in the front – there, you get an incredible view!

So, the journey to Patagonia begins. My partner for this segment is Monique. We talk about work, about our health, about Holland and America. We view “Captain America.” I find that movie infantile. Worse, later they show “The Expendables.” Well, at least they show a comedy in between.

The bus moves through Buenos Aires rush hour traffic. Eventually speed increases, and it moves at the speed limit on a multi lane highway into the Pampas. Ranches (or Estancias) raising cattle pass by one by one. So it is here where the cows are raised!

Eventually, however, the Pampas gives way to what looks to me like Eastern Oregon high desert. This is the Patagonian steppe. The highway becomes one lane in each direction. There are no vehicles visible ahead. There are no hills. This nothing-ness – this is something we will see for the next several days!

Except, however, for the Atlantic Ocean!