Sunday, December 28, 2008

El Galpón del Glaciar

We've just come to the end of a vacation within our trip, spending Christmas with my mom, stepdad and brother in southern Argentina. The sad spot of the proceedings was the absence of my stepsister & her husband who should have been with us but were trapped by North American winter weather and couldn't make the trip. We really missed them and hope they (finally) had a peaceful Christmas. Tom also missed his suitcase which spent most of its Christmas vacation at the Toronto airport.

The 5 of us rendezvoused at El Galpón del Glaciar, "the sheepshearing shed of the glacier," a guest estancia outside El Calafate. The buildings are simple and white with red roofs and situated in a green and gray glacial valley carved out along the shores of Lago Argentino. In the blue green waters of the huge lake you can make out icebergs calved from glaciers that abut the water higher up the valley.

We visited one of those glaciers, the Perito Moreno, with a wonderful guide named Marcos. A boat took us (and many others) across the lake to the glacier and the whole family strapped on crampons to walk on a tiny corner of the immense ice field. The surface rises up into peaks called saranaks and is peppered with crevasses and other perforations that are a bright popsicle blue. Tom, Mike and I finished at a little bar set up by the glacier guides to drink Famous Grouse scotch poured over glacial ice. Most exciting was watching enormous sides of ice fall from the edge of the glacier and crash into the lake. Even apparently small pieces make big noise.

We had a full 2 days with everyone together at El Galpón. Mom and Bill were so kind to arrange all this and we can't thank them enough! It is a beautiful tranquil place, with a huge and constantly changing blue and cloudy sky. A bird sanctuary is on part of the land between the hotel and the lake, with many black faced ibis, cara cara, black necked swans, ducks. Cows, horses and sheep range over the fields though it's no longer a working sheep estancia. We did watch demonstrations of a border collie herding sheep and then of a sheep shearing. An unsheared sheep is an amazingly woolly animal. A cooked lamb is a delicious animal, of which we had much for Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners.

On Boxing Day we said goodbye to Mom & Bill who flew to Tierra del Fuego. Mike, Tom & I boarded a minibus with another tour group and headed out in a boat across Lago Argentino to see the Upsala Glacier and to visit the Estancia Cristina, the oldest estancia in the region. We couldn't approach the glacier because the water around it is so full of icebergs. Visibility in the misty rain was poor but it was great cruising among the icebergs. The rain kept up for some of our hike around the estancia and then gave way to a beautiful clear day. We spotted two red foxes out looking for eggs that a foolhardy species of bird (possibly the lapwing?) lays in nests on the ground.

Saturday we said goodbye to Tom who was off to spend an 8 hour layover in Buenos Aires, travel on to DC via Toronto and arrive via train in Norfolk, VA on Sunday night. Fortunately, he was reunited with his missing suitcase at the BsAs airport, just in time to take it home.

Mike and I are now in Puerto Natales and will set out on a long trek in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine tomorrow. Thanks to my brother we have a little bottle of champagne to pop on our second anniversary.

Happy 2009 to everyone & much love from Chile!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Trekking in the Fuegian Andes

Our first trek was a relatively easy overnight hike to Laguna Esmeralda. We had good weather, the lake was a beautiful turquoise color and tasted delicious, and the bogs were nothing too severe. We saw quite a few people on our hike, but we had the lake to ourselves at night. We stayed up late watching the endless sunset (you can really see how much more slowly this part of the globe is moving) and enjoying the solitude.

Speaking of solitude, we didn´t see a single other person on our second trek. In our guide book it was listed as a four day¨"demanding" trek. I figured it would take us five or six days and we brought enough food to survive eight. I also figured it would be demanding the way a good teacher is demanding, but the demands took on more of a General Patton flavor as we went along.

First of all, there was very little in the way of trails. We would find the occasional cairn going over a pass but mostly it was bushwhacking. The few trails we did find often took us to some godforsaken beaver devastation area (more on that later) and vanish, leaving us to fend for ourselves. The map turned out to be not much better than one scribbled by a pirate on a napkin at a bar. In the areas where the topography became most important, the topographical lines went from solid forty meter definitives to hazy dotted two hundred meter impressions. I guess they just haven't surveyed that area, or if they have they are keeping it close to the vest. Luckily I have done a lot of bushwhacking in the Sierra Nevada of California (especially last summer with Mike Grafton) so I was able to figure it out. I did get us lost a few times in the first couple days, not world spinning in circles, wailing and gnashing of teeth lost, but a little disconcerting nonetheless.

The landscape, having been similarly carved out by glaciers, is a lot like the Sierra Nevada. It has dramatic granite peaks, long steep-sided valleys, beautiful lakes, and fast-moving rivers. It is also quite different. On the plus side, it is much lower -- we didn´t get much over 3,000 feet above sea level, so altitude was not an issue. On the not so plus side, unlike the Sierras, the Fuegian Andes get a lot of rain (and hail, we discovered) and are littered with bogs. A veritible bogosphere as Hilary put it. Deep muddy leg eating bogs, spongy peat bogs that take more energy to walk on than sand, and the byzantine tree-strewn bogs created by our friend the North American beaver.

The beaver is not supposed to exist in Tierra del Fuego. I am not sure who introduced them or why, but I have some pretty strong words for whoever did. Perhaps it was for their fur which is pretty popular in cold climates. Hilary and I speculated that a pair of beaver pants would be pretty comfortable on those cold wet Fuegian nights. On the east coast of the U.S. I have seen beavers and beaver dams and some swamped up land around them, but it always seemed pretty benign and small scale. But here, perhaps because they don't have natural predators, or perhaps because the carved out landscape works to their advantage, the beaver activity is totally out of hand. We have seen beaver dams undulating across entire valleys. Absolute fortresses of sticks and mud and lodges rising eight feet out of the water. Entire beaver kingdoms. I have seen no animal structures and few human structures so impressive.

Perhaps even more daunting than their construction is their destruction. Acres of trees reduced to pencil stubs, downed trees everywhere and acres more killed and turned ghostly white from the inundation. The land that still exists becomes an untrustworthy sludge where the only thing that grows is swampgrass and a vicious thorn that breaks off in your hand and beds down to become a rather painful souvenir of the encounter. Not much fun to travel through, to say the least. Unfortunately, I didn't get many good pictures because I was too busy soaking my boots, poking my hands, and composing newer and harsher strong words. And the worst part is we didn´t get to see a single beaver unless you count the skull Hilary found. We speculated that they may have been sent here from outerspace to destroy everything and are now back aboard the mothership laughing highpitched little beaver laughs at their job well done (trekking brings out the odd conversation in one.) I have grown in respect for beavers but I like them less.

Speaking of growing in respect (not that it needed much growing), Hilary was amazing. It was a hard trip and we both had down moments, but every time I thought I had got us lost again or was worried that the hail would pile up too high or thought, "What am I doing bringing my wife out into this?" she would smile or point to some flower and say, "Isn't that beautiful?" and my courage would return. Turns out she has a real gift for trekking. Despite its difficulty and probably partly because of it we had a wonderful time. The Fuegian Andes are incredibly beautiful and wild and I loved being in them with Hilary. They tested us both and Hilary certainly passed with flying colors.

Monday, December 8, 2008

la Península Faunística

The Península Valdés is a mushroom shaped extension of Argentina's Atlantic coast, one 18-hour busride south from Buenos Aires. Its shape, according to our guidebook, was the inspiration for St. Exupéry's hat/snake eating an elephant gag in The Little Prince . We rented a car in the old Welsh settlement town of Trelew and drove up to the peninsula. Or, rather, Mike drove. I still haven't learned to drive a stickshift. The peninsula is a big place. The interior is mainly sheep estancias, many of which also run hotels and restaurants to cater to ecotourists. It is also a wildlife preserve and is home to big populations of Magellanic penguins, sea lions and southern elephant seals. In April baby elephant seals are all over the beaches and then the orcas appear. This is one of few places in the world where killer whales beach themselves to grab baby elephant seal snacks. We camped in Puerto Pirámides, the only town on the peninsula, pop. 500. Most of the commercial establishments are whale watching expeditions and hostels. That first evening we drove 12 km. out a dodgy gravel road to a whale watching point. The rock formations are beautiful and strange, flat slabs that extend into the water or stack up on each other. They're some sort of sedimentary rock, full of shells. The wind was so strong it felt as if you might easily be blown into the sea if you were too close to the edge of the rocks. We managed not to be blown into the sea and ate our dinner of bread, cheese, salami and red wine in the car, watching for whales.

The next day we spent driving the road that leads around the perimeter of the peninsula. Along with many elephant seals and sea lions we took in a colony of Magellanic penguins, also called jackass penguins for their braying call. These penguins burrow into the soft soil of the cliffs, in this particular place all the way up to the level of the road. From our viewing point we were a couple of feet from many of these guys, all of them quite unconcerned with our presence. We saw two gray fuzzy penguin chicks, not old enough to toddle around but sticking quite close to and sometimes underneath their parent.

We also saw a number of groups of guanaco, rust-colored llamalike animals, with new kids in tow. And ñandu, or the lesser rhea, including some ñandu chicks, bouncing across the open country with their funny long-legged run. We spotted a couple of mara which are large brown rodents with a stripe of white across their rump, and some of the big brown European hares that live in the area. And at the northern edge of the peninsula we got to revel in the peculiarities of a couple of hairy armadilloes.

Not being big on guided tours we eschewed the whale watching expedition but got to watch a right whale from the beach, lounging about in the bay where new mother whales bring their calves for a few months.

The most wonderful moment for me was when I followed Mike out across one of the "Intangible Areas" and we were able to stand on a beach by ourselves with sacked out elephant seals and crashing glass green surf. The preserve has done a great job of combining getting close-ish to wild animals with keeping them happy in their chosen place. But it was perfectly wonderful to leave the prescribed areas for a few minutes and see them by themselves.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Buenos Aires

We spent three nights in Buenos Aires last week. It is a wonderful city. Busy and grand and it has everything, but it made us miss Montevideo. Most other travelers we've met rave about Buenos Aires and are lukewarm about Montevideo, but we feel the opposite. I think the reason we loved Montevideo so much is that we were there long enough to know some of its quirks and see many of its sides in different weathers and moods, and so it started to become ours. In Buenos Aires, as impressive as it was, we were just a couple more foreigners, gawking and snapping photos. The weather didn't help. It was either witheringly hot or pouring rain during our stay.

We did see some great things though. I think my favorite building, oddly enough, was the Palacio de Agua. The Palace of Water was an old water works of completely overblown Swedish design with a French mansard roof. I am not sure what it is used for now but it is well maintained.

We also went to a few museums. The Museum of the City was very weird. We were greeted by a friendly but intense newly minted Argentinian originally from India wearing a crisp uniform (Argentinians seem to go in for the crisp uniform). He informed us that while the museum has 32 rooms we were only allowed to see 2 because some time ago someone had stolen a watch and everything was closed for the investigation. Even he seemed a little incredulous about this explanation. We got a little more history at the Museum of the Casa Rosada where we saw this portrait of the beloved Eva with her husband:

We also went to a couple art museums. The huge and eclectic Museo de Bellas Artes ran the gamut from medival to modern downstairs and upstairs had an exibit of art depicting Argentina and another exhibit of Latin American artists. No photos were allowed. We also saw a Marcel Duchamp exhibit at a smaller hip museum called Proa in the colorful tourist nieghborhood of Boca, home of Diego Maradona's old futból team. We tried to go to a game. It was sold out but we did soak up a little pregame revelry.

Here is Duchamp and our attempt at Dadaism:

Here's a taste of Boca:

We visited the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral where General José de San Martín is buried. He seems to serve the same role in Argenina as Artigas served in Uruguay and perhaps as George Washington does in the U.S. Interestingly both Artigas and San Martín spent a good deal of the end of their lives exiled from the countries they became father figures of. His tomb is guarded by men in crisp uniforms and crests and by symbolic marble women and covered by a glorious dome.

Like most of the churches we have seen so far, it was full of all sorts of statues, paintings, and flourishes. My favorite was the Virgin Mary with lightning bolts shooting from her hands and Hilary´s was the small corner painting of a holy cow reading a book, or should I say, The Book.

We also visited the famous Recoleta Cemetary. Not as impressive as the Montevideo cemeteries to me. It had very few trees and a less over the top cast of characters. Its focus seemed to be on family vaults. After a while they all started to look the same. But I did manage to find the tomb of one of Todd O´Leary´s rum-running forefathers and there were a few statues worth showing.

We left Monday evening on an 18 hour bus ride to Trelew. Unfortunately the bus was not as wonderful as the ones we have experienced earlier. We were greeted with a few hours of dreadful dance music videos (and we happened to be sitting directly under the speaker), we were served some sort of cold ham roll for dinner, and the coffee was a cruel joke.

But our bus was a double decker and we had the top front seats so we had most of a day to contemplate the immense West Texas-like nature of northeastern Patagonia.