Saturday, December 15, 2012

Circuito Chico, Cerro Campanario and Cerro Otto, Bariloche

After a later start than planned, thanks to the wine, we let the dogs run on the beach and then leave them secure in the motorhome before we take off. The Circuito Chico is a 65 Km (42 mile) drive that circles up through the mountains around Bariloche following several landmarks and then back into town. Setting off from the campground along Bustillo Avenue and following the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi, we pass Cerro Campanario. There is a chair lift that climbs to the top and looks out over the whole lake region. We will return here later today to check out the views. Our first stop along the route was going to be the Hotel Llao-Llao. This massive, luxury hotel sits right on its own peninsula. It is surrounded by an 18-hole golf course and is full of 5 star amenities such as a spa and health club, restaurants, a lobby bar, winter garden, a club house, boutique shops, and much more. The location of the hotel is what sets it apart from other world class resorts but we will have to wait to see the interior. Today there is a Jewish wedding taking place and the entire hotel has been reserved and is closed to the public. Oof, the money that is spent on weddings! There are two or three stops along the way, all conveniently placed at the top of the larger hills. One of these is Punto Panorámico and anyone visiting Bariloche should check out the views from here. They are spectacular and will surely take your breath away. Turning in different directions, the point overlooks lakes Moreno and Nahuel Huapi, the Llao Llao Hotel, the Andes and towards the Chilean border. Directly in front of us is an amazing panoramic view of the merging point between Lake Moreno and Lake Nahuel Huapi. The snow-capped mountains in the background frame the lakes and the Llao LLao Hotel looks tiny as it sits nestled into the mountains around it. It is truly a special spot. There are local artisans selling their wares (I did buy some homemade raspberry preserves from one), a choripan (chorizo hot dog) stand and even St. Bernard photo opportunities. However this does not detract from the incredible feeling of being at one with nature. From here it is a downhill ride back towards town where the road meets again with Avenida Bustillo. The avenida hugs the lakeside and provides beautiful scenery that serves as a taste to what lies ahead. Whilst the views found around the lake are beautiful, a ride to the top of Cerro Campanario is a must but don’t take my word for it. National Geographic names Cerro Campanario one of the “Top 10 Views of the World” with “some of the most fascinating views of the region” To be able to appreciate this view you first need to get to the top of the mountain. If you wish to climb the mountain there are a few different paths to follow, that looked to my eye quite formidable and fairly steep. However, for the non climbing, less energetic types there is the Aerosilla Cerro Campanario. The aerosilla (chairlift) begins at 770 meters (2,526 feet) and summits at 1,050 meters (3,445 feet). Marcela and Mariano got on first and Tom and I followed behind them. The trip up the mountain takes about 10 minutes and I found it hard not to sit still as we continued to rise higher and higher. With each tree that passed below us the views continued to get better and better. At the top Marcela and Mariano were there to greet us and we all gushed over the ride and the views. And, oh gosh, the views! The moment our feet hit the ground we went off to the nearest lookout point, reaching for the camera. Fantastic panoramas, fresh mountain air, and breathtaking scenery had me feeling as if I was in my own universe. The mesmerizing mountains were surrounded by the blue sky above and the lake waters of Nahuel Huapi and Perito Moreno down below. We could see for miles in any direction: the other tall mountain peaks of Cerro Otto, Cerro Lopez, Cerro Goye, Cerro Catedral, and Cerro Capilla to name a few. Stretched across the Llao Llao Peninsula was the Hotel Llao Llao, in the distance the charming and enchanting Isla Victoria, where Disney got the idea for Bambi, and looking back to the east, the town of Bariloche. It didn’t take long to understand exactly why Cerro Campanario has received so many accolades. After spending some time at each lookout, we made our way into the little café. It was past lunchtime and we were hungry. We found a table right next to a window, ordered hamburgers and empanadas and sat back to soak it all in. There is good reason that National Geographic named this look-out spot one of the Top 10 Views of the World.” It actually comes in at number seven of the most beautiful views in the world and it is hard to argue. You could spend hours on the top gazing from one lake to the other, one mountain to another and never tire of it. For another bird’s eye view of the area, our third stop is Cerro Otto (Mt. Otto; 4,608 feet). The young or energetic can hike or bike to the top or you can drive 8 km (5 mi) up a gravel road from Bariloche or you can take the Cerro Otto gondola ride, which is probably the easiest way to access the mountain. For us it was a no brainer. We are taking the cable car which is owned by Teleférico Cerro Otto, and with all proceeds going to local hospitals and charities it is a worthy reason but for us not the only reason, to take it. The ride to the top in a little red gondola which sits the four of us comfortably, takes about 12 minutes as it travels up the steep mountain side. Once on top we head outside for some more glorious panoramic views, although by now the wind has picked up and at 4,600 feet, it is quite breezy. Fortunately there is a revolving restaurant which rotating every 20 minutes offers 360-degree views of Lago Nahuel Huapi and the surrounding countryside. With a wide variety of desserts and coffees to choose from, it was a welcome respite from the wind. A very interesting art gallery displaying exact copies of Italian paintings and sculptures which have been certified by the Italian government is located next to the restaurant. There is even a full size replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David which greets you at the door. With the wind picking up, the ride down the mountain took a little longer as they slow the gondolas significantly during windy weather. Feeling quite tired from our days adventures, we head back to Camping Petunia to be greeted by two very excited dogs who needed to be walked and four tired fishermen (Martin and the boys) who despite trying all day have nothing to show for their efforts. It is the store and chicken for dinner. Once the dogs are walked and happy again and the boys still at the lake playing and fishing, we opened another of our delicious red Argentinean wines and we all toasted our day spent in this beautiful area of Patagonia. With the tantalizing aroma of chicken emanating from the barbeque, with the sun gradually setting behind us bathing the lake, mountains and sky in shades of red and surrounded by good friends, my husband and the dogs, it was a great ending to a memorable day. Now if only our kids were with us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

An evening with friends from Rada Tilly

Imagine our surprise when not only Marcela, Mariano and Pelusa arrived but also Martin (whom we had rented the cottage from in Rada Tilly) with his two boys, Juan Cruz and Facundo and their cousin Marco who is the same age as Facundo (about 11). We kept in contact via Skype throughout their 10 hour drive and had promised to have an Argentinean “Assado” (barbeque) waiting for them when they arrived. Tom went to the local meat store and purchased some excellent porterhouse steaks and by 9pm, we had the grill going and red wine open. Even though it had only been a couple of weeks since we left Rada Tilly, we had missed them tremendously. When they arrived the two dogs went totally crazy, it seems they missed each other also. They ran and played on the grass whilst we caught up on news of each other’s activities although neither dog strayed too far from the tantalizing smells emanating from the grill. Marcela and Mariano had brought us gifts. A beautiful carving knife and another steak knife and fork set, all with handles made from deer horn and in custom leather sheaths. They are absolutely gorgeous. The cabanas are also a success and everyone likes their sleeping arrangements. The views around the lake are spectacular. Everyone is hungry and it seems, thirsty. Between the 5 adults we consumed most of the meat and almost 6 bottles of wine! As the night wore on, the dogs exhausted themselves and well, so did the humans. We make our plans for the next day. We will split up. Martin and the boys want to fish, whilst Mariano, Marcela, Tom and I have a sightseeing trip in mind. Our plan is fairly ambitious as we are going to first drive the Circuito Chico (Small Circuit) and then take in the panoramic views from the tops of both Cerro Campanario and Cerro Otto. We will all meet back up at the campground for dinner, when we will barbeque again. We plan on maybe fish, if the boys catch any that is but decide to have chicken as a backup, just in case. The store at least is very reliable! As Tom and I made our way back up to the RV, we check out the stars and locate the Southern Cross. We are tired and mellow from the wine. Winston is tired and mellow from playing with Pelusa. Life is good.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


San Carlos de Bariloche, usually known simply as Bariloche, is situated in the foothills of the Andes on the southern shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake and surrounded by the Nahuel Huapi National Park. Established in1934, the park is the oldest national park in Argentina and is bordered on the west by Chile. It is dominated by the Andes mountains, with rapid rivers, waterfalls, snow-clad peaks, glaciers, extensive forests and numerous lakes. Bariloche is the biggest city and a starting point for us to explore the Lake District region of Argentina. Besides Lake Nahuel Huapi (in Mapuche, nahuel means “jaguar and huapi means “island”) there are also lakes Traful, Mascardi, Gutiérrez, Guillelmo and Perito Moreno. So much is written about Bariloche that has made it famous or infamous, accolades and gossip, some of it is true and some are simply myths that have been perpetuated over the decades. Of course there are people who believe in the myths, which is why they are still told. One truth is yes, fishing throughout the Lake District is world renowned and with 650 square kilometers of surface and 454 meters deep, Lake Nahuel Huapi is the largest and deepest clear water lake within the district. The trout pulled from this lake are spectacular. But Nahuelito, I am afraid might just be a myth. Nahuelito is a lake monster named after the lake and its sighting is widely (and wildly) talked about. Reported widely (and wildly) since the 1920s, it predates that other famous lake monster “Nessie”. Whether it is a fact or fiction, Nahuelito has allegedly been seen by both local people and tourists with widely (and wild) varying descriptions, mentioning of it as a “giant water snake with humps and fish-like fins” or “a giant swan with a snake's head” or “the overturned hull of a boat which undulated” and last but not least “the stump of a tree which slithered side to side”. Its length is also varied ranging from 15–150 feet (4.6–46 m). Hmmm! Have I mentioned that wine is widely (and sometimes wildly) consumed in copious amounts in Argentina? Just a thought. Another truth is that yes, Bariloche did make headlines in the international news world, when it became known as a haven for Nazi war criminals such as the former SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Erich Priebke. When he was captured, it was discovered that Priebke had been the director of the German School of Bariloche for many years. But Hitler and Eva Braun, I think might just be a myth. The story is that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun lived in the hills above Bariloche after World War II until the early 1960’s at an estate that Argentine Nazis chose as Hitler's refuge. Two books, one by Argentina author Abel Basti and one by a British writer have perpetuated this particular myth, which has been discounted by other historians but nevertheless the story persists. And yet another truth is that Bariloche is the “Honeymoon capital of Argentina”. It is definitely the number one destination for newlyweds and you only have to visit here to see why it could develop that romantic connotation. But “the living happily ever after” part, I think might be, sadly a myth. The story being if you honeymoon in Bariloche you will live “together happily ever after”. I can only say I hope all newlyweds sincerely believe it but the realistic part of me has to call that a myth. The other truths about the city is that it is also known as the "Gateway to Patagonia", a truth if you are heading south, it boasts the largest ski resort in the southern hemisphere at Cerro Catedral, a geographical truth and it is the "Chocolate Capital of Argentina", a truth judging by all the handcrafted chocolate shops I have seen and this is not a myth, you got to love a place that dedicates itself to chocolate. The final truth is Bariloche's deep blue lakes, towering mountains, glaciers, boating, fishing, exploring, dining, shopping and just simply relaxing which makes this an incomparable city. The scenery alone leaves most people breathless and I think we are going to enjoy ourselves here, immensely. And that is not a myth but the truth.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

To Bariloche via El Bolson

We would have liked one more day at Los Alerces but we have arranged to meet up with Marcela and Mariano in Bariloche so once more we are on the move. The drive north out of the park winding past lakes Menendez and Rivadavia is again filled with amazing scenery. Besides the Alerce trees for which the park was created, there are many other types of conifers and pines. It is also springtime and the green shrubs which we have seen all winter are now in full bloom. Flaming red notros flowers on dark green trees dot the landscape whilst Andean lupines in white and numerous shades of pink and purple line the side of the roads. Interspersed with these are amancay which has the most dazzling sunshine yellow flowers. In stretches there were miles of these amancay and looking at them reminded me of Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”. Although not daffodils they were, “beside the lakes and beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze” and so bright we felt we needed our sunglasses just to look at them! It was a glorious spring day in the Andes. Our night stop is the small Andean town of El Bolson which has a renowned artisan fair on the weekends. Since this is Wednesday we missed it. Darn. At least the campsite was well equipped and quiet. The next day was an easy drive as we wound our way further up the mountains past high Andean glacier lakes, mountain passes and more of those gorgeous yellow amancay bushes to the city of San Carlos de Bariloche or as it is simply known “Bariloche”. Our Brazilian friends Luis and Luiza had told us about a great campsite called Camping Petunia which also has cabanas for Marcela and Mariano. However on arrival the first thing we saw was a sign that said “No se admiten mascotas” or in English “no pets allowed”. We go into the registration office and meet Noel who told us that as long as Winston is well behaved and walked on leash through the campsite then there was no problem. We tell him that our friends who have reserved a cabana for the weekend are bringing their dog also. After some negotiations and after assuring him that our pets are extremely well behaved, he agreed to let Pelusa stay in the cabana with Marcela and Mariano. We found a beautiful campsite just above the cabanas overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi. There are four cabanas just below us built into the hillside. It is perfect for Marcela and Mariano and of course Pelusa. Just a short, easy walk either down a walkway or via a staircase takes us down to the lakeshore where we can let Winston run off leash. We can look up and down the lake and see the peninsulas, inlets and on the other side of the bay the city. Snow-capped mountains encapsulate us. This will be ideal for our stay.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parque Nacional Los Alerces (Los Alerces National Park)

On the outskirts of Esquel, the road to the park is paved until you arrive at the visitors’ center. We stopped into the center and chatted with a ranger who gave us a map of the park with tips on camping areas suitable for RV’s, advice on taking another road when exiting the park which would be much shorter than going back through Esquel and cautioned us that Winston must be kept on leash at all times. There was no entrance fee or any other charge for camping and we could stay as long as we want. It seems to us that Argentina charges high fees for entering their main, popular parks like Iguaçu Falls, Punta Tumbo and Perito Moreno Glacier and then little to nothing to go to other equally as memorable but less visited parks. Once inside the park the road is another loose gravel road. These roads, which the locals call “ripo” can alternate between fairly smooth large pebbles to washboard where the trick is to drive at just the correct speed to glide over the ruts but below the level of actual skidding and landing in a ditch or worse, down a mountain side to other parts which are so potholed and uneven that driving at any speed over 8 miles an hour is an absolute mind jarring, bone-rattling experience. This road was no exception and our average speed was about 10 miles an hour. This was ok because the scenery is spectacular. Los Alerces was designated a national park in 1937 to protect the Alerce trees. Alerces is considered to be some of the most ancient trees in the world and while many of the trees in the park are reckoned to be over 1000 years old, some are actually thought to be around 3,000 years old. Running alongside the Chilean border to the west, it nestles into the backdrop of the towering Andes mountains. The park is also part of a complex lake system, connected by a multitude of sparkling, winding rivers. At the southern end, there is also a hydroelectric dam which provides energy to Puerto Madryn. We plan to travel from the southern end of the park around Lake Futalaufquen and follow the river road past Lake Menendez to Lake Rivadavia where we will exit the park in the north, hoping to find a suitable campsite along the way. The first set of campgrounds around Lake Futalaufquen closest to the visitors center were full of cars and we could see quite a few people, not really what we had in mind to enjoy our national park experience, so we kept on driving. Did I mention that the scenery is spectacular? Because it does deserve a second notation. The gravel road winds up and over mountain passes and then down into river valleys to camping areas on the edge of the lake but still we drive on. We have not found the ideal place for us. Just when we started to think we should turn back and re-scout some of the previous campsites, we decided to try one more place listed on the map as Playa El Frances which is at the northern end of Lake Futalaufquen where the Rio Arrayanes enters the lake. The side road down to the river was steep and uneven but when we arrived, it was amazing. We had a flat open area to ourselves with our door opening almost at the edge of the lake. Perfect. We let Winston run a little as we kept a close eye on him and then put him on leash to walk the trails around the campsite. Being a beagle, he would almost certainly take off if he picked up the scent of a rabbit or spied some other wildlife, besides it was the rules! One other couple pulled in and parked a little way from us in the trees and then it was silence. No cars, no other people. At dusk, a deer and her fawn came down to the lake to drink and the sounds of birds settling in for the night filled the area. That night, the stars were just amazing and as we went to sleep, the stillness and silence of this beautiful ancient forest enveloped us.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

And our journey resumes.

The motorhome is ready. We have driven it around town, checked it for any leaks and it is time to drive. It took us several days to transfer all our belongings from the rental house back into the RV but after, what seemed like a hundred trips back and forth we were at last packed and ready to go. On our last night we went to dinner at Tunet, a fabulous restaurant located in the Hotel Austral with Mariano and Marcela. This is touted as being the best restaurant in Comodoro and it certainly lived up to its reputation. During our time in Rada Tilly we have become very close to both Mariano and Marcela and we will truly miss them. But not right now as they plan to meet up with us in Bariloche. Bariloche is our next main destination and whilst only a 10 hour drive from Rada Tilly, it will take us about 5 days as we want to visit and stay in Los Alerces National Park which is on the way. On our first day we drove about 400 kilometers (240 miles) and spent the night in Gobernador Costa. There were no campgrounds so we simply drove down a few side streets off the main road and found a quiet area to park and some grass areas to walk Winston. I was exhausted and I am sure driving Tom crazy. I just could not relax during the drive. Every slight engine alteration, every noise, every well, anything kept me asking “What’s that?” or “Is that normal?” or “Is everything ok?” and other phrases to that affect. I admitted that I don’t know how long it will take for me to relax and trust the RV again without constantly monitoring its performance but that’s what breaking down several times will do, I guess. The next day was an easy 110 mile (180 kilometer) drive to Esquel. I worried but the RV did fine. Esquel is a larger town and we knew of a campsite there called La Chakra. Besides being a popular ski resort in the winter, the town is also the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Being springtime it is the offseason and the town and campground were quiet. We stopped off at the tourist office and pick up a collection of maps to the park and places to camp once we get there. It was then back to the campground for another quiet evening just getting used to the whole camping experience again and enjoying our time together with Winston.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Petrified Forest, Sarmiento (Monumento Bosque Petrificado)

Another side trip we made while waiting for the motorhome was to the Petrified Forest. Located just 30 Km (20 miles) south of Sarmiento along a gravel road this provincial natural monument is a petrified forest from about 65 – 70 million years ago during the Cenozoic era. At the entrance to the forest was a small ranger station with an even smaller visitor’s center. The ranger spoke a little English and explained to us how to follow the self-guided trails so we would see the best the area had to offer. There is only one simple rule to follow – you cannot take even a sliver of the fossilized wood. We can touch, climb, sit and stand on the trees, pose beside them or on top them but do not take a piece. To confirm this fact we were told we would be expected to turn our pockets inside out and have our daypacks searched before leaving. Thus admonished we set off to find the trail. Even from the center we could see the trees that had been fossilized exactly where they had fallen. As we climbed the hills we were afforded superb views of the valley, which was once a wide coastal plain where 70 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean had formed lagoons and thick, prehistoric forests. Today, the valley floor with its soft slopes are made up of volcanic ashes and in the surrounding hills, the grey, red and purple sandstone with their rounded points formed by the eroding winds gives the valley its’ apt name of Moon Valley. Scattered along these vast and colorfully striated badlands are trunks of conifer and palm trees, some of considerable size and others that you can pick up and inspect, while walking on pieces that have splintered off from the constant erosion. The petrified tree trunks in the middle of this lunar landscape and in the hills around us make the experience surreal which is only exemplified by the absolute quiet and stillness that surrounds us. We found ourselves speaking quietly as if not to disturb the tranquility and the workings of nature while a story of change and evolution unfolded around us and we reflected on what the area must have looked like all those millions of years ago. It was humbling to acknowledge that we really are just a speck in the eons of time and history. Back at the ranger station, the ranger did indeed make us turn out our pockets and checked our packs whilst we explained that to remove anything would be akin to desecrating the area. If our earths’ evolution, history and geology interest you, then this moonlike landscape, sandstone hills showing the different strata with varied colors and the extraordinary outcropping of petrified trees, make this a “must-see”. As we drove back to Rada Tilly, we both commented that the visit had given us some perspective that made us feel that our transmission problem and delay was truly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ferry to Puerto Ibanez and the Carretera Austral to Coyhaique

From Chile Chico it is possible to drive to Coyhaique but much of the road is unpaved and rugged so we have elected to take the ferry to Puerto Ibanez and then the carretera, which at that point is paved to Coyhaique. We had been told that the ferry leaves promptly at nine in the morning and that we should get to the port no later than 8am to buy our tickets. Going from the south shore around a point and then to the northern shore takes about 2 and a half hour, which gives an indication of the vast size of the lake. The crossing provided us with more of the stunning views of the south end of the Andes where many of the mountains have perpetual snow on them and the erosion caused by the glaciers is clearly visible. With a population of around 1000 inhabitants, Puerto Ibanez is a town even smaller than Chile Chico but our destination is Coyhaique which is considered to be the midpoint on the Carretera Austral in this remote region of Chile. For those who come to Chile seeking adventure, traveling the rugged road known as the Carretera Austral (or Camino Austral), the name given to Chile’s Route 7 which winds its way for a thousand kilometers (600 miles) through the remote and thinly-populated archipelago of Chilean Patagonia is almost guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience. It is a region that is largely covered by a lush, dense rainforest. Deep fjords cut into the coastline from the Pacific and the rocky Andean peaks rise up from the shore. In this far southern area there is no dry season, and for eons the storms rolling in from the sea have left layer after layer of snow on the mountains, which over time has compacted to create and sustain the glaciers. These in turn feed a plethora of waterfalls that constantly cascade their way down the mountainsides into rushing rivers and then through the forests back into the fjords. The unique contrasting mix of lush forests, waterfalls emerging from high cliffs, glaciers and valleys that are tucked into the flanks of the Andes icy slopes, is breath-taking. As we drive through rocky mountain passes that drop into deep river valleys and see the dense jungle areas bordered by glaciers, I am at a loss for adjectives that adequately describe the beauty that surrounds us. The two-hour drive went quickly and soon we descended into the town of Coyhaique. Founded in 1929, the city is settled at the confluence of two rivers, the Rio Simpson and Rio Coyhaique and surrounded by snow capped mountains. After a couple of false starts, we find Don Joaquin Cabanas where we have reserved two cabins for the night. The cabanas are nestled in a forested area to the south of town and although simple and rustic with a large studio style bedroom/living area, bathroom and kitchen, they are perfect since we are traveling with pets. We walk, feed and get the dogs settled in before going into town in search of lunch. Leading from the central plaza is a pedestrian only street which has souvenir shops and a few restaurants. We chose one which had window tables so we could watch the tourists, eat some sandwiches and drink traditional schop (draft beer). Afterwards we browsed the souvenir shops and the Handicrafts Market held in the main plaza where local artists and craftsmen show their works made of wool, leather, pottery, stone and wood. After a stop in at the tourist center, we left the town center to collect the dogs and do a little sightseeing. Our first stop was the mirador on the Rio Simpson. We were treated to great views of the meandering river valley and the town. We then went to find a local statue “Piedra Del Indio”. Located on the eastern bank of the Simpson River, the statue is actually a rock formation reminiscent of an Indian figure. We were told that the best place to observe this phenomenon is on the bridge crossing the river. Well, after much observing and pointing by Tom and Mariano, Marcela and I finally could make out the “features” of the Indian. Let’s just say, you need some imagination but with time it does seem like the facial contours of a person. Where “Indian” comes into it, I am not sure. I don’t think the dogs understood it either because all this standing around has them bored. We tried to find a place to let them run off lead but there were just too many distractions wherever we went so they had to settle for lengthy leash walks. Dinner that night was at the upscale restaurant in the Diego Del Alamargo (DA) Hotel. Both Tom and I had the Beef Lomo (Fillet) which came out as a huge chunk, cooked rare exactly as we like it and Marcela and Mariano both had the more sensible Grilled Salmon which they said was also excellent. We are also all quite tired from our travels. On Sunday, the drive home via Rio Mayo took about 8 hours. After crossing the border we stopped at a small hamlet for coffee. The tiny tienda/restaurant was occupied by a family group dressed in traditional garb complete with gauchos who were tending to a lamb spread on a rack and being barbequed for lunch. The gaucho cheerfully allowed us to photograph them and the lamb over the fire. It was very tempting to stay around for lunch as the lamb looked sensational but we still have a lot of driving. We stopped again in Rio Mayo for a quick empanada lunch and then it was home. A whirlwind three days of driving, sightseeing and being with friends. We are grateful that Mariano and Marcela invited us along. What a great addition to our memories.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

First stop: Chile Chico

With the motorhome and transmission under the tender care of our mechanic Adrian Biasussi, there was little to do but wait – again. So, when Marcela and Mariano suggested a short weekend trip into Chile, we jumped at the chance. Our route was going to be a circuitous one. We had missed an earlier opportunity to go to Chile Chico when we renewed our visa and this would be our first chance to take a ferry through some of the Chilean fjords, drive a part of the Carretera Austral and visit Coyhaique, the capital of the Aisen region of Chile before returning to Argentina via Rio Mayo. All in three days! Pelusa, their Jack Russell terrier will come with us on his first adventure to keep Winston company. We left at noon and the five hours to the border was uneventful and quick, stopping only for gas and to walk the dogs. Here the Argentinean pampas stretch for miles and it is so arid that we wondered where the sheep and cattle obtain water. After asking Marcela she told us to look out for steel tanks with a windmill attached. The windmills pump water into the tanks from underground and that is where the animals drink. She said they will walk for miles to get to one. At the border, there was one small issue with SAG, the agency that monitors any food products and animals entering Chile. The official who searched our vehicle found Winston’s dry food and immediately said that it was not allowed. This is our fourth time entering Chile and we have never had a problem so we immediately began to argue our case. She stood firm and so did we. In the end, we won but with a strange and somewhat perplexing admonition. “Tell the man that the food is only for the dog”, she said to Marcela. Once we were told we all laughed and I replied that Tom prefers crab to kibble. We could only surmise that what she actually meant was not to feed it to the wild animals but that is a simply a guess and we had fun joking about it. The small town of Chile Chico is only 6 kilometer (4miles) from the border and this is where we will spend our first night. The town is located on the south shore of Lake General Carrera. On the Argentinean side at Los Antiguos this same lake is called Lake Buenos Aires. It is actually the second largest lake in South America – the largest being Lake Titicaca and encroaches into both countries. We had rented a cabin for the night from the Hotel Austral which turned out to be perfect for the four of us and the two dogs. It had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms with a small sitting/dining area and even smaller kitchen. No worries there, as pizza is on the menu for dinner. It was the view from the balcony that was worthy of the cabin cost alone. Overlooking the lake, we had clear views of the vast Argentinean pampas to the east and the craggy snow-capped mountains in the west. As we sat on the balcony sipping red wine, we watched the sun setting giving the mountains an ethereal glow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Punta Arenas – Continued.

Tuesday found us back at the port with almost the same news. Yes the wind has abated and yes, the cranes are back to work, workers are moving slowly. We are assured that on Wednesday our transmission will be unloaded and available. So now we have another day to explore the town. We walk Winston on the rocky beach and decide we will explore to the south of town along the shores of the Magellan Straits. This most southern end of Chile’s mainland is some of the bleakest and unforgiving we have ever seen. The landscape is ravaged by the almost constant winds with most of the vegetation consisting of close to the ground thistle and thorn bushes that are designed to withstand all that nature can throw at them. The only animals we see are the hardy Patagonian sheep that dot the small hills and the only homes are poorly maintained lean-tos with brick walls and metal roofs, some with small fishing boats tied alongside the water’s edge. The only splash of color is the sea and even that is a dark almost inky blue. After about 30 minutes with no change in scenery, we turn back towards town. Our next stop is the main square located in the center of town. Plaza Munoz Gamero or also referred to as Plaza de Armas is landscaped with huge araucaria trees (slow-growing native pine trees) and surrounded by opulent mansions which have long since been converted into banks, museums, restaurants, the Club de la Union and government buildings. However the amazing architecture with turrets, gorgeous tiled roofs, glassed-in sunrooms and well kept gardens, remain. These buildings are solid stone structures built to withstand the test of time in this almst-end-of-the-world location. In the center of the plaza is the Monumento a Fernando de Magellanes (Monument to Ferdinand Magellan) built to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of Magellan’s voyage. Standing close you can see the toes of one of the bronze Indians is polished and shiny. Local legend states that everyone who touches the toes will return to Punta Arenas someday, making the statue a favorite with tourists. There are small covered wagons dotted around the grounds with artisans selling all types of local crafts. We could not resist purchasing two alpaca scarves from one of the artisans, paying only a fraction of what they would cost in the States. We also noted a restaurant on the second floor of one of the converted mansions and decided that is where we would have dinner. Winston enjoyed himself in the plaza very much, surrounded by grass and plenty of new smells to absorb. Restaurant La Tasca, located in the mansion “Casa Espana” was very good and again we ate the ever present fresh and readily available seafood. Tom had salmon stuffed with crab and other shellfish and I tried their Crab Chupa which, had I not tasted the one from Puerto Viejo the night before would have been very good. Unfortunately the Puerto Viejo recipe was much better and had more crab, of course we should factor in that theirs was also double the cost. We drank another excellent Chilean wine that the waiter recommended. The walk back to our B&B through the plaza lit by small tree lights and antique looking lamps was simply beautiful with a brilliant starry night and surprising only a little wind. Punta Arenas had never looked better. That is until Wednesday when we finally, after six long months of waiting through the rebuild in the States, the long ocean voyage, a three week strike in Valparaiso, another boat to Punta Arenas, strong winds which prevented cranes from operating and factoring in the slower work pace of the South American lifestyle – we finally (can I say finally one more time), finally got our transmission. I could have wept with relief. Now, Punta Arenas had never looked better. True it did take the better part of the day to wrest it out of the hands of Chilean customs and port authority, but with the steady and competent help of Vivian who works with the Port Agency and with assurances from us that yes, we were taking it out of Chile into Argentina and yes, we had permission from the Argentinean customs that we could import it into the country, it was loaded into our rented vehicle for the last leg, the 12 hour return trip to Rada Tilly. I can only say it again – Finally.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Punta Arenas, Chile – Here we come

Our friends, Mariano and Marcela are coming with us. They told us they have not been to the area in over 10 years and for us their company is much appreciated. Sunday, our phone rings early. It is 5:30 in the morning and this is our wake-up call from Marcela. It is a 12 hour drive to Punta Arenas, depending on traffic and border crossing so the early start is a must. The long drive was uneventful and broken only with stopping for gas and walking Winston, collecting the rental car in Rio Gallegos to bring the transmission back into the country, a picnic stop to eat our sandwich lunch and the border crossing. It seems as though with each stop the wind is growing in intensity. This Patagonian wind just never ceases to amaze us and driving past the wind-tossed waters of the Magellan Straits, it whips around the car and Tom drives with two hands firmly holding the wheel. We had booked a hotel online but on arrival we were told they had no knowledge of our booking and the hotel is full. The receptionist started calling some other hotels and was able to find a bed and breakfast that was pet-friendly. I braved the wind and walked Winston while Tom got us settled into our room. We took the suggestion of the owner of the B&B and went to a restaurant called La Luna for dinner. Seafood with heavy emphasis on shellfish is the specialty of the area and with that in mind, we dined on fresh scallops and cracked crab. Monday morning we headed for the port. Punta Arenas lies along the north western side of the Strait of Magellan between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on what is known as the Brunswick Peninsula. It is the gateway for boat transport through the Magellan Straits and for cruise ships and research vessels on their way to or from Antarctica. Founded in 1849 by Colonel José de los Santos Mardones, the city flourished as a port of call until the Panama Canal opened in 1941. Now it is the service center of a large sheep-raising area, responsible for processing and exporting hides, wool, and frozen lamb worldwide. The nearby Tierra del Fuego oil fields, the attractions of the free port, and the maintenance of military compounds have all contributed to the city’s modern growth. Mardones Pier, where our agent was located is in the northern end of the port and let me tell you, by now the wind had reached a zenith as it whipped around us and tossed the sea with large waves. So, it was with some disappointment but no surprise when we were told that the ship had not been unloaded and would not, until the winds subsided and the cranes could operate. We were told to return the next day when, they thought, the storm would have abated and maybe they could unload the boat. With the rest of the day free, we decided to explore the city. Our first stop was Zona Franca “the Free Zone” where you can buy all the duty free goods your heart could desire. After much browsing and price comparing of electronics, we settled in the large grocery store and bought hard to find macadamia nuts, maple syrup, Swiss chocolate, wine and for Mariano a couple of bottles of Scotch. After a quick hamburger lunch, Marcela and Mariano went to the mall and Tom and I walked Winston along the costanera and relaxed in our room. Dinner that night was at Restaurant Puerto Viejo. If you are ever in Punta Arenas, this is the restaurant to eat at. The restaurant is beautiful, the service impeccable and the food, well it was to die for. After sharing an appetizer of Salmon Carpaccio, I had Crab Chupa. Chupa is served in a bowl and is reminiscent of bisque but even richer with cream, huge pieces of crab and garnished with even more cracked crab legs and claws! Mariano ordered the same dish and neither of us could finish the serving. Tom just had simple cold cracked crab that looked fantastic and must have weighted a kilo and Marcela ordered a combination plate of a whole heirloom tomato stuffed with calamari and a piece of grilled salmon garnished with calamari rings. Everything about this restaurant was excellent, a true not to be missed. Also, our friends had bought us gifts at the mall. This area of Chile is famous for the stone Lapis Lazuli and of course the Magellan Penguin colonies. So, they had got me a beautiful penguin pendant and necklace made from lapis and Tom a penguin key ring made from the same vibrant blue stone. Returning to the B&B, we said goodnight and goodbye to Marcela and Mariano. Tomorrow they leave to return to Rada Tilly and work. We will miss not just their fantastic company but also the help they provide us. The good news is the wind has finally died down to a more manageable level so hopefully the cranes can get back to work. After giving Winston his night walk, we talk about our good fortune in having Marino and Marcela’s friendship and hope we can get the transmission come morning.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cueva de las Manos

After consulting our map, instead of driving back to the coast from Los Antiguos we decided to visit an historical site known as Cueva de las Manos. Spanish for Cave of the Hands, the cave is located 100 miles (163 kms) south of the town of Perito Moreno in the valley of the Pinturas River. Here, the Río Pinturas has cut a deep, scenic canyon and in the process, erosion has left countless aleros, stony overhangs often mistakenly called cuevas (caves). One of these is the Cueva de las Manos. This well preserved rock art site, where stencils of hundreds of human hands, animals and abstract forms cover the walls became a World Heritage Site in 1999. The Cave, which is really a series of caves, lies in an isolated spot in the Patagonian landscape, about 60 miles (100 km) off the main National Route 40. The stretch of road up the canyon is eerily desolate, devoid of people and houses with only occasional sightings of guanaco and birds. 60 miles of unmitigated dirt road, with a loose skidding surface. It is a dead end road which means the only option is to drive there and back. So you really have to want to see the Cueva. However we had been told they are a superb example of ancient cave drawings. After arriving at the site there is a conducted ranger tour which takes about 2 hours. Besides us, there was a couple with their two children and a group of three backpackers. Walking on the narrow trail of the canyon is not for the timid and was fairly strenuous but the trek was well worth it. The main cave has an entrance 50 feet (15 m) wide, 33 feet (10m) high and is 80 feet (24 m) deep. The countless images of hands on the walls and ceiling are a mix of sprayed and stenciled, giving both positive and negative impressions. The negative hand impressions are calculated to be dated around 550 BC and the positive impressions from 180 BC. The inks used are mineral, so the age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall. Most of the artistry is left hands, suggesting that the painters held the spraying pipe with their dexterous hand. Smaller numbers of these paintings are also seen in neighboring caves. The colors of the paintings are a variety of reds (made from hematite) orange, white, black or yellow. There are also drawings of human beings plus animals such as guanacos (a camelid similar to the llama) and rheas (the South American flightless bird similar to an ostrich), as well as geometric shapes and hunting scenes. These are the most recent drawings at between 9,000 to 13,000 years old. The people responsible for the paintings may have been the ancestors of the historic hunter-gatherer communities of Patagonia although history is unsure. One thing is sure, the Cueva de las Manos are well worth visiting if by chance you are in this extremely out-of-the-way area of Patagonia.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A trip to Los Antiguos

Having already received a three month extension in Comodoro Rivadavia back in June, it was necessary to physically leave the country to be able to get another 90 day visa. After checking out our maps, looking at hotels to stay with Winston and talking to friends, we decided to go to Chile Chico to renew our visas. Also, we were getting a little “cabin fever” hanging around Rada Tilly everyday so it was a welcome break. The five hour drive took us past some of the oil wells that supply Argentina with much of its oil and plenty of sheep farms. Our plan was to spend the night in Chile Chico, do a little sightseeing and then drive home. We were driving Mariano and Marcela’s jeep and they had supplied us with all the car documents and a notarized permission letter to take the vehicle out of Argentina. However at the border, the Argentinean Aduana (customs) said we could not take the vehicle out of the country. Although our Spanish at this point is passable, we still get somewhat confused when there is rapid legal talk to translate. Fortunately a very nice man called Ignacio was behind us who spoke excellent English and was able to translate. After a great deal of explanations back and forth as to what we needed and why, the customs officer was unrelenting. He was very sorry but we could not drive the jeep to Chile, however we needed to leave to be able to get another 90 days visa. Ignacio, who had been to the nearby town of Los Antiguos for lunch and was returning home to Chile Chico kindly offered to help. He would drive us to the Chilean part of the border, about 2 mile away, assist us in getting an entry and exit stamp from the Chileans and then drive us back to the Argentinean side to re-enter. Again, we have found by chance another Good Samaritan. Within 30 minutes we had left Argentina, entered and exited Chile and were back on the Argentinean side with the same officials who happily stamped our passports and wished us well. We then followed Ignacio into town and a beautiful hotel on the lake which was dog-friendly. Los Antiguos is a pretty town, located on the south shore of Lago Buenos Aires at the foot of the Andes. Due to its microclimate, it is an agricultural oasis, renowned for growing all types of fruit in particular cherries. There is even a three day cherry festival held in January (the height of summer in the southern hemisphere). Our room at the hotel overlooked the lake with the snow capped mountains and had a superb dining room offering traditional Patagonian food – asado (barbeque), lamb and fresh fish - it was an ideal getaway for us. Since dining in Argentina does not start until 9pm, we had plenty of time to settle in, feed Winston and walk on the promenade bordering the lake. After the cold and fierce winds which ravage Rada Tilly in the winter, the warm gentle breezes coming from Lake Buenos Aires made the walking a delightful experience. By 9pm, Winston was settled in the room on his bed and we made our way to the dining room, ravenous. Our table for two by the window gave us views of the mountains and lake now twinkling with lights and as we sipped on red Patagonian wine, we reflected our day. We had accomplished what we needed to do, namely getting our visas renewed. We had also discovered that we cannot take the jeep out of the country, saving us finding this out when we would go to Punta Arenas which is much further away and we had met Ignacio to whom we will be eternally grateful for helping us. It had been a good day topped off with a meal that lived up to all expectations.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Los Glaciares National Park - Photos

This is the link in Picasa to see our photographs of Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. View as a slide show and enjoy.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting the Latin Latitude Attitude

Time passes and we adjust. The good news is our transmission has made it to Valparaiso, Santiago’s port in Chile. The bad news is we need to pay the receiving company, located in Santiago, it must be paid in Chilean pesos and they can’t do a wire transfer from the States. The good news is when we were last in Punta Arenas, we met Alvaro and Monica. Alvaro is also a retired firefighter and they will help us. They will take the invoice to Bank Itau and make the required electronic deposit. That means our shipment will be released for transport to Punta Arenas for us to pick up. The bad news is it is Chile’s Independence Day or days as it turns out. Since Independence Day is actually on Tuesday September 18th, the government mandates what is known as a bridge day. If a national holiday falls on a Thursday or Tuesday, then that Friday or Monday in this case, becomes a holiday also. I am not sure what Wednesday is but, thanks to that Latin latitude attitude, this is a three day celebration. The bad news is that our new friends in Rada Tilly, Mariano and Marcella left for a vacation in Europe but the extremely good news from that is they kindly offered us the use of their jeep whilst they are gone. We can use this to take to Chile when the transmission arrives to Punta Arenas in another week or so. Other good news is winter is almost over and springtime is approaching. It is still cold and windy but not the biting cold, gale force winds that we have experienced Even more good news was something I forgot to refer back to in the last blog. We had two nieces who went to the London Olympics and both came away with medals. In addition to Haley getting the silver in an amazingly close finish in the Open Water 10K marathon swim, Alyssa; her older sister got a gold medal as she swam in the ladies 4 x 200 meter relay race. She was a late entrant and swam with the second fastest time in the morning. So, both nieces came away with medals. They have been doing the TV and interview route and had an invite to the White House, as US Olympians. It is a really interesting and exciting experience in their lives. And going back to us, we are learning to develop laid back attitude. You can’t fight a system and a way of life. Life just moves more slowly down here. With luck, next week we will head to Punta Arenas to pick up the transmission.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Time spent in Rada Tilly, Argentina.

We are doing well and have settled into the small house we are renting here in Rada Tilly. It is right across from the beach so it is perfect for walking Winston. The main problem is the wind which is usually relentless and so strong. Today is beautiful though with sunny skies and no wind. The weather thank goodness is finally getting warmer but it is much colder than last winter in Brazil. We have started to make some friends in town. Martin and Analaura, his wife have been so nice to us from the start and it is thanks to them that we have this great cottage right across from the ocean. They live in the front house but spend most of their time at their other home which is next to the vet clinic. Also Martin’s brother Mariano and his wife Marcela have become friends and are really helpful taking us around the local sights and helping with officials for motorhome. After a lot of thought and talking with custom agents here and service people in the States, we have ordered a second transmission with all the new parts needed, to be shipped from the States to us. Actually we are having everything sent to Punta Arenas, Chile which is closer than Buenos Aires from where we are located. It should arrive in a couple more weeks so we will go and pick it up, bring it back here and get the repairs done. With the help Mariano we have found a mechanic who appears to be experienced enough to do the work. Our fingers are crossed! Other than that all is well. Winston has plenty of friends here as Martin has a total of 8 labradors. They keep most of them at their other home but leave a couple here everyday for Winston to play. Winston has tremendous fun playing with Betun, a 2 year old black lab. Right now they are outside running and chasing one another. It is very noisy. Tom is sitting outside reading as it is such a nice day. Also, Mariano and Marcela have a 2 year old Jack Russell which is very cute and very energetic. After a play date with Pelousa, our slightly overweight 7 year old Beagle is exhausted.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I feel like a broken record. June 2012

As for us, our auto problems continue. We got the transmission repaired and left Rio Gallegos. Not 400 miles later in the mountains no less the darn thing started smoking and spewing transmission oil, again. Exactly the same thing that supposedly got fixed. Fortunately it happened not too far from a "winter station". Since towns are few and far between, Argentina has these stations in the Andes that they open during the winter and these stations keep the roads clear of snow and ice. We got to one but it took 5 days before a tow truck could get us out. Again fortunately, we never leave towns without shopping and filling up with gas and water, so we were ok, plus the guys at the station were super helpful. We are now in a small suburb of Comodoro Rivadavia called Rada Tilly. It is an upscale beach town. We have rented a cottage right across from the ocean from the local vet and will stay here for the winter, at least through August. In the meantime, we will decide what to do. We don't know if we trust anyone else to fix the transmission down here. Our route from here will be to head into the Andes through Chile, Peru and Bolivia and we sure as heck don't want to get stuck then. We may send the transmission back to the states to fix or Tom may fly back to the states and look for another motorhome! The problem with that is we enter a country with a temporary importation permit for the vehicle and we would need to solve that problem before attempting to import another. We are in contact with the US embassy in Buenos Aires and we are meeting with a customs official later this week to try to find out what we need to do if we do purchase another RV. To be totally honest, we just don't know what to do but renting this place will give us some time to think it through and research all our options. If you have any ideas or suggestions, we are open for advice. One happy thing that I will be blogging about is my niece swims for the US Swim Team and on Saturday she raced a 10K Open Water at Worlds in Portugal and came in first place in an international field of 41 swimmers from around the world. That earned her the only spot for this event to represent the United States at the Olympics. Her time was only 1.36 seconds faster than a Hungarian girl so she has some practicing to do but the whole family is so excited for her. Her name is Haley Anderson, so if you watch the Olympics, please cheer her on. Besides being a super swimmer, she is a great girl studying at USC on a swimming scholarship and has worked really hard. This is her dream. Go Haley!!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Motorhome mechanical woes continue

After over two years and more than 30,000 miles (50,000 kms), much of that on rough, potholed roads, the transmission went out on us. Yes, after getting what has amounted to become an almost useless service in Punta Arenas and being assured that there was no problem with it, the transmission spewed oil and smoke on highway 3, on the way to San Julian. At the time, we were about 130 miles from Rio Gallegos and perhaps 120 miles from the village of Piedra Buena. In other words, the middle of nowhere. After driving the motorhome onto the shoulder, it shuddered to a stop. Fortunately this is a well travelled highway and almost immediately two trucks pulled over and volunteered their help. It was decided that Tom would ride with one of them to Piedra Buena and I would stay with the motorhome and Winston. It was already 3pm and I knew given the distances that he would be gone at least four hours which would be dusk or nearly dark. Sure enough at around 7:30, a car pulled up and Tom jumped out. We were going to take it to Rio Gallegos and a tow truck was on its way. It was almost 2am before we arrived there and we were drained. We had passed through the town on our way to Ushuaia and it is actually only 40 miles or so from the Straits of Magellan. In the morning, the trucking office telephoned mechanics in town to try to get someone who could help us and in the afternoon, we were towed to a mechanic’s shop. They put fluid into the transmission and eventually decided that it was some seal ring that needed replacing. They also discovered that the radiator was leaking, again. This will be our 4th attempt at fixing that problem, the first time in Punta Arenas and then twice in Puerto Natales. After two days of work, the motorhome was running and everything seemed to be in order, so we left once again for San Julian. This time we did make it to Piedra Buena and as we were filling up with gas, Tom noticed – a leak. From the transmission. Same place. I could have cried. Our only option is to turn around and go back to Rio Gallegos. Piedra Buena is really nothing more than a hamlet and had no mechanic that could deal with the problem. We were also told that San Julian was much the same. Tom bought a large container of transmission fluid, filled up the truck and said we might be able to get back without a tow. Well, almost. About 35 miles from Rio Gallegos, the motorhome was spewing fluid as fast as Tom was filling it. This time a couple in a pickup stopped and they said they would tow us the rest of the way. Once in town, we again telephoned the mechanic shop and Jose; the owner sent one of his workers to get us back to the garage. This is more serious. After checking it out again, they tell us that our only option is to pull the transmission and send it to Buenos Aires to be rebuilt. Buenos Aires is 1,500 miles (2,500 kms) to the north. We tried everything. We contacted Ford Motor Company in the US and went to the local Ford dealership and service center in town. No-one could help us. We started making arrangements to send the transmission to the capital and Jose showed us a small studio apartment that he owns around the corner from the shop. There is cooking facilities, heat, hot water, television and Wi-Fi. There is no refrigerator but we can use our own in the RV. They think it will be at least two weeks for the shipment, repair and return of the transmission. I look around the small studio which will be “home” for the next couple of weeks and sigh. Oh, the joys of travel. At least the three of us are warm, safe and relatively comfortable.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

El Chalten and Mounts Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

After spending one more night in El Calafate, we made the 220 Km (about 150 mile) drive to the northern end of the park and El Chalten. Los Glaciares is a national park with an odd setup. Entering in the south to see Perito Merino Glacier which is a paid entrance and then north around Lakes Argentino and Viedma to El Chalten which is situated inside the park’s boundaries and to which there is no admission fee. In the middle is a sort of “dead zone”, where there is no road and is inaccessible to all. The lakes are fed by glaciers so they are the milky blue, sediment filled waters that we have become used to seeing. Occasionally, even being so far from the mouth of the glacier, you can still see icebergs. It really is amazing. After El Calafate, the village of EL Chalten was a surprise. It is the entire opposite of its southern counterpart, even though both really exist only to support the tourists that visit the national park. But where El Calafate is upscale and teeming with well heeled visitors from all over the planet, El Chalten is devoted to trekkers and climbers, catering mainly to the backpackers and mountaineers who come to climb its famous peaks primarily Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. It is reminiscent of an old gold or mining town from back home. We had the name of a camping facility and after a stop at the tourist office, found it easily. Located just off the main street and close to the trail leading to Mount Fitz Roy, it is small with few amenities. Kind of like the town itself. Few tourists pass through EL Chalten, even during the high season (November thru February) when climbers from around the world descend on the small village. Now, in April it is darned near deserted. But from our campsite, when the clouds clear we can see Fitz Roy, so Tom is happy. At a height of over 3,400 meters (10,800 feet) it was first climbed in 1952 and is reckoned to be one of the most technically challenging mountains on earth for mountaineers. Following Chouinard’s climb and film in 1968, it also became the basis for the Patagonia clothing line and logo. Fortunately for the rest of us there are several paths which make trekking up the mountain relatively easy. Cerro Torre is a different matter. It is a sharp craggy peak that has a top with a “mushroom” of rime ice formed by the winds. Because of this, many who claim to have climbed it did not actually reach the top, the most famous of those being Maestri. The first undisputed ascent was not until 1974 made by an Italian expedition. Since then many others have climbed and perfected the route, adding more bolts and rope. The next big controversy came this season. In January, two men, American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk made the ascent and on their return back down, removed many of the bolts that had been used. Some of these bolts had been drilled in earlier expeditions close to cracks used by climbers for protection but debate remains whether the North Americans had the right to remove them. Dilemma reigns in the climbing world. Of course, this made no difference to me. Nothing on this earth would get me to traverse a mountain. We stuck to the well worn, well trekked, walking routes and that got us close enough to be happy. Unfortunately except for a few breaks, clouds shrouded both peaks for most of the time. Tom did manage to get a few photos which I will post after I sort through them all. We stayed in the village for a few days before beginning our way to Bariloche. We have also decided to go the long route taking the paved highways in lieu of the gravel dirt roads.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Perito Moreno Glacier

Argentineans call Perito Moreno Glacier the "8th Wonder of the World.” In addition to its enormous beauty, it is the planet's third largest reserve of fresh water and one of the continent's last advancing glaciers. Located about 50 miles (80 kms) from EL Calafate and veiled by towering mountains, the glacier epitomizes the natural beauty and splendor of Argentina as it slowly pours in crackling celestial blue, from the granite spires of the Chilean Paine Mountains into Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park. After leaving El Calafate, we followed Lake Argentino around Bay Redonda giving us the opportunity to appreciate the milky blue glacial waters reflecting a background of snow-capped mountains. After about 35 miles at the Curva de Los Suspiros mirador, we got our first panoramic view of Glacier Perito Moreno. Even at this distance the glacier is massive. We lose sight of it as we enter the park and follow the road as it meanders around the surrounding mountains. At the end of the road, we are directed to the lower parking lot where shuttle buses take visitors to the upper viewing areas. This is also where we will stay for the night. Whilst giving Winston a walk, we can hear the glacier. The glacier is a kinetic attraction, emitting sonic booms as it calves icebergs into the lake. It creaks and moans and the sounds echo off the nearby mountains giving the area an ethereal quality. These sounds continue as we climb the steep road to the upper parking area and the connection of interlinking walkways that provide easy access to the glacier’s best viewing points. As we wander slowly towards the “fall zone”, we are struck as to the similarity between the walkways designed here and those which we encountered at Iguaçu Falls. We have to commend the Argentineans on the work. The manner in which they build accessibility walkways through their national parks giving easy access to most people including those with disabilities while still maintaining the beauty, aesthetics and integrity of the area is a lesson to be learned by other countries. And then, we are confronted by the renowned Perito Moreno Glacier. Unique in many ways, including its size, scientific significance and accessibility, the glacier is magnificent. At first sight, the sheer magnitude of Perito Moreno, one of the largest in South America is simply astounding. Its walls tower over two-hundred vertical feet (forty meters) from the ground, where the ice meets Lago Argentino. At this height, equivalent to that of a fifteen-story building, the glacier maintains a commanding presence as it forms an imposing panoramic wall, stretching as far as the eye can see in either direction. The most notable feature about the Perito Moreno Glacier is its dynamic and ever-changing facade. Unlike nearly every other glacier on the planet, which recede and dwindle in size over time, the Perito Moreno formation actually swells with each passing day. Deemed an "advancing glacier," the ice is continually growing and expanding outward, gradually occupying more and more territory. While the glacier is said to move outward at a pace of up to seven feet each day, large chunks of ice falling from the walls make this growth a bit more subtle. This phenomenon also makes viewing the glacier all the more unpredictable and exciting. The show is never-ending. You can watch the detachment of ice blocks of different sizes from a short distance, hear the roaring they produce, and then watch them turned into wonderful floating icebergs. We spent hours exploring its wonders and taking in the breathtaking vistas, at the picturesque sight which lies before us. It was mesmerizing. We walked from one end to the other, enthralled with watching chunks fall from it into the waters below, some almost at water level but others crashing from amazing heights. We stayed so long, we missed the last shuttle and had to wait for some workers to finish up and give us a ride down to our RV in their pickup. We walked Winston and prepared a simple dinner of soup and sandwiches. Throughout the night, we were awakened often by the moans and booms of crashing icebergs falling from the glacier. Very cool. The next day, we took a boat ride to get even closer. As the boat maneuvered closer to the glacier, it was even more amazing watching from water level, the chunks of ice falling and splashing ahead of us, some large enough to cause waves which made the boat rock. We took tons of photos and, whilst the glacier lacked the vibrant colors and spiked formations of Grey Glacier probably due to its constant movement, the sheer enormity of Perito Moreno is phenomenal and we could understand how it became known as the 8th wonder of the world.

Monday, April 9, 2012

El Calafate and Los Glaciares National Park

Leaving Puerto Natales for El Calafate involves yet another border crossing, this time from Chile back into Argentina which is usually a little easier. The border crossings are really easy for us by now and we just follow the same routine. Immigration, Aduana (Customs) for the motorhomes temporary import permit and then we mention Winston. Sometimes they don’t care, some check the paperwork we have and with varying degrees of thoroughness. Until now Argentina had barely given his paperwork a glance. These officials went through it carefully, even asking to see the entrance and exit stamps for Chile and the previous ones for Argentina. We showed the Chilean stamps and then explained that until now Argentina had not cared about the pet’s entry. It seems Argentina has no set policy in place and it just depends on the border. They examined all the paperwork we have, his USDA permit, Interstate permit, rabies and vaccination certificates. Winston then received another stamp on his USDA form, it is getting crowded and they had to use the back. Leaving the border, we picked up our “hitchhiker-du-jour”. Michael, a young German fellow has just finished his Mathematics degree and is trying to find out what he really wants to do with his life, which right now is exploring Patagonia. El Calafate is about a 4 hour drive so we all settle in and Michael actually dozes in the comfortable captain’s chair whilst I check out the scenery and Tom, who is driving battles the ever-increasing wind that seems to ravage Patagonia and periodically the motorhome rocks as a crosswind threatens to move the RV into another lane. We drop Michael off in town and go to find our campground. Luis, a fellow RVer had told us about an AMSA campground. This is a municipal campground affiliated with the police dept. which is located right across the street. The campsite is perfect with electricity and hot water showers and is within walking distance of the town center. Anyone who wants to see this side of Los Glaciares National Park and Perito Merino Glacier passes through El Calafate. Situated on Lago Argentino, its name is derived from a small bush of the same name which has bright yellow flowers and dark blue berries. Similar to a blueberry, Calafate berries are used to make preserves and a type of liqueur that is drank after dinner and is quite sweet but very tasty. The village is also reminiscent of the upscale tourist spots of the Rockies like Banff, Lake Louise or Vail, with stylish shops, souvenir stores, trendy restaurants and travel agencies advertising a variety of treks and tours designed with you, the tourist in mind. Even though it is autumn and really between seasons, it is still a busy place. The village is surrounded by the snow-capped mountains peaks of the Andes and between it and Chile is the southern end of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Declared a World Heritage site in 1981, Los Glaciares is the second largest in Argentina and 30% of it is covered in ice, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It is really divided into two parts for visitors, both sections corresponding to the two elongated glacial lakes at each end. Lago Argentino, which is in the south, is the largest lake in Argentina and Lago Viedma in the north. The southern end has the famous Perito Merino Glacier and the northern end in addition to Viedma glacier which feeds into Lake Viedma is most famous for being the gateway to the famous and popular climbing mountains, Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Between these two lakes is a non touristic center of mountains known as the Zona Centro. Tomorrow our goal is to go to the glacier but we are happy to browse through the town and enjoy the bustle of people and do some window shopping.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Our final few days in Puerto Natales and the loss of a dear friend

Our return to Puerto Natales involved numerous stops to refill the radiator, so much so, that we went through about 25 gallons of water. And again, we are grateful for our 40 gallon water tank. To say the owners of the campsite were surprised to see us (again) was putting it mildly. Tom told them that the repair did not hold and there was much talk as to what to do next. They bring yet another mechanic to the motorhome and after he examines the radiator and hoses, tells us he can help. Tom is skeptical but what are the options. We give the go-ahead for the work and they tell us they will be back the next day. Tom still wants to see Torres Del Paine a little more so we decide to rent a car and he will go for the day, while I stay with the RV and Winston in town. Early Sunday, Tom took off for the park and I cleaned the RV and walked Winston. There is a very pretty small church in the town square and so I went to mass also. It was in the afternoon that we received some very sad news. I had went into the hostel to call the kids and check emails. As I was getting on line with Skype, Tom’s sister called me and we chatted for a while and I got brought up to date on the family and our numerous nieces activities and lives. Just as I was in the process of calling Danny (our son) and I began to read emails. One was from our friends in Buenos Aires whom we had spent such a wonderful time with only a few weeks ago. After we left, they were going to China and Japan for vacation before Pablo went back to work. Apparently after their vacation, they decided to go to the Caribbean islands off Colombia for a few days just to relax. There was a terrible accident and due to lack of hospital facilities on the island, Pablo had lost his life. Needless to say, Cesar is devastated and I just could not believe what I was reading. I read the email to Danny and signed off. Pablo was only 40 and so full of life. He loved to travel and they had so many plans for the future including visiting with us in the States. It was hard to comprehend what could have gone so terribly wrong. About half hour later, Tom got back and one look at me told him something was up. I told him about Pablo. The truth had trouble sinking in with him also. We will contact Cesar soon and give him our condolences but we know nothing we can say will express how we feel. It is really a reminder of how precious life really is and how every moment should be reveled in because we never know when it can be taken away. We honor Pablo’s life in our own way. Pablo loved champagne and we had drunk a few bottles with him and Cesar. So, we opened a bottle and toasted his life and remembered the good. We pulled up photos that we had taken of the four of us. Of the day we went to the Tigre Delta and another time spent sightseeing in Capital Federal and of course the numerous days we had just relaxed by the pool and ate dinners on the patio. Vaya con Dios, mi amigo. (Pablo Gatti. RIP March 15th, 2012).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Photos of Torres Del Paine National Park

Hi All

Attached is the link for the photos for Torres Del Paine National Park. Play the slideshow and enjoy. Just cut and paste.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Torres Del Paine and Laguna Amarga

Wednesday, with the radiator fixed again we were back on the road to – where else – Torres Del Paine National Park. We still want to get views of the Torres (towers). Like the cuernos (horns), there are three of them, the North, South and Central. They are gigantic, granite monoliths rising out of the mountain and shaped by the glacial ice. The South Tower is now thought to be the highest at 2,500 meters (8,250 feet), although surprisingly that has not been definitively established and was first climbed by Armando Aste. The Central Tower is 2,460 meters (8,100 feet) and was the first of the three to be climbed back in 1963 by Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans and the North Tower which is 2,260 meters was first climbed by Guido Monzino, who back in 1977 donated around 12,000 hectacres (30,000 acres) to the Chilean government which established the definitive limits of the park. Our goal is to camp at Hotel Del Torres and then hike from there. We are now accustomed to picking up hitchhikers and just leaving Puerto Natales, there were two ladies waiting for rides. They were going to EL Calafate so we told them we could give them a ride to Cerro Castillo, which is the turn off for the park and also the border entrance to Argentina. After crossing the border they should be able to pick up another ride to El Calafate. The two girls were from Santiago and one spoke good English so we were able to chat with them as we drove. After leaving them at the border, Tom checked the motorhome. So far, so good – no leaks. We are now on the familiar gravel trails which lead into the park and just as we are approaching Laguna Amarga, a beautiful ice blue glacial lake, Tom announced, with a certain degree of dread in his voice, that he smelled “something”. We pull off at the turnout to the lake and sure enough we are leaking once again. Frustrated and depressed doesn’t begin to express our feelings. We take stock of our situation, yet again. It is about 3 in the afternoon and we are by a gorgeous lake with some fabulous views of the mountains including the Torres. We will spend the night and once again go back to Puerto Natales. I’m beginning to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day! But, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. At least we have some great views of the towers and so as Tom checks out the motorhome and prepares it for the night, I walk Winston. There are guanaco grazing by the lake so I keep Winston on his lead until they have moved off. Then he is free. He runs to the water, stops for a moment, runs in and….he is up to his belly in ice. He is shocked. He tears out of the water shaking himself and looking at me reproachfully. “Not my fault” I tell him, laughing and taking his photograph. He runs around but does not go into the water again. Once bitten, twice shy. I check out the landscape. The towers are amazing and as I walk further to study them, I shout to Tom. Coming from the North Tower is a natural ice bridge crossing a glacier, connecting it to the adjacent mountain. In the reflecting sunlight, it looks phenomenal. We take a ton of photos as this may be the closest we get. I make beef soup for dinner and as we eat we watch the sun setting over the towers and decide it is a great camping location. It was never our original destination and if the motorhome had not developed a problem we would probably have not stopped. And yet, here we are with near perfect views of the towers. Tomorrow is another day and we will again, limp back to Puerto Natales and if we can’t find someone capable of helping us, we will go to Punta Arenas. For right now, we are by Laguna Amarga, it is quiet with not another soul in sight and those Torres in the setting sun are spectacular.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A minor setback

After two nights at Grey Lake, our plan was to wind our way north through the park and spend a few days in the parking lot at Hotel Torres Del Paine where we are hoping the weather will hold for us to hike to the torres. The road from Lake Grey goes east to a bridge crossing Lago Toro and then north which gave fabulous views of the Paine Massif, an eastern spur of the Andes of which both the Cuernos and the Torres del Paine are a part of. Small valleys separate the spectacular granite spires that dominate the landscape. On our left we pass the gorgeous blue waters of Lake Pehoe which has two waterfalls at each end: Salto Chico which connects Lake Pehoe to Lake Toro at the south end and Salto Grande which drains Lake Nordenskjold into Lake Pehoe in the north. Although we did not take the trail to Salto Grande, we did stop at the mirador and get some photos. It was just after we started up the mountain leaving Lake Pehoe to round Lake Nordenskjold that our setback started. The radiator which we had had repaired in Punta Arenas started leaking again and with steam coming from under the hood we made it to the top of the hill before pulling over. With the ever present Patagonian wind buffeting the motorhome, Tom pulls on his hat and jacket to check it out. He comes back inside, furious. The repair had obviously not been done correctly, his guess was that it was never pressure tested and now we were leaking fluid again. We get out the map of the park and start making another plan. We need to get back to a town and Puerto Natales is the closest, about 75 mile and half of that on the gravel trails. Thank God the motorhome has a 40 gallon water tank which is close to being full. As I fill some containers, Tom gets back out and begins to top up the radiator. He estimates that we will need to stop about every 15 minutes to check and re-fill. At least with all the stops, we got some great views of Lake Nordenskjold which is a pretty azure blue and the Rio Paine which lived up to its name and was a bright blue under the sunlight. We are a little depressed because we don’t want to miss seeing the torres but the motorhome takes precedence. Now we will have to come back into the park on our way to Argentina and Los Glaciares National Park and pay the rather steep entrance fee again in order to see them. That and we lose another few precious days of summer, autumn is approaching and we are still far south of where we wanted to be with April approaching. Such is the “glamorous” life on the road. Anyone who travels knows of these setbacks and how frustrating it can be but it is part of the experience. It takes us 2 and a half hour to get to Puerto Natales and we arrive back at Camping Josmar in time for dinner. After walking Winston and getting settled, we decide to eat at a nearby restaurant as we don’t feel like cooking. It is St. Patrick’s Day but there is no corned beef and cabbage. Tom orders the king crab (centolla) for which Puerto Natales is famous and I the veal chops which were really good and Winston gets the bones. We then Skype our family and kids and bring everyone up to speed with our latest news. Monday we will find a mechanic who can help with the radiator and hopefully we will be back on the road by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Grey Glacier, Grey Lake and a boat trip

Grey Glacier is another of the chief attractions in Torres del Paine National Park. It is located on the west side beside the Cordillera del Paine and the Paine Massif and is at the south end of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The glacier covers a total area of 270 square kilometers and it is 28km long, however, like all of Torres Del Paine's glaciers and most glaciers around the world for that matter, it is retreating. Flowing southward, at one end is the Patagonian Ice Field and at the other a 40-metre wall of ice, which smashes ice blocks into Grey Lake below and with them, glacial rock flour, the silt which gives Grey Lake its milky blue/grey color. Grey lake is really a by-product of the glacier and because of the glacial silt it is a “dead” lake meaning that nothing lives in it. In some areas closest to the glacier, it is more than 500 meters deep and its waters reflecting the Paine Mountains behind it turn it into a postcard worthy picture. The surface of the lake and much of the glacier can be seen when following the big circuit of Paine Mountain Range at John Garner Pass. There is another view from the south shore of the lake, where the glacier can be seen in the background with icebergs floating on the water, some quite close to the shore. However, the best views of the glacier and the surrounding mountains are seen by boat which is booked from the Hotel Lago Grey. The boat leaves at 3 in the afternoon and sailing time is about three hours but can be cancelled because of weather, if necessary. The day we had scheduled the trip started windy and stormy and by noon although the rain had stopped, the wind had not abated much. We wondered if this was one of the days it would be cancelled but when we showed up at 2 o’clock, we were told the trip was definitely a go. Hmm. By 2:30 everyone had checked in, some 20 or so brave souls. Besides us, there were the four ladies from Texas and the rest were predominately a group from France. Everyone was bundled up against the elements. After a short bus ride, there was a 15 minute walk to the dock, first crossing a narrow, wood-slatted bridge which moved steadily in the wind and then across the beach which exposed us to the elements and left most people breathless. The wind was fierce and howled around us. There was no boat at the dock and we all huddled against the rock cliffs for any small shelter. The lake looks rough, ice-cold and very uninviting but none of this lessens the mood of anticipation for the trip ahead. After no more than a few minutes, the boat appeared. It looked smaller than I had expected and anchored a short way off-shore. A smaller motor boat then came and this would transport us out to the “Grey II”. As we got aboard the small boat, everyone was handed a life-jacket and instructed to wear it at all times when on deck or up on the second level open viewing area. My only thought was that if anyone fell in the water, hypothermia not drowning would be the issue. But, rules are rules. As we were climbing onto the main boat, one of the crew suddenly told us to check out the cliffs. There was an Andean Condor flying around. Considered quite rare, there are only a dozen or so breeding pairs in this area. Once, we were all safely ensconced on board, inside and out of the wind, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and after a brief introduction from the captain and crew, we were underway. Even with the wind and cold most people were too excited to stay inside and went to stand on the back or go up to the top to check out the scenery. We were not disappointed. The Cordillera del Paine surrounded us and the sharp snow capped granite peaks were beautiful as they were reflected in the water by the sun, peaking out behind clouds. There were icebergs and chunks of ice of various sizes in the water and nudging against the sides of the boat. The glacier in the distance was starting to loom larger and we could make out the tongues of the glacier. Tongues are segments of a glacier which has been divided by a “nunatak” – a piece of land that has separated the glacier to create an island in the middle and the tongues are the parts that form the ice wall where chunks break off which fall into the lake. It is now just a short time before we reach the base of the glacier and the giant wall of ice which soars in places 40 meters above us. The rock and ice formations leave everyone spellbound and speechless for minutes while the boat cuts the engines and the only sounds are those of nature surrounding us. The water as it rocks the boat, the groan of ice moving under its tremendous weight, the occasional splash as chunks fall into the lake and stillness, nothing more. Then, the cameras are out and the photo ops begin. But nothing can detract from the perfect images. There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe this phenomenal feat of nature, the millions of years that went into the making of this amazing park and this spectacular glacier. The colors were mesmerizing, ranging from pale azure blue to the deepest of periwinkle. Glacial blue, ice blue, the names of shades of blue flash through my mind but none of these truly represent the colors that surround us. The shapes and formations of ice sculpted over the ages and the field of ice as it looms over our heads looks as though it goes on forever. And yet this and most of the other world’s glaciers are rapidly receding. Global warming, the natural cycle of the earth, God’s creation, man’s destruction - who knows for sure and the arguments rage on but for this one moment in time, I can just stand in awe at the majesty of it. We must have taken a hundred or more photos as, at each turn there seemed to be yet another view equally as photogenic. As the boat idles and we move around to get different aspects of the glacier, a crew member appears with a tray laden with either straight whiskey or pisco sours mixed with ice made from glacial water. “Million year old ice” as it is known. (Pisco is a national drink from Chile). And so we stand on deck, as the boat gently glides past the giant wall of ice in front of us and occasionally nudges small icebergs floating by and we stand and toast one another. One of the ladies from France summed it up quite perfectly. “C’est tres magnifique”, she said. Ah, yes. It is very magnificent. Was the trip worth it? Absolutely – every penny, every step, every view. Did the weather affect the trip? Absolutely – in a good way. This is Patagonia, cold, desolate, windswept, glaciers, icebergs floating by, the end of the world. If it was warm and sunny, it would have detracted from the experience. And would we return? Absolutely. Now, if only we can figure out a way to stop the rapid melting of the glaciers. That would also be tres magnifique.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Torres Del Paine National Park

Located about 110 kms (70 miles) north of Puerto Natales is Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine (pie-nay) which is without doubt, one of the most spectacular parks in the country. A national park since 1959 it was first called Parque Nacional Lago Grey and in 1970 the name was changed to Torres Del Paine. It was established a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1978. As a world biosphere reserve, it has a huge variety of plant and animal species which, with its incredibly beautiful setting has made it an almost unequalled destination for hikers, backpackers and nature lovers. Snow-capped mountain peaks, cascading rivers, waterfalls, glaciers and lakes give it an elite place in the world of national parks. The parks name is derived from the Spanish word “torres” meaning towers and an indigenous word “paine” meaning blue so although often translated in English to Towers of Pain, it’s true translation is Towers of the Blue. Leaving Puerto Natales the paved road quickly gives way to the now familiar gravel trails which seem to make up many of the roadways in Patagonia. The trail winds through the Patagonian steppe and mountain passes before descending to the foot of the Andes and the first views of the cuernos (horns) del paine formed predominately from granite and whose origin dates back millions of years. These three peaks named the North, Principal and East horns, along with the “torres”, also three peaks known as the South, Central and North towers are some of the main attractions within the park. It is a beautiful sunny day, windy with some clouds and the cuernos are magnificent against the blue sky with Lago Del Toro in front. There are several entrances to the park and our plan is to enter via the southern one and make our way north through the park to Cerro Castillo and the Argentine border. Our destination in the park for the first night was Lago Grey (Grey Lake). There, there is a hotel and we can park in the parking lot according to the park administration. The hotel is about 10 kilometer inside the park and we can see the lake with Grey glacier in the distance. After giving a Winston a walk down one of the trails leading to the lake, we go to check out the hotel. Within the park our goal with Winston is to try to keep him as contained as possible, giving him walks on some of the more quiet trails and being extremely conscientious about picking up after him so as to reduce his carbon footprint as much as possible. The Hotel Lago Grey is a beautiful 5 star hotel and whoever coined the phrase “location, location, location” was right on the ball. There is a wall of windows looking out over the lake toward the glacier. As we settle in comfortable chairs in front of one of the windows and order a beer for Tom and wine for myself, we are confronted with a view that is absolutely spectacular. Front and center, close to the edge of the lake is a huge iceberg in such intense shades of blue ranging from turquoise to periwinkle. It looks as though it could have been towed there and dyed that color just to enthrall the guests but it is natural and we can see other icebergs, some just as large and several smaller in the same colors. There are plenty of American guests staying here and we chat with a lady from Texas travelling with her daughter Emily Ann and two of her friends and also with a group who are travelling as part of an adventure trek with a tour from REI – the national store which sells outdoor gear and equipment. When they find out we are not staying at the hotel but rather in our motorhome in the parking lot and we relate our story, they are amazed. We decide to eat dinner in the restaurant which does not open until 8. That is fine by us. Our bartender Philippe pours me another glass of wine and we sit contentedly gazing out through the windows at the snow capped Andes, Grey Lake with the glacier in the distance and that magnificent iceberg. With the sun setting, it is magical.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales is situated on the Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) Gulf portion of the Magellan Straits and we are having a hard time shaking that “land at the end if the world” feeling which has followed us from Ushuaia. This is where the tip of South America has crumbled into a myriad of islands enclosed by fiords, glaciers, mountains and glacial lakes as the land, sea and ice intermingle. The feeling persists as you enter the town and are confronted by a huge statue of a bear-like animal, the Milodon. This is a prehistoric extinct mammal and not too far away is a huge cave where the remains of one were found a few years ago. There are numerous hostels in town and we had been told that one of them “Josmar” had room for motorhomes. True, however anyone with an RV bigger than ours would not get in the gates. It was a tight squeeze but we were able to get parked and run electricity. There is also internet. And the rain. It has continued to pour down since we left Punta Arenas and did not stop for two days. We were later told that Punta Arenas had so much rain that there was massive flooding and part of the road was closed. So luckily, the decision to leave when we did was well timed. We spent our time hunkered down at the hostel, catching up with family and friends via the internet and trying to stay dry. Most of the people who come to Puerto Natales are backpackers who are going or have been to Torres del Paine National Park. Whilst talking with one of them he happened to mention that he had ran into friends of ours. Huh! It seems that Kurt and Cindy, a Belgian couple we had first met in Puerto San Julian but missed in Ushuaia are in town. They have been to Torres Del Paine and are now headed to El Calafate. They stopped by and visited for a while and as we say goodbye, we know we may meet them again, along the way. The weather has remained steady now with sunshine early in the day, turning cloudy by late afternoon and then rain at night. This is as good a time as any to move on to Torres del Paine and try to visit a glacier and do some hiking.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Punta Arenas

Overlooking the Straits of Magellan, Punta Arenas is the most southern continental town in Chile and, in the world for that matter. It is a port city and or the last few years it has been a tax free zone and attracts people from both the mainland and Porvenir (on the island of Tierra del Fuego) to its mega duty free stores. We spent several days here mainly servicing the motorhome. During the final analysis of the tires we decided to purchase four new ones. Three of our original tires had been mutilated by the rough gravel roads and the fourth had a slight tear in the sidewall just enough to concern us, especially with the road conditions through Chile to Torres Del Paine and then up Highway 40 through Argentina. The mechanic also found a leak in our radiator and that was sent for repair. Fortunately, we were able to stay in the Ford dealership parking lot over night, which was not only secure but had internet. The other two nights we parked in a lot on the beach. When we woke up on the first morning, I got Winston together for his morning walk. As I stepped out of the motorhome I noticed a couple in their car watching the water. The lady got out and came up to me. “Look” she said in Spanish and pointed out over the water. At that moment several groups of dolphins arched through the waves, maybe a dozen or more total. As I allowed Winston off leach to race through the sand, I watched the dolphins cavort just offshore and couldn’t help but realize how fortunate I was to begin my day with such beauty. The beach promenade is only a couple of years old and it well maintained and clean. Whilst there, we explored the town and shopped at the local municipal market. There were lots of fishmongers selling salmon, merluza (hake), shellfish and a few different cerviches. It all looked so fresh and enticing especially coming from Argentina where it is all beef, beef and more beef! After browsing we purchased merluza, scallops and salmon cerviche. We will freeze the scallops but cook the merluza for dinner, irresistible. On Saturday, the weather changed and a storm blew in, bringing high winds and lots of rain. We had met and been invited to dinner by a firefighter from Punta Arenas and his wife but with the rain continuing to fall with no respite in sight, we decided instead to head for Puerto Natales. We called Alvaro on his cell and gave our apologies. The 240 km (150 mile) drive to Puerto Natales will be wet and slow but at least the road is paved.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ushuaia to Punta Arenas

On our last couple of days in Ushuaia the weather turned cold and rainy with some sleet and snow in the mountains. We shopped in town and bought some souvenirs and ate at a very good seafood restaurant, Tia Elvira. Tom had the king crab which was cooked in a delicious sauce and I had the baked hake which was recommended by our waitress and which was also very good. Dan and Brian, the two Americans who we left at the national park have returned. Brian is flying home from Ushuaia but Dan has taken a three week job at an organic farm in El Bolson, which is north-west of here. We offer a ride to Punta Arena which he gratefully accepted. His plan is to hitch-hike from Punta Arenas to Rio Gallegos and from there take a bus to El Bolson. However after studying the map, we decide his best bet is to try and get a ride from the border at San Sebastian to Rio Gallegos instead of detouring to Punta Arenas. We again spent the night at the border in San Sebastian before crossing into Chile. We made a beef soup for dinner with fresh French rolls and after eating, dismantled the table and made up the middle bed for Dan. The next morning before crossing the border, I made oatmeal for breakfast for everyone and Tom cooked up some chicken breasts that we had left over as we can’t cross the border with uncooked meats. We gave some to Dan, which he gratefully accepted and would be consumed for his lunch. The border crossing itself was easy and the inspection was nowhere near as thorough as when we entered Chile before but we still had to hand over two onions and some jalapeño peppers which we had not used. We were concerned about leaving Dan by himself and hung out for a while with him. He is confident that he can get a ride and we all know this is the best place to try. One, most of the traffic crossing into Chile goes to Rio Gallegos with only a few, like us, going to Porvenir for the ferry. Second and most important, he can wait in the building instead of outside in the cold. And it is cold! The wind is constant and so strong that I felt windswept just walking Winston and the motorhome rocked steadily with the gusts. We were not on the road 15 minutes and Dan passed us in a truck. He waved and gave us the thumbs-up sign. So now we know that went well and he will be in Rio Gallegos by nightfall. From San Sebastian it is 150 kilometers (100 mile) to Porvenir where we will catch the ferry to Punta Arenas. The road is rough gravel and our speed only averaged about 25 miles an hour. We arrived in Porvenir around 6pm with another flat tire. The gravel roads are brutal on rubber. We found a gomeria (tire repair shop) and put on the spare but one of our goals in Punta Arenas is to purchase new ones. We had tried in Ushuaia and had been told that we could get our size and load bearing requirements there. The ferry is at 7am in the morning so we park at the port and settle in for the night. By the next morning there are plenty of trucks, a few small motorhomes and cars waiting in line. There is also plenty of foot traffic and we surmise that many people go to the mainland either to work or for shopping as there is little to be had in Provenir. The crossing is on a stretch of glacial waters called Canal Ancho and in the distance we can see small islands, other fiords and mountain glaciers. It was a beautiful 2 and a half hour boat ride. Punta Arenas is much larger than we had thought and we are pleased. We feel sure that we can find tires and have the motorhome serviced. Tom is concerned about the transmission and he wants the brakes and radiator checked also. We will probably stay in town for a few days before heading to Puerto Natales and Torres Del Paine.