Friday, September 28, 2012

Journey to the End of the World- Puerto Natales

Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia feature very different kinds of landscapes, so I braved the 18 hour drive from Ushuaia, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile.  Thankfully it wasn't nearly as eventful as my Peruvian Bus Trip last year.

Leaving Ushuaia, the bus weaved through the mountains, providing gorgeous scenery.  Even the drivers were impressed enough by the sunrise to pull over and let us take pictures.

I heard all kinds of frightening stories crossing the Strait of Magellan.  The weather in the entire region is famous for being unpredictable. One photographer almost got washed off of his boat by an enormous wave. As it turned out, the weather was unbelievably sunny and clear, finally some blue skies!

Torres del Paine 

The first thing that struck me about Chile was that I absolutely could not understand Chilean Spanish.  Communicating was difficult, but somehow I got by.  The biggest attraction in Puerto Natales is Torres del Paine National Park, which is a bit of a drive outside of the city.  My options for experiencing the park were limited because I was visiting for only a couple of days during the low season.  I ended up taking a bus tour that gave a good overview of the park. The timing of the buses meant missing the sunrise, but the cloudy weather created beautiful soft light for photos.  Torres del Paine is notorious for hiding behind clouds, so I was lucky to see them at all!

A fire devastated parts of the park earlier this year, leaving acres of dead trees. 

We stopped at a trail and were given an hour. This part of the park hadn't been burned, so all of the tress were large and covered in soft moss. The trails eventually led the most expansive lake beach I've ever seen.  It reminded me so much of Iceland.  Armed with a dozen layers of clothing, I hiked across the beach.  This view shows only a tiny portion of the beach. 

Hurrying up a rocky trail with no railings on the side of a cliff in zero degree weather and winds gusting to about 40 miles an hour was a struggle, to say the least....

My ears were stinging, my nose was running, my head hurt, my eyes were dry, and my throat was burning.  The beach looked a million miles wide and the wind blew so hard that it was difficult to stay upright, let alone walk straight.  

After what felt like hours, I finally got back to the bus. The clouds opened up just enough to let some sunlight through, wrapping up my day wish insanely gorgeous light. 

The Fjords

I had a delightful time on the boat tour I took in Ushuaia, so I decided to take my chances on a much longer tour of the Channel of Last Hope.  With limited time and options, it seemed like my best bet.  I felt packed like a sardine in the boat, but thankfully the ride became more comfortable as tourists moved outside to the decks and to the little cabin upstairs.  

The tour's route turned out to be almost identical to the boat tour I took in Ushuaia, it was just much longer.  The Ilha dos P├íssaros didn't have nearly as many birds, but the landscape and sunlight made up for it. 

When the boat stopped at a cliff face I had to ninja-kick my way through hoards of tourists crowded at the railings to be able to see the few sea lions tucked away in little caves.  In spite of the fact that tourists were yelling, elbowing, and stepping on me, I was so moved by how tiny and adorable the babies were.  If I could taken one home with me, I would. 

Our next stops were Balmaceda Glacier and Serrano Glacier. It was sad to see how much Balmaceda Glacier has melted, but it was still beautiful. 

Balmaceda Glacier

At Serrano Glacier we were allowed off of the boat to go on a hike. I hiked as fast as physically possible to lose the enormous group of tourists at my heels. I arrived at all of the lookout points before they got crowded, and turned around early enough to leisurely return to the boat alone. I finally had some moments of peace to appreciate the quiet and the colors and textures of the land. I even hopped to the middle of a little river for some nice views of the glacier. 

Serrano Glacier

At the end of the trip we had a beautiful bar-b-q was fresh off the fire and there was salad and soup and wine, glorious. The island was cute, I chased around a couple of sheep before I gave up and spent some time with a sassy Chilean cat. 

Serrano Glacier

Serrano Glacier

Monday, September 24, 2012

Journey to the End of the world- Ushuaia Part 2

Ushuaia, Argentina
Snapshot of the Southernmost City in the World 

See Part 1 of my Ushuaia blogs here:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Journey to the End of the World- Ushuaia Part 1

My trip to Patagonia has been infinitely more physically demanding than I expected, but the incredible landscapes are absolutely worth the effort!  I've finally had some time to rest and go through photos from the first city I visited, Ushuaia.  These are selections of photos and stories from the 3 days I spent there.  To learn more about my itinerary, visit my Intro Blog.


Click for Video

Day 1  Torres del Fuego National Park

I spent my first day in Ushuaia hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park.  I have to admit I was a little apprehensive as my bus headed up the mountain to the park; so much of the landscape was just dead trees and mud.  Eventually, the bus driver stopped in the middle of nowhere, handed me a map and told me not to be scared as he dumped me out in the mud.  The map seemed clear enough in theory, but looking around at the actual park I had no idea where to go. 

I eventually found one of the trails marked on the map and turned off of the main road.  The air was quiet and chilly and the trees were all dead except for some new growth hinting at the end of winter.  There were no signs, no guards, no people, no rules.  It was like a playground, every time I found a little footpath I would feel a giddy sense of adventure and go wandering off for a while. 

The lakes are all crystal clear, so I took out my underwater case for some landscapes. I'm glad I brought it with me.

Later in the day, I came upon a trail that just screamed adventure.  There were no signs and no real path, just worn out places where people had walked before.  It was marked on the map, so I dove in. The terrain was crazy, anywhere off the footpath was just moss growing over swampy land. 

The deeper I went into the woods, the less helpful the map became.  The path was marked as one line that would eventually intersect a main trail, but the actual path had numerous forks that left me with no choice but to guess which way to go and keep walking. 

Soon, I realized that there wasn't really a path any more; all I had as a guide were periodic yellow stakes in the ground and if I was lucky, a tiny worn out arrow on the occasional tree stump.  Looking for yellow stakes became a treasure hunt; it was so remote, so quiet, so undeveloped that it didn't even seem real. 

The path curved through forests of weird looking trees that I couldn't recognize.  The ground was constantly changing and the colorful moss gave way to low lying ferns.  It was impossible to see the sun, and even though I have a very good internal sense of direction, I started to get worried.  For the first time in the history of my travels, I pulled out my compass.  I was indeed moving east like the map said, and soon after that I found fresh footprints.  After a while the path intersected with the main trail and I headed back to town. 

Day 2  Boat Tour

On my second day in Ushuaia, I took a boat tour of the Beagle Channel.  Even though it was a more "touristy" activity, I loved every second of it.  The boat had about 18 people on board with a sweet and knowledgable guide and plenty of space to roam.  The main cabin was big enough to easily seat all of us and decks were huge.  I spent most of my time outside bundled up in so many layers of clothing that the freezing wind didn't bother me one bit. 

The first stop was Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, the "Lighthouse at the End of the World."  Low lying clouds and fog blocked the view of the mountains behind the lighthouse, but I wasn't too disappointed.  The clouds added a mystical quality to the landscape. 

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, The Lighthouse at the End of the World

Otters will always be my favorite animals, but the Ilha de los Lobos made me fall in love with sea lions.  

Ilha de los Lobos

Ilha de los Lobos

Ilha de los Lobos

Ilha de los Lobos

Ilha de los Lobos

It's not penguin season yet, but we got to see plenty of Cormorants which are cute birds with familiar black and white coloring.  My guide joked that I could photoshop them and pretend they were penguins.

Near the end of the tour the group got off the boat to hike on a little island.  Since the view of the mountains was blocked by clouds, I focused on photographing the many interesting colors and textures of the strange vegetation.

On the way back to Ushuaia the clouds began to part. Breathtaking. 

Day 3  Martial Glacier

Traveling in such remote areas of the world is extremely challenging.  It's close to impossible to find detailed information on transportation options, pricing and reviews critical to planning a trip like this.  I researched many of the places I wanted to visit and then had to wait until I got there to find out the details.  Thanks to my willingness to be flexible, my third day in Ushuaia turned out to be infinitely more fun than planned. 

I didn't do a lot of photography that day because I was busy learning how to ski!  It turns out that when there is good weather, you can ski on Martial Glacier (about a 30 minute taxi ride from the center of Ushuaia.)  Patagonian weather is famous for it's volatility, so I was really lucky to be able to spend the day on the mountain.  I can count the number of times I've been in this much snow on one hand, so I was in heaven. 

Renting equipment and paying for a private skiing lesson was very inexpensive, I was shocked!  After one hour on the training hill, my teacher told me I was ready to ski the mountain. I looked up at the expanse of snow and gulped.  I struggled over to the ski lift and hopped on.  The overwhelming beauty of the landscape washed away my fear of heights during the 15 minute ride up the mountain.  I could only see about 2-3 other people on the entire lift and it was completely quiet except for the gurgling of a little stream.  From my vantage point, I could see that there was an advanced path that weaved around the poles of the skii lift. It looked insane. 

The main hill was 20-30 feet wide and looked like it had a gentle slope, so when I got to the top of the lift I headed in that direction.  I passed an official-looking man and asked him what the difference between the two paths were.  He told that the left was easy, not a problem, and if I went down the easy path 2-3 times that the right hand path would be fine.  I told him he was crazy. 

So I made my way to the main hill.  Now I call it a hill....but it was a MOUNTAIN.  I flew down it going what felt like a million miles an hour; it was more magnificent then I could have ever imagined.  The entire way down all I could see was snow, trees, and the occasional skier.  When I got to the bottom I cried because I was so happy.  I tried my luck on the hard trail and thankfully it had a couple of forks in the trail that were a little easier than I expected.  Near the end of the day, I felt confident enough to strap my camera to my chest and film a video of the entire ski path, so fun! 

The Martial Glacier also has walking paths that go further up the mountain.  I hiked with my skis through the trees.  I couldn't get over the feeling that I was inside a painted Christmas card. 

This wrapped up my perfect third day in Ushuaia. Part 2 focuses on the city itself which was quirky and beautiful in it's own way.