Ushuaia and Wildlife in the Beagle Channel

3 02 2012

Wow! I had the most amazing sleep! I did not awaken once. And today I am recharged! We’re to take a boat from the Ushuaia waterfront out to see islands and marine wildlife colonies in the Beagle Channel. Luckily we got another weather break. Thin clouds but no wind nor rain. The highlights will be getting up close with colonies of terns, cormorants, sea lions and more.

We get to the waterfront early, so we’ve got some time to observe. There are some huge factory fishing ships docked here, and just their size makes me concerned about collapsing fish stocks. With ships like these, towering above the docks, how can Planet Earth’s fish survive? Where is the catch going?

There are plenty of tourists shooting photographs of themselves in front of a sign declaring they’re at the “end of the world.” They’re not – the end of the route is where I hiked to yesterday! There are also some very interesting sailboats. They are private yachts. They are *not* luxury yachts.

These are built for solo circumnavigation with all the overbuilt toughness required to survive the Southern Ocean. These sailboats can capsize, go inverted, and come up righted and survive.

The Argentine Prefectura, or Coast Guard, is busy, too.

We board our little boat and it takes us out of the harbor and into the channel. We cross, and looking around, I can see some very impressive glaciated mountains to the west that go into the sea. They are part of the Darwin Range, in Chile.

The glaciated Darwin Range

Though they look over 10,000ft high, they are only 6,000ft. It is because that we are at such an extreme latitude that lower mountains can have such impressive glaciers.

Looking back at the city one can see the shanty town creeping up through the forest behind.

Crossing the channel, we navigate amongst some islands home to marine animals of varied species.  We land on one of them and take a quick hike. We see cormorants nesting, and even skuas. Skuas are the bane of nesting birds. Skuas, which look like brown, oversized seagulls, live by scavanging the weak, young, and infirm. They’ll eagerly snatch a chick from a distracted parent.

Looking overhead, I notice the sun is far to the north of 12:00 high. That shows just how far south we are! Wow. We depart for several other island colonies. Each island is home to a species.

On the way we see one or two Southern Giant Petrels, another scavenger.

Giant Petrel

One colony is a sea lion island. I’ll never forget the noise, and the smell. They belch, burp, and make the mose grotesque gutteral noises, as well as bark. There are hundreds, with calves, and bulls making all kinds of noise. It smells! It smells because they eat fish!

Skuas and seagulls are making the most of the leftovers, as is another bird I’ve never seen, which is called a snowy sheathbill. This bird is all white.

We move on to a colony of cormorants.

A snowy sheathbill

They are super busy! There must be a thousand of them. And, they are flying back and forth building nests, bringing food to chicks, and so forth.

The cormorants are black and white, and I’m tempted to call them flying penguins. They make these nests that look like cereal bowls attached to the rocks. These guys squawk incessantly!

Here too, opportunistic scavangers are working the colony hard. Parents are on guard defending against attacks from the hungry predators.

Then, it’s on to the shrieking tern colony.

Like the cormorants, the terns remind me of an aircraft carrier. Lots of  “planes on deck,” and others coming and going.

It’s non-stop buzz of activity!

I do have a couple of videos, which I will show you.

The terns are really pretty, I think.

We get back to the Ushuaia harbor in time for an afternoon exploring the city, and lunch.

Tonight, we depart for Buenos Aires (unless there is another Airline Strike). Elwin, Ivo, Echbert, myself, and Flores head to town in search of lunch. Ushuaia is a tax-free zone so one would think the shopping would be good. Shopping turns out to be a let down. Prices are too high and there are no bargains to be had – they are obviously expecting lots of tourists – especially the ones from cruise ships. We pick an “Irish Pub.” The Irish-ness of the establishment stops right at the front door. While they do offer Guiness, the food isn’t Irish. I see a hamburger on the menu but instead try for what they call a “steak sandwich.” And again, I’m faced with meat on a dry bread / bun or something. While not satisfying, I guess it contained some nutrition. Lunch completed, we wandered around town. The parts Elwin and I visited were nothing worth blogging about. Touristy shops, some liquor stores, hostels, and up back on the hill, some strip clubs. We went down to the water to watch the activity – pass some time.

We only have two days left in Argentina! I wonder how Buenos Aires will have changed since we left? It’s 1,266 miles north to Buenos Aires. We’ll be wearing shorts and t-shirts again! I was told the Jacaranda trees will be in bloom! Looking forward to seeing the beautiful avenues!





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.





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!