Archive for January, 2009

The Road Is Deep And Wide

January 29th, 2009 6:17 am by ray from here

We left El Calafate and set out on Ruta 40. (On the way out of town, we stopped at the airport to pick up the papers to take the car into Chile, but the agent wasn’t there even though a flight was arriving. And he didn’t answer any of the posted phone numbers.)

Ruta 40 is famous for its not being paved in the southern portion. We’d hoped to take a side trip to El Chalten and do a little hiking, and the road there was mostly paved, but after a stretch of gravel and some more considered calculation we realized that there wouldn’t be time to drive there and get to our next reserved stay at Estancia Cueva de las Manos, let alone do any hiking.

After Tres Lagos the road became gravel for a long time. Lots and lots of gravel. Lots of flat land with nothing on it, so the road could be quite wide. And it went on for miles. Ocassionally we’d stop and be impressed by how windy it was out there.

We encountered one 55-km stretch of pavement which seemed like a dream or a mirage, but then the gravel returned.

We got gas at a tiny place called Bajo Caracoles, which is where everyone buys gas who is taking Route 40. Not only are stations rare, but it’s not unusual to come to one that is out of gas, or out of your particular kind of gas. The truck was there filling up the gas station when we arrived. The operation was about as sophisticated as fueling a chainsaw, just a big hose and a big funnel.

The price for gas is fixed by the government in Patagonia at 2.192 pesos per liter. There is a small general store there that surprisingly doesn’t charge a huge amount for water. They have all sorts of food-like substances there, too, none really edible. You can buy 80 grams of Lay’s Potato Chips for 6.50 Argentine pesos. For people who are reading this a year from now, this is a high price. Since we arrived, the peso has slid from 3.30 to 3.50 to the dollar; gold has gone from $800 to $900 US dollars per ounce, and it’s very difficult to give any shorthand impressions of prices to anyone who doesn’t have today’s newspaper in hand and the OANDA currency converter open on his browser.

After Bajo Caracoles, the scenery got more interesting, tne hills higher, the canyons deeper and eventually more colorful. Even the road became more colorful. In places where it had been cut directly through red and yellow sandstone, it was red and yellow in stripes. Bright red and yellow and pink. There was a shrine to Mary in blue and white with some Santa Claus figurines on the roof, beside which someone had planted a tree which must have been watered daily despite its appearing to be in the middle of nowhere; and an arroyo of columnar basalt had a red shrine to Gauchito Gil (shrines are as rare as gas stations on the hard core part of RN40) and also a ram skull painted magenta off to the side.

The hills are full of caves painted with the outlines of hands. Archaeologists make up stories describing what these hands (also guanacos, pumas, stick figures, ostrich-prints, but overwhelmingly left hands) meant to their creators. What is really known is that 8000 years before Banksy, humans were making stencil graffiti. The process appears to have been blowing air through a bone filled with paint with mineral pigment. This process can be duplicated and it has been, but the results fade after about 30 years. It’s not known what substances must be mixed with rock dust to make the hands last eight thousand years.

UNESCO skimmed off the most artistically dense and accessible several of the caves and enclosed them for a World Heritage Site. The folks at Estancia Cueva de las Manos will drive you on a 4×4 for a long day trip and hike to others on their 100,000 hectare ranch. They will also feed you — some government agency hooks up kids going through culinary or hotel management school with estancias hosting tourists in the summer, and the results are delicious. They also hooked up a young American woman studying Spanish to work there, and she was our 4×4 driver and guide to their large cave. Their cave didn’t have quite as many hands as the official site, but it was a much nicer experience not to be rushed by the one-hour tours, and not to have a fence in the way.

After spending a day and a half looking at hand paintings, we drove the rest of the officially unpaved part of Ruta 40. Now it’s only frequent road reconstruction which gets us back onto the gravel.

Yesterday (1/28) we drove to Alerce National Park. An Alerce is like a sequoia. We only saw one of them since they are way away in the back country and would have required a day long boat ride (all the nearby ones having been logged) but there are a number of other species including a native bamboo with a solid core, the usual Southern Hemisphere beech suspects, an incense cedar which is sort of like those in California — the Andes near Esquel are sort of like the Eastern Cascades just generally, which is not surprising since they are the same mountains on the same landmass. The most special thing on this day out of all others, is that a legume of some kind that looks like broom, was at the moment releasing its seeds. Imagine a locust-like seed pod 4-6 cm in length which has dried out completely. As the last bit of water leaves the slightly twisted pod, there is nothing to hold it together and the pod snaps open, scattering seeds all over. As we walked down the trail, hundreds of little clicks followed us.

They also have daisies that climb trees in vines. Orange ones, and white ones. Traveling is rad.

After our walk through the bamboo and beech and broom forest, we got back into the car and drove to Bariloche. Failed to spot Butch Cassidy’s house from the road. Lonely Planet says it’s there, near km 21 (which is not actually marked) 8 km north of Cholila, but as part of their residual hip image, they adamantly refuse to include any more information in their guide than was available to 13th century sailors: verbal descriptions.

Hello, Lonely Planet! It’s 2009! GPS has been public since the Clinton Administration! I know you want us to get chummy with natives in bars and be personally guided by guys with dreads and Che t-shirts to your cool sites, but lat-long is all that is required.

Bariloche is a total hole. It is the next step in the progression Ushuaia-Calafate-Esquel-El Bolson, as tourist towns march on their inevitable Hertzsprung-Russell path toward the doom of malldom.

I’m not including the lat-long of the private sites on the Estancia because I don’t want to contribute to the stuffed animal store, the pizza cafe, the chocolateria, and the Gap/North Face/Benetton outlet soon enough to arrive in the pretty little canyon. Here’s the location of Cafe Lo De Garcia instead.

Now it’s time to get some chocolate that this “town” is “famous” for (one of the intimate chocolate stores is called Del Turista and fills a city block) and get back on the road and drive past some awesome mountain scenery.

How We Saw Torrey Pines

January 24th, 2009 8:20 am by Dave from here

Previously on, we were never granted permission to take our car into Chile until it was way too late, according to our unalterable schedule. This meant that we would never see the famous Torres del Paine, in Chile’s most famous national park.

Instead we came to El Calafate.

Yesterday we went on a walk.  We finally got started around 2 pm, after a leisurely morning.  It was similar in distance to a walk up Windy Hill and back — a distance of about six miles round trip.  We’re guessing Windy Hill has an average slope of about ten percent, rising maybe 1500 feet.  But this walk rose over 1000 meters, meaning the average slope was twenty percent.  I’m really glad I found a walking stick to ease my way back down.

It was a simple walk to the top of a hill, and though it was raining a little as we drove to the trailhead, it was delightfully clear once we started walking.  There were clouds which were reflected in the parts of the lakes below which weren’t rippling.  We had considered just walking for two hours, seeing how far we got, and then coming down, but a fellow on his way down from the hill  said, “You won’t believe, the weather is perfectly clear, I thought I was looking at Mt. Fitzroy and then I said, wait, that’s in the wrong direction!”

Once we made it to the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a very distant view of the place we’d hoped to go:  Torres del Paine.  Here are some pixels from a zoomed-in shot Ray took of them:


It was like walking up Mt. Hamilton to see Half Dome, though I expect there are more clear days in Southern Patagonia than in the Central Valley.  We also could see the previous day’s glacier the whole way up, and several more glaciers further south once we got to the top.

This walk was supposed to take four hours, but it took us almost six.  We found many fascinating plants and birds (and one guanaco) on the walk, and Ray took lots of pictures.

It seems like we’re taking today off, but tomorrow promises to be a busy day, driving several hundred kilometers, and hopefully walking a few more.

How Did It Get To Be Friday?

January 23rd, 2009 6:57 am by Dave from here

1. Ushuaia Does Not Have An Architectural Review Board

In Ushuaia we were unable to get bus tickets out of town for the next day (and air tickets were kind of pricey during the week) but we left the following day. On the last day in Ushuaia, we did a Quirky Architecture tour around town, taking pictures of the dozens of ways corrugated metal can be used as a residential building material, and the many design sensibilities that have been used in this rapidly expanding tourist town. In the afternoon, I took it easy and recovered from my cold while Ray went on a quick hike along the coast in the local national park, looking at shell mounds and woodpeckers and stuff.

(Ray here) The shell mounds are all that is left of the Yamana civilization, unless you count street names. I don’t know that their purpose was ever explained to the Europeans. Now they they are covered in beachy scrub grasses and moss, grazed upon by untended horses, squatted on by Skuas who are annoyed there aren’t penguin chicks around to rip apart and eat. They put so much more effort into building those mounds than we put into blogs, and they were all deleted anyway.

I did not allow myself enough time for the 10 kilometer hike from where the shuttle bus leaves you off to where the shuttle bus picks you up. Therefore, I was limited in my ability to frame pictures and bracket exposures and reflect upon the passage of civilizations. (The Yamanas, of course, are not entirely gone, any more than A-we-ni-shan and Mush-ka-dence disappeared when they married my grandfathers. Most of them did die, mostly of measles, a few from sport hunting by Europeans. Their language is gone. Their particular Vision Quests are gone, photos of which will remind you of the Annie Liebowitz photo of Keith Haring, who is also lost to a plague.) Fortunately, when you go to a lot of World Heritage Sites and other, unbranded, ruins, you get pretty quick at reflecting on the passage of civilizations. I don’t know that I’ve had my life pass before my eyes — hey, what happens when Alzheimer’s patients die? — but I can pass Rameses’s life before my eyes in 14 lines. Did you know that Ozymandias was the result of a contest, like Esquire Magazine’s contest for the first thing for man to say on the moon? There is a runner-up Ozymandias, too.

The woodpecker had a black head and a red bill. I only saw it, in my rush, because three girls were watching it off the side of the trail. This is the market solution to game watching. The place is also overrun with European rabbits but the native fox population is increasing.

2. Back to Laguanacazul

Tuesday started with a 4 AM alarm, and continued with a 5 AM bus ride that took about 13 hours going to Rio Gallegos. Of those 13 hours, at least 5 were spent in the four border crossings (leaving Argentina, entering Chile, leaving Chile, and reentering Argentina). Entering Chile was especially time-consuming because two riders on our bus smuggled some apples which upset the agricultural people one hour’s worth. Another half-hour involved crossing the Strait of Magellan on a very businesslike ferry which we basically drove right on to and which then left right away. By 6:30 we were back at the hotel in Rio Gallegos where we’d left the car, which was right where we left it. And it started. And the tent was still in the trunk. And by 8:30 we were back at Laguanacazul.

I swear. It is so my favorite restaurant of the trip. Not because all the food is perfect — the salmon was overdone and its sauce was too sweet. (But all of the food is creative and uses Patagonian ingredients extensively.) The attitude of its young (25) chef is its secret: hardly anyone orders from menus — he usually suggests some daily special, often something different for each table. Again we asked for “a glass of white and a glass of red” and we got tastes with refills of three very nice wines. Instead of wines by the glass being the most generic “house” wine possible, it’s like “hey, have a taste of this really great wine I’ve found”. Another red dessert wine also showed up at the end of the meal. Fortunately we were walking back to the hotel.

3. No Torrey Pines This Trip

In the morning we checked once again on our car’s permission papers to go outside Argentina, which Alamo/National appeared to have spaced out. If we’d gotten them, perhaps we would have driven into Chile to go hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, though with our other delays we’d pretty much run out of time anyway. We’ll just have to come back sometime. We just drove across to El Calafate, one night before our non-cancellable three-night reservation at a nice little hotel (TripAdvisor’s favorite in town).

4. Get Your CrampOn, or, Waiting for the Rupture

The reason tourists come to El Calafate is to see Perito Moreno Glacier, a 15-mile long glacier which is formed from large amounts of snowfall coming through a gap in the Andes (much like the Golden Gate forms large amounts of fog in San Francisco). It is remarkable for being a glacier which is not receding, perhaps because the area in which snow accumulates is so much larger than the area in which the ice can melt. The middle part of the glacier moves between 1 and 3 meters a day, and sitting beneath the face of it one hears a loud explosion every several minutes as some tower collapses into Lago Argentina. Most of the time part of its face sits against a peninsula, separating the lake into two sections, but there have been some dramatic ruptures in the past.

We went on the “Minitrekking” excursion which was similar to what we’d done in New Zealand, walking around on the ice for an hour and a half or so. (We weren’t eligible to go on the “Big Ice” excursion, a strenuous all-day trip including four hours on the ice with, they admitted, little time to stop for photos. The age limit for that trip was 45.) The walk was made even more charming by the fact that Diego, our guide, spoke English with an accent that was eerily similar to that of our friend Justin’s Swedish friend David. But he had no fetish for the letter “F”. Diego had lived four months in Lake Tahoe, skiing.

Our Antarctica parkas from Lindblad Expeditions give us huge street cred on glaciers. Three people, two guides and a tourist, asked if we’d been there. Mais oui. And you thought we were too old to stumble around on your pathetic little neve.

After we’d gotten back to the “hut” for lunch, we witnessed a large tower of ice collapsing into the lake. Later in the afternoon we spent time up on the viewpoint of the glacier, and heard many collapses without seeing anything — they all seemed to be in the area near where we’d been walking earlier.

El Calafate has many fancy restaurants, and we’re making the most of them because the next several days will probably be pretty basic foodwise. Last night the highlight was the confit lamb at Casimiro Bagua, cooked for two days. It was amazingly soft and tasty. The other items on the tasting menu were all quite nice but the lamb really stood out.


January 18th, 2009 7:15 pm by ray from here

There are a lot of policemen on the streets here.  One always seems in sight.  But their attitude toward crime verges on Zen.  When we discovered our car had been broken into in Trelew on New Year’s Eve, a policewoman was right on the block.  She told us that one couldn’t file a police report, it was a holiday.

This evening in Ushuaia, a view from a different angle.  I found a watch on the street, still ticking, but the wristband broken.  I suspect a crime.  It was not hard to find two policemen, who shrugged and handed me back the watch.  The watch is distinctive.  Given sufficient resources, lost and found could move into the 21st century.  I have just visited a couple of lame lost and found sites on Google and there isn’t a Craigslist Ushuaia.

Back On Land

January 18th, 2009 6:22 pm by Dave from here

As we said earlier, we’re back.  The rest of the trip continued more or less as it started out, but with a little more surge in the ocean on the way back — people were definitely tossed around a lot more.  The “fin stabilizer” was turned off briefly for repairs during one of the most surgy times, amplifying the effect of the tossing around.

We could give you a play-by-play listing of everywhere we went and everything we saw each day on the trip, but apparently there was one of the staff doing exactly that, so that we don’t have to.  You can go to here to see the report for the first day of the trip — click on “Next” for each successive day.

There was a videographer who made a DVD record of the trip, which was available for the sum of $65 for the first copy for each cabin.  We kind of flinched at the price, but he promised that it would have some footage taken by the undersea expert of her encounter with a leopard seal, which was a little scary for her, but quite exciting to watch.  She used her camera to separate herself from this curious 10-foot animal with its mouth open and its sharp teeth prominently displayed.  So we got one.  I’ll check for the leopard seal as soon as I can.

I seem to have caught a cold on the ship — I didn’t use the hand sanitizer constantly as I should have.  Maybe I’ll feel up to hiking in a national park nearby Ushuaia tomorrow, or maybe we’ll just rest.  The opportunity to do something tomorrow arose because bus tickets out of here turn out not to be available until Tuesday, so we have to spend an extra day.  (We could have flown out, but it’s pretty expensive, even though it leaves at 9:45 and is an hour flight, compared with leaving at 5 AM and being a 12-hour ride, 6 hours of driving and 6 hours of clearing customs and immigration into Chile and out again).  It does give us an opportunity to go to our favorite Ushuaia and Rio Gallegos restaurants instead of only being there the nights they’re closed.

Despite Ushuaia’s intense touristiness, it’s actually a pretty nice place.  The museum we stopped by today was incredibly deep, soaking up three hours easily.  It’s called the “maritime museum”, and it has several exhibits about historical ships, mostly ones which explored Antarctica.  There are dozens of beautifully built models, many by a particular Ukranian model-maker who it was nice to see credited.  But it’s really the “prison museum”.  Ushuaia, like Australia, was a penal colony for many years (1902 to 1947 or so).  All of the exhibits in all the wings of the museum are in the former prison cells.  There are exhibits of prison life, of famous prisoners, of other famous prisons in the world, etc.  One wing is an art gallery.  One wing is entirely empty, and is just an unheated unimproved hallway giving a little idea of what it might have been like to be there.  Outside, between two of the wings, stood the remains of the “prisoner train” that transported prisoners into the nearby forest to cut down trees, and transported the wood back into town.

Quote of the Day

January 18th, 2009 8:08 am by ray from here

“I don’t expect them to care, but I do expect them to pretend to care.”

–Jean, a fellow traveler on the Antarctica cruise.  Lindblad or LAN Chile lost her luggage at the beginning of the trip.  Rachel, Lindblad’s expedition assistant, seemed to spend more time batting the blame about than in solving the problems that this commonplace mishap causes in Antarctica particularly.  Although the Endeavour has waterproof boots aboard, they don’t stock such items as thermal underwear, even though lost luggage happens on most tours.

We happened to be talking about this because our large green suitcase went missing between the boat and the dock.  It showed up later at the airport and was delivered to a restaurant, where we retrieved it.

But we’re back from Antarctica.  Jean had to depend on the kindness of strangers for her fundamental survival outfitting.  Dave said “at least she wouldn’t have to do laundry when she gets home”.

“Pretending to care” sounds like the basis of a Dogbert motivational poster.

Antarctica, Part 1

January 14th, 2009 8:41 am by Dave from here

We’re about two-thirds through our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula now, not including crossing Drake’s Passage.  We had thought we might get through the whole thing without connecting to the Internet — we don’t need it for checking for global catastrophe because an 8-small-page version of the New York Times is strewn around the lounge every day, including the Sunday crossword puzzle. But Ray’s cousin needed it for five minutes, and he’s sharing his 30-minute minimum purchase.

The weather has been mostly very good, and the seas have been mostly very smooth.  Much caution was given about Drake’s Passage being rough, and one of the staff members seemed quite disappointed that it wasn’t.  Hopefully he’ll remain disappointed on the return.  Today it was a little stormy, with some rain and some swells while we were out in a Zodiac photographing icebergs, and a leopard seal who was lounging on one.  The temperatures are somewhat higher than most places in America at this time, typically in the 30s.  The sky is always cloudy, though occasionally the sun finds a hole through them to shine on something for an interesting picture.

Since arriving at the peninsula, things have gotten quite busy.  A typical day starts at 3:30 am when the sun comes up.  We make sure the blinds are closed and continue sleeping.  At 7 the friendly voice of the expedition director comes on the speakers everywhere and tells us what is happening in the morning.  A buffet breakfast starts about then, but sometimes there is something interesting happening, like scenery or a whale, to get bundled up to come out on deck to see.  Shortly after breakfast there is usually a shore excursion, usually walking around to see penguins or up to a more distant view spot.  For this we put on the uninflated life vests which are stored in our room, and also waterproof boots and pants, since the landing is usually in a few inches of water.  We get in a Zodiac for the short shuttle to shore, put the vest in a bin, and walk around.  We’ve walked on sand, gravel, dirt, rocks, and snow — each place is different.  We come back, have a buffet lunch, and then there is another shore excursion in the afternoon.  When we return from that there is happy hour in the lounge, a recap of the day’s events with little presentations from the staff, and dinner, which is usually picking one of two or three appetizers and main courses.   Sometimes we hang out in the lounge after dinner, but usually we’re pretty tired and go to sleep when the sun sets around 11:30 P.M. It doesn’t really get dark — last night we identified a cape petrel flying by the porthole at 1 AM in the middle of the night.

The staff includes:

  • Bud, the expedition leader, who decides what we are doing next.  He has a pretty good idea of everything we’re doing for the entire six days, but weather and ice conditions can vary widely, so he never announces anything more than a day at a time, and never promises anything.  He and the ship’s captain often stop or slow down when whales are spotted, and we go up on deck and watch them.  Some humpbacks have been the most photogenic, occasionally lifting their flukes out of the water for a deep dive.  No whales have entirely breached the surface, but they’re fun to watch anyway.  We’ve seen fin whales and orcas as well.
  • Karen, the chief naturalist, who tells us what birds and animals we’re seeing, and how we can tell them apart.
  • Jason, the geologist, who has given a great presentation about tectonic plates, and has promised to give one about ice.
  • Bob, the photographic expert, who along with taking lots of pictures helps people figure out how to use their cameras and gives advice about shooting in this environment.
  • Boyd Matson, host of Wild Chronicles on PBS, a production of the National Geographic Channel.  He’s here with his son, who is so tall that he has to stoop almost everywhere he goes on the ship.
  • Stefan, a Swede who has been coming to Antarctica for a long time and seems unique on the entire ship in his preference for film over digital — he has taken awesome pictures and will autograph his book of pictures for sale in the gift shop.  He has lots of interesting stories.  For example, if you would like to see what our ship looks like, set your TiVo to record a Discovery Channel program called “Freak Waves”.  About 8 or 10 years ago, a wave blew out most of the windows in the ship, and everyone aboard (including a Discovery Channel camera crew) thought they were goners.  Fortunately that didn’t happen.
  • Lisa, an undersea specialist, who dives into the icy waters with a video camera and shows us what she’s found.
  • Steve and Melissa, who work for the Oceanites project, who count penguins to track their populations.  Both Steve and my brother-in-law are population biologists living in Bozeman, but Steve hasn’t heard of him.  There must be lots of them.

We’ve seen some large colonies of the three types of penguins on the peninsula:  Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap.  It’s not likely we’ll see any others, except if an individual is lost for some reason.  Most of the emperor penguins Antarctica is famous for live much further south (and west) along the Ross Sea.  Wherever there are penguins, there are skuas which prey on their young and their eggs.  We haven’t been buzzed by skuas here like we were in Puerto Deseado, perhaps because we’re far away from their own nests.

The last day and a half has been dominated by a visit to the Palmer Station, a US research station.  Normally there are only twelve visits a year from cruise ships, but because two of the staff had parents onboard our ship, we were invited for an “extra” visit.  There doesn’t seem to be much happening there right now — there are eight scientists (including a visual artist and a composer) and about 23 supporting staff; usually there are a few more scientists.  The staff work for seven months at a time, overlapping slightly with their replacement for the other half of the year.  They’re all employed by Raytheon, the Antarctic equivalent of Blackwater.  They have a nice Internet connection, phones which are local to Denver, and a hot tub (officially for “hydrotherapy for divers”).  Like our visit to Pitcairn, we walked around the station for an hour, mostly at their gift shop and lounge — we weren’t invited to see any labs.  And they were all invited to spend today with us on the ship, getting a day off and a free ride to the islands we visited today.  The composer is three weeks into her six-week visit, and is recording penguin sounds and other natural sounds to use in a composition she’ll further develop when she gets back.  I played her a few of the rough recordings of things I’ve made since I’ve been on the trip.

This part of the trip has not been without its own technical difficulties.  This afternoon instead of going on shore we, like most people, went on a Zodiac cruise around some icebergs.  It was a little stormy, and between the rain and the splashes into the boat from the rough seas, our waterproof gear was challenged.  The waterproof pants I rented turned out to have a split seam in the rear end, and the cheap waterproof gloves we bought before leaving turned out to be more cheap than waterproof.  But the parkas which were issued as part of the trip have done a great job keeping us warm and dry, and I’m looking forward to removing their warm linings and using them as raincoats in California and England and other rainy places.  My new small camera was in the pocket of the waterproof pants — they got a little moist and stopped working.  After a night of drying out, it seems to be operational again — we’ll see how good the pictures are.  And I’ll be much more careful.

Ray went to the bridge after we all got back to the ship and reports that the wind speed when we got out of the Lemaire Channel was around 45 knots, blowing horizontal snow.  It’s died down since then and the ride is smooth as we navigate through the Gerlache Strait.

There’s quite a variety of guests on board, including an 8-year-old.  Most everyone is American, but there are a couple Japanese guys who booked a week ago, some folks from Vancouver, and a few from Germany and Ecuador.  We’ve met several of them at mealtime — we were talking to some at dinner and Ray realized that one woman was on the Fairsea in 1977 when he went to see his first eclipse.  Small world.  Another gentleman was talking about his job as a Six-Sigma consultant, about process quality, etc., and Ray and I both independently realized he could have simply said “I’m Dogbert”.  This guy has taken the best photo I’ve seen on the ship, a penguin mid-jump.

This is an awesomely beautiful place, and we’ve been keeping warm and well, learning a lot, and having a wildlife experience similar to that of the Galapagos (except that there is much less wildlife here to experience).  We have two more days of hard expeditioning, two days of relaxed returning, and then we’ll be back in Argentina to resume our road trip.  And then we’ll have time to check our e-mail.

Technical Difficulties, continued

January 7th, 2009 7:11 am by ray from here

The Lindblad tour people had a day of activities planned for everyone who flew here from Chile but the VOR at the Ushuaia airport broke two days ago and it isn´t fixed yet (though they expect it will be fixed this afternoon).  So all flights to and from Ushuaia are being diverted to Rio Grande, about four hours away by bus.

Instead of meeting at 11:30 and going on a catamaran cruise of the channel, we’ll hang around the B&B and get picked up at 4:45 when their bus arrives.  And another guest has a power adapter, so we can recharge our computer once, today.

On Monday we went on a really nice walk up to the town glacier.  I suspect it used to be much larger.  On the way back, we found another cute town trail through the woods, with a golf-ball-sized fungus all over the place called “Indian bread”.

Monday afternoon we discovered the list of stuff we were supposed to have brought, and spent most of Tuesday walking around obtaining it.  We were able to rent waterproof boots and pants, so we don’t have to cart them all over Argentina, and have them sit in our closets when we get home never being used.  But it will be nice to have them when getting out of a Zodiac into icy water.

As we rented the waterproof stuff, a kid from Houston walked into the shop who had just gotten off the Endeavor, and assured us that we’re going to have a great trip.  We’ll let you know how it goes, perhaps via satellite from the boat, or for sure when we get back here a week from Sunday.

Catching Up

January 4th, 2009 4:00 pm by Dave from here

We’re in Ushuaia now, staying in one place for three nights for the first time since Buenos Aires. The cruise doesn’t leave until Wednesday, so we can sit around and use the Internet (though not with our own computer since it doesn’t get recharged until then), walk to the local glacier, shop for cheap binoculars, and sleep.

Ushuaia is gorgeous. It’s like Switzerland. Everything we’ve seen so far in Argentina has been almost perfectly flat, except for some small mesas near the petrified wood. Here there’s a large sea inlet and snow-capped peaks on all sides. The town itself is pretty much all souvenir shops and restaurants, and tourists awaiting their cruises. At least we don’t feel quite as out of place.

At some point Ray will likely make several detailed posts with various insightful comments using his notes and stuff he’s already written. But for now, I’ll try to recap what’s happened since our last post. Things have been very closed in the last two weeks — eight out of twelve days have been holidays or weekends.

Probably the highlight of our walking around Buenos Aires was the Museo Xul Solar, an Argentine artist. He made many very colorful paintings, many based on his own versions of astrological symbols, Tarot cards, and other spiritual themes of his own design. He was pals with Jorge Luis Borges.

In Tandil, three hours south of Buenos Aires, we bought several varieties of the local cheese and a salami which it turned out we had to chow down before entering Patagonia due to agricultural quarantining.

In Bahia Blanca, three more hours south, we stopped at the local modern art museum where we met a very friendly artist. He mentioned many places we should go on our trip, and one of them was Balneario El Condor, which is home to a large cliffside parrot colony, and close to a sea lion colony. From there a gravel road continues 140 km or so along the coast, past extensive wild beaches that had very few visitors. We stopped occasionally, and saw treats like a black-necked swan swimming in the ocean, and a desert tortoise on the road.

We spent a night in Puerto Madryn, a dingy little town serving as the gateway to Peninsula Valdes. The next day we entered the peninsula, which has 200 km of gravel roads connecting a few points where you can watch wildlife, including sea lions and elephant seals from a distance. At another point you are just across a little fence from a colony of Magellanic penguins. And along the road, especially late in the day, we saw several guanacos, some rheas, a couple desert foxes, and several Patagonian hares, which look more like dogs. (They have really cute half-black butts.) At one point Ray got out of the car to photograph some cute grass, and a Guardafauna (or in this case guardaflora) truck stopped and said we shouldn’t even stop on the road, let alone get out of the car. It seemed a little hardcore. We set up the tent in the completely packed municipal campground, after having a somewhat fancy dinner at a nearby hotel.

The next day we drove to Trelew, having decided that the Chilean visa for the car just wasn’t going to happen. We took the computer to a cafe with WiFi and weird pizza to make flight reservations jumping the puddle from Rio Gallegos across the Chile portion to Ushuaia, and it was when we got back to the car that we discovered the breakin. It took a few days to formulate the strategies for replacing the power adapter, but it looks like we might end up with two replacements. Nearby, in Gaiman, we saw a whimsical little park full of art made out of trash (flowers made from bottles and cans, etc.) which was quite cute but we were annoyed by the theft and the extremely pervasive mosquitoes, and it was hard to enjoy it. Several hours of driving got us to the kind of ugly oil town of Comodoro Rividavia, where we spent New Year’s Eve, having the cold pizza leftovers for dinner because everything was closed.

Ray suggested going to Puerto Deseado, which wasn’t part of the original plan, but it sounded interesting. We got there in time to go on a boat ride up an estuary. We passed two kinds of dolphins, cruised by cliffside colonies of three different kinds of cormorants, and walked onto an island with 20000 Magellanic penguins. This was thoroughly enjoyable, as was dinner at a restaurant someone directed us to that was open on New Year’s Day. But the real highlight was another boat ride the next day, a six-hour tour taking us to an island featuring not only Magellanic penguins and sea lions, but also a large colony of rockhopper penguins, which are totally punk, with spiky fur on their heads, long yellow eyebrows, and red eyes. Unfortunately, the island also had a large population of skuas which enjoyed flying directly at us. The tour ended early enough that we were able to drive a few hundred km, including 50 km on another gravel road, to get us to a petrified wood monument before it closed. It was quite impressive, featuring many massive trees as much as three meters in diameter, which had become several beautiful colors of stone. We went to the nearby campground, whose delightful elderly hosts made meat and spaghetti for us, and suggested that we roll out our bags in the wind-free dining room instead of in the tent. It was an incredibly long but memorable day.

From there we drove 600 km or so to Rio Gallegos, stopping in Puerto San Julian for some breakfast, blogging, and shopping. Need a sink stopper and can’t speak Spanish? Ask them where their bathroom is, and then show them what you want. The challenge in Rio Gallegos was finding a place we could park the car for two weeks. A fairly nice hotel offered to host it, and hopefully it will be there when we return. There was an intriguing-sounding restaurant there, Laguanacazul, which was as creative as any we’ve been to in San Francisco, with a Patagonian chef and ingredients. The waiter was super-nice, refilling our wine by the glass (all of which was quite good), and giving us some dessert wine with the huge chocolate torte. We’ll try really hard to go back there when we return, even though it seems it will be on a Monday, the day they’re closed. The next morning (i.e. this morning), we went to the airport, which appeared to have one flight, going south to Ushuaia, and then north all the way to Buenos Aires. A surprising number of people got off the plane with us in Ushuaia.

And so now we’re somewhat up to date. We’ll see what happens on the cruise, and perhaps we’ll post from the ship. Otherwise we’ll just save stuff on the nicely charged computer, and post it all when we get back.

Technical Difficulties

January 3rd, 2009 6:02 am by Dave from here

Sorry it´s been such a long time since we´ve posted, and that it´s going to be a long time before we post again. 

We´ve generally been having a pretty great time, checking out Buenos Aires, and a good part of the Argentine coast including colonies of parrots, three kinds of cormorants, two kinds of penguins, Southern sea lions, and elephant seals.  The roads have plenty of guanacos (pretty antelopes) and rheas (little ostriches) and various other birds.  We also saw a beautiful petrified wood forest.

Not all has been perfect.  We were assured weeks ago by a US agent of Alamo/National that the car would come with permissions to drive into Chile and Paraguay.  It didn´t, and we´ve been trying to get that permission to reach us before the border.  Because of the interminable holiday season, it seems that won´t happen, and we´ll fly to Ushuaia from Rio Gallegos instead.

And things have been even more dodgy since our car was broken into in Trelew, and a few random things stolen from the interior.  The most annoying thing taken was the power adapter to the computer, without which it has been impossible to save pictures from the cameras and track logs from the GPS, and to post certain long thoughts about Buenos Aires which have already been written offline.  A few other items taken included our binoculars, a Camelbak, and the cigarette lighter AC inverter, but these are less crucial or more easily replaced.

There is hope.  Ray´s cousin bought a new AC adapter in an Apple Store in Key West yesterday, and will bring it to us on Wednesday as the cruise begins.  So we only have to get through the next four days without the computer.   (Until then, we can communicate with the iPhone wherever there´s WiFi, which is lots of places.)

But as the cruise begins, the connectivity ends.  There is super-expensive Internet on the boat, which we will use quite sparingly if at all.  So there won´t be much more news soon, but we´re doing fine, and mostly having a great time.

Have a happy New Year!