Patagonia Flat

We said ciao to the end of the earth and headed to Puerto Varas, where we started with a short tour of two towns on the lake that were settled by German immigrants – Frutillar and Puerto Octay. Puerto Varas is a pretty big tourist destination and the “gateway to the lakes region of Patagonia.” If you need outdoor gear, this is the town for you. But it is on Lake Llanquihue (pronounced Yankee Way – just like the road in the Bronx to the greatest baseball stadium in the world)(it’s a very deep glacial lake – a great place to put the team), a glacial lake with beautiful scenery everywhere you look.

The first night, we went to Santo Fuego, a parrilla (of course), so Robin and Steven could eat meat for dinner. We left satisfied and tired after a long day. We were grateful because the pick-up time for our excursions for the next two days was a luxurious 9 a.m.!

Promptly at 9, Manuela and the driver arrived. Steven and I had been trying to figure out how to get laundry done, but in a harbinger of good things to come, Manuela said she would have the driver take us to the laundry service the hotel recommended. Hmmm, closed, but Manuela to the rescue! She knew a woman who did laundry and would bring it back to us at the hotel before we left the next morning. We dropped off the dirty clothes and started on the 1.5 hour drive to Parque Nacional Alerce Andino to hike through the temperate rain forest to a 3,000-year-old Patagonian cypress or Fitzroya cupressoides,  named after Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle and Tierra del Fuego expedition fame. He got a mountain named after him, too (seems like a worthy reward for the effort he put in to schlep Darwin far enough so he could change our entire thinking on the way the natural world works).

We lucked out with Manuela, because in addition to finding us laundry service, she was an excellent guide to the trees and flowers in the park. We had great timing because everything was blooming so the forest was a deep green, punctuated by tiny red, purple, yellow, pink, and white blossoms. The hike itself is what we have learned is “Patagonia flat,” meaning you won’t be climbing a mountain, but don’t imagine the Midwest either. Rolling hills are a polite way of putting it.

Both on the way in and out of the park, we passed waterfalls on Rio Chaicas. I know I’m starting to sound redundant, but everything we saw was on a grand scale and beautiful. I think part of it was that we didn’t really have any expectations, so we were just amazed at every turn.

Our excursions came with a lunch, so we sat at the base of the giant tree and ate. The whole hike was about 8 km or 5 miles. Perfect for enjoying the environment without overdoing it on our step count.

Back in town, we wandered a bit and then ended up eating at the Hotel Puelche (where we were staying) restaurant – a burger place that had veggie burgers, too.

Steven here – we have done some much in these last few days that we decided to split up the blog – I am taking day two.

The next morning, first the laundry showed up on time – whew! We had clean clothes. Manuela and Ronaldo (our driver, but no not the futbol player) showed up promptly at 9 again. This time we loaded all our luggage into the van because we were checking out. The plan for today was to do shortish (6km) hike along the base of a volcano. According to Wikipedia (which will tell you not to use Wikipedia as a source), there are 105 volcanos in Chile that have been active during the Holocene – which is the current geologic period and has lasted about 11,000 years. We were hiking around the base of Volcán Osorno, which is in the Vincente Pérez Rosales National Park. It is the oldest national park, established in 1926 after Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt visited the area and allegedly suggested that a park be established because it was the most beautiful place that he had ever seen. At least that is what they tell the Americans. The area is a temperate rainforest, so the forests are very green and lush. The hike took us through part of the forest and then across a lava field (the lava was no longer hot as the last eruption was in 1869, so it was safe to walk across) and then back through lower and more scrub-like vegetation. The entire hike was on black sand. We considered climbing up to the top (2,600 meters) of the volcano and sacrificing our cousin Robin to ensure that volcano didn’t erupt, but Manuela recommended against it, and we are afraid of Aunt Es.

After we finished the hike, we took the van to another part of the park (which is huge, something like 250,000 hectares or 1,000 square miles) and stopped to eat our box lunches at the Petrohué waterfalls. The falls are formed from the runoff of glacier water from the volcano so the water is a turquoise blue. As always, my words cannot express the beauty and power of nature, but hopefully these photos and videos will.

The cold tree

We walked a couple of trails near the waterfalls, one of which was full of a tree called Arrayan or Luma (Luma apiculate). The interesting thing about this tree is that it is always cold to the touch. We wandered the trails for another couple of hours and then called it a day.

Ronaldo drove us to the Petróhue Lodge, where were staying for the night. The lodge is on Todos los Santos Lake just on the outskirts of Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales and is rustic and beautiful. The owner is the great grandson of a Swiss archeologist and explorer who mapped the area and then settled here. He (the great grandson) has established a little museum next to the hotel about the history of the area and gave us a really nice tour of it.

Back to me (Sue, that is) – Yesterday was Robin’s last day with us, but we had time for one more hike with her. We couldn’t do the 7-hour Desolation Pass (oh boy were we sad we couldn’t do another death march), so we settled for a 3-hour loop which included the beginning of that hike and then headed back along the beach.

We were a little confused about where the trailhead was so we tried asking a park ranger. Apparently, my Spanish is very bad and I didn’t get across the point that we just needed directions to the trailhead, but he was very nice and used Google translate voice to give us a whole history of the park before pointing us in the right direction.

Wow! We had another perfect weather day in which the clouds lifted to reveal the Osorno volcano (among others). The hike took us from the lakefront, through the forest, across alluvial fields, and along the volcanic sand shores of the lake. We got back in plenty of time for Robin to get ready for her travel back to Atlanta and have a last lunch with us.

Steven and I had booked a hot tub for 4 p.m., so we relaxed for a couple of hours and puzzled over where to go instead of Peru, where there is a state of emergency. We are crazy, but not stupid. The hot tub is heated by a wood fire, so the staff tended it for four hours before it was the right temperature. The water was perfect and we sat in the wooden vats amid the trees feeling very lucky. The pisco sour and beer didn’t hurt either. Tomorrow, we go back to Puerto Varas for one last day of vacation before heading to Santiago and reality.

Today was the last day of our vacation. We spent the morning getting our last looks at Petrohue before we transferred back to Puerto Varas. We wandered around the town, admiring the cloudless view of the lake and volcanos and treated ourselves to T-shirts and ice cream. It is vacation after all. I had lemon with mint and ginger, which has become my favorite soft drink and Steven had something called harina tostada, which is toasted wheat. It doesn’t sound like a great ice cream flavor, but it was. Special shout out to our tour guide Manuela, who went out of her way to find us a special pepper made from leaves she pointed out on one of our walks. Can’t wait to see you again, Manuela!

This has been an amazing vacation. Tomorrow we fly to Santiago to begin the next phase of our adventure.

Patagonia – part 2

On Sunday, we did a full day tour to La Leona Petrified Forest. It is about an hour and a half outside of El Calafate. Our driver and guide, Leon, picked us up at the hotel and drove us north through the scrub desert.  We stopped at roadside hotel/bar/restaurant/gift shop, and picked up another couple for the tour. The landscape is very similar to the desert in Arizona but without cacti, just low scrub plants and grasses.

We reached the petrified forest, which is much less of a forest and much more of a huge rock formation with eroded sandstone and basalt. It is very stark, beautiful, and extremely windy. We hiked along the ridges of several the rock outcrops and slowly headed down in the lower portion of the valley. Along the way, Leon explained the rock formations, how the different layers were formed, and how they are eroding at different speeds based on the type of rock that they are. We found dinosaur bones where you could clearly still see the marrow and he explained that one way to test if a rock is a dinosaur bone is to lick your finger and if the rock (only small ones obviously) stuck to your finger, it was likely to be a dinosaur bone. We also saw many petrified trees, some of which looked like they were just bleached wood. It is always incredible to see how well the organic material has been preserved by the minerals, the tree’s rings and features are clearly visible. As we circled down into the valley, I did notice that our van was significantly higher than we were, which gave me some minor cause for concern. Anyway, we hiked around the valley finding lots of petrified trees, interesting geological features and a few dinosaur fossils.  

As many of you know, I am terrified of heights. It is quite frustrating for me. The logic and reason portion of my brain knows that I am not in any real danger, that I have great balance and never stumble or fall when walking, and just because I am near an edge, should not in any way make it more likely I will fall. However, the old reptilian, flee or flight section of my brain cannot grasp these details and just keeps shouting into my head NO! DON’T DO THAT! MOVE AWAY, DON’T GO THERE. Oddly, I have terrible balance, but no fear of heights or the edge of cliffs. Hmmmm, maybe I need more reptilian brain. I work hard to keep my mind quiet and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Our hike out of the canyon was one of the times that I could keep my mind mostly quiet. We zigzagged across one of the walls (which to be truthful was not a sheer drop, but it was a pretty steep drop) and up to the van, rising perhaps 300 meters. Neither Sue nor Robin were the least bit bothered by the climb, I on the other hand, needed a few minutes to collect myself after we reached the top.  

We packed ourselves back into the van and Leon drove us back to El Calafate in time for dinner. Robin craved meat for dinner so she headed off to a parrilla (steak house) while Sue and I headed back to Pura Vida for another home-style dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine called Fabula, which sounded like fabulous to me, but actually means fable. Despite the disappointing name, the wine was great.

Monday morning, we checked out of Hotel Posada los Alamos in El Calafate and headed for Torres del Paine in Chile. It was about a five-hour drive, once again across the scrub desert.  After about three and a half hours we turned off the road and down gravel road, and at this point, I thought to myself, sheesh, we are in a van with a driver we don’t know, we have no cell phone coverage, on a dirt road and have no idea where we are going. Sometimes I wonder about our decision making. However, it turns out that down the dirt road leads to the border crossing into Chile. We waited in a tiny shack for about 10 minutes for the Argentine immigration guard to do something with our passports and then finally hand them back to us and we were able to exit Argentina. We drove about a half a mile down the road, there was a sign that said “Bienvenido a la Republica de Chile” and the road was paved. We went another half a mile and reached immigration and customs for Chile. Once again, we entered a tiny shack where a young woman reviewed our passports and gave us some sort of paper. It appears that she has ample free time as there was a hair straightener plugged in next to her computer. We walked to the next little building which housed the police and customs. The police reviewed our passports and the piece of paper that the passport woman gave us and then stamped our passports. At customs, we put our luggage through a scanner, but the customs official didn’t seem to look at the scans. Once we finished crossing the border, our driver put our luggage back in the van and drove us about 50 feet to the next little building and put our luggage into a van run by our hotel which took us the rest of the way.

A few scenes from the drive

We are staying at the Hotel Las Torres, which is inside the national park, but still private land. They offer an all inclusive package that includes all food and excursions. The location in unbelievable and it is a perfect place for a respite from the outside world. We have no cellphone coverage and only have single digit speed internet in the hotel itself. Once we checked in, we talked to the excursions team and booked some hikes.

The hike starts on the right at the green/black circle and moves left to the blue lake. The distance/altitude chart moves left to right.

Sue and I decided that on our first full day, we would do one of the most famous hikes, called Mirador Torres del Paine, on our own. It is a 17km hike with about a 1,000 meter vertical climb. We woke up, grabbed some breakfast and hit the trail by 8:30 a.m. The hike is broken into three sections. Section 1 is from the hotel to the Chilean refuge (green circle with a white triangle on the right). It is 4 km up through the scrub desert and across the face of the mountain gaining about 400 meters, not particularly difficult, but there were sections with a 20%+ grade.

At about the 2.5 km mark, the course turned and there was a 300-400 meter stretch of very exposed, relatively sheer cliff. It is called Windy Pass, because typically the wind is blowing right through making it extra scary. We were lucky and had a calm day. Also, Steven is very brave. The path was easily two-people wide and while I was very uncomfortable, we made it through. The rest of the way to the 4 km mark was reasonably steep downhill to a refuge and we arrived there after a couple of hours. At the refuge, there is camping, bathrooms, a small store and picnic tables to sit and relax.

We rested for a little while then headed to section 2, the forest section. It is about 3.5 km, and as the name says, it is through a forest. It is a fairly easy walk, gaining only about 200 meters over the course of the entire section and it took us another hour or so. Section 3 is the tough part (starts at the green circle with a white triangle on the left). It is only 1.5 km long, but gains about 400 meters, with sections that are 40% grade and you are literally climbing over boulders. I hate boulders! The last 250 meters are once again across the face of the mountain, with a fairly steep falloff. This was one of those times that my inner voice could not be quieted. Yes, I know no one ever falls, that hundreds of people cross that rock field every day, that I should be more frightened crossing the road, but no matter what I was telling myself, I could go no further. I told Sue to carry on and I found a nice protected place and waited for her to return. I think she double timed it to the end of the trail, took a couple of pictures and double timed back to me. I am so grateful that she knows how to motivate me, when I need it, but also how to read the terror in my eyes and realize that I can go no further.

Once Sue had returned, we headed down. Now, my usual thinking is that down is always easy, but boy that last section was the hardest easy I have ever had. Climbing down rocks is nearly as hard as climbing up and I was especially glad we had our hiking poles.  Once we hit the start of the forest section, we stopped and ate our lunch as it was just about 3 pm.  The forest was relatively easy, although both of our quads had started to tell us that they were unhappy, we still had quite a long way to go and bunch of height to gain and lose. But mostly it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other to get to the Chilean refuge.

We arrived at the Chilean refuge at 4 p.m. and decided to rest for a few minutes. The remainder of the hike would be a climb of about 75 meters over a 300 meter stretch, along the exposed rock face, then about 3.5 km of relatively slow downward slope all the way to the hotel. We trudged up first 300 meters, reminding ourselves that we did this for fun. Once we reached the top, we turned the corner and were on the final downward stretch to the hotel. We arrived back at the hotel by 5:30 p.m. and collapsed into our room for a little while. We showered, headed to bar, had a drink, some dinner and were both asleep by 9 p.m.. It was a very long hard, but rewarding day. Even if I didn’t reach the end of the trail.

For our second day, Sue and I decided to do a half day excursion with a guide. Robin headed off on a full day excursion to another part of the park to see a glacier. Sue and I, along with about half a dozen other people, hopped into one of the hotel’s vans and headed for a hike that they describe as “Patagonia flat.” The walk is across the Patagonian steppes and features lots of guanaco, some cave paintings, and the possibility of seeing a puma. The drive to the trailhead took about 40 minutes and since it was drizzling, we all pulled on our rain gear. “Patagonia lat” means rolling hills, lots of 30-40 meter ups and downs and one big climb upward to reach the cave paintings. The “caves” are actually covered rock overhangs and compared to the cave paintings in France, they are quite limited. We rested there for a little while, then hiked back down off the rock outcrop and across the steppes. We saw lots of guanaco, learned lots about the plants and wildlife of the area, and happily, at least in my mind, did not see a puma. The whole hike took about 2 hours, it was a perfect amount of effort for us following the very strenuous prior day.

One more day here, then we are off to Punta Arenas.

On to Patagonia

Our last week in Buenos Aires was a bit of a whirlwind. My cousin Robin, an experienced traveler on her own, joined us on Monday. We spent the rest of the week working and visiting the last few places on our must see/eat list. On Thursday night we had a goodbye dinner with our friends Marco ndt Barbara at their place where they provided a wonderful feast, and we said a bit of a tearful goodbye.

Saturday morning we headed to the airport four hours early for our flight to El Calafate, having learned from our trip to Porto Alegre that the line to check in would be enormous. We were not disappointed, but what we did not count on was that Robin is a Delta Skymiles bigshot and her status with Delta allowed us to skip all the lines and check in quickly and easily. We zipped through the security screening and were in the boarding lounge in under 30 minutes. Since we had three hours to kill, we hunkered down and had coffee and breakfast. Good thing because the woman who was cleaning our apartment WhatsApped me a photo of the clothes Steven left hanging in the closet. Steven had time to taxi back, get his shirts, and still have time to finish his coffee at the airport. Usually we are good about checking every spot for left items, but somehow wit slipped our minds.) Our flight was on time (as it seems all Aerolineas flights are – even if they only allow 10 minutes to board) and relatively quiet. Not unexpectedly, we hit some turbulence over the mountains, but nothing to write home about – although, since my mother reads this, I guess I just have.

El Calafate is desert. Sue likened it to Arizona, but it is much colder and you can easily see the Andes mountains with snow on them. We checked into our hotels and then took the opportunity to meet at the Patagonia brewing company to watch the Argentina vs. Australia match. The USA lost while we flying, so I guess I was spared the disappointment of watching the games. Oh well, and good luck to Tyler Adams – the U.S. Men’s national team champion who went to the same high school as I did, and now plays for Leeds United in the English Premier league. Anyway, we watched as Argentina made easy work of Australia and all the Argentines (and us non-Argentines) enjoyed the game and the result. Afterwards, the main street was flooded with cars driving around honking their horns and there were several impromptu parades down the street.  

We had dinner at a place called Pura Vida. I would call the style Argentine home cooking. Sue had pumpkin soup and lentil stew. Which she said was the first true vegetarian food she has had in a restaurant since we arrived. It was muy rico! Robin had lamb stew and I had a chicken pie. All were very delicious and quite large.

Sunday morning we woke up, put on our cold weather gear (multiple layers, winter coats, hats and gloves and we headed to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Iguazu Falls which we visited a few weeks ago, demonstrated nature’s raw unbridled and immediate power. The Perito Moreno showed us nature’s glory in a whole different way. It stands about 30 kilometers (18 miles) long and about 80 meters (250 feet) tall at the face. The ice on the face is mostly white with an eerie blue that looks like back lighting. As you would expect from an ice formation, the temperature hovered in the low single digits centigrade. Our bus dropped us off that the visitor’s center on the south side of the glacier. The park has about four miles of walkways and steps (many many steps) that went from about 100 feet higher than the glacier (where the visitor center was) to the waterline. Sue, Robin and I walked all of them in our allotted 2.5 hours. Words simply cannot describe the amazing beauty of it, hopefully some of our (read Sue’s) amateur pictures will.

After a quick pack lunch we hit the bus again for a quick drive over to what the sign called “Safari Nautical.” It is a boat ride that takes people right up to the face of the glacier. We were quickly and efficiently loaded onto the boat and we headed up the lake to get a whole new perspective on the glacier. Once again it was glorious. The boat takes you close enough to almost reach out and grab the glacier.

Please try and remember that the face of the glacier is 80 meters tall.

We headed back onto the bus, and back to the hotel, quite exhausted, but with views like this out of the bus.