Passage Note #70 Part III: In Argentinian Patagonia
“Patagonia” is a landscape that exists both in the reality of a geographic region and in the boldness of the imagination.
This “uttermost part of the earth” is a vast triangular-shaped territory reaching to the southern tip of South America. About 1,000,000 square kilometers (400,000 sq. miles) vast. It is pristine, windswept wilderness encompassing half of Chile and one-third of Argentina. Mostly empty and isolated with little human intervention, it is sparsely inhabited with less than 2 persons per square kilometer. There are more sheep here than people.
Conceptually, Patagonia achieves near mythical proportions as a remote place of exoticism, mystery and romance. No thanks in part to writer Bruce Chatwin’s groundbreaking book entitled “In Patagonia” (1977). He called it “the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins” and recounted eccentric characters and dramatic untamed wild-ness on a scale that makes adventurers drool. It’s the stuff of dreams for extreme explorer types....one of the last frontiers on the planet.
We adventured to three extraordinary places in Argentinian Patagonia: El Calafate, Bariloche, and Penínsua Valdés.
El Calafate: Near The End of the Earth
Leaving the dry northwestern city of Salta for Buenos Aires, we took a connecting plane south.....way south. Soon bare desolate brown steppes contrasted with bright white snow capped mountains. From the air we could identify the exaggerated spires of the dazzling mountains of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, including exalted Mount Fitz Roy.
Three and a half hours after leaving Buenos Aires we touched down in Patagonia wearing our warm eponymous fleece jackets ready for the cold........and the adventure of glaciers.
El Calafate sits at the edge of the glacial milky turquoise-blue Lake Argentino dotted with sporadic icebergs. It's a tourist boom town of 22,000 people located on iconic Route 40 and the gateway to Glacier National Park and the popular Perito Moreno Glacier, and the hiking/trekking capital of El Chalten, not far from Chile and the Torres del Paine National Park.
After settling into our cozy hotel, we walked the short distance into town, past its outdoor clothing stores, tour companies, hip cafes, and a casino and scheduled our glacial activities: a day trip to the must-see Perito Moreno Glacier, a 2 hour walk across its surface called a Mini-Trek, and a boat ride into the Glacier National Park to see the Upsala and Spegazzini Glaciers.
With mission accomplished we walked to the edge of the glacial Lago Argentina and spent the afternoon in the birdwatching paradise of Laguna Nimez. Keeping to the extensive boardwalk system, we threaded our way through a variety of habitats, ducking into the viewing blinds to see a multitude of bird species - most had just arrived and were pairing off for the breeding season and building nests. The highlights were the Chilean flamingos, black-faced ibis, upland geese, and numerous hawks and waterfowl.
Perito Moreno Glacier: A Symphony in Blue Major
The next day we arrived at the Perito Moreno Glacier via a one hour bus ride. This is a dazzling and intimidating sight in its 97 square mile expanse, also known for its groaning, cracking, and thunderous calving if you are lucky enough to be there when a large column of ice breaks free into the water below....otherwise there is just an all encompassing silence of white and shades of blue.
This dramatic glacier is special for several reasons, not the least of which is its close proximity to viewers. You are right on top of it - the 60 meter high face is a short distance from where you stand on the observation walkways. It is “alive” - constantly moving - inching forward up to 2 meters a day and is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing rather than retreating.
Walking across a glacier is a heady trip - even if it is in a group on well worn paths. Even if it was a little 2 hour stroll in the ablation zone rather than real glacial exploration on the accumulation zone. There was not a cloud in the sky and luckily no wind to make the experience snap with biting cold; in fact it was comfortably warm. The weather is notoriously fickle here, suddenly changing without notice and, indeed, by the time we returned to our starting point, took off our crampons, and walked across the gravelly moraine through a forest of lenga trees, back to the landing and the boat that had transported us across the lake, heavy clouds were moving in and obscuring the massive glacier’s very presence.
The first sensation was intensely visual - of blinding white reflecting the piercing bright sunlight; the second was of the crunch of ice underfoot as you dig your crampons into the slippery crystals for traction. As we progressed up and down the hills of ice, striking features of a glacial terrain began to appear, flooding back exotic terms familiar to Linda from her college geomorphology classes so long ago: fissures, man-eating crevasses, pressure ridges, nanatuk, moat, snout, firn, icefall, seracs, moulins, arete, cirques, moraine, esker, drumlin. There were ice dammed pools so pure that we drank from them, textures like draped and puckered fabric, and the occasional crack of ice calving. But above all there was blue ice - blue blue ice- all shades of it. Ages, centuries, millions of years old.
As we rounded a corner on the trek back, our guides had a surprise waiting. In a little ice valley we came upon a table with glasses. Using ice chopped from the glacier, we drank a Whisky on the Rocks and toasted to our adventure!
Our last day was spent in Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, aboard a large tourist boat that took us as close to the Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers as the iceberg choked frontage would allow. After finagling our way on to the bridge by showing our boat card, we had the privilege of spending time with the captain and some of the crew who were intrigued with our lifestyle aboard a small sailboat.
That evening we received an email confirming accommodations at our next destination in Northern Patagonia: “Greetings from snowy Bariloche! We await your arrival in Hostal 41 Below. You have a room with shared bath and a view of the Lake”. What? Snow? We were pretty sure Hostal 41 Below was named for the southern latitude, not the temperature.
Northern Patagonia: Bariloche and the Lake District
Argentina’s Lake District is known as the “Switzerland of the Americas” and Bariloche, its hub, has been nicknamed the “Aspen of South America”. Here is the most modern ski resort in South America, Cerro Catedral, and we arrived three days before the end of the ski season. That was fine because we did not come to ski anyway - cold activity is not our thing. We intended to rent a car and drive the several circuits to see the mountain scenery, temperate forests, lakes and rivers, and visit the charming towns in the area.
And while we endured light snow flurries and the skies were mostly a steely grey, all seemed to thaw when we met Sylvia, staff at Hostal 41 Below. Sylvia, a beautiful dynamic German transplant married to an Argentinian architect, was very warm and welcoming; her smile could melt a glacier. She gave us maps, lots of information and suggestions for our day trips, and helped us rent a car.
We enjoyed the sophistication of Bariloche and its distinctive Swiss-style architecture of cinnamon colored local hardwoods and stone construction. It has a postcard setting on Nahuel Huapi Lake, in the National Park of the same name. The streets are lined with outdoor sports stores, souvenir shops filled with gnomes and trolls, gourmet food outlets for local venison and trout, and chocolate shops on every corner. And keeping the chocolate shops ablaze were large gangs of Argentinian high schoolers here for their year-end celebration, dressed in identical tour jackets and roaming the streets with joyful teenage clamor. Bariloche is full of upscale mountain chalets and high-end resorts, microbreweries, five star bistros, classy cafes, and boutique shopping opportunities.
Each day we traveled to another part of the Lake District. We drove the Circuito Chico on the Llao Llao Peninsula. Llao llao (pronounced shaow-shaow), otherwise known as Darwin’s Fungus, is a golfball sized growth occurring on beech tree trunks. We made a mandatory stop at the classic Llao Llao Hotel for coffee, meandered around Colonia Suiza (Swiss mountain colony), watched a traditional cooking technique called a curanto, and ate fresh fish from a trout farm for lunch. The longer Seven Lakes Drive brought us to Villa La Angostura and San Martin de Los Andes through stunning scenery - it was almost easy to mistake the Andes for the Alps along the route punctuated by cozy European-like towns. An excursion in a southerly direction took us into bright sunshine and the self-proclaimed “nuclear free” hippy town of El Bolsón with its renowned artisan market.
We wished it had been spring so that Chuck could have tried his hand at some exceptional fly-fishing. But an unforeseen bonus of our timing was that when the ski resort closed for the season, prices dropped dramatically so we spent a couple of nights at the now-affordable Petit Peninsula Lodge on the lakeshore with an unobstructed alpine view.
On our fifth day, we returned the rental car, met Sylvia and husband Enrique for a good-bye lunch, and off we went to the airport to catch a flight to our last Patagonian destination, Península Valdés on the Atlantic coast.
Atlantic Patagonia: Penguins and Whales on Península Valdés
It’s hard to say we saved the best of Argentina for last, but if it’s one thing that makes our hearts sing, it’s spectacular wildlife encounters.....especially when it revolves around marine environments.
UNESCO World Heritage recognizes Península Valdés as a “site of global significance for the conservation of marine mammals. It is home to an important breeding population of the endangered southern right whale as well as important breeding populations of southern elephant seals and southern sea lions. The orcas in this area have developed a unique hunting strategy to adapt to local coastal conditions. The orcas race into the shallow surf to snatch sea lions or young elephant seals, often throwing themselves onto the beach in the process.”
In addition, a nearby peninsula south of Valdes called Punta Tombo is a national marine park where the largest penguin colony outside Antarctica comes to nest and breed each spring. This rookery is the most important Magellan penguin colony in the world. More than 1.5 million of them arrive every year in September after a big fanfare of being on the lookout for them to appear called the “vigil” (which is also televised). They lay eggs in October, hatch the young in November and stay until April when they migrate to southern Brazil.
We flew from Bariloche via Buenos Aires on Aerolineas Argenitna. The national airline has a bad reputation for unreliability but up until now we had had no problem. We landed in the non-descript town of Trelew because it has the only airport - everyone who is going to see the attractions ends up passing through here - most go straight to Puerto Madryn about 1 hour north. We arrived on time at 9 in the evening. As planned, Mariano, the amiable owner of Centauro Rent-a-Car had driven down from Puerto Madryn to meet us and deliver our rental car. But our bags were nowhere to be seen. The nonchalant airline representative said they would be on the next flight and would be delivered to us in the morning. We hoped for the best.
We stayed the night in Hostal El Agora - the only hostel in town and awoke early to drive south to Punta Tombo to spend the day with the penguins. We were just about to leave when there was a knock on the door and Emilio, the hostal proprietor, opened it to find an airline representative with our bags!!!
The day was cold, grey and rainy, not at all nice.....especially for spring. But we only had two days to spend so we were anxious to get going. By this time, Chuck had become an ace driver on Argentinian ripio (gravel) roads so even in the rain, the two hours to Punta Tumbo was not much more than the normal driving challenge. Over the bleak flat landscape we strained our eyes to spot guarnacos (the fourth of the camelid quad group including alpacas, llama, and vicuñas), choiques (ostriches), and little rheas but saw none.
Once at the reserve, we entered a very nice visitor center, paid the park fee, and then drove a short distance to the actual penguin area, a barren scrub landscape crisscrossed by wooden walkways that led through the rookery to the sea. Here you get up really close to the “elegant gentleman”, walking among them, and have to not only give way when they come waddling across your path, but have to be careful with the penguin nests, burrows dug between the bushes and the sides of the walkways.
The park rangers assured us, although the rain was turning to stinging sleet, that we would actually see more penguin activity in these conditions than if it were bright sunshine. OK then. We braved the cold wind, getting soaking wet even with our raincoats on. But the little Magellans were indeed out doing their thing - males courting females, males challenging other males, digging their burrows, gathering grass to line their excavations, cuddling up with each other in their nests, braying like donkeys (the rookery was quite noisy actually), gathering on the beach, swimming in the sea, loitering about, and generally scooting around like little pedestrians on missions. After a while we ducked into a small wooden hut used as a ranger office/observatory overlooking the ocean to get out of the brutal wind, wipe our glasses, rejuvenate cold hands, and try to coax our camera, which was threatening mutiny, into active duty again.
Returning to the entrance, we thought about joining the crowds that had by now formed in the one and only “cafe”, an unappealing makeshift building, in the hopes of getting something warm to drink. There was no heat except that resulting from a concentration of tourist body warmth. People were huddled with their steaming styrofoam cups in the few plastic chairs that were provided, but most were standing shivering on the wet, sandy concrete floor, queued up in a huge soggy mass waiting for a tea or (ugh) instant coffee. We left, did a quick change into dry clothes in the bathroom, and ate a late picnic lunch of bread and cheese in the car with the heater blasting.
By late afternoon, after the 170 km. drive from Penguin City, we rolled into Puerto Madryn, the gateway to Peninsula Valdes with its pretty coastal avenue overlooking the huge natural amphitheater of Nuevo Gulf. The day was still overcast but the rain had stopped. We strained our eyes toward the grey seas.
Thar she blows! And another and another. We could see the vaporous clouds of exhalation and giant black tails/bodies in the distance by the end of the Navy pier....and all this just from the Yene Hue Hotel window we had paid a premium for in order to be on an upper floor overlooking the bay. In hopes of just this view. For us, these were the right whales to see and they were here in numbers!
For the whalers of an earlier age, these were the "Right" whales to kill since their heavy, bulky bodies lined with excessively thick layers of blubber (necessary to survive the freezing Austral /Antarctic waters) made them slow and easy to hunt......and unlike other whale species, they floated on the surface when they were dead. One whale yielded 40 barrels of oil. So easy to harpoon that the Southern Right Whales were almost extinct by the early twentieth century, barely reaching 1,000 specimens, down from 100,000 prior to 1700. They are still endangered; the present population worldwide is thought to number just 10,000. Approximately 1200 visit Argentina’s Patagonian shores from June through November to mate and breed. The largest concentration gathers from October to November (we got our timing right) and consists of mostly mother/calf pairs, the males having already mated and departed. Speaking of mating, here’s a piece of interesting trivia: the testicles of right whales are likely to be the largest of any animal, each weighing around 500 kg (1,100 lb). (They might have called them sperm whales instead!)
The most amazing part of the experience here was how close we got to the whales to observe their behavior. We had read that you didn’t need to get on a whale watching boat to see them up close (but we did anyway), not quite believing what was meant. But we found out. There is spectacular and exciting contact with the giant mammals just yards away from you on the beaches that line the Golfo Nuevo north of Puerto Madryn on the way to Peninsula Valdes, an area called El Doradillo. Here you can walk along the pebbly water’s edge just a stone’s throw from the mothers as they float on the surface with their calves, secure in the protected deep water dropoff that occurs adjacent to the narrow shelf of the playa where you are standing. El Doradillo consists of several such beaches and a few elevated cliffs which are natural lookout points over the water. We were able to get a birds-eye view as well as at arms length. It was simply incredible!
The next day, under threatening skies, we boarded a whale watching boat from Puerto Piramides on Peninsula Valdes, uncomfortably bundled up like fluorescent daffodils in our awkward rain slickers and lifejackets (reminiscent of a small child constrained by an oversized snowsuit) and feeling quite like sheep being corralled. The boats come within inches of the whales. Even though the whales didn’t seem to mind, we mentioned our surprise to our guide since it is standard to keep a certain distance from them in most whale watching enterprises. The guide responded that the whales were most likely born in the bay and were so used to the boats that the proximity did not stress them. Again we got an extraordinarily close view and watched them breach, “sail” with their tails held vertically out of the water, and even followed a white calf some distance (there are about 5 white calves born every year).
We have had some amazing whale encounters in our years of cruising Mexican waters - 3 weeks anchored in a humpback nursery in Socorro Island, sitting in a dinghy with fin whales lung-feeding around us in the Sea of Cortez, and Linda pet and saved a baby grey whale in San Ignacio Lagoon years ago. Our Patagonian experience in Argentina with the southern right whales ranked right up there.