Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Isla Tierra del Fuego

There is odd border delineation between Argentina and Chile to get to Ushuaia which means crossing the borders twice. We had been told that Chile was strict regarding anything brought into the country in the way of meats, fruits and vegetables and could be sticklers with regard to Winston but things went well. With Winston we decided to hold off offering the now out of date Argentina health certificate that we had gotten in Buenos Aires unless asked for it. We just gave them our 2 year old USDA form, transportation of animals certificate and proof of rabies vaccination. That was approved and stamped and the officials marveled that we had been on the road for almost 2 years and with a dog. The motorhome inspection was thorough and more extensive than we had anticipated. I put Winston on a leash and walked him, whilst they brought in a dog to sniff for food, drugs, who knows what. They left our vacuum sealed deli meats alone but took some open salami and some old carrots. We had frozen fish and prawns that were ok but they took all of the vegetables including potatoes, onions and garlic which we thought were ok to bring into Chile but apparently not. Since we had not tried to use it up they got quite a lot of garlic from us. Oh well, live and learn. From there it is only about 30 mile (50 kilometers) to catch the ferry across the Straits of Magellan onto the island of Tierra del Fuego. On the way we passed a lake that had the largest flock of Austral (Chilean) flamingoes we have seen to date. At the ferry dock we were lucky. The boat runs every 90 minutes or so and when we pulled up there were some cars, a few motorcycles and a bus already in line. Ten minutes later the ferry arrived. It did not take long before our line was moving and we were aboard. As the bus and a few trucks were situated, we grabbed the camera to get some photos of the crossing. Suddenly a huge wave washed over the deck that sent people running for cover. I scrambled back into the motorhome. “Can you please get some photos?” I asked Tom. “Sure, let me be the one to get wet, but I have to get the tickets so ok”. The crossing was wet and the water rough. The huge ferry lurched and ploughed its way through the water, as waves kept coming over the deck. Thank God none of us gets motion sickness! When we drove off the ferry there was the sign. Bienviedos a Isla Tierra del Fuego. To get to San Sebastian and the Chilean/Argentina border crossing involved driving, once again on a dirt and gravel road. After 150 kilometers (100 miles) of bumping and jarring we were glad to see the Customs and Immigration building for exiting Chile. Paperwork completed, it was another 15 kilometers to the Argentinean side. They simply re-used the paperwork from before and stamped our passports. We need gas and yet again the YFP station is out of gas. It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. “Not until tomorrow” the gas attendant told us. Shoot, not only tomorrow but late in the evening. So, it was 2 nights at the gas station waiting. Finally, on the morning of the third day we were on our way. Fearful that we might have additional gas problems, we filled up in Rio Grande and again in Tolhuin but our goal is Ushuaia before dark. The Andes are in sight and to get to Ushuaia involves climbing over a mountain pass. The rain has brought snow to the higher elevations and the sight is beautiful. We stop at a mirador (lookout) to take in the views. With Lake Fagnano shimmering a deep, dark blue in the distance and the snow capped peaks in front of us; the views were picture postcard magnificent. Then, Ushuaia. The stone pillars at the edge of town greet us. Welcome to the southernmost town in the world, the sign proclaimed. We got out and asked a family taking photos if they would mind taking ours with Winston of course. We had made it. It has been 23 months since leaving the United States and we have driven almost 30,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) but we have reached our destination. We will find the campgrounds and stay a week, maybe more.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The final leg to Isla Tierra del Fuego.

We stayed in Puerto San Julian for three days. The campground was extremely well maintained and in addition to everything else, they had Wi-Fi. My birthday was very quiet. Tom had bought me a pendant and earrings made from Rodocrosita (Inca Rose) which is a pretty pink colored volcanic stone and is the national stone of Argentina and a penguin statue made from the same stone. For dinner, he cooked me a delicious scallop and pasta dish and we had caviar and champagne as an appetizer. We spoke to our family and kids via Skype so the day was very special. I did our taxes. They are now completed and e-filed. A huge task out of the way. A Brazilian couple, Luis and his wife, whom we first met in Foz do Iguaçu, is here so we spent some time exchanging information with them. They have already been to El Calafate and from here will go to Bariloche before going to the beach at Mar del Plata, then to Buenos Aires. The weather has turned very cold. This morning it was 47 degs F. in the RV and we are now sleeping with a blanket and a comforter. We had hoped to make it to Rio Gallegos or Lago Azul to spend the night and cross the border on Wednesday. It was not to be. The town after San Julian is Piedrabuena and there was a protest going on which closed route 3 until about 6pm. The police, gendarmerie and military were out but really did nothing to get the protestors from moving out of the road. What they were protesting we have no idea. Unlike in the States, there were no banners or placards showing evidence of their cause and no chanting. Maybe it is the gas situation. I don’t know what the problem is in Argentina but in all our travels we have not ran into a gas dilemma like they have here. Stations are constantly running out of fuel, which causes long lines with people waiting for hours. We had gone to stations prior that either were out or would only sell it as little but now in Patagonia with stations getting further apart, it is a problem. We get fuel at every opportunity but leaving San Julian none of the gas stations (2 YPF and a BR station) had fuel. The next town about 80 miles (150 Km) is Piedrabuena. The only station is a YPF and they were also out of fuel. So, the protest did not matter since gas was not delivered until 10:30 that night. Yes, we were stuck and waiting almost 10 hours for gas. And then they would only let us get 300 pesos (about 15 gallon) but we think that will get us to Rio Gallegos. Frustrated over the hold up and at a loss to explain why it happens, we spent the night at the station and will continue on tomorrow. Anyone reading this with any insight make a comment. The last night on the mainland before getting on to the island of Tierra del Fuego, we camped at Laguna Azul. This is a crater lake about 6 kilometers from the border. It was really windy when we arrived but Tom grabbed the camera and with Winston hiked up the hill to the lake. Only 5 minutes later the rain started and combined with the wind, was ferocious. Winston got back to the motorhome first panting and soaked; Tom arrived a few minutes later, out of breath and soaked. The wind and rain gusted over the RV all night but we stayed cozy. The next morning was still windy but the rain had stopped, so I hiked up to the lake. The lake is a deep blue and looks deep and dark and cold. The volcanic lava rock crunches under my feet. Standing at the top looking around at the mountains, is beautiful and lonely. I took more photos but did not get too close to the edge in case the wind swept me over. It was so blustery. After breakfast it was time to cross the border into Chile.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Monumento Parque Bosque Petrificado (Petrified Forest) - Almost

Route 3 is interesting only in as much that it travels inland through the high steppe dry, arid desert type climate with low shrubs and sparse vegetation and then drops into coastal regions where the vegetation is more lush and green. Through the steppe areas we see estancias that have herds of sheep, herds of wild guanaco, a variety of hawks and prey birds and flocks of Choique (the Lesser Rhea) which mass along the side of the busy road sometimes unfortunately, to their demise. These are a flightless bird rather like an emu and there are plenty of them. We had seen their larger cousins – the Greater Rhea – when we were in Brazil. We are also seeing lots of oil wells, some operational and some not. Argentina is almost self sufficient in oil and now we know where it comes from. The coastal regions have, of course, a vast variety of sea life and mammals. Nevertheless, route 3 involves driving hundreds of miles with unchanging scenery. We are also getting gas at every station we come to. In the town of Fitz Roy, the first station we went to have no gas but the second did. As Tom was getting the petrol, I noticed they had Wi-Fi advertised and got out the computers. Yes! Although we knew it would set us back an hour or so, we decide to Skype family, post blogs and check banking and emails. I am behind on sending emails to friends but will catch up in Ushuaia. We do speak to Tom’s sister who brings us up to date on family matters and we tentatively set up a Skype at the weekend so Tom’s mom can be there and we are able to speak with Danny and leave a message for Nicole (our children). At least the family knows we are alive and well. As we turn off the main highway onto the gravel road to the reserve, it is already 5pm and the reserve closes at 7. The road is rough and arduous but about half way at about 25km marker, there is an estancia advertising camping so we decide to pull in and spend the night and go onto the park in the morning. The ranch is deserted except for one man who is the caretaker of the property. Carlos shows us an area to park. There is a kitchen with cooking facilities and tables for eating and bathrooms with hot water showers. As we chat with him and he shows us the rest of the ranch, Winston is in seventh heaven. There is a sheep dog here which is very friendly and also pleased with canine companionship. The two dogs become buddies immediately and are soon tearing around the ranch, playing and tussling with one another. It was just what Winston needed. As we go back to the RV to prepare dinner, we see that the newly plugged tire had gone flat. Whether from the plug coming loose or from a rock on the road, we don’t know. Eating a dinner of cheese fondue with French bread and sausages, Tom tries to decide whether to change the tire tonight or wait until morning. Why wait? As I clean and wash dishes he gets the spare from the back and sets to work. He also goes on the roof as we have scraped a few trees getting in and out of cramped camping places and puts some silicone seal around some of the areas. Good thing as we wake up the next morning to heavy rain. “Sure glad I changed that tire last night” was the first thing Tom said when he woke up. “Thought the same thing” I added sipping coffee. Tom went back to sleep. When he woke again it was still raining. We talk about our latest problem and decide to cut our losses. It makes no sense to keep driving on the gravel road for another 50 km round trip without a spare tire and no way to communicate if anything goes wrong. We are going to get back to the main road and go to Puerto San Julian, the next major town and try to get the tire repaired again and find a campground for the night. It turns out that Puerto San Julian is quite a nice beach town and the municipal campgrounds are clean and very well maintained with tall shrubs to act as buffers against the wind, electricity, water and internet. Tomorrow is my birthday, yes we all have one and tomorrow is mine. Since there is internet to talk with friends and family, we will stay here for two nights before making out final push to Ushuaia.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Comodoro Rivadavia and Rada Tilly

C. Rivadavia is the largest town in Patagonia. It is a port town located on the Atlantic and Rada Tilly is a small beach community only about 10 km (6 miles) to the south. In Trelew, we had been told of a propane plant that would be able to fill the motorhome so that was first on our itinerary. Approaching any large town you always pass through a police checkpoint but very rarely stopped, however we have found them very friendly and knowledgeable about the area. This one was no different. Tom went inside to ask about the facility and was told it was about 6 kilometer from town and they verified that yes, the plant should be able to help us. Naturally, we got lost and stopped by the local fire station for further help. They set us on track again and said that SurGas was actually on route 3 just passed the main part of town on the left. Since it is in the direction of Rada Tilly where we will spend the night, we drove and looked but still could not see the place. As we got to the turnoff for the beach, we decide to find the campground and look for propane in the morning. As we also need to get a lubrication on the under carriage and have the tires rotated, balanced and aligned, we will stay in town for two nights. Rada Tilly is a pretty beach town and new. There was a beautiful sandy beach with a new sea wall and promenade built from stone and brick. Even the sand looked imported. There were plenty of brand new homes and many others under construction. Looking around we decide that at one time the small town was a run-down area and now is slowly becoming an upscale beach suburb for the more affluent of Rivadavia. The municipal campground is nestled against the cliffs on the north side of the beach and had plenty of signs including one which said “no animals”. Tom parked and went to the office. We have found that no pets just mean they don’t want dogs running free and bothering others and the same was the case here. Just keep him close to your RV and it will be ok. The campground is busy but has hot showers, electricity and water but although Wi-Fi was advertised we could not get it, not even at the office. No real explanation was given. Oh well. After we parked, 4 children ran up to us. We had first met them in Puerto Madryn and they recognized the motorhome. There were hugs and kisses all round with special hugs for Winston. Tom set up the grill for dinner. We had stopped at a market and had purchased Patagonian lamb for dinner. We were hungry and the lamb chops were very good. Winston got some to and then we took him down to the beach for a long run. The next morning after stopping for gas, we got additional directions. It was confirmed that the propane place was about 4 km going towards Rivadavia, on the right. We set off wondering how we could have missed the place. We drove slowly, got most of the way to town and still could not find it. We turned back and finally as we passed the one cross street to look for, we noticed it on the next block, tucked into a group of commercial buildings. We were in luck, there was a truck available and they could fill us. This was one of those places that you look and look for and once you find it you wonder how you could have missed it. From there we went to a lubrication shop we had seen and then onto the tire place, both we had noticed as we trolled up and down route 3 looking for propane. As they removed the tires for rotation, we got another surprise. We have dual tires on the rear and one of the inside tires had a puncture. It had to have been recent but there was a nail in it. They plugged the puncture and Tom had them put it on the outside rear so we could keep an eye on it. They also told us we were too wide for them to balance and align us, so we will wait and have those done in Ushuaia. After that it was back to the campground for dinner and to decide where we want to go next. There are two alternatives. After Fitz Roy (the town not the mountain) we could go to Puerto Desearto to another penguin colony. This is about a 250 km (160 mile) detour to the beach and back. The other is stay on route 3 and then take a gravel road to the Monumento Bosque Petrificado (a petrified forest reserve), which is a detour of about 100 km (60 mile) round trip. Or we could always stay on route 3 and keep going south. Tom has had his fill of penguins as he put it so we decide to go to the petrified forest and then south. When we woke up, it was raining but soon cleared up. We said good-bye with more hugs to the family from Chile and got a fairly early start for us, which means around 11 am!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Camarones and Cabo Dos Bahias.

Cabo Dos Bahias is the third Magellanic penguin colony we will visit and the last in the Golfo San Jorge area. It is the smallest and least visited of the three but we have been told it is the most beautiful area of coastline. The town closest to the colony is Camarones which has a municipal campground where we can stay There is also a gas station. Since getting into Patagonia, gas stations are less frequent and we have been told to fill up whenever possible as some run out of gas and others, as we have already experienced, will only sell you a certain amount. Since there has been no gas since Trelew, we were relieved to find a station here. The campground is small but well maintained and is situated across the road from the beach. But first we visit the penguin colony. After entering through the gates, we notice that there is less supervision, no visitors’ center and a lot less people. There are in the region of 40,000 penguins here with 9,600 breeding pairs. As we walk through the colony we marvel at how close we can get and how comfortable they are around people. These birds do not see humans as a threat at all and are completely unafraid to come up and get very close. But don’t break the cardinal rule. “Don’t pet the penguins!” There are many small islands offshore and from one vantage point we were able to spot sea lions and elephant seals. Winston was again left in the motorhome but we promised him a run on the beach and as we headed back to town we fulfilled that promise. Unfortunately, most of the beaches consist of crushed stones and small pebbles. Not nearly as comfortable as sand and Winston finds he can’t run as well since he slips on the stones. Our camping site is facing the water and is fairly sheltered from the wind. There is a small restaurant attached and after looking at the menu decide to try it out. There are restaurants in town but conforming to Argentinean ideas of dinner, they don’t open until 8pm and that is just too late for us. The menu advertised salmon but when it arrived it was not salmon as we are accustomed. It is a white, firm meat and not fishy. Perhaps halibut or bass? We also ordered a seafood plate and it consisted of huge prawns, scallops, octopus, more of the salmon and salmon mousse. The food was fresh and excellent. Just as we finished eating, a truck pulled up and two local fishermen got out. They had come to sell their catch to the restaurant and now we saw the “salmon” up close. It is a huge fish, about 3 – 4 ft (over a meter) in length and though we still can’t decide what it is, we can rule out halibut. We watched the owner get out his hook and scale and negotiate with the fishermen. After they agreed on the price, he immediately began gutting and cleaning them. We asked if we could purchase a couple of steaks from him for the next day and he said that would be ok. Back at the RV, I checked our field guide for Patagonia and found out that salmon de mar is actually a member of the perch family. All we knew was that it was a very tasty fish and next morning we picked up our package of two large pieces, enough for two meals, for only $8.00 or so. If we had more time we would have stayed an extra day here, it is so peaceful and beautiful but we are conscious that the month is slipping away and we need to get to Ushuaia. Next stop Comodoro Rivadavia.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Punta Tombo and Winston’s own penguin encounter.

This is the largest Magellanic penguin breeding colony in the world and by far the most visited. Visitors arrive at an upper parking lot and after a trip to the visitors’ center are driven in vans down to the colony. Over a million penguins come here every year to have their offspring. By now, their babies are leaving the nest but still not feeding themselves. We were able to watch as one or another of the parents leave the nest and walk to the ocean. For some of them, this is a long walk. After feeding, they return to feed their young. There are penguins everywhere and while we were told to stay on the designated trails and walkways, penguins have the right-of-way. There is just no way to avoid them. They are curious and check us out as they go about whatever business penguins have. The babies are beginning to molt and shed their baby fuzz and are adorable. Because the reserve’s plan is not to interfere with the colony and allow it to grow as naturally as possible, we see the remains of penguins that have perished and have become carrion for the other wildlife here. We also assume that is why there are foxes and other predators in the area both on land and at sea. But an astounding number survive as was evident by the penguins in burrows, in the ocean and walking back and forth. We now have over a hundred photos of penguins to sort through. Back at the motorhome, Winston is waiting for us. He is definitely not allowed to go where there are penguins but we walk him before we leave and get a boisterous greeting when we return, give him another walk and a treat for being so good. From here to travel south there are two options. The sensible one is to take the paved road back to route 3 and then to Camarones on another paved road. The other is to drive the gravel road for about 160 kilometers (100 miles), following the ocean. Sensible out the window, we chose to take the ocean road. Our plan is to get to the next town of Cabo Raso tonight and then on to Camarones tomorrow. We figure the drive will take us between 4 and 5 hours because of road conditions. In the entire drive we passed a total of 2 cars. One between Punta Tombo and Cabo Raso and the other the next day on the way to Camarones. There are a couple of sheep ranches (estancias) but that is all. But the drive along the deserted coast is beautiful. We feel like the only people in the world. Cabo Raso is not a town but a hamlet with a couple of homes. Each had a camping sign in front but we drove a little past the houses to a point that went down to the water. It seemed perfect for the night and nothing around that could get Winston in trouble. As we were setting up to barbeque, a car pulled up with four children in it. That’s right, children. The oldest of about 13 was driving. He also spoke quite good English. He told us we needed to pay. 20 pesos per person and 20 for the motorhome. 60 pesos, about $12.00. Winston was not mentioned. “Is this private property and do you own it?” Tom asked. “Yes”, the boy told us. “Everyone who comes here has to pay. I’ll go get the register.” Off he went. Tom and I talked. These people have so little and we decide to pay. When he returned with the other three we saw the register asking for names and vehicle make and model. We saw quite a large number of Mercedes listed and presumed our German friends must pass through here also. All had paid. Tom gave them our money and then gave them a pin each. They were very pleased and proud of their new acquisitions. We had a quiet, uninterrupted night. The next morning I took Winston to the beach. Imagine my surprise. There was one lone, solitary penguin standing by the water. I scrambled back up the cliff for the camera. When I got back, Winston had stopped unsure of what it was. The penguin busied itself by grooming, at first ignoring him. As the dog edged closer to it, he suddenly stopped grooming and watched him. Winston got closer and the penguin turned, put out its neck and snarled at him. Winston backed up and obviously decided that an approach from the rear was in order. However this put him in the water and I got nervous thinking that the penguin seeing its escape route into the water was cut off might attack him. I called Winston to come but he was so engrossed in the penguin that it took a few more snarls and after it chased him, he finally backed off, trotted past me and went to the safety of the motorhome. Round one to the penguin. I stayed and as I took a couple more photos I noticed the penguin looked different from the ones we had seen. It’s a little bigger and the markings were not quite the same. I will try to remember to send a photo to a couple of birding friends and ask their opinion. After that, it was back on the road. As we bounced and grinded our way to Camarones, we laughed over Winston’s encounter and reaction to the penguin.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Puerto Madryn, Trelew and Gaiman.

Puerto Madryn is the largest town in this section of the country and we need a new rear bumper. Although we have scraped, cleaned and re-painted it, the rust has weakened it and then, we caught is on a tree trunk and bent the darned thing in half! Yep. Just the other day, we were backing up to get to a water hose, scraped against a tree trunk and as Tom pulled forward, there it was, bent and hanging off. As Tom got out to fill the water, I said calmly “Check out the bumper”. A few months ago, this would have upset him, now he looked at it and said “It was rusted and needed replaced anyway”. We were able to bend it back but it serves a duo purpose in also holding our sewer hose. So here we are on a mission to fix it. After stopping off at the tourist office for some directions, we went first to Oxigenio Patagonia to fill up our propane tanks. They were able to fill our portable one but not the large RV tank. Maybe Trelew, they said. Tom showed them the bumper and they sent us to a small soldering repair shop. They in turn sent us to a larger place with bigger equipment. Within 2 hours, they had taken the old one off, fabricated a new piece, painted it and put it on, with our sewer hose, safely inside. $180.00 and great service. It looks great. We found the only campsite that is by the beach. ACA Camping is a huge campground, probably one of the largest we have stayed at since Mexico and expensive at around $30.00 (125 pesos) per night. We found our assigned campsite and noticed that Kurt and Cindy, a Belgian couple we had met in Valdes are also here, parked just a couple of sites away. We say hi and immediately some children, 3 boys and a girl come up to us. The eldest, a boy of about 10 speaks some English. One of the other boys is his brother and the other boy and girl, his cousins. They are here on vacation with the mothers and live in Punta Arena, Chile. Tom carries San Jose Fire Dept. pins and when he gets 4 and pins them on them, he has made friends for life. They go and show their parents and return with a gift for us. An auto map book for Chile. It is great and much better than the map we have. We thank them. Although large and quite crowded, the campground is remarkably quiet at night. There are plenty of places to walk Winston so we decide to spend an extra day here, just relaxing. On Saturday, Tom took a walk into town whilst I stayed at the campsite. He returned with another T-Shirt for himself and a present for me. It is my birthday next week, hence the present. “Do you want it now or on your birthday?” he asked me. Presents are few and far between. It is difficult to surprise one another with gifts when we are travelling so I decide to wait for my birthday. Sunday, we leave and head south to Trelew about 60km (35mile) south of here. There is a town close to Trelew called Gaiman that I want to visit and we will spend the night somewhere in the area before going down the coast to Punta Tombo and Camarones. Trelew and Gaiman are Welsh settlements, founded when Welsh immigrants came in the late 1800’s to escape British suppression and to preserve their language and culture. They settled in the Chubut Valley area and established a farming region. Now, Trelew is just another industrial city but Gaiman has managed to retain much of the old charm and Welsh culture. We found a beautifully maintained Welsh tea house called Casa de Te Gales. Located along the Chubut River, it is situated by a creek with an old water wheel and lots of green grass and trees. And it is tea-time. In the restaurant, we are served High Tea complete with ham and cheese sandwiches, an assortment of bread and scones with two types of preserves, a huge assortment of cream pastries and a big pot of tea, of course. The waitresses are all dressed in long black dresses and white lace aprons. Tom has never had a true English high tea meal before and was pleasantly surprised. He liked it and we had a great time. There was so much food, that we had most of the pastries packed to go. We talked about where to spend the night and decided to go back to Trelew and from there go east to a beach called Playa Union. This turned out to be a small beach town and as it is late on a Sunday, most people have already left. It is quiet and we found a parking lot at the north end that was level for the motorhome and a little protected from the wind. We were able to park with our door facing the water and Winston was able to run on the beach which is actually not as much sand but small gravelly rocks and pebbles. We are not really hungry after eating late in the afternoon, although Tom got some milk and ate a couple more of those pastries. Since there are no facilities and we don’t want to ruin the quiet night by running our generator, we spent the evening with our headlights, reading and going to bed fairly early.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Valdes Peninsula

The Valdes Peninsula is on the Atlantic Coast, in the province of Chubut. At around 1400 sq. mile (3600 sq. km.), the nature reserve was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1999. The coastline is inhabited by sea lions, elephant seals, fur seals and Magellanic penguins. From June through December, thousands of Southern Right whales come to reproduce and give birth here. The months of March and April are known for being the feeding grounds for Orcas, who have developed a technique of beaching themselves to get to the sea lions, must taste yummy! It is a clear, sunny but windy day. Following the map given to us by the guide at the Visitor Center and her instructions, we headed to Punta Cantor. “Be there around 11am as that is high tide and so the animals are closer and easier to see” she had said. The only paved road on the peninsula is route 2 coming in. All other roads are crushed gravel and in parts, quite rough going. Punta Cantor is 75km (about 47mile) away and took us an hour and a half to get there. We went first to the ranger station where the elephant seal colonies are. Getting out of the RV, we were surprised to see a group of eight grey foxes hanging around. They did not seem particularly scared and I managed to get fairly close to two who were sunning themselves. Unfortunately, the colony of seals was quite far away but we had stunning views from the cliffs of an area known as the Caleta Valdes, a large natural inlet and beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean. The sea is a beautiful bright blue and so clear. It would make for some superb diving or snorkeling. From there we went north a few miles to the penguin colony. This is the first time we have ever seen penguins in their natural habitat. These are small Magellanic penguins, standing about 18 inches (50cms) tall. They are black and white and so cute. Their burrows are everywhere. They are not at all shy and come very close to us. There are plenty of signs saying not to touch or feed them. The penguins are everywhere. By the water, swimming and playing, climbing the cliff to their burrows and coming up to visitors. Suddenly, two appeared at my feet. I had not seen their burrow and they emerged, shaking and started to groom themselves. “Late risers” I said to Tom and we laughed as he took more photos. Following the coast, our final stop was 47km (30mile) further north at Punta Norte. Known for its sea lion and elephant seal breeding colonies it is most famous, thanks to National Geographic, as the area where, because of the shallow beach conditions the Orcas (Killer whales) have developed a unique hunting strategy. They literally race through the shallow surf to snatch sea lions or young elephant seal, often throwing themselves onto the beach in the process. It is too early for the hunting season but we had been told that pods of Orcas had been seen off the coast however today was not one of them. We left without spotting any but we did see thousands of sea lions and elephant seals all with lots of pups so when those Orcas do show up, there is plenty of food. Back in the parking lot there was a very curious and friendly pichi running around. This is like a hairy armadillo but with a tail. More photographs. One lady committed the ultimate transgression on a nature reserve by feeding it. As we left she and the guard were exchanging heated words but honestly is there a person out there who does not know that universally you never, ever feed the wild animals. As Tom said she knew she was wrong but did not like being caught and then chastised by a guard in front of people. Don’t feed the animals and no matter how hard it might be, don’t touch the penguins. It was now another 90 minutes drive back to town. As we drove we saw herds of the guanaco out on the pampas and plenty of birds which we try to identify using our newly acquired Patagonia and Antarctica field guide. Back in town we stopped off at a couple of the souvenir shops. I bought a fleece jacket as my winter clothes are in scarce supply and Tom a T-shirt. We also got a couple of stickers to put on our rear window advertising the fact that we have actually been here. It was then back to our parking spot from the night before and a long run on the beach for Winston who has been a real trooper today and very patient. As the wind continued to rock out motorhome and put me to sleep, my thoughts were on penguins. Don’t pet the penguins.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Viedma to Valdes Peninsula – 325 miles (525km)

It took two days to reach the peninsula with an overnight stop in Las Grutas. The vista has changed. It is now all pampas with dry shrubs and thistle-like bushes. It is hot and windy. After an informative stop at the tourist office we had about 10 campgrounds to choose from but we wanted one close to the water. Although a “wild camp” was always an option we thought a campsite might offer more protection from the wind than the parking areas up on blustery cliffs. After checking out the two campgrounds closest to the water we chose Poder Judicial instead of Golfo Azul for the simple reason that Poder Judicial was less expensive. Winston needs a walk. It was low tide which meant it was quite a long walk to the sea, crossing a reef. Tom and Winston took off whilst I cleaned the RV. They returned about 90 minutes later looking exhausted. Winston was panting and Tom…well, if he could have panted he would have! The walk, the heat and the wind is just too much. We settled in for a simple chicken stir-fry dinner and called it a night. And what a night. The wind rose to a crescendo at about 2:30am and rocked the motorhome. It seemed to swirl and change directions every 30 minutes or so. In the morning, there was a fine layer of sand over everything. Yuck. Tom walked Winston while I cleaned up again and we were on our way. Just outside of Las Grutas was another meat-check point. We had cooked the last of our chicken last night so the only meat we had left was deli ham and salami and some bones for Winston. That was ok so we were on our way fairly quickly, passing scenery fairly similar to yesterday except the wind is not so strong and it is much cooler. A nice surprise was at Sierra Grande. At this point the gas prices drop significantly to “Patagonia” prices. For us it means about $1.50 less per gallon. I am not sure why the gas is so much cheaper in Patagonia but we are grateful. We are now at $3.67 a gallon. Yeah!! The turnoff to route 2 for the Valdes Peninsula is about 10 mile before Puerto Madryn and there are plenty of signs advertising the marine life and birds on the reserve. As soon as we were on route 2 we started seeing guanaco, a brown and white llama-like animal and plenty of sheep. We made a stop at the reserve’s information center where a lady explained to us in English how best to appreciate and get the most out of our stay on the peninsula. Since it is 7pm, she pointed to a point close to the one and only town, Puerto Piramides. “There is a sea lion colony there” she explained, “also the most amazing sunsets, which tonight is at 9:30pm.” From there she said we could go into town and camp. She also showed us a route for tomorrow which passes penguin and sea lion colonies and another where there are sea lions but also orcas (killer whales). She said that usually the Orcas come in March and April to feed but there have been sightings. The southern right whales that also mate and give birth here have already started their migration. We had spotted those off the coast in Uruguay and hoped to see them again but it was not too be. We went to the first point to see the sea lions. This is a “small” colony of a few hundred and they were spread out on both sides of the point. They were clearly audible, though not as clear as a family who were on the point with their extremely clearly audible screaming child. It seemed as though every time I moved to another area, they followed. We took photos and finally the family left, leaving only the blessed quiet except for the sounds of seabirds and the sea lions. We had left Winston in the RV as there were signs posted to respect the silence and not to take dogs down to the viewing platforms, wish they had the same for children! The sun was setting but we were tired. We went into the town and found the large parking area by the water designated for motorhomes. It is already much cooler and Tom wore a heavy shirt to walk Winston while I settled the RV and prepared a soup and sandwich meal. We are close to the water and again the wind is blowing. It will be a colder night but we have cliffs nearby so hopefully they will offer some protection through the night. We talk about seeing penguins and I am hoping to at least catch glimpses of orcas. We’ll see.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Carmen de Patagones, Viedma, a niece and an International Swim Meet

Located about 1,000 Km (600 mile) from Capital Federal, on the north bank of the Rio Negro (Black River), Carmen de Patagones is the southernmost town in the province of Buenos Aires. There is a beautiful, neo-gothic cathedral whose spires dominate the skyline of the colonial town. On the southern side is the more modern town of Viedma in the province of Rio Negro. Separated by the river, they are both pretty with beautiful river walks, plenty of grassy areas to picnic and play and some very good restaurants, offering outdoor seating to watch the river meander passed. This is where Haley and the other international swimmers will race. We have not seen her since Christmas 2009. Since then, she has branched out and not only competes in pool events for both University of Southern California (USC), where she is a junior and the US Swim Team but also swims “open water” competitions in either seas or rivers representing the United States. When we were home in August she was swimming in China and had told us that the river there was pretty “yucky”! We checked out the river here. The Rio Negro appears fairly clean and providing the wind doesn’t blow too strong the current looks manageable. It also isn’t black but a brownish-green color with attractive willow trees lining its banks on both sides. On Wednesday she showed up at the RV at around 11AM. Although arriving late last night, she has already had a practice and team meeting. She’s tired. After confirming her schedule: a one mile race on Thursday at 3PM, a 10K race Saturday at 10AM with twice daily practices, we decide to play it day to day and arrange to meet her for dinner that evening at 7. After going to drop off some laundry and stopping by the tourist office, we decide to go to a beach community about 30 kilometers (20 mile) away. El Condor is very nice and we find a couple of campsites that we can stay for some of the nights which have electricity. We also found an internet and let family know that we had met up with Haley and she would be joining us for dinner. The evening was fun and we caught up on all of her news: college, swimming and family. We recanted some of our travel stories. After dinner we went back to the RV and Haley was able to check in with her dad via Skype. We set up a call for 11 o’clock the following morning (6 in the US) so she could Skype both of her parents and sister. Thursday was a bright, sunny day. The race will be held on the Carmen de Patagones side of the river. We went to the hotel, hoping to follow the van taking the swimmers but had missed it. Instead we met Luigi and Sylvia who have helped in organizing the event. Luigi rode with us and we followed Sylvia to the Nautical Club where the race was held. They got us into the VIP section and we were introduced to everyone around us. We were surprised at the number of people and spectators. Besides the 3 member US Swim Team, there were swimmers from Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Canada, Germany, Spain, Israel and Russia (and maybe some I missed). This is a fast race only about 20 minutes. The men go first and after a 5 min interval, the ladies follow. On the home stretch we are cheering, wildly. The men. Canada first, the US took second. Then the ladies. A Brazilian in first, a German second and Haley in third place. She is so happy. This is a short race for her (she swims 10K), the water feels great, not too cold or too warm and the current is manageable. She feels confident and is ecstatic. The trophies are very nice too! The newspaper La Costa interviews her and then us. She is one of only a few of the swimmers with family here and from so far away! After we celebrate, we arrange to see her in the morning and we go back to El Condor for the night. Visiting the next day, she is exhausted. Between jet lag/time difference, practice, meetings and a press conference, and racing as well, she wants to do nothing. We visit in her room for a while, shelve lunch plans and tell her we’ll see her before the race tomorrow. Instead of driving back to El Condor, we find a great area past the tourist center which is quiet, yet close to the river. We spend the afternoon reading and taking long riverside walks with Winston, occasionally allowing him off leash to run and cool off in the water. Saturday morning we moved the RV closer to where the swim meet was. We already knew many of the organizers thanks to Luigi and Sylvia and so had no problems getting past security. It was truly the definition of organized chaos. Swimmers, coaches, FINA officials, TV, radio and newspaper reporters and all the staff that make up an event like this where milling around. All swimmers are marked on the back of their hands, both biceps and both shoulder blades with a number so they can be identified and kept track of. They are also greased with Vaseline and sunscreens for protection and to keep their limbs slippery to prevent other swimmers from grabbing them. In addition, they need a variety of liquids and power items to keep them hydrated and provide energy. There are 25 women and 31 men swimming and all are preparing for the race in different ways. We found Haley. She hugged and kissed us. She seems well-rested, relaxed and confident. The weather is near perfect for the race, a gentle breeze and the current is slow. We met her teammate, Eva and her coach with US swim, Bryce. This is a 10K (6.2 mile). They will make what is in effect 4 laps around a buoyed area. Across river, down, across and back up again. Every time they pass “home” there will be people with long poles stretched into the water offering water, power drinks and power gels packets. The race will last a little more than 2 hours. The men go first, the ladies after 5 minutes or so. We hug Haley a final time, wish her luck and watch her go to the starting point. A floating deck stretched into the river. They swim to it and hoist themselves up. She sees us; smiles, waves and the countdown began. They’re off. I say a silent prayer for her safety. The first time they pass, she is in the middle of the first group with Eva. On the second pass there is now a group of about 6 and she and Eva are hanging in. Third time around, we are thrilled. Haley and Eva are in front and looking good. But there is still a fourth lap. We could hear the announcer and I was trying to keep up in Spanish over the speaking system. The ladies who do “doping control” testing were preparing for the end of the race. “Your niece is doing good” one of them told me in English. “We think the Americans will take first and second” Carolina from the La Costa newspaper added. At the finish we were jumping with joy. Eva came in first and Haley second. They were both beaming with joy as they came past the finish line. There were high fives, hugs and kisses all round. It had been a great meet for the US team and Haley had medaled in both her races. We hugged, took photographs, got photographed and hugged more. As we waited for the medal ceremony and then lunch, she and her teammate went back to the river, to swim and loosen up. It was great fun to watch she and Eva get their awards and then it was time for lunch, they were starving. Afterwards it was more hugs and kisses as we said good-bye. She has to check out and have a post-meet dinner before leaving at midnight for the 10 to 12 hour van ride back to Buenos Aires and then home. And we were equally as thrilled. To be in Viedma to watch our niece participate in the races and to have performed so well. It couldn’t have been better.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Buenos Aires to Viedma (the coast route)

After finally receiving the fridge and getting it installed, we were ready to leave the capital. It took us one week and some fees to get it from customs and storage. I don’t want to bore everyone with the morbid, lurid step by step procedure but if anyone reading wants more info for shipping things to Buenos Aires, drop me an email and I will share the details. Since we have time before meeting Haley in Viedma on February 1st, we decided to take the coastal route (RP11) through La Plata to Mar Del Plata and then to Bahia Blanca and Viedma, a total of close to 1,000 miles (1,660 km). We have plenty of time and our plan is to drive a little each day and stay at a different spot every night. The first thing was a routine traffic stop just after crossing the bridge out of Capital Federal to La Plata. Routine! There were three officials. As one checked our auto permit, another ran a check on our passports. The third handed Tom (who was driving) a packet to open. It was a tip to the breathalyzer control unit he was holding. He showed Tom where to put it and to blow into it. Since it is only 2pm or so, naturally we had had no alcoholic drinks. Our policy is to not have a beer until we are parked for the night. Additionally we also know that Argentina has only a .04 tolerance (one beer max will put you over the limit) and there is mandatory jail and stiff fines attached. Tom blew as directed and the official showed him the results. A Zero! We couldn’t tell if they were disappointed or not. After handing us back all our documentation we were on our way. So, all other travelers beware, Argentina tests! Our first night we stayed in Punta Atalaya at a municipal balneario. Although there were lots of people, it was quiet at night. We got on the road early and drove around Bahia Samborombon. There are many small beach communities and we stopped at a tourist office for campsites. Unfortunately, this is tourist season. During January and February school is out and most families take their vacations during this period. As a result the first couple of campsites we went to in San Clemente and Santa Teresita had a 2 – 4 night minimum stay. We finally found a campground in Mar Del Tuyu that would let us stay for one night. It was filled with families but again we got lucky and through the night it was quiet. The next day, we passed through Mar del Plata, without stopping and went further south to Miramar. Mar del Plata was crazy, wall-to-wall people. Miramar was not much better. On our travels we have seen crowded beaches but this was insane. All the beaches we have seen and passed through since leaving Buenos Aires are so crowded; we began to regret taking this route. The Rio del Plata and then the Atlantic Ocean are beautiful but there is no way to enjoy it. There is, literally too many people. Not one square inch of sand is visible and in the water, people are shoulder to shoulder. In Miramar, the campground was inland so we decided instead to park on a cliff overlooking the north end of the town and beach. After dusk and in the morning were the best. No people. We were able to make our way down steps in the cliff to a beach devoid of humanity save for the occasional surf fisherman and a few others fishing from a jetty. Winston finally got in a good run and play. From there we drove inland to Tres Arroyos and found a terrific posada by early afternoon. It had a beautiful sparkling pool and we quickly cooled off. After sunset, we had the place to ourselves. We had planned on staying longer on the beaches but because of the crowds had kept moving. We are now a day ahead of schedule. Tempted though we were to spend an extra day here, we decided to push on. Better to arrive in Viedma a day early than late. Our last night on the road was in Bahia Blanca at another municipal balneario. These municipal campsites are great. They are inexpensive and usually have electricity and water plus a pool or beach access. We have heard that some are noisy at night but our luck held and again we had a quiet nights sleep. From there it was onto Viedma and Patagonia. The generic name “Patagonia” actually refers to all land south of the Rio Negro, which we crossed at Pedro Luro. Prior to that we passed through two food checkpoints. The first just outside of Bahia Blanca and the second just south of Pedro Luro. Both points look for the same products. Namely any kind of fresh or frozen meats (beef, chicken, pork or lamb) and most fruits. I saw very few fruits that were not listed. Our only transgression was two frozen pork chops which were confiscated. Apparently Patagonia has an international crediting of being free of fruit fly and hoof and mouth disease. As a result no meat or fruit is allowed to cross into the area. They were not interested in vegetables or dairy products. As we drove we passed acres upon acres of gorgeous, full bloom sunflowers. Fields as far as the eye could see were just a mass of gold. They were incredibly beautiful. At one glorious point, Tom stopped the vehicle and climbed onto the roof to take some photos. We arrived in Viedma with plenty of time to find Haley’s hotel and leave her a note. She is flying from the States to Buenos Aires, then another plane to Bahia Blanca and from there the 6 hour van drive to Viedma. Hope she’s not too exhausted to swim!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tango (The Dance of Passion) and a Tango Show (Tango Porteno)

What the exuberant samba is to Brazil so the tango is synonymous to Argentina and specifically Buenos Aires. Loneliness, despair and jealousy are all themes of tango song and the accompanying dance is all about Latin machismo, passionate and flamboyant. Tango is in the air in Buenos Aires and its melancholy sounds are everywhere. Whether it was from a construction worker who sang while he worked as I walked Winston every morning in Puerto Madero to a taxi driver who serenaded us as he drove us to Palermo Soho and La Cabrera, the tango melodies linger. The beginnings of the Buenos Aires love of tango comes from the immigrants who came in droves at the end of the 1800’s. Consisting of descendants from African slaves, boatloads of Italians and Spanish, and mostly male, they mixed their national music to create the tango sound and the dance, which came before lyrics were introduced to the music, was usually performed by two males. However it did not gain popularity with upper class Argentineans until it became accepted in Europe especially France. In 1917, Carlos Gardel became the first great tango singer when he recorded Mi Noche Triste. Although the arguments continue as to whether he was born in Uruguay or France (I’ll leave that to others), the Portenos embraced him and so tango became the rage. Due partly to an economic recession and a successive string of military dictatorships prohibiting public meetings, tango went into a decline in the 1950’s which continued through to the 1980’s when it’s slow revival started in Paris with the show “Tango Argentina”. Now it is in resurgence and the young people of Buenos Aires have come to accept it as a definite evolutionary part of their culture. Visit San Telmo or La Boca and you can hear and see tango in its many forms being performed on the street corners and in small restaurants. With this resurrection, there are now a plethora of tango shows being performed on stages and a visit to one for me was essential. Again we asked around and one kept popping up – Senor Tango. I checked them out online and it is touted as a “Las Vegas” style show, just seemed to touristy for my needs. I want tango, pure and simple. When we had visited the Teatro (Opera House) we had seen one called Tango Porteno. I checked online again and about one other La Ventana. After much agonizing, back and forth, and Tom finally saying “Please just choose one” I settled on Tango Porteno. Tickets were available online but with tickets starting at $45.00 for just the show or $78.00 for show and drinks (these seats are way back) up to $178.00 for VIP front row, we couldn’t decide on which level of tickets to purchase, so decided to wing it. There were also dinner options but these were really expensive and the food just didn’t seem that interesting to us considering the huge price difference. We arrived at around 9:45pm for the 10:30pm show, yes things start late in Argentina. We told the doorman that we had no tickets and he pointed to a lady, dressed in a 1940’s style costume. She showed us what was available, all price ranges and we looked and discussed. We went back and forth between %78.00 tickets, quite far from the stage to $108.00 which was closer. There were some good seats in the $178.00 range but we really didn’t want to spend that much. Finally she made our decision easy. If we paid for the $108 section, she would upgrade us to the VIP $178.00 seats and pointed to a table, front row and center. Deal and decided. We forked over $216.00 but would it be worth it? The theatre itself is a completed renovated Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie theatre and is beautiful. It has been restored in every detail in pure art deco from the 40’s. We were shown to our table and our waiter seated us and asked what we drank. Drinks are included in the ticket price but Tom gave him 100 pesos ($25.00) and said “I drink beer, my wife, red wine. Within 5 minutes an ice bucket with 6 beers and not one but two bottles of red wine in a separate bucket (no ice). As a side note, all the negative comments about this show online stemmed from complaints that they were seated at the back even though there were better seats available and bad service from either only getting poured one drink and then ignored and/or not getting an appetizer, which is also included. To those people, I offer my ideas. If all you pay for is a cheap seat, then that is what you get. Either ask for an upgrade (it never hurts to ask) or offer the maître a little extra for a table closer to the stage and tip your waiter first! You won’t see him again after tonight and you want him to remember you, now. The drinks and appetizers may be included but good service is extra. And the show was spectacular. The meticulous scenery and gorgeous costumes create the ultimate effect of transporting you back in time to the reign of tango in the 40’s. The 12 piece orchestra was a joy to listen to and the dancers were just phenomenal. Two in particular one dance in which the female danced wearing a blindfold with only her partner to guide her through the truly intricate footwork and then another female dancer who danced a solo with a mannequin that she “brought to life”. The entire show was original and imaginative. There may be others in Buenos Aires that is as good but we were very happy with our choice. The taxi driver asked if we enjoyed the show and we both answered with an exuberant “absolutely” Tango may linger in the air in Buenos Aires but it will also stay with me as we travel south.