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….





Hiking to the Foot of Cerro Fitz Roy

25 01 2012

Cerro Fitz Roy, front and center. Spectacular!

Today it’s windy and bright in El Chalten. I sip coffee in front of the picture window of the Aylen Aike hostel watching Cerro Fitz Roy. This morning the tower is sprinkled in dazzling sugar white. And, it’s obvious why it’s also called Cerro Chalten, which means smoking mountain. There’s a constant cloud drifting off the top. But the sugar melts as the sun warms the peak, revealing the 11,090ft pure granite face.

Today, it’s going to be an all-day hike. Leaving about 8:30 a.m., we won’t be back until past 4:00. We’ll head on a different trail which will take us all over the plain below these spectacular peaks, with an option to do a final, steep hike to a lake at the end of a glacier.

Box lunch in hand (less the ham and cheese I removed), I join Echbert, Saskia, Christof, Eray, Elwyn and Floris as we walk past the north end of town to the trailhead.

At the beginning of the trail there is a group of maybe twenty hikers and a guide. They are partly already on the trail, so we hike with them. But we are much faster. This first part of the trail is a steep climb. When they stop for a break, we make our move and go on ahead. There’s no looking back. We want to have the experience to ourselves. We wind our way up a slope with a view to the north, looking up a river valley. Up above Andean Condors ride the air currents. We can see their nests clinging to the steep cliffs above us.

Llamas on the plain belowThis trail is rapidly becoming my favorite of the trip because of the vistas all along the way. Plus, after our steep climb it becomes a rolling up and down trail. These trails of Los Glaciers National Park are superbly maintained and marked. It’s not long before a a view comes into focus with shark toothed Fitz Roy mountains. Below this magnificent spectacle is a gorgeous relatively flat plain, several square miles in size, filled with creeks, meadows, flowers, trees. To the right side of the mountains flows an electric blue glacier. It’s unlike any I’ve seen in that the whole thing is electric blue, not just parts. It stands in contrast to the gray rocks it cuts through.

Passing us by is a United Nations of hikers. I even recognize some of them from Torres del Paine. Some of them are day hiking, and others are laden with backpacks. One of the best things about this region is that one can do fantastic day hikes and stay in town. Wonderful.

After several hours, we reach the base of the steep final assault, which is a 500ft high glacial moraine under Cerro Fitz Roy. Here is the final assault. Saskia says we don’t have to do the final part. Floris, part of our group today, did not complete the Torrres del Paine hike due to asthma. But he made it here. I want him to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. He doesn’t want to do the final assault. So I decide to stick with him and we offer to wait for the others to go up and return.

This seems to be a gathering place for many hikers. So, we will have a relaxed lunch here, enjoy the beauty, and wait for the others. The day has become warm and many folks are have shorn jackets, some are in shorts. It’s a nice spot. There is a sign that says, “The water in the streams is potable.” Wow! That is a big difference from home. So we fill our water bottles and go ahead and drink.

Floris and I spend about an hour here, and after another twenty minutes we decide to hike back. The trail meanders all over the plain, past many little brooks, some clear, some stained brown with some kind of algae-like growth. I think there is perhaps a warm spring in here causing this growth. We come across a cluster of hikers all taking a nap in the sun!

We come to a fork in the trail. One path leads the way we came, but the other goes to Lago Capri. Thinking it might take some time to get there, we prepare for a longer hike.

Floris and I hike on. Much to our surprise, we reach the lake very quickly, and it’s a beauty! Much larger than I expected. And it’s not glacier-fed. So, instead of a misty blue milky color, it’s crystal clear. And what a view of the peaks!

It’s even got a thin beach, and some other hikers are relaxing on it taking in the view. Alongside the lake there’s a sweet campground. Super beautiful.

Back in town, it’s a wind tunnel again. It’s a constant 40mph with gusts rising to 65mph! I have to hold onto everything to keep stuff from blowing away!

El Chalten sports a few restaurants catering to the hikers that come here, and one of the most popular is the brewery.

So today, after cleaning up at the hostel, we head to the brewery for a late afternoon beverage and a bite to eat.

I’m super pleased because I can get a fulfilling salad here! It’s brimming with yummy veggies my body is craving for!

We’re discussing the next phase of our adventure. Tomorrow, we’re going to the end of the continent – Tierra del Fuego and the southern-most city in the world, Ushuaia!





Adventure 2011 Argentina / Chile

28 11 2011

I am a decidedly hooked overseas traveler and could not wait to get my fix any longer! I’ve had some tough times these last couple of years, so I’d put off venturing, but nothing would stop me from exploring in 2011! I had over 100,000 frequent flier miles with United Airlines, which were set to expire. Last time I went overseas was in 2008 to Laos / Cambodia, and that was fantastic. I’m in love with SE Asia and the Himalayan region. I was tempted to return, but I’ve been there seven times – and I’ve never been to South America. So this time, I decided to head directly SOUTH. Time to save my soul and escape my world…to Argentina and Chile – to Patagonia!

Because  for me, getting outside my neighborhood, city, state – my country – seeing life from outside, from another perspective – only that refreshes my spirit!

Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of information, but I knew I’d like to experience the Andes, and probably Tierra del Fuego. Timing was important. In 2011, I worked as a sales consultant and guide/instructor at Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, and their busy season is summer, winding down with the Lumpy Waters Symposium in October. I inquired with Suzi Elle, one of the owners, about taking vacation and her reply was “anytime after Lumpy!’ So with that in mind, I targeted late October/November for a start time!

It looked like this would be a good time for Argentina and Chile. But it would also be a good time in the Himalayas – prime time is right after monsoon season. Also in the southern hemisphere, I could head to South Africa, or New Zealand. But it seemed the right time for me to see the “other America.” It would be late spring down there. Without a lot of time for research, and wanting to see a lot, I wanted to do an organized trip, so I looked at two companies I’ve worked with, Djoser, out of Amsterdam, and Mountain Travel Sobek, based in San Francisco. I had gone to Thailand with Djoser in 2004 and had a great experience. In 2007 I did an unforgettable 110-mile Himalayan Trek in Bhutan with Sobek. Sobek had a 3-week hiking trip focused on Torres del Paine National Park. I looked into this and really was interested, but I couldn’t get frequent flier flights to match up. So, I looked at Djoser again, and began to realize their agenda might be more an experience I preferred. That is because their three week trip covers much more of Patagonia. They do time in the Fitz Roy Range, and Tierra del Fuego, and even have some days up in the Lakes District, as well as seeing marine life on Peninsula Valdes. It would be more “road time,” but one would get a better overview. Sobek’s trip would be much more in touch with the outback areas of Torres del Paine, away from the throngs of backpackers.

So I inquired at the Djoser USA office in Pennsylvania. They cautioned me that the trip I was looking at was an international group, so I might be the only American. I’d have to be OK with that. I was not worried one bit. Djoser’s groups mostly cater to Dutch, and some other Europeans too. I knew from my experiences with Dutch citizens that they are gregarious, considerate, polite and nearly everybody speaks English. I didn’t worry about any issues. I signed up, and went about calling the frequent flier desk at United. I tried. And tried. “No seats for those dates” was the response for several tries. I began to despair. But one customer service agent took me under her wing, telling me that, “Seats open up, so don’t get discouraged! Keep calling every day!” So I did.

And then it happened. One day I reeled off the same inquiry, dates, times, and the response was, “OK, we have seats on these flights…” I just about hit the ceiling! Hardly containing my delight that I got a FREE flight to South America on the dates matching my itinerary, I booked them on the spot!

I was going! I was going on a trip to Patagonia! We would be seeing penguins, southern right whales, elephant seals, carakaras, guanacos, condors, hike in Torres del Paine, watch tango dancers, bask in the view of the spires of Cerro Fitz Roy, walk on the Viedma Glacier, cruise the Lakes in the Lakes District near Bariloche, and reach the end of the world at Tierra del Fuego!

Here’s a great photo of my comrades on this trip! We were American, Dutch, Belgian and Turkish. A wonderful group…of varied ages and professions!

I was in! So what follows is a story of the trip to the highlights of Patagonia! Stay tuned!