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Our Trip to the
“End of the World”

- Patagonia
by Jan H. and Jamie R.
October 17 to November 3, 2011

 

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Our Trip to the “End of the World”
Patagonia

by Jan H. and Jamie R.
 

October 17 to November 3, 2011


Introduction

This was a surprising and wonderful trip. Oddly enough, however, there are only a very small number of relatives and acquaintances to whom we would honestly recommend this trip. 

In terms of the surprises, the biggest is that we left at all. Jamie had a very bad bike accident 10 days before we were scheduled to leave (serious concussion, 2 broken ribs, multiple bad abrasions and bruises etc.).  He wasn’t even able to sleep in a bed until after we left. Given that this was intended to be an extremely active trip (lots of hiking, horseback riding etc.), we weren’t sure whether he would be able to participate, either partially or fully, in our intended activities. As it turned out, recovering on vacation was better than staying home and going to work. By the time we got to our first destination, he was able to do almost everything. The only thing we excluded was horseback riding (for Jamie). Even a small risk of falling off a horse with broken ribs and a sore head made riding too obviously stupid to even contemplate. 

The second big surprise had to do with our itinerary. Just as we were leaving, we learned that a volcano in Chile, which had erupted in June but since settled down, started to erupt again and disrupt air traffic all over central Argentina. Our final intended destination, Bariloche, had been covered in 6” of ash in June! We began receiving “updates” to our flight information from the Argentinian airlines regarding airport closures just before we were scheduled to leave. At first, we were told that we would have to land at Esquel and take a four-hour bus ride to and from Bariloche. Later, even that option was foreclosed when a second volcano erupted and closed Esquel as well as Bariloche. Luckily before that happened we decided it wasn't worth it to try to go to Bariloche, which is in an extraordinarily beautiful mountainous lake region. We were scheduled to stay at a resort (Llao Llao) that has been rated as the best in all of South America. But maybe this was a place that should be visited on a later trip. So as soon as we could establish Internet contact with our travel agency from our first stop in Torres del Paine, we began requesting alternatives. Six days into the trip, we settled on an amended itinerary that eliminated Bariloche in favor of spending a coupe of days in Iguaçu Falls.

The third biggest surprise was how much we enjoyed ourselves in spite of the weather – low temperatures, high winds, rain, clouds, snow/hail, etc. The weather wasn’t unexpected. In fact it was fairly normal for Patagonia. So we were prepared and equipped for it. But when we describe our activities, you may be tempted to ask why anyone would ever actually pay to do what we did.

Patagonia is an incredibly varied and beautiful place. It is, quite literally, the end of the world. Other than Antarctica, there is no place that is further south. It is 1,500 miles farther south than Cape Town, South Africa, and 600 miles farther south than Stewart Island in New Zealand. While its mountains seem to be an extension of the Andes, it actually sits on its own tectonic plate. It is south of where the Nazca and South American plates collide to create the volcanic core of the Andes. In Patagonia, the mountains are pushed up by the collision of two smaller plates. Geologically, it turns out that Patagonia is more a part of Antarctica than of South America.  From its most southerly point (Cape Horn), Patagonia stretches 1,700 miles north. On its western (Chilean) side, it is cold, windy and rainy.  With no significant landmass to slow them down, the winds just get faster and faster as you move farther south. We were far below the range known as the “roaring forties” (40 degrees south latitude), and half way through the “furious fifties” to the “screaming sixties.” Daily winds inland were 20-25 mph with regular gusts to 40 or even 50 mph. On one day, an excursion had to be cancelled as the participants were literally being blown off their feet.  Western Patagonia (Chile) gets all of the rain.  The eastern, Argentinian, side is in the “rain shadow" of the mountains and is, therefore, dry. Within Torres del Paine National Park, we made excursions in an area that averages more than 12 feet of rain per year.  We also made an excursion 17 miles farther east that averages less than 30” of rain per year. The beauty of southern Patagonia is enhanced by the fact that the tree line and snow line are very low (around 1,500 feet and 2,000 feet respectively) in late October.  While we were always at low altitudes, the landscape had similarities to a high alpine range. This impression was helped by almost nightly dustings of snow above the snow line. Absent volcanic activity, the mountains are the result of uplifting plates of soft, sedimentary rock, subsequently carved by glaciers. There are no classic, conic, volcanic mountains, but only sharply defined, “craggy” ridges and U-shaped valleys.  Sometimes a little granite enters into the picture and then you get fantastical shapes and contours. This doesn’t mean the mountains were small. But they topped out at around 10,000 ft. They also were stunningly beautiful.

When “discovered” by Magellan during his historic voyage, Patagonia was occupied by a tribe of tall natives. At the time, Spaniards averaged about 5’ 1” in height. According to the chronicler of the Magellan expedition, the natives averaged nearly 6’ and were thought to be a type of giant. The name “Patagonia” translates variously as either “the land of big feet” or “the land of giants.” Amazingly, all evidence and historical reports agree that, in spite of the terrible local weather, at least one tribe of the local natives went completely naked! While they hunted the locally abundant mammals (guanacos) for their meat, they didn't make leather clothing from their skins or fur. And their women would go diving for shellfish in water barely above freezing!! It seems that they had an over developed-layer of fat under their skin that protected them from the cold. They also covered themselves with animal grease.

Given all the precipitation and low temperatures, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are a lot of glaciers. Most flow down from what is known as the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the 2nd largest, non-polar ice sheet in the world. There are also a lot of lakes, bogs, etc. The lakes come in many colors depending upon the source of their water. Grey Lake is grey due to the high level of suspended sediments in the water. Not surprisingly, it is fed by the Grey Glacier. Lake Pehoe, by our lodge in Torres del Paine, was bright blue – almost turquoise – due to various dissolved minerals.

The underlying concept of our itinerary was to travel a giant U. This was determined, in part, by the limited number of border crossing opportunities between Argentina and Chile in Patagonia. We began in Chile, at Torres del Paine National Park at the southern end of the South American continental mass. We then planned a 4-day cruise from Chile to Argentina with a brief pass at Cape Horn. We then flew 350 miles north and spent several days on the dry, Argentine steppe visiting glaciers. Finally, while we had intended to continue to northern Patagonia (Bariloche), we instead detoured much farther north, almost to the Tropic of Capricorn, to visit Iguaçu Falls and its surrounding jungle.

Getting There – October 17 and 18
Our trip began with our flying some 6,300 miles south. We flew on COPA (Panamanian Airways) for a couple of reasons – principally cheap business class fares and a daytime flight schedule. We either had to live through a 24-hour travel marathon, waste a night and day in Santiago, or do what we did. We started with a 5-hour flight to Panama City, followed by an 8+ hour flight to Santiago, Chile, arriving just after midnight. COPA’s Executive Class seats are just like domestic US 1st Class seats, but as we were largely flying during the day, they were fine. We then got about 5 hours sleep in an airport hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn) before catching our next series of flights south.

Getting on our next flight south was one of the two real glitches that occurred in the trip. When we got to the airport to check in, we were told no one had paid for the ticket. They had our reservation but no money. We were more than a little irritated as we had sent large checks off months ago to pay for these flights as well as everything else. Jan ended up having to pay for two additional tickets while Jamie stood in a ridiculously long line for security and the transfer guide held our luggage at the check-in desk. It took nearly an hour before everything was worked out and was clearly not what we had expected. Our travel agency immediately apologized and agreed to repay us. They usually do a much better job. But, sometimes stuff happens and you just have to deal with it. After this experience, we resolved never to go to the airport without making sure we had our e-ticket numbers and had printed out our boarding passes. With such precautions, we had no other airline woes during this trip except for delayed flights.

There are a few comments that need to made about South American domestic airports, and Argentine domestic airports in particular. They are all over-crowded. Most of them are in the process of adding additional gates, but I really don’t think this will solve their issues. The problem is that the waiting areas, gates, baggage claim areas, etc. have all been sized for planes with a capacity of 200 passengers. Now all the planes are stretch 737s with 300+ passengers and every flight is completely full. As a result, there is a constant mass of people – waiting to check in, to drop off luggage, in security lines, at the gate and in the baggage claim. In El Calafate, two planes disgorged passengers at the same time and there was only one baggage carrel. We couldn’t even get into the baggage claim area. Eventually everything seems to work out. But it can be a bit of a surprise how poorly set up their airports are. It is also a testament to a major growth in tourism to this region. This is part of the justification for why our transfer people were always trying to get us to airports 2-3 hours in advance. 99.9% of the time it is unnecessary. And when your flight is scheduled for first thing in the morning, it can be very irritating to sit for several hours at a crowded gate with no breakfast after rising before dawn. But stuff can go wrong. Periodically, you actually need the time.

After finally getting on our flight, we arrived 4 1/2 hours later in Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan, the Chilean gateway to southern Patagonia. An Explora driver met us at the airport. We were joined by a group of 5 Americans for the 5-hour van ride north to our final destination, the Explora Lodge in Torres del Paine National Park. Half of the 250 mile drive was on dirt roads. This place is seriously remote! We arrived just before dinner and were assigned a lovely and very comfortable room with an incredible view over Lake Pehoe. If you go, pay extra for the mountain view. It is worth it.

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Torres del Paine
– October 19-22, 2011

Part of the reason we came to Patagonia was because of our experience 5 years ago at the Explora Lodge in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Basically, we loved it. They had great excursions including some amazing horseback riding. Great food, all-inclusive rates, no extra fees for anything. We met some wonderful people there who reported that Explora in Patagonia was completely different but just as great. So for 5 years, we have been thinking about visiting the Explora Lodge in Patagonia.

The pattern and tone of this segment of our trip was set at the introductory talk before dinner. Each day, we would meet with excursion guides in the early evening and discuss the options available for the following day. Given that there were only 30 guests in residence (the lodge has 50 rooms), there was generally only one horseback excursion and 3-4 treks offered. If a group of guests wanted to pursue some particular route, it could easily be negotiated. But there was no discussion of the weather. Their view was that they “celebrate each change of season and weather. Rain, wind, an unexpected snow storm, or a day of bright sunshine are all part of the experience.” The challenge is to be prepared for anything. With the exception of life-threatening conditions, they simply don’t modify any of their excursions to accommodate the weather. What if you plan to take a 5-mile hike and it turns out that it is only 35 degrees out and pouring rain? Well then, you just take a 5-mile hike in the cold and pouring rain while appreciating the beauty of the mists and fog on the mountains and lakes. It actually all works a lot better than it sounds.

Over the course of the next several days, the guests sorted themselves out into roughly 4 groups: the gung-ho 30 somethings (mostly American) for whom no trek was too hard; a couple of 60 something American women who ended up largely staying back at the lodge after the first day; a group of weak hikers (generally older Americans) and a group of capable but not aggressive hikers. Jan and I ultimately gravitated into this last group. It was made up of 4 Israelis, 2 Germans and the two of us. While we were the oldest in the group, the whole group was reasonably well matched in terms of hiking abilities. We really enjoyed our group; they added to our enjoyment of the excursions and provided good conversation over meals and drinks. Jamie even got to practice his German a little.

Day 1 (Oct. 19): After an expansive breakfast, we took our morning excursion to the Grey Lake. We deliberately chose the easiest hike offered to test Jamie’s ability to participate. After a 30 minute van ride, this involved a relatively short (6 km) hike through a forest, across the beach at the end of the Grey Lake and up and around a small peninsula. It was cold (mid 40s), misty and rained off and on. We could just barely make out the base of the Grey Glacier 10 miles away at the north end of the lake. The “beach” was actually a moraine of rounded gravel stones that dammed up the south end. There were tons of trailer-sized icebergs that had run aground at the beach. Our guide, Jenny, was very helpful and informative. While Jamie had no problems, we didn’t find our fellow hikers (the weakest hikers) to be very interesting, or even very interested in what our guide had to offer. Jamie decided that he would do a more challenging trek that afternoon in hopes of finding a more compatible group.

We returned to the lodge at 1 pm for a full lunch (soup, salad, main course and dessert). The food in Patagonia was very good, though not quite as good as at Explora Atacama. The afternoon excursions began around 3:00. This is a significant difference between the Atacama and Patagonian resorts. In Atacama, due to the desert heat, afternoon excursions started much later (4:00, 5:00 or even 6:00 pm). This meant that we had enough time for a decent siesta after lunch. The earlier departures in Patagonia made the pace seem more strenuous. Jamie, at least, was fairly tired by the end of our stay.

In the afternoon, Jan took a horseback ride along the Serrano River with guide Ben and a gaucho, and Jamie took a 6 km trek to Lake Sarmiento. The trek was much harder than the morning hike but it was on the drier side of the park, so no rain. And the scenery was completely different. No trees, only scrub brush. Lots of Andean Condors. The hike was lovely. Jamie saw a large number of guanacos (relatives of llamas) and several species of birds. Jamie also began our relationship with 4 Israeli travelers who became our companions. Jan was the only person on her ride; in fact, she was the only person who rode during our entire stay there. They even had English saddles for her. The ride was relatively flat, along the flood plain of the Serrano River. For his final pm excursion several days later, Jamie walked roughly the same route along the river.

When we returned to the lodge after our excursions, around 6:30, we went down to the pool, sauna/hot tub and spa facility. Unfortunately, it is 100 yards down a long set of stairs. After a strenuous trek, the last thing you want to do is hike down and then back up to the lodge, particularly if it is raining. But the hot tub jets felt so good on our poor, tired muscles that we still used it 2 out of 3 days.

We had drinks, listened to a short talk about geology, ate an excellent dinner and then went off to bed. We had no trouble sleeping.

Day 2 (Oct 20): After our success on day 1, we opted for a much more strenuous, 16 km trek to the French Valley on our second day. At this park, the main attraction is the Torres del Paine Mountains. These are a series of ridiculously beautiful crags. The range includes mountains with 1,500 foot sheer cliffs, their so-called “horns,” a number of hanging glaciers, waterfalls, varying layers of rock and granite, etc. You really have to see them to believe them. Please. Google them. They really look like their photos (whenever the mists clear). From Chile, you can’t see the “Needles” without taking a very strenuous trek around to the back of the primary massif. You can, however, see them from Argentina. When we were in El Calafate later in the trip, we were able get views of the Needles. Anyway, the classic series of 3 treks at Torres del Paine is known as the great “W”: 1) go west and then north around the southern end of Paine Grande to the Grey Glacier (the left hand line of the “W”), 2) go east around the southern end of Paine Grande up into the French Valley (the center line of the “W”), and then 3) swing even further east past the French Valley and the “Horns” and follow a river to the north around and way up the back to complete the “W.” What we opted for was a full day trek to do the middle of the “W.” Actually two groups made this trip on this day: the fast group, and the middle group (ours).

This was an incredible experience. There were very high winds. It blew so hard that our guides expressed concern that we might have to seek an alternative starting point. But they managed to pilot the covered, 20+ person catamaran launch across Lake Pehoe from the Explora dock – tossing and turning the whole way. We buried our bow in every wave, and then the water would wash up over the roof of the boat. After we finally started hiking, the 60 km winds would pick water up from a lake and drench us, even though we were 200-300 feet up and a quarter of a mile away. You could literally see sheets of water being blown off the lake. And sometimes it just rained. But then, periodically, the air would clear, and you would feel as if you could reach out and touch the tops of these amazing mountains. We didn’t have to go up and down long distances. Mostly, the well-marked trail just tracked between the base of a mountain and a lake. But the scenery was stunning: mountains, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, snow, granite cliffs, and on and on. As we neared our designated lunch spot, Axel (one of the Germans), who is afraid of swinging bridges, decided he couldn’t cross a suspension bridge over a river. So instead we clambered up a river bed over huge boulders to a place where we set up for lunch. Fortunately, the rain stopped (temporarily). And we had delicious hot soup, sandwiches, coffee, some chocolate, some salad, and some cookies. Ben, our guide on this day, had carried a large part of our lunch. The soup was wonderful. Then we retraced our steps back to the boat. Jan, it turned out, is a great hiker. She outpaced the whole middle group both coming and going back. Not by a long distance – maybe by 5 minutes. But she’s very proud of having been in the lead for nearly the whole trip.

The boat got us back to the lodge at around 4:30 and Jan and I headed for the sauna and hot tub. Later, we watched a film about pumas in the park, had drinks, chatted with our hiking partners, ate another excellent dinner and then went off to bed. Once again, we had no trouble sleeping.

Day 3 (Oct 21): On day three, we declined the opportunity to do a day-long trek to “complete the W” with the fast group and opted for 2 half day excursions. In the morning, we took an 8 km hike called the Aonikenk Trail, which follows a fence on the eastern border of the park. So it’s a dry hike over mostly scrub and grass. Lots of guanacos, lots of condors, 2 grey foxes and stunning views of the Paine massif. The sun opened up and we really began to see the crags that had been partially hidden over the previous two days. One or another piece of the massif had usually been visible in the mists. But now we began to get a view of the whole mass. At one point, we climbed up a hill, saw some pre-historic cave “drawings” and had a great view from a lookout point. This was Jan’s favorite trek because she really likes the drier, more open landscape. It is similar to altiplano but different. 

After lunch, Jamie took an easy walk along the Serrano River, and Jan took another horseback ride with Jenny as guide, this time way up a mountain to Buena Vista (beautiful view -- and it was). Though neither was terribly arduous, we were both beginning to get a little tired and Jamie, at least, was looking for a break.

That evening, we completed the reorganization of our itinerary and had a last few drinks with new friends. At this point in the trip (or maybe the day before?), Jan discovered “Calafate Sours.” Some of you may be familiar with the Peruvian drink, a Pisco Sour. The calafate bush is indigenous to Patagonia and was just coming into bloom. Our guides had shown us its little, yellow flowers during our treks. It produces a small pink/red berry that is turned into jams and juice. It is a sour berry and so makes a great “sour” drink. A Calafate Sour become Jan’s standard drink for as long as we were in Patagonia. Later, we heard a talk about glaciers, had yet another excellent dinner, and finally went to bed.

Day 4 (Oct 22): On the fourth day, we departed Torres del Paine. When we woke up, the sky had cleared, the sun was out, and we finally had that view of the Paine massif that you see on postcards. It was incredible! Jamie took another dozen or so photos, knowing all the while that his pictures could never do the actual thing justice. Google it and you'll see what we mean.

After breakfast, we loaded into vans for the 5-hour ride back to Punta Arenas. Except for lunch at a mid-way lodge, we tried to sleep during most of the long, boring ride and Jan continued to read on the iPad. At about 3 pm, we were dropped off at the offices of Cruceros Australis, the headquarters of the company that runs the cruise between Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina. After disposing of our luggage, we had a couple of hours to wander the town. Basically, Punta Arenas had been a very prosperous place during the heyday of the clipper ships. Nearly everyone wanted to resupply while passing through the Straits of Magellan. But once the Panama Canal opened, Punta Arenas's economy collapsed. Now it’s trying to reinvent itself in a tourism-based economy but still has a long way to go. There are some gorgeous old buildings in the process of being renovated. But basically, I wouldn’t schedule a night there if you can avoid it.
 

Cruising the Beagle Channel -- on to Cape Horn
- October 22-25, 2011

This segment of our trip was scheduled for 4 nights and 3 full days cruising the Straits of Magellan and Beagle Channel with a potential stop at Cape Horn (depending on the weather). It also allowed us to utilize one of the few convenient border crossings from Chile (Punta Arenas) to Argentina (Ushuaia). It turned out that we actually sort of "snuck" across the border, if one can be said to sneak anywhere on a ship that is 300' long. It seems that the immigration department is a little loose in Tierra del Fuego. We were never officially entered into Argentina. When we were exiting Argentina at the end of our trip, the passport control people were scratching their heads because they couldn't find any indication that we had ever entered their country! Apparently we didn't look like terrorists, so they did let us come home.

We boarded our ship, the Stella Australis, at 5 pm. With a capacity of 200 passengers, this is the larger of the two ships that cruise this route. We chose it in part because it is the newer one but mostly because of its size, hoping that Jamie would be less likely to get seasick on a larger boat (albeit one-tenth the size of the ship we cruised to Alaska).  Upon boarding, we changed cabins to one closer to the center and Jamie put on a scopolamine patch. Ultimately, neither of us became seasick, even though we did have some significant rolling. Maybe it was just calm enough?  Maybe it was the cabin? Maybe the drugs? Whatever. No one got sick.  I mean, actually, no one.  We didn't see anyone getting sick.

That evening before dinner, we got our mandatory safety briefing and an introduction to how things would work. All around the ship, there were flat screen TVs that displayed a combination of our progress on a nautical chart and, in two languages, a schedule of upcoming events (excursions, lectures, films, meals, whatever).  For most events, Spanish speakers gathered in one lounge while English speakers (a.k.a. everyone else) gathered in another.  Passengers were split roughly 50/50 between these two groups. The excursions all involved loading into Zodiacs (cap. 10-12 passengers + crew) off the ship's stern and going to shore. You were required to wear your life-vest. The trip was usually wet, so rain gear was essential.  The landings were mostly dry, but we were very glad we had waterproof footwear. 
 

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We were surprised that the meals were "sort of" open-seating. 
We had been told by someone who had previously taken this trip that seating was assigned. In reality, we randomly chose our own table the first night (one of several set for two), and then we were (sort of) expected to stay at the same table.  The carrot was that you would have the same waiter and he would know your preferences.  This didn't quite work for us as they mysteriously changed our server after the first day.  We didn't see him working another table.  He just disappeared.  A few persons traveling alone changed tables from time to time but people mostly stayed put.  This particular group of passengers may have been given some extra flexibility as the ship was at only about 60% capacity and there were a lot of empty tables.

We learned, to our surprise, that this had been designated as a "Darwin Cruise" featuring lectures about Darwin's experiences in the Beagle Channel. There was an older, professorial type who had, apparently, taken this trip 8-9 times before, presumably giving the same talks in return for his passage. His talks, his jokes and his delivery were all very tired. After the first lecture, we more or less stop going. Jan discovered at one point that she enjoyed the Spanish language talks much more, even though she couldn’t fully understand everything that was said, because the speaker was much more animated and engaged.

The ship cast off around 8 pm, during dinner. The sailing overnight was completely within the Strait of Magellan and the Tierra Del Fuego archipelago and so was relatively calm -- very windy, some rolling, but basically calm as far as this part of the world is concerned.

The First Full Cruise Day (Oct 23): After a filling breakfast (after all, you "have" to eat a lot when expending so much energy hiking....), we prepared for our first excursion: Ainsworth Bay. We wore long underwear, trekking pants, shirts, fleece, rain pants, rain jacket, gloves, hat, sunglasses, suntan lotion (remember the big ozone hole down here?), waterproof hiking boots, carried a bottle of water, life vest, camera, bird book and, finally, binoculars. All the English-speaking passengers gathered in the stern lounge on the 4th deck. As the Zodiacs were readied, we filed down an outside stair and climbed into the boats, taking seats on alternate sides. Once a boat was filled (including guide and driver), we proceeded off to a distant island.

The first stop was roughly a half-mile away. There were some elephant seals ashore, but we had to stay in the boats. The seas were rough and we were bouncing around. So it was difficult to distinguish the brown and tan blobs that were rocks from the brown and tan blobs that were sleeping elephant seals. After a brief gander, we went into the neighboring Ainsworth Bay and went ashore.

Before departing the ship, everyone had been sorted into groups. We got sorted into a group of 6 English-speaking passengers with our own guide, Carlos. This was the most fortuitous event of the cruise. The 6 of us were remarkably congenial. We made every excursion together. We sat together during the films, had drinks together and regularly chatted. We were called the Woodpecker Group because Jan and I badly wanted to see a Magellanic Woodpecker, quite possibly the coolest bird in this area of the world (except of course for the albatrosses). Carlos was a young but very knowledgeable guide. What he didn't know, he looked up between excursions. The group included 3 Americans (including a Houston doctor), an English couple and a single Brazilian/Swedish woman currently living in London but traveling on her own. The group provided a wonderful social circle that made a huge difference in our enjoyment of the cruise. We were just in a great group of compatible people.

After dumping our life jackets in a pile, the Woodpeckers took a 90-minute walk around Ainsworth Bay, getting an introduction to the archipelago's flora -- basically, a combination rain forest, bog, and arctic tundra type ecosphere. Very beautiful. And, mostly very wet (and it was mostly raining). When we returned to the beach, we were treated to our choice of a shot of whiskey on the rocks, hot chocolate or both. This turned out to be the usual end of all excursions that went ashore, although the Woodpeckers usually returned so late we usually missed the excursion's "reward." The ride back to the ship was very rough as the wind had really kicked up. After plowing into the waves and getting soaked for a while, our pilot managed to find a little protection in the leeward shadow of our ship. Eventually we got to the ship's stern and clambered off the Zodiac. I'll give the drivers, crew and guides a lot of credit. Getting into and out of the Zodiacs in a rough sea should have been much harder than it was. Everything was very well organized. We were all told exactly what to do, where to step and when, and when (and how) to take a hand. Everyone quickly got on and off the ship without a hitch, every time. Even a couple of people who walked with canes made it once or twice. A very professional operation. After we came back on board, the soles of our shoes were "power washed" to ensure we didn't drag any little organisms or soil from one site to the next (or dirt into the ship).

We changed clothes and attended our first Darwin lecture before lunch. Lunch was buffet style, offering everything from salads to pasta to main dishes. In general, the food on board was very good, more than plentiful and satisfying. Not great, not gourmet, but good.

We had our second excursion mid-afternoon. It was a "drive by" of some bird colonies on Tucker's Island. The birds included Magellanic Penguins, Rock and Imperial Cormorants, and several types of gulls. We were not allowed to land, but had to drift several yards offshore while watching the penguins, which were very cute. While they were supposed to be the stars of this stop, the actual highlight turned out to be a wayward Andean Condor. No one knew what it was doing down here at sea level, but it appeared out of nowhere, floating just over our heads. It couldn't have been more than 10 feet up. An incredible view of an incredible bird. We were all so surprised that no one even took a photo of it. But the sight is definitely burned into our memories. Then, back to the ship.

That afternoon we busied ourselves with reading, attending a lecture on glaciers and then took a tour of the engine room. Basically, it was a really, really loud place (we had to wear ear protection) but very clean (not a speck of dirt or oil) with at least 4 huge diesels plus several other engines. Two of the diesels were for propulsion, two ran generators for power, and I think there were one or two others that ran compressors, provided emergency backup power, etc. Very impressive. But most of it was, frankly, a little mysterious even to me.

After a good dinner at 8 pm, we went to sleep. At around 2 am, we were woken up and nearly tossed from our beds. The ship had ventured to the west, out from behind the protection of some islands, and faced the full fury of the southern Pacific swell. At one point, a whole load of stuff (binoculars, camera, water bottles, books, etc.) went crashing to the floor off our stateroom table. I know it sounds weird, but it seemed as if we were tossed about for only 5 or 6 waves. Then, apparently, the Captain was able to duck back behind cover and followed an inland channel the rest of the night. At least that's what he said when we asked him about it the next day.

Day 2 of Cruise (Oct 24): This was a quieter day in terms of excursions. The ship cruised up the Beagle Channel into what is known as Glacier Alley, famous for all of the glaciers along its northern edge. The morning was enlivened by an offer we gladly accepted to visit the bridge. It was very interesting. Jan got to sit in the Captain's chair. The only odd thing was that, apparently, the ship is not equipped with an autopilot. Maybe this is common for large passenger ships? Maybe they do this because they have to stay alert for icebergs? I have no idea what the logic might be but there you are. I also was amused that the bridge carried a full set of traditional signal flags -- obviously in case of the loss of electronic communications -- but amusing nonetheless.

In the afternoon, we had a very cool excursion. The ship sailed up a long fiord and stopped about a half mile or so from the base of the Pia Glacier. We all got prepared, climbed into the Zodiacs and took off for the rocky shore. Once there we climbed a trail until we got a wonderful view of both the ablation zone (face) and the accumulation zone of this glacier. The Darwin range dominates the center of the island on the north side of the channel; it is covered with a large ice sheet that feeds dozens of glaciers. Almost all of these are now retreating. None of these have a face that still floats on the water. For the Pia Glacier, the face sits on its moraine some 10 meters under the surface of the fiord. After a hike up to a viewpoint, the Woodpecker Group then climbed down and found a comfortable spot just to sit across a narrow bay and then spent an hour just "listening" to the glacier. As with all of the glaciers we visited, the Pia Glacier seemed to be alive and talking to us. It was a very special experience just to sit quietly, not on a ship, with a glacier as a close neighbor.  Maybe you had to be there to understand, but the Woodpecker Group uniformly agreed that it was an extremely cool thing to do. It turns out that we sat so long, they had to come looking for us.  We were on the last Zodiac back to the ship -- with no whisky or hot chocolate; that had long since been packed.

Day 3 of Cruise (Oct 25): This was the big day when we learned whether we would be able to set foot on Cape Horn. It would depend on the weather and swells.  Cape Horn is a small (3 x 6 miles), rocky island with steep cliffs (750' max altitude) and no trees.  It has a small lighthouse supported by the Chilean government, manned by a man, his wife and child.  Apparently, they sign up for a one year tour.  Then they just do a lot of maintenance and sell tourists coffee mugs and tee shirts. And go crazy from the isolation no doubt.  The island also has a very beautiful sculptural monument of an albatross that is a memorial for all sailors who lost their lives "rounding" the Horn. The island is named after the Dutch town of Hoorn, home of the Dutch East Indies trading company.  Theodore and I visited Hoorn on a bike and barge trip in 2006. Both Jan and I were very excited just by the concept of seeing Cape Horn.  Walking on it, or perhaps even sailing to its south and "rounding" it would be too cool to be believed.

The weather was not great -- a lot of mist with a steady rain. But we all got ready while they sent an exploratory Zodiac to the landing site. They determined that a landing was OK so the excursion was a go. We loaded up and rode to the landing.  Then we climbed up nearly 200 stairs to get to the top of the cliff.  From there, it was a half mile in one direction to the monument and a half-mile in the other to the lighthouse. We went to the monument first.  Very windy, rainy and cold. But the monument was lovely and quite fitting: very sparse, cold and modern.  We made our way to the lighthouse. We would have bought a cap or mug or something, but no one told us that we needed to bring cash -- no credit cards accepted.  After checking out the view from the top of the lighthouse (not much better than from its bottom), we went back to the ship.  After everyone was back on board, the captain opted to sail south of the Horn. We actually got all the way to latitude 56 degrees South and cruised about 10 miles south of the cliffs on the southern end of the island. It got really rough. We literally couldn't stand up without hanging on.  We saw a few pelagic birds (Black-Browed Albatrosses and Southern Fulmars among others).  But the big thrill was just being south of Cape Horn.  And we got grog to celebrate "rounding the Horn."  Eventually, as the weather got worse, the captain turned around and headed north for more protected waters. When you take this cruise there is no guarantee of being able to land on Cape Horn. They say they are able to do so 70% of the time.  But on the preceding 4 trips, they had been unable to land, much less to "round" the Horn.  In their brochure and on their website Cruceros Australis doesn't even mention the possibility of "rounding the Horn." That seldom is possible, which we readily understood as the seas got rougher and rougher the farther south we went. We feel incredibly lucky we were able to do so.  For Jan, "rounding the Horn" was hands down the highlight of the trip.

Our afternoon excursion was at Wulaia Bay on Navarino Island. This island comprises the southern shore of the eastern half of the Beagle Channel, opposite Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego. Wulaia Bay is historically significant, as Charles Darwin and the Beagle actually stopped here and met some natives whom they "took" back to England.  There also are some significant archeological sites here. We walked up a fairly steep trail to a wonderful outlook. The Woodpeckers then hiked up farther to a large beaver dam -- beavers and hares are imported pests in Patagonia.  By crawling around under a downed tree, Jan got a good view of the beaver. Then, on the way back down to the ship, we achieved one of the goals of our trip: we saw a Magellanic Woodpecker (female).  It was an extremely large, impressive and beautiful bird -- at least the size of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Not a great look but enough.

Back on ship (the Woodpeckers were last aboard yet again), we purchased one of our few souvenirs of the trip: a full-sized chart of the whole Patagonian archipelago, with our ship's exact route plotted and then signed and dated by our captain.  After a farewell dinner, we spent some time packing as the ship was scheduled to dock in Ushuaia around 2 am. We were to disembark the next morning after breakfast.

A Transition Day (Oct 26): On this day we were to fly roughly 350 miles north to El Calafate. As our plane was not scheduled to leave until early afternoon, we had arranged to be met at the dock and taken on a tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park. So after a last hearty breakfast on board, we retrieved our passports (unstamped by immigration) and luggage, and disembarked. Our driver and guide met us and off we went. Although we saw almost nothing of the town itself, Ushuaia is apparently a fairly prosperous town with a population of around 70,000.  The Argentinean government has provided some business incentives and now there are 3 electronics assembly plants in town, adding some technology-related employment as an add-on to its basic tourism economy.  Ushuaia’s port also does fairly well as a lot of the Antarctic cruising trade passes through here. Basically, there are only two jumping off points for Antarctica: Ushuaia and the more distant Christchurch, New Zealand.

We spent the next several hours having a very enjoyable but low-key tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park: several picturesque bays, a lovely inland lake, snow covered mountains and some new birds. We took a couple of short hikes and stopped off at an interesting visitors center where we learned about the region’s geology, flora and fauna and its original inhabitants (and their lack of clothing). We saw the southernmost post-office on the South American continent.  We would have mailed a bunch of postcards but it was closed. We also saw the end of the Pan American highway, with a sign indicating that Alaska was a mere 17,848 kilometers up the road.  We went back to Ushuaia and caught an early afternoon (delayed) flight to El Calafate.
 

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El Calafate
- October 26-29, 2011

When we arrived in El Calafate, we also changed eco-systems. This area, known as the Argentinean steppe, is completely covered by the rain-shadow of the Andes and gets very little rain. All the rain falls on the great Southern Patagonian ice field on the spine of the Andes. It then feeds hundreds of glaciers that push down the valleys into Argentina. Lago Argentino by El Calafate is Argentina’s largest fresh-water lake and is fed by melting snow and a series of melting glaciers. In fact, you can see icebergs floating in the lake. The view west is of snow-covered mountains. The landscape is dry and almost barren: low scrub and grass. Excepting tourism, the economy is dominated by cattle and sheep ranches (estancias), Many of these are huge, having anywhere from 14,000-20,000 acres. The land is so dry, however, that you seldom see herds of sheep or cattle. Instead, you’ll see a couple of sheep here or a couple of cattle there. Or maybe you’ll see a gaucho riding the fences looking for gaps needing repairs (wire fences are everywhere). Tourism activities are dominated by trekking, glacier-related stuff, and visiting an estancia (horseback riding, displays of gaucho skills, etc.).

Our hotel, Eolo, is a lovely Relais & Chateaux hotel about 30 miles west of town. It sits, almost completely alone, on the side of a mountain overlooking a huge splendid valley. The valley, in fact, is made up of a single estancia, but you need binoculars to make out the main house, 5 miles away on the valley's other side. The views are incredible. Check out their web site. On a clear day you can see the Needles of Torres del Paine through a gap in the mountains. It turns out that Eolo is only about 45 miles northeast of the Needles. Through our binoculars, we had several great views of them. The 17-room hotel has a spa, a pool, offers various excursions (some included), and very good food and service. Its rates are all-inclusive, including even most drinks. Actually, we had not anticipated that their rates were all-inclusive, so we were very pleasantly surprised at a minimal bill when we checked out. Overall, it was our favorite hotel this trip. We arrived just in time for a wonderful tea and were able to schedule our time for the next 3 days. We had only scheduled one excursion before we left the US due to the uncertainties of what Jamie would be able to do given his bike accident. Knowing now what he could do, we were able to set up some additional activities. After unpacking, we had an excellent dinner before going to bed.

Day 1 in El Calafate (Oct 27): On our first full day in El Calafate, we followed the hordes to the Perito Moreno glacier. Basically, everyone who comes to El Calafate goes to the Perito Moreno glacier. Wikipedia lists it as “one of the most important tourist attractions in Patagonia.” So you get busloads of tourists from all countries, speaking all languages, all pushing to the front to get the “ideal” picture. Or blocking off the trail while they take 37 different shots of their wife in front of the glacier, always hoping for that “perfect” photo to show their friends back home. We had our own guide and driver, so we had a lot of flexibility. It let us get away from the crowds and we thoroughly enjoyed our day.

We started by getting a lot of info about the region while on the hour or so drive to the site. We then opted for a boat trip that took us up to the face of the glacier. The face is 3 miles wide and averages 240 feet tall. As it is one of only 3 Patagonian glaciers that are growing, chunks break off the face fairly frequently. Most of the other 26 named, major Patagonian glaciers are all retreating. Big chunks (e.g., house-sized) fall off less frequently but still daily. We saw several of this size. We opted not to do the available “glacier treks.” We had done this in Alaska 18 months ago and didn’t feel the need to repeat the experience. The ice-trekkers did help Jamie though. It’s almost impossible to get a sense of scale into photos of glaciers. Having little dots of ice-trekkers walking around the top of the glacier helps.

After the boat ride (worth the time), we went to the main visitor area. Here, we encountered Argentinian catwalks for the first time. Later in the trip, we ran into them again in Iguaçu Falls. They are quite remarkable: 4-5 foot wide metal grate walkways with wooden railings and periodic benches and viewing terraces. Now, imagine several miles of these, spread out on the steep hillside opposite the glacier's face. They were so extensive that we were able to walk away from the crowds! Once we got down a several flights of stairs, our company was reduced to the much smaller number who wanted more than just a photograph. We ended up having lunch alone on a terrace across from the glacier's face listening to it talk to us as it moved and dropped off chunks. It wasn’t as cool as our time with the Pia Glacier, but was still very nice. Our box lunch from Eolo was quite good, including a truly superb brownie.

What makes the Perito Moreno glacier most interesting is that, as an advancing glacier, periodically it grows until it touches land in its midsection at the tip of the peninsula on which the catwalks are located. That cuts off the flow of water between what becomes two fronts of the glacier. The water between the two arms of the lake can differ by 30 meters! Over a period of about 6 months, the ice dam can become an ice bridge as the water hollows out an arch as it tries to find a path through to get to an equilibrium level. Eventually, the ice bridge ruptures in a spectacular explosion. The whole population of El Calafate comes to wait when a rupture seems imminent. Usually this happens in the summer (their summer or March) but the last time happened in late July (their winter) and at night. Since there is no natural light (and the moon was dark) the TV cameras had been turned off and it went unrecorded. The week before we arrived, the entire front had been completely open. When we saw it, the ice had advanced, touching land and beginning the cycle. It doesn't happen every year -- in fact in the past decade it has happened only in 2003, 2006 (with a spectacular rupture) and 2008 (the unseen and unrecorded winter night rupture). The glacier touching land doesn't ensure that it will progress to ice bridge and rupture. In 2010, it touched land but never built an ice bridge. Whether it does depends snow accumulation and rate of advance. Though South America doesn't make the news much here (note the lack of reports on the volcano eruptions and their impact on Argentina -- Chile just can't keep its own ash to itself), we're hoping in about six months to find reports of an ice bridge and video of possible rupture that we saw in its incubation.

Back to our hotel in time for tea and a quick dip in their indoor pool. We then got in some relaxing time before an 8:30 dinner.

Day 2 in El Calafate (Oct 28): On our second day in El Calafate, we went trekking. The best known (and highest rated) trek is the so-called Upsala Glacier trek. The Upsala Glacier is famous not only for its size but for its rapid retreat. The glacier is retreating an average of 600 meters per year (yes, six hundred meters per year, that wasn’t a typo). While Greenpeace alleges (and I suspect) that this is due in part to global warming, the local guides don’t repeat that mantra. Both the Chilean and Argentinian guides talked about “natural warming cycles” and “unknown causes” while acknowledging the existence of global warming. It was so consistent that I got the impression that it was, more or less, the officially approved view in both countries. They take a long view of glaciers since over eons the world has gone through glacial and interglacial phases. The issue is whether human action is accelerating this process in ways that haven't happened before.

The Upsala Glacier has retreated so fast that you can’t even see its face without completing a major trek. As huge chunks of ice break off the face, they drift 8 miles south in an arm of Lago Argentino. At the arm's mouth, they run aground and pile up at a “shallow” spot (50 meters deep) created when the glacier deposited a large moraine several centuries ago. While the moraine has been there for centuries, the arm's closure by icebergs is only a few years old. The trek starts with a 3-hour boat trip that includes a long interval (too long in our judgment) floating around in front of the jammed up icebergs. Then we travelled up another arm of the lake to Estancia Christina. This well-known, remote ranch is a popular destination for day-trippers (most of our fellow passengers) who come for lunch and the view and for a smaller group of people who come and stay for 2 or 3 days. Frankly, from what we saw, we wouldn’t recommend staying there. We were in a third group – the much smaller number of day-trip trekkers.

After disembarking, we were loaded into two 4x4 trucks and driven up the mountain. There was a group of about 16 with one guide. The trucks followed a very steep road (you really needed the 4x4 trucks) for several miles, climbing 1,500 feet up the mountain. The trucks were also quite uncomfortable for those sitting in the back (Jan and 3 other guests got in front--Jan because of her asthma sought protection from the dust; Jamie got stuck in the back). Sitting sideways with minimal cushioning for a bumpy hour-long ride was enough to make Jamie worry about his back going out on him. When we finally arrived at our destination, we were in an unbelievable environment. Some 800 feet below us, we could see a small, minor side-face of the Upsala Glacier. Given the air's clarity (no pollution, no moisture), we also could see miles up its length. We could see where several smaller feeder glaciers merged into the larger one. Closer to hand, we were standing in a moonscape. The land we were to trek through had been totally scoured by the glacier and then uncovered as it retreated. It had only been exposed for a couple of hundred years. It was not the small gravel of a moraine. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before: absolutely no vegetation; no soil, huge slabs of rock polished smooth by the passage of the ice several centuries before; a rainbow of colors in the rocks, steep, smooth-sided valleys going off into the distance. It was just remarkable. Then we set off on a 14 km hike back to the estancia and boat. This turned out to be a more strenuous hike than the 16 km one in the rain at Torres del Paine. The first 10 km were all steeply downhill. We had our walking sticks with us and we needed them. Also, we often walked along or down a steep polished rock face. We had to trust our footgear to give us the needed traction. Finally, the knowledgeable and helpful guide really pushed us along. He had clearly been given a deadline for arriving back at the boat (its departure time) and knew how fast we had to hike to get there in time. That meant we had to just constantly keep moving. We had a 30-minute break for our boxed lunch (another great one from Eolo) and a couple of 2-5 minute water breaks. Outside of lunchtime, bathroom breaks involved finding a fairly large rock to duck behind (obviously, no facilities en route) and then rushing to catch up because the group wouldn’t even slow down. But the scenery was amazing!! After the first 10 km, we finally had lost most of the altitude and scenery and could just push along through a grassy valley. This turned out to be deceptively long as we couldn’t see our destination until the very end. By the time we got back to Estancia Christina, we were both very tired and ready for a rest. Oddly, there was no snack or treat given to us at the hike's end. We were given the chance to (briefly) buy a variety of drinks and food, but we both felt that some sort of congratulatory cookie or drink would have been appropriate. I guess we're spoiled.

One of the odder members on this hike was a fairly young guy (late 20s-mid 30’s) dressed in clothes you might wear around town. No hat. No gloves. No backpack. He carried a paper grocery bag under his arm that clearly held his lunch. He looked totally unprepared, except for his hiking boots. It turned out that all of his trekking gear had been in his backpack that had been stolen in Buenos Aires. He just decided he wasn’t going to give up on his trip and determined to carry on. He kept up quite nicely too.

After a long boat ride back, we returned to Eolo around 7 pm in time for a short rest before another excellent dinner. Note, while Eolo offers to arrange for private transportation, we let them set up “public” transportation for one-tenth the cost. And it worked flawlessly. They drove us to the end of their very long, gravel "driveway."  Two minutes later, a minibus whose fee had already been paid picked us up. On the way back, we just asked the various drivers which was going by Eolo.  When we got back, there was an Eolo driver waiting for us at the end of the gravel road leading to the hotel. Apparently, they do this drop off and pick up daily, and they really have it down pat.  If you go, save yourself some money and let them arrange the “public” transport option; skip the private transfer.

Day 3 in El Calafate (Oct 29): Our flight to Buenos Aires wasn’t until late afternoon so we did a couple of excursions in the hotel's immediate surroundings. In the morning, we took a pleasant “bird” walk with their local guide.  We started at the hotel and walked about a mile down into the valley to a small lake that had a flock of flamingoes and a variety of ducks.  We also were able to identify a couple of new hawks. The bird watching would have been improved if we had brought our scope, but this was the only time during the trip where we needed it.  After lunch, Jan went for a horseback ride up the mountain (great views) while Jamie just took it easy and finished his packing.

In the late afternoon, we were transferred to the airport, where we sat waiting for a very delayed flight to Buenos Aires. You may recall that we had intended to go to Bariloche but had rescheduled due to volcanic ash from Chile.  This point marks the beginning of our revised itinerary. We finally got into Buenos Aires around 11 pm. This was due to the delay and that this was a long flight (3+ hours; 1,300 miles). We were picked up at the airport and taken to our hotel in Puerto Madero, the Madero Hotel. Although we only stayed one night, we would definitely recommend this hotel.  It’s relatively new, in a great location and has very comfortable suites.  It’s not cheap, but nor is it terribly expensive. The next time we return to BA, we will definitely consider staying at the Madero.
 

Iguaçu Falls

Day 1 in Iguaçu Falls (Oct 30): The day began with one of those awful, early hotel pickups to make a crack of dawn flight that seem to occur with such regularity in South America.  Following a completely inadequate breakfast (the hotel’s one downfall is that their kitchen doesn’t open until 6:30 am and we had to leave prior to that), we went to the domestic BA airport.  Of course we arrived way too early.  We found an airport café that served coffee, juice and somewhat tasteless croissants.

This brings up the question of how we handled currencies. We’ve gotten sick of paying substantial fees on credit cards and ATM withdrawals.  They end up jacking up the relative “service fees” on currency exchanges to anywhere from 6-10 percent.  We investigated changing money in the US before we left but that also carried a fairly stiff fee.  We finally opted to carry a bunch of good old US dollars in cash.  “Guarding” the cash wasn’t as complicated as it might seem.  We really didn’t need much (tips, airport food, etc.) and we were staying for several days in most places.  Thus we could stick the majority of the cash in the hotel room safe and forget about it.  Other than tips, there was very little to spend money on!  There were virtually no souvenirs worth buying.  We had most of our meals in our hotels, which, in general, were all-inclusive.  We had pre-booked (and pre-paid) most excursions.  It turned out that, even in airports, vendors were happy to take US dollars!  The Argentine peso has recently gone through a period of terrible inflation.  US dollars are viewed as safe.  Most vendors were not only happy to accept dollars but most even converted their prices to US dollars with a decent exchange rate. In the BA airport, the café used a 4.2 to 1 exchange rate while the Exchange Cambio just down the hall used a rate of less than 3.4.  So we carried a pile of 1’s, 5’s, 10’s and 20’s.  We used them for tips and to pay for whatever small items we needed.  We got our change in pesos, so we also were able to maintain a small cache of local currency.  It’s not something I would do in Europe, but with sufficient care against robbery, it worked just fine in South America (always keeping in mind the guy who had his backpack stolen). (And we'd had no need for any cash in Chile.)  We just didn’t carry money around except when we were in transit. I’m not recommending this approach, but this time it worked for us.

We were met on arrival in Iguaçu Falls. Our luggage was taken off to our hotel and we went directly for a daylong tour of the Falls – both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This place looks like a real tourist trap crowded with busloads of bustling people and families with kids.  (We were also there on a Sunday so there were lots of locals out for the day.)  But we highly recommend visiting it.  First, the falls themselves are extraordinarily impressive.  We’ve seen Niagara and Victoria Falls. To us, Iguaçu Falls was much more impressive. Granted, this may have been due to recent, very heavy rain at Iguaçu and low water levels when we visited Victoria.  (Note: Wikipedia’s article on Iguaçu Falls is highly recommended.  It includes a nice comparison of the world’s major falls.) The water levels here were extremely high. And the falls are just huge, laid out along 2.7 km with multiple separate cataracts and waterfalls.  Because of the high water levels, many of the “separate” cataracts had merged into one huge cataract.  Plus, this is another place where the Argentinean skill in providing miles of catwalks is put to excellent use.  Imagine being on a catwalk, walking 10 feet above the Niagara River, just up river above the falls.  You walk for maybe half a mile like this, moving from one little island to another.  Then you arrive, 10 feet above the brink of the Falls, watching a torrent of water disappearing over the edge while you’re completely enveloped in mist and deafened by the roar. That’s what Iguaçu Falls was like on the day we visited. It really was remarkable.  People often say that you get a better view of the falls from the Brazilian side.  Neither of us saw any reason to cross to the other side.  The feel of the thundering water as it shot over the edge was just amazing. We were so close to the lip as the water gushed over that at times it made some people (including Jamie) feel a little dizzy.

Our guide was terrific.  The park is huge. Getting from one end to the other involves taking little trains that run on set schedules because of crossing tracks.  She knew where to go for the best views and when we had to hurry a little.  (“Come quickly.  The next train isn’t for 20 min.!) She knew most of the birds and animals and a fair number of the butterflies.  The butterflies, by themselves, are reason alone to visit.  They were stunning: fluttering around in clouds – literally several hundred bright yellow or orange butterflies in a cloud.  They love salt, so they often end up landing on people, a unique experience itself. And their colors were just amazing.  They make Iguaçu Falls magical.

We concluded our visit to the Falls with THE boat trip.  This is like the Maid-of-the-Mist boat ride in Niagara only jacked up on drugs.  You get into a big Zodiac with a capacity of 30+ people.  They give you a life jacket and a waterproof bag to protect whatever you want (e.g., your camera).  Then they go zooming up the river, over small rapids until arriving below the falls.  Then the boat makes several runs directly toward (into??) the falls.  We got soaked.  It wasn’t from mist or spray and it wasn’t from stuff splashing over the side.  We got wet because we were so close to the falls that a very heavy “rain” of water fell directly on our heads.  It was like sitting under a faucet. No matter how good your rain gear is, it isn't good enough for this!

After the boat ride, it was time to go back to our hotel, the Loi Suites.  The Sheraton Hotel, which is on the park’s grounds with views of the falls from many rooms, has fallen on hard times.  And it looked like it when we briefly walk through. Everyone we talked to (both in the US and there) said that it had become somewhat run down and many rooms have mold from all the moisture in the air.  Loi Suites is a small, Argentinian chain (5 facilities) of 5 star hotels. Our experience, however, was decidedly mixed.  If I thought there was a better place, I would tell you.  But be prepared for some odd stuff. The hotel is an example of the triumph of design over functionality.  Visually, it is very striking with lots of different woods in the floors and railings, etc.  It creates a “jungle” feel by maintaining jungle in and around the facility (e.g., right over your balcony railing) and by installing “suspended” walkways between buildings. But… The rooms are inadequately soundproofed.  In our first room, we were treated to a cacophony of screaming infants and running kids in the halls.  This was fixed by a room change (which they were not happy to make).  The main dining area has hardwood floors, hard walls, hard ceilings, hardwood furniture and tables without tablecloths.  The result was that you couldn’t talk to someone on the opposite side of the table without significantly raising your voice.  The bartender in the hotel lobby didn’t know how to make a drink listed in her drink menu (a Pisco Sour of course!).  Except for in the dining room, all chairs -- even in the rooms -- were exceedingly uncomfortable They had such short legs that even Jan's knees were in her face.  The chair backs were canted so far back your eyes were staring up instead of ahead.  Design over functionality doesn't work here.  The food was decidedly average.  It's located so far out of town that you're isolated and dependent on the hotel for services.  There is no concierge and the reception desk was not service oriented.  We had a significant problem (to which the hotel contributed) and until we got the manager involved (and we give her great kudos), things went from bad to worse.  I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift.  If you go to Iguaçu Falls, stay at the Loi Suites.  It's the best in town.  But keep expectations for well-managed luxury in check!

Day 2 in Iguaçu Falls (Oct 31): Our final day Iguaçu Falls, and actually our last day of real holiday, was the only day of the trip that got totally screwed up.

Iguaçu Falls is one of the greatest birding destinations in the world. Name any genus of brightly colored birds and this place probably has at least three species from that genus: hummingbirds, tanagers, woodpeckers, hawks, trogons, motmots, horned-bills, etc.  Every birding tour of Brazil or Argentina spends a day or two (or even three) at Iguaçu Falls.  It is truly a world-class birding site.

We had reserved a half-day tour with the top birding specialist in the area (Daniel Somay-- daniel.somay@rainforestevt.com.ar). Everyone we spoke to before and after our tour said, “Daniel? He’s our best birding guide!” He was supposed to pick us up at our hotel at 5:45 am.  So we got up at 5 am and got prepared to go birding at the crack of dawn.  And then we waited.  And waited. And waited. After about 45 minutes, we asked the front desk to call.  Oops!  Wait!  It turns out they couldn’t call. The entire phone system was down.  Not just the hotel phones, but the phones for the entire area!  Even cell phones, which should be on separate circuits, didn’t work!  In lieu of sitting there fuming, we asked the desk to call us as soon as the phones came back up and let us know what was going on.  I think if she had had her way, Jan would have put us back on an airplane for BA that afternoon, a day early, but with the phones out, there was nothing we could do.  Instead, we went back to bed hoping we wouldn’t miss a unique chance for some wonderful birding.  We would never come back here just for the birding.  So it was "make it happen" today or never.

True to form, the front desk didn’t call us when the phones came back up. When we went to check at around 10 am, we were told that “oh, yes! Your birding tour has been rescheduled. Daniel will now pick you up here at 3:30.” We weren’t thrilled. Birding in late afternoon is nothing like birding at dawn. But… So, we hung out at the pool trying to guess just how uncomfortable those Brazilian bathing suits are, read some books, walked around a bit and just relaxed.  After lunch, we got back into our birding clothes and went to the lobby to wait for Daniel at 3:30.  No Daniel.  After 20 minutes, we went back to the front desk.  This time, the very efficient (and very effective it turns out) manager took charge. She was not about to let our birding expedition fade into thin air. She called the agency.  She finally got Daniel himself on the phone. There had been a screw-up.  Daniel had another client. Blah, blah, blah. She figuratively stamped her foot and the next thing we knew, Daniel was on his way to pick us up. We don’t remember her name, but she saved the day.  She was the best thing at Loi Suites and the only reason we didn’t post a scathing review of it on Trip Advisor when we got home.

Once we actually got together with him, Daniel was not only charming but one of the best birding guides we’ve ever had.  Even marginal birding guides can identify most birds by sight without checking their bird books.  Call them 1-Star guides.  2-Star guides can also identify and find birds by knowing their calls.  3-Star guides not only identify birds by sight and sound, but they also know enough about them to understand their behavior and how and where to find them.  The absolute best guides, 4-Star guides, do all of the preceding, but also ensure that when he (or she) finds the bird, there are no trees in the way and the sun is at your back so the bird’s colors are lit up and maximized for photography.  They literally put you into an ideal situation for viewing each bird and maximizing your enjoyment.  It’s a very unusual set of knowledge and skills.  Daniel was a 4-Star guide.  He was absolutely fabulous.  When he picked us up he asked what kind of birds we wanted to see. We said, “hummingbirds, woodpeckers, tanagers, and hornbills.”  By sunset, we had seen 8 species of hummingbird, 3 species of woodpecker, 5 different tanagers, one hornbill and roughly 30 other species.  I know Arlington and its distribution of birds pretty well.  But I couldn’t show you 3 species of woodpeckers on demand if my life depended on it. Moreover, Daniel was so embarrassed about the multiple screw-ups, that he refused not only his regular fee but also any tip.  It was a great afternoon of birding and saved the day.

Back at the hotel, we had dinner in the pool bar area. We had discovered at lunch that it was much quieter than the main dining room. To our surprise, we were treated to a water ballet demonstration. We had seen the swimmers practicing during the afternoon, but we didn’t know what it was about. At about 9 pm, lights and music were turned on and 3 women jumped in the pool and started swimming about. I’m not a very good judge, but…. While they didn’t seem to be a world-class trio, they definitely entertained us for about 20 minutes or so.  Jan was glad to see an exhibition of a sport she had done in college and is much under-appreciated in the US.

Back to Buenos Aires (Nov 1): The next morning, we got up, had breakfast, transferred to another overcrowded airport, and flew back to Buenos Aires.  We checked into our hotel, the Palacio Duhau, a very fancy place.  We stayed there because we had intended to meet with an Argentinean friend, Florencia M. B. Molinuevo, the owner of the Juan Geronimo estancia we stayed at two years ago on our last trip to Argentina.  She comes from the Duhau family, and we thought it would be cool to stay in “her” hotel.  It's now owned by the Park Hyatt, but whatever. But our Internet connections had been so intermittent during the trip that we screwed up and missed making connection. We’re very sad about missing Florencia.  She is a charming lady.  Instead, we spent a couple of hours after our delayed flight's late arrival walking around Buenos Aires before Jamie collapsed into a deep sleep for a couple hours.

Our travel agency had given us two tickets to an expensive dinner and tango show (Rojo Tango). We had seen it during our last visit, but it was very good and we very much enjoyed seeing it again.
 

Getting Home
– November 2 and 3, 2011

Our trip ended much as it began, flying 6,000 miles north.  Once again we flew on COPA with a daytime flight schedule.  Once again we changed planes in Panama City.  We spent much of the flights watching a sitcom on Jamie’s iPad – “Community.”  It’s about a quirky group attending a community college.  If you like “Modern Family” or “Parks and Recreation,” you would like this.  We thought it was hilarious.  Chevy Chase (from the original Saturday Night Live cast) has a regular role.  We watched 6-8 half hour episodes.  After spending some 14 hours in the air, we got back into Dulles Airport at around 1 am Thursday morning.  We got through immigration and customs, and took a cab home, arriving around 2:30 am.  All our fish survived, and our house was just fine.
 

Summary:

Overall this was an excellent trip that definitely makes it into our top 10. We can highly recommend virtually every element of our itinerary.  However, it was a trip for people who are very active. If you’re not willing to (at least) try hiking 10 km in the pouring rain, it may not be the trip for you.  On the other hand, we never thought we would enjoy hiking in the rain, but we managed just fine.  And we even cherish the experience.  We would have preferred doing it when it was drier, but wet turned out to be OK too.  Once we got north of Tierra del Fuego, things really dried out.

One of the big decisions that anyone traveling to Patagonia has to make is when to go.  We chose early spring.  The crowds were way down and we had lots of places to ourselves.  Most places were way under capacity.  We were a little early for spring wildflowers, but timing that is always a bit of a guess.  We saved some money by getting “off-season” rates on the cruise.  It turns out that the weather, at least in so far as temperatures are concerned, doesn’t really vary that much (plus or minus 15-20 degrees).  In the middle of the Patagonian summer, there is less rain and mist, but higher winds and lots of low clouds. The Argentinean side is always dry.

We felt restricted, schedule-wise, because we were wanted to coordinate the end of our Explora stay with the beginning of the cruise without spending a night in Punta Arenas.  It turns out there are more options for crossing the border than we knew about.  It’s possible to arrange a long (5+ hour???), van ride from Eolo (and probably other Calafate hotels) to Explora.  This would eliminate the need to fly all the way south to Punta Arenas and then drive 5 hours back north to get to Explora, but would require flying south from Buenos Aires to El Calafate.  As it turned out, we were happy with our plan to execute a U entering via Santiago and ending up in Buenos Aires.  You could do the whole itinerary by flying in and out of Buenos Aires.

The cruise is a must for anyone traveling to this part of the world.  I don’t know what it would be like if the boat was full. Our impression is shaped by a “low-occupancy” lens.  But it was so well organized that I think it would be great regardless. For the most part, the route is in protected waters, so for most people, seasickness should not be an issue.  But you do need to be prepared to participate in some cold and wet excursions if you want the full experience.

Both Explora and Eolo are unique and wonderful places.  Visiting Iguaçu Falls is definitely worth the effort, even though I have mixed feelings about recommending our hotel.

One thing we did not expect was mostly being cut off from communication.  We've learned from past experience not to travel with a cell phone and until China, seldom utilized email until we were able to travel with an iPhone.  For this trip, we had need for communication to alter our itinerary en route and to deal with unusual glitches.  We had an international cellphone (Jan’s iPhone), but it mostly didn’t work because of lack of service.  Outside of BA, Wi-Fi was largely unavailable (which is what the iPhone needs for email usage).  We once briefly used an Internet café in Punta Arenas. Our hotels had only spotty service.  Explora’s Internet service was the best but limited to one desktop computer and no Wi-Fi.  The ship had no service of any kind. Eolo had Wi-Fi but it was spotty.  When their internet server went down one entire day, so did their Wi-Fi. The complete shutdown of the phone system (and thus internet service) in Iguaçu Falls speaks for itself.  Basically, don’t go to Patagonia and expect to “stay in touch.”  It’s too empty and too remote.  If you absolutely must “stay connected,” either bring a satellite phone with data capability, or don’t go to Patagonia.

Finally, there are cheaper alternatives for doing virtually everything we did (except the cruise).  We saw a lot of backpackers tromping around Torres del Paine and El Calafate.  There were lots of parks for camping and lots of “hostels” for cheap accommodations as well as less expensive hotels.  Street food is pretty cheap; they have great empanadas. And for the truly adventurous, there is always the Pan American Highway.  After all, by car, Ushuaia is only about 10,000 miles south from Washington, DC.

Jan H. and Jamie R. 
[Last names withheld in compliance with the LARC privacy policy.]


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