Thursday, April 03, 2014

Argentine Lakes District and Fudgies

The Argentine Lakes

San Carlos de Bariloche (the town's full name) is a largish, very touristy, busy place in the midst of the Argentine Lakes District. The city has a Germanic heritage, with some beautiful architecture and delightfully hilly streets. Though we came here for the hiking, the incredible density of chocolate shops tried to slow us down. This town is a Fudgey's paradise. Fudgey: a fudge-seeking tourist (or taffy, or chocolate, or whatever). Mike gets credit for this term. Sometimes, we are the Fudgies. It must be hard to be a diabetic here.

The Bariloche Hostel, so cleverly named, became home for a couple of days as Mike, Lora, and I oriented ourselves and prepared for what would be my final backpack in Patagonia this trip. Situated on one of the more quiet streets overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi, it was a charming, mid-priced place we could cook in and get useful information from (usually).

According to our guidebooks, the nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park is the most visited in Argentina. Being on the cusp of the off season, we hoped for fewer crowds than we encountered in Torres del Paine. We also needed decent weather on our three-day trek - day two would be the most critical, with its challenging route finding and scrambley Class 3 sections. The park rangers actually require hikers to check in when they begin and end this leg of the trek, advising it only be attempted in the best weather conditions. We figured this was a conservative policy to help prevent people hiking in Keds from attempting the section and falling to their gory deaths. Still, route finding in the clouds and on wet steeps is no fun.

I decided to take part of the day before we started our traverse to explore (by bike) the nearby Circuito Chico, a winding road with views of crystal blue lakes and fancy hotels and cafes. I felt like I was coming down with a bug as I made my way from town to the circuit on a crowded bus, but hoped that a little exercise would flush it out before our trip. I started to think about the guy who was intermittently coughing phlegm and making out with his girlfriend during our recent two-day bus ride. These thoughts were not comforting.

The bike rental shop was entertaining, clearly tailored to the dumbest people on the planet. "Amber, look at me. Amber, see? This is the helmet. Amber, look at me. This is your safety vest (serious?). Amber, any questions? No? Sign here, and here, and here..." I felt so safe with my junky helmet and neon vest! Better than the guy I passed later on, tearing down a hill with his helmet hanging off the side of his head.

Though the ride felt good and made for some great views, I was decidedly getting sick and figured I should rest if I didn't want full blown swine flu after our 20km start the next day. At least it wasn't supposed to rain until day two...

Lora and I started hiking the next morning from the base of the Cerro Catedral ski resort, with Mike opting to ride the gondola part way. After a couple/few hours we passed our mid point of Refugio Grey, a tiny stone building where hikers can pay to stay if they don't want to camp. Not long after passing this refugio we were introduced to what I like to call the trail of insanity. Not really a trail at all, it went straight up the rocky mountain on a route marked by red paint. So appropriate.

The scramble wasn't too bad, just awkward in the way that hiking on all fours with a full pack can be. In about another hour we reached Mike at the pass, stuffed food in our faces, and began the equally ridiculous downhill route. This is when the rain that wasn't supposed to happen started. Sometime during the next five hours or so, when we enthusiastically repeated this up down routine, I realized why the guidebooks tend to break our day into two parts. What perplexed me was the claim that this traverse was the most popular in Argentina, not among "adventurous trekkers" or "experienced backpackers", but average schmucks. Clearly, Argentineans are badass. I was curious how the next day would go, given all it's warnings of peril.

The sweetest sight of the day was Refugio San Martin, our camp and dry zone for a while. Even though we were staying in our tents, they kindly allowed us to dry our clothes and warm up while the rain and wind continued. I didn't mention the wind, but we had that too. Somehow my cold didn't seem any better or worse from the day, but our chances of a weather break for the remaining traverse didn't look good.

The next morning we found the snow line approaching camp, low clouds, and sleet/rain welcoming us. Fortunately, we had an alternative exit route that promised almost not scree or hiking on all fours. I was kind of glad, and we even managed to avoid rain for nearly the entire day. We also picked up solo hiker, Joey the computer programmer from Iowa who was traveling the world. I think Joey really needed some friends because he stuck with us rather constantly for the next 24 hours at least.

That night we camped at a campground in the uber cute/kitsch micro settlement of Colonia Suiza, with the nicest lady I've met in my travels. Ana, proprietor of Camping Ser was a welcoming hostess who noticed I was sick and gave me candies - along with writing down the Spanish words for pharmacy and throat lozenges. She really surprised us when she came looking for us after we missed a bus (totally not our fault), driving us 20 minutes towards town so we could catch the next one. What a great lady!

Though we weren't able to complete the entire traverse, our last trip together was memorable and we finished off our last evening with Argentine steak, wine, and of course dessert. We also got to witness a rowdy street parade complete with drum line, bottle rockets, national flags, honking cars, and police guards. We assumed that the right football team won somewhere that night...

And that was it. I departed early the next morning by bus for Puerto Varas, the jumping off point for my Puerto Montt departure in two days. All of a sudden my trip was ending, but I had one last day to explore...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Northward bound

Nearing the end of my journeys in South America, I am once again traveling by bus to another destination. Sadly, I lost what I considered one of my more entertaining blog posts created during the 2-day bus ride from El Chalten to Bariloche. User error, I suppose. I will try to recap what I recall, moving on to our trekking in the next post.

El autobus

I don't like sitting. Not for long periods, anyway. So the concept of riding a bus, 12 hours a day for 2 days made me twitchy. But what can you do? In a region thousands of miles long, you either take the bus or you fly. Obviously I'm too cheap to fly (did I mention that everything is expensive down here?), so bus ride it was. Fortunately, I had Lora and Mike to suffer with.

Day one was a blur of Mars-like landscapes, dirt roads, and stops in the middle of nowhere. One of the tiendas we stopped at was called "Siberia", if that gives you any idea. One stop was literally miles from nothing, and I imagined this is what Afghanistan must look like. This was when we all piled out to pee behind the nearest rocky dirt pile, minding the wind direction. It was really glamorous, something everyone should experience. I think I had the unique distinction of including my foot in the antics, which I actually don't recommend at all. Especially when wearing Crocs, and socks (don't judge!). Yeeaahh.

The remainder of day one was uneventful, except for when the bus broke down for 45 minutes (yes, in the middle of nowhere). Fortunately, our drivers were also mechanics and they fixed it up after poking around for a while. The fun resumed when we arrived at our mid point destination for the evening. The town of Perito Moreno was of no particular interest as far as we could tell. One of my guidebooks even implores one never to go there, except out of necessity. Of course, our exposure was limited to less than a one block radius, which we considered to be the safest distance worth traveling. Our lodging was arranged by the bus company, and the Hotel Belgrano was a magical blend of stale cigarettes, amazing 70s decor, and general sketchiness. The attached restaurant had equal charm, a place untouched by indoor smoking bans and run by the same slum lord as our hotel. He also seemed to be the candy czar, operating a small but densely packed refined sweets display common across every town, store, and gas station everywhere I've been in South America. It was bizarre and a little awesome at the same time.

Day two went much the same as day one, though the landscape slowly started to improve. When we finally reached San Carlos de Bariloche, it was nearly 9pm and we were a bit shocked by the big city bright lights, quite the change from sleepy El Chalten. We settled into our nice hostel, found a delicious vegetarian restaurant to enjoy a late dinner, and slept off the bus funk.

Next, we prepare for the Nahuel Huapi Traverse...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

El Chalten, Los Glaciares, and Decisions

As we roll along on the 2-day bus ride to Bariloche, I have plenty of time to reflect on the past week or so. The choice of how and when to make our way north from El Chalten was not an easy one, given that the internet in town was abysmal and virtually no information was available for travel through Chile. Because ultimately, you go north by bus, plane, ferry, foot, or some combination thereof. Our bus ride to Bariloche, though long, was the fastest known route in our price range (and it's still not cheap - nothing here is!). Given more time, making our way through Chile would have been preferable, possibly even catching a ferry for part of the trip. This might have allowed us to meet a couple of wildlife biologists near Coyhaique, friends of Jim Williams (Kent's boss) and members of Partners of the Americas, an organization I just joined. But without any reliable information on bus and ferry schedules and having a week left in my trip, I didn't want to risk getting stranded for days at a time, waiting for the next ferry or bus to come along. Similarly, I will miss meeting Argentine biologists north of Bariloche because of distances between us. Though only 4-5 hours north of Bariloche, I fly out of Puerto Montt, 10-11 hours in the opposite direction. Of course, this just means I'll have to make a return trip...

Back to our arrival in El Chalten...rolling in on the evening of the 18th on the hottest bus I've ever experienced (yuck), we piled out in El Chalten and began searching for our accommodations. We'd made some quick reservations the night before, not wanting to show up at 9:30pm with no beds ready. Fortunately, the town is small and our places practically next door, so we parted for the night.

Being pretty food motivated, I consider the quality of breakfast at wherever I'm staying to be rather important. I'd clearly been spoiled at my cheap hostel in Puerto Natales, with their homemade bread and peanut butter (hard to find here), jam, egg, muesli, yogurt, and awesome coffee... the Nothofagus B&B was better than some I'm sure, but more basic and without the homemade goodness. The coffee was outstanding, though, and staff very friendly and helpful. Certainly the nicest place I've stayed so far, with artistic decor and quiet atmosphere. And showers with consistent hot water AND giant towels.

The day after arrival was for laundry, food shopping, and final planning for our next backpack trip starting right from town. Los Glaciares National Park includes the iconic Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, dramatic peaks at the edge of massive ice fields. The beauty of exploring the park near El Chalten is the proximity, and while we chose to backpack many others simply day hike much of it. Camping, of course, is cheaper!

We'd opted for a 4-day plan, capturing much of what there was to see locally. Day one brought us to camp Poincenot, near the base of where we'd access closer views of Fitzroy at sunrise. Another name for the peak is Chalten, meaning "peak of fire" or "smoking mountain" because of the near constant shroud of clouds surrounding it. We were very fortunate, seeing Fitzroy in its glory our second morning on a sunrise hike up to Laguna de Los Tres.

After our post hike breakfast, we started down the trail for Piedras del Fraile, a private campground in a valley filled with more glaciers and beautiful miradors. The hike took us through a cobble filled river bed that was challenging to navigate at times, making me wonder if the real trail was elsewhere. So, naturally I went looking for it. Mike and Lora were a little ways behind me so I ventured up the hill to find something better. It looked like a great place for a trail! Except there was none. I was not deterred, knowing I wasn't far from a side junket to yet another glacier and its Laguna Piedras Blancas. Eventually, I made it to the lip of the cirque, peering down on an impressive mass of ice, rock, and water. Steep, bouldery, and trail free. Hmm.

After eating some cookies for fortitude, I spent the next hour making my way to the outlet where the "trail" picked up, which was really just more of the same without the steep slope and laguna at the bottom. Needless to say, bush-whacking and boulder hopping with a full pack left me kind of worked. Did I mention the full bottle of wine we scored at our last camp I'd added to my load? Totally worth it.

Fasting forward, camp was a beautiful sight later that afternoon. I met up with Lora and Mike and we set up our tents. This camp also had a refugio, so we had to pay to pitch our tents with the understanding that "bathrooms" and water was provided. Sometimes they even flushed and occasionally had tp. But when the large group of German men came and took over the dining hall, the water ran out and we salivated at the carne asado cooking to feed them. "Sorry, restaurant closed tonight, big group" we were told. I'm sure our Mountain House meals were WAY better. We made our plans for the next day to hike up to Lago Electrico before our trek to the next camp.

But later that night, it started to rain. And rain. And rain some more. And by morning I knew that we were not going to any lagos that day. We leisurely made breakfast in the mildewy cooking shelter, hoping the rain would break. We chatted with a couple from Montreal, also hiding from the rain and changing their plans. Debating our course, we thought breaking for town might be a good option, but wanted to give the day more time to be sure. Alas, it wasn't the day that needed time, because 4 hours later I was soaked and frozen, scratching a note for Mike and Lora that I'm headed to town and I hope we meet up for dinner.

A couple of hours later I slogged to my B&B, hoping desperately that my room was available a day early. Along the way I discovered a bountiful reservoir of water had gathered in the bottom of my pack cover, as well as my gaitors. Glad I didn't discover that at camp later that evening! With enormous relief I was accepted back at my B&B, and I proceeded to make a complete mess of their entry. I tried avoiding it, but they didn't seem to mind at all. Tile floors, no hay problemo!

Later, I met up with Lora and Mike and enjoyed another of our many delicious meals together. Neither Chile nor Argentina has disappointed at dinnertime... from the spectacular seafood in Puerto Natales to the locro (Argentine stew), steak, pasta, and postres of El Chalten. I can't wait to see what Bariloche has to offer! It's good that we are hiking so much, my pants would probably otherwise blow out.

We finished off our time in El Chalten with the hike to Laguna del Torre, where we would have camped the rainy day before to get up close to Cerro Torre. I felt a little pathetic as I encountered a couple of backpackers in their late 60s coming out, knowing they'd kept on when I'd ran for town. Still, they weren't exactly skipping down the trail in jubilation. No regrets here!

That night we enjoyed one of the more delicious and unique platters yet, featured at a vineria (wine bar). A sampling of smoked meats and cheese, including Nandu (a native ostrich-like bird), wild boar, trout, deer sausage, with bread and olives. Paired, of course with regional wine and beer. Delicioso!

Our final day we split, Lora and Mike on a journey to find fishing and me hiking to another glacial lake. The weather was gorgeous, and I thought more about the landscapes I've seen in Patagonia so far. On the whole, it seems a much more dynamic and dramatic place when compared top Montana - from the geology to the weather. Forecasting if it will rain, be sunny, windy, or all of the above is hardly bothered with. Some people journey to where we've been without seeing any of the famous peaks or vistas because of weather. Barring a couple of instances, we've been very fortunate overall and hopefully that holds true to the end of our time here.

Next, the Nahuel Huapi Traverse...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Torres del Paine and beyond

Yesterday, I returned from an incredible backpack with Lora and Mike, which I describe below. Pictures will have to wait, but Lora has posted a couple to Facebook already. Today we ride the bus from Puerto Natales, Chile to El Chalten, Argentina so I've got some time to catch up...

One of the big attractions of the Patagonian Andes is Torres del Paine National Park. Like Yellowstone or Yosemite of the US, TdP seems to attract volumes of tourists wanting to see the iconic Torres (granite towers) along with the endless supply of glaciers and general awesome beauty. It's located in the southern portion of Patagonia and it's a couple hours from Puerto Natales where I'd been staying recently.

There are a couple of options for backpacking the park that vary depending on your own ambition, time allowance, and weather. The shorter and far more popular (read: busy) is called the "W", a hike that takes about 4 days and exposes you to the highlights of the park. The Circuit, a.k.a. the "O" takes 7-10 days and allows a break from the crowds while still taking in the W route. We chose the O, of course! None of the mileages are crazy, but there are not many switchbacks on this journey. But there are ladders. And stairs made of mud and tree roots. And mud bogs. All good stuff!

Without going into the details of every day of our trip, I want to describe some of the more memorable parts. Really, it began when we stepped off the bus after entering the park and were nearly blown over by the wind. The wind in Patagonia should have some other name, because the word does not fully capture the experience of it. I got a taste the week prior in Punta Arenas, but not quite like this. Some days you could hear the wind coming in waves that sounded like jet engines making their way down a valley. One day, we wore our rain gear as we hiked along a glacial lake, not because it was raining but for the walls of water lifted from the lake by the wind and blasting us off the trail. I have never found trekking poles more useful in my life! It was pretty fun, actually. In a hindsight sort of way.

Camping in TdP is nothing quite like I've experienced in the backcountry before. Most locations require some payment just to put your tent down, but offer bathrooms, showers, and water. Of course we ignored the shower option, but these sites were between about $8-12. Most of these also had refugios, which offered basic lodging and food as well (though not cheap). This is typically where we'd get weak and buy beer, wine, bread, chocolate, etc. It sounds nice, but in reality it's over-crowded and not the experience I was seeking. There are no real primitive sites in the park, but a few free ones, which helps. All of them seemed to have rodent problems...

The mice. I have not dealt with rodent issues while camping before, and though I suppose it beats bears I'm not sure it's by much. They are nasty, pernicious, and sneak into your gear in the middle of the night. My experience with one came on night two, at Campamento Italiano. It was the only rather miserable weather afternoon/evening we had, and I was already a bit stressed from digging trenches around my tent and fending off the rain splatter on my gear. So, lazily I chose not to hang every last bit of food from my bag to avoid going out into the rain one more time. Fatal mistake #1!

Between the roaring wind and pattering rain, it was hard to hear him (her?) at first. Eventually, I got my headlamp out and saw the horror unfold. While looking at my backpack perched in my tent vestibule, a little gray nose poked out of the hole for my hydration hose. He was IN MY BAG. Of course I immediately began yelling and beating on the bag, opening it up to release the demon. And out he ran, squeaking, "ain't no thang, monkey,  I'll be back!" Oh yeah, he also crapped and peed all over before he left, including inside my shoes.

As far as I could tell he only returned to leave additional poops in my shoes, likely in a statement of disgust after I took away all evidence of food. From then on I secured my food immediately in camp and had no further issues. GROSS. It was little consolation to hear other campers wailing in terror later that night as they received visitors of their own...

The trails. El senderos in TdP were excellent, with some interesting components and only a few exceptions. They generally lead you to the most beautiful miradors, or views. Sometimes very muddy, other times incredibly steep. And then there were the crazy ladders through gullies, made all the more interesting with a pack. Overall, some of the most striking and beautiful hiking I've ever done. And though the mountains were incredible, it was the glaciers that took it to the next level. Like Glacier Grey, which spans for miles and miles and is only one finger of the massive southern Patagonia ice field. It's hard to conceptualize, even when looking at it. It's so big it makes it's own weather. But by some miracle, the day we hiked along it the skies were blue and the winds calm. Top it off with Andean condors soaring on thermals.

The wildlife.  We didn't see a vast amount of wildlife in TdP, but what we did see was unique. In addition to the condors, there was the Nandu, or Rhea, a giant ostrich like bird we only saw during the bus ride to and from the park. Some woodpeckers that looked like our pileated, and others that were different. Guanacos, which resemble alpacas, roamed just outside the park but we saw very few within. A small, light colored fox was curled up for a nap outside our first night's camp. Hares with freakishly long legs scampered around our last site, along with beautiful Carra Carra birds that the cap host likely fed.

In all we took 7 days to complete the circuit, with mostly outstanding weather and incomparable scenery. The trails were busy on the W, but for the remainder of our route not so bad. I spent a lot of time being cold on this trip, but mostly just in the evenings and mornings.

And now, we leave Chile for los Glaciares National Park and the town of El Chalten where we hope to rest, do laundry, and gear up for another 4 day trek around Monte Fitzroy. Que bueno!

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Silla del Diablo

The chair of the devil, surviving the last glaciation. Along the trail network for the milodon caves.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Puerto Natales environs

I arrived in Puerto Natales yesterday evening, after a pretty comfortable three hour bus ride through some beautiful Chilean countryside. For the first time I started seeing men wearing boinas, which look like berets but these guys ain't French (and they look way cooler in a sheep rancher kind of way).

After the bus pulled in at dusk, I made my way to the info booth of the bus station to see where my hostel might be. In a planned world I'd have arrived with at least the address of where I was staying, but I figured I was doing well by just having a reservation. And it was fine, because we're talking about a town that is the jumping off point for the most popular park in Chile. These people are used to touristas, for better or worse.

I eventually found my hostel, and yep it's a hostel (run by Americans and everything). Not so typical is the awesomeness of their breakfast, which includes eggs, homemade bread, coffee, homemade peanut butter... you get the idea. And nice fellow travelers to chit chat with. Like Cheri, the 60 something (?) Canadian from Vancouver on a solo trek across Patagonia for a month, leaving her husband at home. Or Neil and Lisa, a brother and sister from South Africa on their one week trek for the year.

Hostels are funny places, mixing personalities, ages, nationalities, genders into one place and making it work. This probably has a lot to do with the type of person that gravitates here, whether it's for the cheap lodging, communal atmosphere, or both. No locks on the rooms except from the inside, but there's a safe if you want it. The bathrooms are shared (though not at the same time), as are the kitchen and hangout spaces.

Yesterday, I decided to sleep in a bit after a late night fighting the wifi, and though the heater in my room wasn't working I had so many blankets it didn't matter. I could hear the violent winds outside, joined by rain later on. It was very cozy, though it made me wonder what things were like in Torres del Paine...

After wandering around town a bit to get familiar, I started noticing a few differences from Punta Arenas. To start, Puerto Natales is much smaller. It also carries a subdued vibe of hostility towards the tourists who've taken over and dramatically changed the town. When I rented a bike in the afternoon to explore the outskirts, I found friendlier drivers the more remote I got. I don't get the sense that safety is a big issue, rather a distinct lack of warmth. I get lots of long deadpan stares as I walk about town, and I'm by no means the only gringa in gortex.

Today, I decided to make a longer adventure by renting another bike and heading to the Milodon caves about 24km from town. If I hadn't time to kill I probably wouldn't have thought to go, because if you check the website it looks a little kitsch. But fortunately for me it was far from it! More natural history with some archeology and anthropology mixed in, I was pleasantly surprised at both the educational side and the beautiful trail network. The sun finally making an appearance and the wind NOT blowing me over helped immensely. It felt great to get a little physical activity, and overall probably the best day I've had so far!

Tomorrow Lora and Mike will arrive and we'll commence the final preparations for our trek...Today there was snow on the largest pass we'dll be hiking, closing it to passage. Hopefully it opens up again soon!

Isla Magdalena

Friday, March 07, 2014

Penguins, street dogs, and sleeping in

Continuing from yesterday after my entry to Punta Arenas...

While still amazed to have arrived at my destination WITH my checked bag, I was further relieved to see my hostal was delightful and simple as I'd hoped. Nit to be confused with a hostel, Hostal Victoria was heavy on the nautical theme, with very friendly and adorable hosts. So far these variants seem like a mix between a hostel and B&B. My room was on a noisy street but that's what earplugs are for, no? With plans to visit la Isla Magdalena via the 8am boat the next day to see some pinguinos, I set my alarm and made it to bed sometime before midnight...

And thanks to those earplugs and jet lag, frantically flew out of bed at 7:45am. No bueno. And no pinguinos that day. But, this did allow me to explore Punta Arenas far more than I otherwise would have. Being a beautiful but chilly day, I took a stroll towards downtown to see some museos. Beginning with el Museo deal Naval y Maritimo, I escaped the gales while learning about the nautical history of the region. Next, I thought a stroll along the coastal promenade would be nice, which was conspicuously empty for such a sunny day. Well, turns out it was because it was REALLY WINDY. Like blow your beanie off, sand in your eyes even when it's at your back, throw you down the stairs windy. I found refuge in a warm,  calm, window filled cafe and had an espresso while chatting with the friendly barista. She kindly discussed all the best things to see in the city while accommodating my crap Spanish. A natural history museum? Si, we have one of those! You should also check out the Braun Menendez museum, an opulent historic mansion in the center of town. And go see the cemetery, it's the most beautiful in the world! Don't forget to check out the overlook near your hostal, great views of the city and ocean. Ok! I'm off.

On my way to the cemetery, however, I learned a little something about walking around in Punta Arenas. Street dogs, perros, dingos. Whatever you call them, they would definitely eat your baby. They seem to be the city's version of homeless people, except they appear quite content all of the time (or it's just the poor nutrition making then zombie-like, sad things). Mostly sleeping wherever they want but sometimes frolicking playfully (most likely to fake you out while their friends eat your baby), they all look a little haggard but savvy. Watch your back, though, because these perros can be freakishly intelligent and might try to take you down in packs on quiet streets. That's what I thought as a group surrounded me and started talking their crazy dog Spanish, sniffing me to see if I'd be any good to eat. Pssst-bahhh! I yelled at them when I figured out their game. Bye bye street perros! That was sooo close. 

I finally made it to the cemetery, nearly missing it on account of its creepy strangeness that didn't exactly embody what I pictured as "the most beautiful in the world!". Better described with the pictures I took, the perimeter was lined with what I later discovered to be the poor man's cubby hole mortuary system, many cubbies tall and blocks long. All stuffed with variations on fake flowers, pictures of dead loved ones, Christian memorabilia, and other assorted flair. The further in I explored, the nicer the memorials became, with huge ornate mausoleums in the center. Interesting, but a little creepy. Moving on...

The Braun Menendez museum seemed like a good follow up to the cemetery, and there were no fake flowers or crazy dogs in sights. Wearing little protective slippers given by the stern but cordial attendant, I made my way through the beautiful and ornate mansion of one of the wealthiest historic families of the area. Pictures will have to wait, but it was impressive. But more to see... 
Next was the Museo Salesman Maggiorino Borgatello, a mouthful of an interesting, expansive, and somewhat bizarre collection of natural and anthroplogic history on three floors. Tragically, no cameras were allowed. I sincerely wish I'd violated that because it represented the most amazing collection of horrible, so wrong it's right taxidermy I have ever seen. I only have my memories now, I'm so sorry I can't share them. Actually, you're probably better off if you're susceptible to nightmares. 

Since my museum binge took most of the day I finished up at the overlook, which brought you one of the pictures I posted yesterday (and another here). I had to be sure to get to bed early to catch the boat (again) in the morning!

...Ok, I'm going to see penguins today! When should we call the taxi? I asked Jorge, the friendly hostal host. Oh, you have time, 7:25 is ok. He calls... no available. available... finally, we have one and I'm on my way! In major traffic. I get nervous, I'm out of days to make this journey and the weather is gorgeous! At 7:59 We arrive at the pier and I run! Los pinguinos por favor! I'm rushed into the ticket office and frantically present my credit card and passport. They could have charged me $100,000 Chilean pesos and I probably wouldn't have noticed. But I'm in! Somehow I'm so much happier than if I'd arrived 10 minutes early. 

As I stood along the edge of the ship (and it was a big ship), I started thinking about how different our experiences of a place can be depending on what we choose to spend money on. This tour was the first semi expensive thing I'd done here so far (made it to day 2, yes!), and it was striking how spoiled I suddenly felt. There's definitely a balance I like to find while traveling - spend as little as possible on the things that are less important, like accommodations and sometimes food. Find the unique experiences and try them if I can afford it. Initially, I wasn´t so sure about Isla Magdalena, thinking I´d rather just get on my way towards the mountains. But I´m so glad I went, joined the masses for a little while, and experienced things I might never do again. Like breathing in the smell of penguin guano, decaying gull carcasses, and cold sea air mixed together (=magic). Or see whales spouting all along the trip.

Our interpretive guide informed us on the two hour ride to the island preserve that these Magellanic penguins we were about to see were molting, underweight, and ´´very ugly´´ right now. We were given one hour on the island to wander about the restricted pathways, check out the light house, and generally restrain ourselves from poking and squeezing their fat, adorable, half-feathered bodies (even skinny penguins are fat).

Like frenzied Christmas shoppers on black Friday at Wal-Mart, we were released from ship to scurry across slippery seaweed to the most of our parole. And were they ugly, you might ask? No! They were adorable, in a vulnerable, I can´t believe you survived evolution kind of way. I took pictures until my fingers went numb from the cold, and suddenly an hour seemed like plenty of time. Off we went, leaving the little waddling feather blobs to their preserve until the next group shows up tomorrow...

On our ride back I enjoyed a hot cafe con leche, even managing to see a black and white dolphin ride the bow. And now, I finish this on the bus ride to Puerto Natales where I´ll base for a few days until my friends Lora and Mike arrive for our adventures in Torres del Paine National Park! 

Hasta luego.

(p.s. having troubles uploading pictures at the moment, check back later...)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Journey to where south becomes north

Herein lies an attempt to blog my exploits of a small strip of South America known as Patagonia. I can't promise regular posts or amazing insights, but hopefully it will be a fun way to stay connected to all the people I miss!

To start my travels I was kindly chauffeured to Missoula international on March 3 by Kent, in dreadful conditions, at 5:30am.  Though he couldn't be on this trip, I think of him often and am thankful at least for the technology to correspond. But about that journey...

Missoula to Arizona, with a bonus visit to mis padres who generously picked up chauffeuring where Kent left off (with slightly better road conditions). At their house, magic happened as I aggressively stuffed my backpack with camping gear, food, and anticipation (very bulky). And on March 4 I left PHX and any semblance of sleep behind. 

I thought it only appropriate to wear my Patagonia socks as I made it from one airport to another, from Phoenix to Atlanta, to Santiago, to Puerto Montt, and finally to Punta Arenas. I crossed the equator sometime in the middle of the night and just kept going...

But before we get to 90°N, I want to share a couple of nuggets from the 9.5 hour flight to Santiago. Fun parts: seemingly endless supply of movies to choose from. Two meals!! And in one of those meals, the most awesome cookie product a plane has ever made, from a company called Love and Quiche. Seriously.  Seeing the Chilean Andes. In that order, mostly because the Andes were covered in clouds. Less fun parts: watching a movie called Black Swan surrounded by strangers and being left with a generally disturbed feeling for hours after, not to mention the awkward Portman on Portman scenes. Not sleeping. Attempting to put on my new glasses I got for such a steal and realizing why when one of the lenses popped out onto the floor and promptlyc flew under a mystery seat. In the dark. Oh, and everyone spoke Spanish. And believe it or not, but I'm not that great at it. Fortunately, after much gesticulating and mediocre attempts I recruited a Chilean mother to help me... And she found it! Another reason cell phones are awesome (assistance light).

Arriving in Punta Arenas at about 4:30pm Chilean time on the 5th, I felt surprisingly jaunty as I rode a full mini bus into town. The sun was out and the famous Magellanic wind was howling as we drove along the coast. I was excited and curious, hoping the place I'd booked wasn't a dump... more next post!