Archive for 2011

December in Patagonia

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

A recurring theme on my travels has been things not going as I first planned. Patagonia has been no exception. It would be cheaper and cooler, I thought to travel around Patagonia for a couple of months than to spend the hottest part of the summer in Buenos Aires. Uh uh, wrong and wrong again.

After my Antarctic cruise I stayed a couple more days in Ushuaia, one to go to the Tierra del Fuego national park for a day hike, the other to do laundry and admin stuff. The national park was quite pretty, the hike along the Beagle Channel coastal path from Zaratiegul Bay to Confiteria Lago Roca alternating between pebbly beaches and something like an enchanted forest. It was rather too windy on the shores of Lago Roca to want to continue the hike along it to the border with Chile. The cloud was too low to bother climbing Cerro Guanaco. On a clear day this 3000 foot peak offers allegedly spectacular views of the Beagle Channel and Fuegian mountain ranges.

Leaving Ushuaia for El Calafate I was up at silly o’clock for the twenty hour bus ride. While waiting for the bus there was a pretty spectacular sunrise over the Beagle Channel which provided the header photo for this post. This journey involves two border crossings, that’s four lots of customs and immigrations to contend with and a whole page of stamps in my passport, a ferry across the Magellan Straits and a bus change in Rio Gallegos. Despite it being after 1am when the bus reached El Calafate the increase in temperature was unmistakable. By now I had worked out that it was going to cost me considerably more to travel around Patagonia than to stay in Buenos Aires. Accommodation is roughly 70% more expensive, bus travel is ridiculously expensive and food costs a whole lot more. The cheapest option would have been to fly straight back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia.

El Calafate is a pretty little place, it reminded me of Jasper, Banff or Whistler out of season. There are several excursions on offer from the multitude of travel agents jostling for space on the high street with chocolate shops, craft shops and cafes. I visited the Perito Moreno glacier, about an hour and a half from town. It was a scorchingly hot day and the glacier was busy creaking and groaning as the leading edge bore the brunt of the sun’s rays. It did a much better job of calving new icebergs than any of the glaciers I saw in Antarctica. There are a few photos in my Perito Moreno glacier set at Flickr. I spent much of the day trying to dodge a very noisy group of Israelis. For some reason there are thousands of them in Patagonia right now. They’ve all just finished two or three years of National Service and are busy letting their hair down and enjoying themselves. Noisily. They might even be more shouty than the Chinese.

The high cost of accommodation, food and travel in Patagonia means the only way for me to stay on budget is travel slowly and not do much in each town. So the two days I needed to do what I wanted to in El Calafate stretched into a six day stay with lots of lounging around in the hostel. Most of the excursions and attractions around El Calafate require an entrance ticket for Los Glaciars national park which is AR$85 each time. Chilean Patagonia is every bit as expensive as the Argentinean bit so I decided not to flit back and forwards between the two countries while heading north.

A good way to reduce the costs is to camp. There are many free camp sites and free or cheap cabins to stay in on multi-day hikes throughout Patagonia. But camping is quite equipment intensive for a solo traveller requiring a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cookware etc.. It’s possible to hire equipment but you still have to carry it all. It’s a much more practical proposition for two or more people travelling together.

Three hours north from El Calafate is El Chalten. It’s more remote and this is reflected in the cost of food and accommodation but at least there are no national park admission fees for the treks here. Located in a funnel shaped glacial valley the wind whips through here in a most ferocious manner. I did a couple of day treks, the first to Lago de los Tres for a view of Cerro Fitzroy. The peak was party obscured by cloud on the way up the valley, by the time I reached the lake it was well and truly hidden. But it was a nice trek with good views along the valley and over El Chalten. My trek next day was to Lago Torre. It was a shorter, easier trek than Lago de los Tres and very boring in comparison. The view from the first lookout point, about an hour in was nice, but the next two hours along the valley to the lake and glacier, against a strong headwind were just plain boring. The top of the glacier and the surrounding peaks were mostly hidden in cloud so the view was disappointing. I met a local guide there leading a French couple. He had a book of photos he had taken himself of the valleys, peaks and glaciers around El Chalten. On a clear day the view would have been spectacular.

There are two main bus routes for heading north from El Calafate/El Chalten. The most famous is Ruta 40. Google it and you’ll read all sorts of nonsense comparing it to such iconic roads as US Route 66 or the Australian Stuart highway and painting it as a great adventure tourism attraction, a rite of passage for hardcore South American travellers. Take my advice, go the other route along the Atlantic coast. Route 40 is too far from the Andes for much of it’s length to watch the mountains out of the window. The road is largely unpaved. Despite this it is quite well graded and wasn’t the bone jarring, insides-pureeing experience I was expecting. But it was boring.

After a twelve hour day on a bus, an overnight stay in Perito Moreno (nowhere near the glacier of the same name) and fourteen more hours on a bus I reached Bariloche. The area around Bariloche is described as the Argentinean Lake District. In the winter it is a ski resort, in the summer there are outdoor activities like trekking, kayaking, sailing and horse riding. This year it has been badly affected by the eruption of the Chilean volcano Puyehue and the volcanic ash that blows in whenever the wind is from that direction. Like El Calafate it is a pretty town with countless chocolate shops and ice cream places. For the last week it has been 30+ degrees every day so it’s a bit warm for chocolate but perfect for sampling the wares from the ice cream parlours. Down the road in El Bolson it has been 37 degrees for the last couple of days.

Today is New Year’s Eve. I’ll be starting 2012 in Bariloche, here for another week probably and then on a bus back to Buenos Aires. I’ve decided to skip Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes. I don’t need any more penguins or national park admission fees for a while, the whales have already passed through and the water is rather cool for diving.

Two to three months in Patagonia have shrunk to about six weeks. I’m enjoying having the flexibility to make things up as I go along and change the plan whenever it suits me. I have an idea of where I’ll be in 2012 and when and in what order but if 2011 is anything to go by there will be more than a few changes along the way. How did your plans change this year and what’s on your to-do list for next year?

 

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2012.

 

All ticked off

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The seven continents that is, not me. Courtesy of a G Adventures cruise on the MS Expedition, on 5 December 2011 I ticked Antarctica off the list of continents still to visit.

 

Buying the ticket, meeting in the car park, getting bussed onto the quay, walking up the gang plank. At each stage my Antarctic adventure became more real. Finally on-board and with the mooring lines cast off I was really and truly going to Antarctica.

 

While we ate our first meal on-board the ship cruised purposefully along the Beagle Channel. With Argentina on the port side, Chile to starboard, and an assortment of sea birds including brown albatrosses following behind us we sailed towards the Drake Passage. This was to be our first test of ship and passengers. With no land anywhere between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic peninsula the wind can circulate the globe indefinitely, dragging the sea with it and whipping up monstrous swells and waves. As the sun set we approached the end of the Beagle Channel and the start of this infamous crossing. The wind had been blowing steadily from the West at about 30-40 knots for the previous twenty four hours. Swells of eight to ten metres were forecast which would make the expected forty eight hour crossing somewhat interesting.

 

In actuality we were lucky; the swell wasn’t as bad as forecast. On the first full day of the crossing it peaked at about five metres and on the second was an average of two to three metres. It was sufficiently interesting on the first day that during meal times the captain altered course by about 30 degrees to make the ride smoother. Effectively this traded some of the relatively fast side to side rolling for slower front to back pitching up and down. For anyone feeling seasick this was of little comfort but it did help limit the number of people falling over and plates getting dropped. Those suffering from seasickness generally hid in the their cabins for most of the time while the rest of us enjoyed lectures on the flora and fauna of Antarctica and three hearty meals every day.

 

I hadn’t really considered before departure that I was going on a “cruise” and all that that entailed. Demonstrating my goal-oriented techie past I was focussed on the objectives: going to Antarctica, seeing the ice and wildlife. I hadn’t thought about the “fringe benefits” including three excellent eat as much as you want meals every day, sauna, gym, library, endless tea, coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits, and a nice cabin. After months of travelling as a backpacker it required a positive mental effort not to adopt the typical “eat as much as you can because this has got to last all day” attitude to every meal. It would have been very easy to put on several pounds and there wouldn’t have been enough hours in the cruise to work them all off in the gym or sweat them off in the sauna.

 

About forty eight hours after setting off, around teatime on day three, we reached the South Shetland islands. It was a lovely evening and as the sun set and a beautiful half moon hung in the sky over Half Moon Island we made our first landing in Antarctica. We were greeted by Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, lots of them, and a solitary Adelie penguin. There are some photos in my Antarctic cruise 2011 set at Flickr.

 

For the next couple of days we visited different landing sites in the South Shetlands and at Telefon Point in the caldera at Deception Island about half the passengers took part in a Polar plunge. The water was a bracing -1.5 degrees Celsius when those so inclined stripped down to swimming costumes and ran into the sea from the beach. More fool them! They ran out a lot faster than they ran in. On all of our landings we saw penguin rookeries, the snow stained red (and occasionally green) with guano. At this time of year the penguins are mating and waiting for the snow to melt so they can lay their eggs. On the fifth day we reached our furthest point south, at 65 degrees 11 minutes. Our path was blocked by ice so we turned round and headed back north.

 

On the morning of our sixth day we made our first landing on the Antarctic peninsula at Paradise Harbour and I considered I had achieved my bucket list goal “Walk on Antarctica”. We were met by yet more penguins and at this stage I started to feel penguined-out. Only three penguin species are encountered in the areas we had been visiting: Gentoos, Adelies and Chinstraps. King and Emperor penguins are only found in South Georgia and much further south on the Antarctic continent. Whilst spoilt for penguins we didn’t see many mammals. A couple of times the weather was too inclement for a landing so zodiac (inflatable boat) cruises were offered instead. These were the best chances to see an occasional Weddell seal or Crabeater seal hauled out on the ice. On one cruise a few boats were lucky enough to see a Leopard seal. And on our landing at Arctowski base we saw five juvenile elephant seals. A few times whales were spotted in the distance but unless you were already out on deck with binoculars at the ready you were unlikely to see them, or see them well. Sea birds often shadowed the ship and the staff naturalist identifed twenty six species.

 

The weather was mostly kind. Air temperatures were generally around zero to plus five Celsius, the seas around the landing sites were calm, the sky was mostly grey but a couple of times we had amazing blue skies with glorious sunshine and fluffy white clouds providing interest. The wind was the villain of the piece. On the open water it often blew at a steady 30-50 knots producing a very severe wind chill effect. Fortunately most of our landing sites were pretty well sheltered and we weren’t made too uncomfortable. In fact on one or two which involved uphill treks overheating was more likely to be a problem. Layers were the way to go, and thermals and down jackets were not required.

 

The star of the show for me was the ice: glaciers, icebergs and various forms of sea ice. The glaciers and icebergs were fantastic shades of blue. Fresh water and salt water ice alike creaked and groaned, crashed and banged as if they were telling a story. Sadly I didn’t see any big bergs being calved. The icebergs we saw were all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes and ranged in size from a few metres across to several hundred metres long. My favourite was about the size of the ship and we sailed past it during lunch one day when of course my camera was nowhere to hand. You can get an idea of some of the shapes and colours from my photos on Flickr.

 

The passengers came from all over the world: Chinese, Koreans, Australians, Americans, English, Slovenians, French, Germans and others. Some were there just for the cruise, others had been travelling before or would be travelling after the cruise. Ages ranged from early twenties to sixties with an average of about forty. Most of the 120 passengers had booked months in advance but at least fourteen had arrived in Ushuaia with no ticket and booked “last minute” in the four days prior to departure. All the last minute cruisers had paid US$3600.

 

Landings continued at various points along the peninsula and on the islands until day nine of the cruise. Our final planned landing was abandoned when the wind and ice conspired to make it impossible. Our attempt at a sea cruise instead was similarly thwarted by fog so we turned northwards once more and started back across the Drake Passage.

 

Our northerly passage was much easier than the southerly one; conditions on the second day of the crossing were almost calm enough to qualify for a “Drake Lake” label. Late in the afternoon of cruise day eleven we re-entered the Beagle Channel and four hours later were tied up on the quay in Ushuaia. Our cruise officially ended after breakfast the next morning when they kicked us off the ship. Many of us wondered where we could hide to stowaway on the afternoon departure. Unfortunately they’d know exactly who hadn’t left the ship because we had to sign out using the swipe cards we used on the landings to make sure everyone who left the ship was back on-board. And I’m pretty sure the sauna, lifeboats and zodiacs would be the first places they’d search for stowaways.

 

If funds permitted I’d do another Antarctic cruise in a heartbeat. In fact I’d do another three. The first would be around mid-January to see the penguin chicks, the second in March at the end of the season, and the third on an icebreaker right at the start of the season in November. Unfortunately they don’t and there’s no prospect of them doing so any time soon. Never mind, there are plenty of other places to go and things to do.

 

Summing the experience up in one word is very easy – awesome!

 

It’s not a word I use very often. Did you go anywhere or do anything awesome this year?

Waiting for a ship

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

I left home in March with a couple of special objectives for my travels. One of them was to try to get a last minute place on an Antarctic cruise. So after a few weeks in Buenos Aires I hopped on a plane down to Ushuaia. My plan was to hit all the cruise offices on the day before each departure looking for a cancellation or unsold berth. I was prepared to hang around for up to about two weeks which would give me four or five chances. My budget for the cruise was US$3000. I was expecting it to be quite hard.

Imagine my surprise then when after reaching my hostel at about 7pm on Saturday evening, by 10pm I was booked on a cruise leaving on Wednesday. It’s billed as a twelve day cruise but it leaves at 6pm on Wednesday and they kick us off the ship at 9am on Saturday week; the marketing people are stretching the truth a bit. Regardless, it’s an Antarctic cruise. Being a short one it doesn’t go to the Falklands or South Georgia, just to the Antarctic peninsula and back. The agents pointed out that actually this is a good thing; on the longer cruises you spend a lot more time in open water getting from A to B and no extra time on landings. The advantage of the longer cruise is you get to see Emperor Penguins on South Georgia. They don’t nest on the Antarctic Peninsular so they’re not seen on the shorter cruises. And of course, the shorter cruises are cheaper.

There was only one cruise on offer on Saturday and it was US$3600. All the agents were offering the same thing at the same price and it was non-negotiable. There was no discount for paying cash either. Ushuaia is a pretty conservative little place. Most of the shops are closed on Sundays, and Monday was a public holiday when everything would be closed again. I could cough up or wait until Tuesday or even Wednesday morning and hope the price had dropped and that there were still places. Supposedly there were only five spaces left. Faced with the possibility of missing out on a cruise, and maybe not being able to get on the other three departures in the next couple of weeks I decided to spend the extra US$600.

I have met several other people in the past few months with the same last-minute cruise objective. There are four at the hostel I’m staying at in Ushuaia and we’re all leaving on the same boat. So for this season at least, getting a last minute place on an Antarctic cruise is pretty easy but not quite the bargain I’d hoped for. Regardless, I’m excited and am really looking forward to the next twelve days.

 

P.S. It’s 11am on the day of departure and another guy in this hostel has just bought a place on the same cruise. The price was still US$3600.