Monday, February 5, 2018

Patagonia paradox - the more you see, the more you want

If you go to Patagonia's southern tip, hold onto your jaw as it is likely to drop.

A swath of color briefly illuminated the Beagle Channel, which was stunning even when shrouded with clouds and rain threatening. The channel is three miles wide at its narrowest point and 150 miles of awesome length. 
Much of this wildly beautiful and harsh territory is best seen by boat. Or maybe only by boat. That's how we experienced Cape Horn, the Beagle Channel, the Strait of Magellan and the Chilean fjords. If ever there was a reason to book a cruise to Patagonia, this is it.

Our two-week cruise on the Celebrity Infinity had the over-the-top amenities that make cruising popular—major eats, entertainment, swimming and soaking pools, a casino etc. etc. etc. But without the trip highlights, which, for us revolved around wild Patagonia, it would have just been two weeks on a floating buffet.

Our 10 days in Chile after the cruise were spent on a loosely planned but wonderfully executed off-the-cuff road trip in Patagonia, which suited us better. (More later, of course)

But I am grateful to have seen this historically fascinating and visually dazzling collection of fjords, mountains, glaciers and waterfalls at the very tip of South America's Tierra del Fuego Archipelago.
A series of glaciers in the Beagle Channel originate from the still-vast Darwin Icefield on the channel's north side. We were thrilled that our balcony room was starboard, and we spent hours and hours shivering as we drank in the passing scenery, (along with some wine). The landscape became more surreal with every passing moment. 
Glacial ice appears to be blue. It really isn't, but our eyes see it as such because ice absorbs all colors of the visible spectrum except for blue. Then again, if we see blue, isn't it true?  Whatever. The brilliant color makes the scene even more other worldly

Another glacier on its way to the tidewater. Currently only one glacier in Glacier Alley  actually reaches the channel.
This one doesn't quite make it.

We saw all of the above and more the same day that we hiked to Laguna Esmeralda! Even though the ship didn't leave Ushuaia until around 4:30 p.m., it was still light enough to see the sights in the Beagle Channel until around 11 p.m. We're talking  17-18 hours of light. Is there such a thing as too much natural light? I don't think so.

This is about it for vegetation in the channel and the fjords. However, indigenous people once lived here, and some early explorers escaped scurvy by foraging. In one account, a young Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle, described seeing a naked woman suckling an infant. Sleet was melting on the woman's body and also the infant's. He was horrified. The region's weather is typically harsh. Other accounts report that the indigenous people coated their naked bodies with seal oil as protection from the elements. Others  report that seal skins were used as protection. In any case, it was an existence difficult to fathom. 
This photo was taken near where when the ship took a sharp north turn toward Punta Arenas, which is located on the Strait of Magellan. We enjoyed similar scenery for several days back-to-back. It got so that I felt guilty if I wasn't tethered every moment to our balcony, or at least a north-facing window. Or on Deck 4, where nature lovers without balconies congregated wrapped in parkas and wool scarves. 

Is there such a thing as too much natural splendor?

No. But there IS such a thing as not enough time.

Get it while you can!

Parting Shot

Earlier posts about our South American travels

Around Cape Horn - Happy 2018!
Ushuaia, Patagonian peat moss, and a polar plunge

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ushuaia, Patagonian peat moss, and a polar plunge

PK and I traveled through Chile and Argentina from December 18, 2017 to January 18, 2018,  first on a ship and then a road trip. Most of the time we were with our son, Chris and his partner, Chelsea. This is the second in a series of posts about sharing adventures with smart, intrepid, super-fit millennials on a mission to show us a great time. This post is about New Years day, when the assignment was hiking to a mountain lake via peat bogs and beaver dams. Polar plunge, optional.
PK and me at Laguna Esmeralda in the southern Andes Mountains near Ushuaia, Argentina, on the Tierra de Fuego Archipelago in Patagonia, which encompasses the southern reaches of Chile and Argentina. We never dreamed we'd be here. Remembering this, and other stellar days, is like a dream. Sure makes ordinary life, well, ordinary. 
Photo credit, Chris Korbulic  

This is how Ushuaia looked on New Years morning as we awoke on the cruise ship. We got an early start on our hike because the ship was scheduled to leave early - 3:30 p.m. so as to have daylight to navigate Glacier Alley through the Beagle Channel. 
The 6.2 mile RT trail to the lake began as a flat stroll with an occasional hop over tree roots. This forest persisted as a thick grove for awhile, but we saw many more of this beech-like tree called Lenga, in different sizes and conditions along the trail. We hired a taxi both ways as the trailhead was 20 kilometers, about 12.5 miles, from Ushuaia. The driver also arranged to pick us up. Cost? $100. Nobody said traveling in Chile/Argentina is cheap. On the other hand, guided tours were being offered for this hike at $140 a person. Guess we did OK.

This hike was not a shore excursion arranged via the cruise ship, but one Chelsea knew about due to her status as the ship's naturalist. It was just the four of us, although we saw other small groups along the way. The trail wasn't too steep. It did, however, require balancing on shifting footing, jumping over obstacles, and getting your feet wet and/or muddy. 
After climbing a short heart-pumping slope we ended up in a peat bog! The earth's surface, a quick Google search reveals, is covered 3 percent with peat. The southern hemisphere's bogs, mostly in Patagonia, represent only 1 percent of the total. Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation, and a peat ecosystem is the most effective carbon sink on the planet. For hikers, though, the peat is a pain. Think mud.
Makeshift (and shifting) bridges carried us over some of the
mud holes. But many sections were without a clear trail.
Hiking poles recommended! I managed to find a serviceable stick

in the woods. And left it, a stick in the mud. 

Another group heads over to take a look at a significant beaver dam that blocked a creek to form a pond. Beavers are not native, and their work is considered destructive.
Chelsea and Chris at Laguna Esmeralda, which is fed by glacial melt. A few minutes after this photo was taken, they did something that was common throughout our month together. Whenever cold, clear water was near, and they could get to it without serious injury, they went for a dip. I couldn't believe it either. 
Chris leaping rock-to-rock over the river flowing from the lake, chasing Chelsea as she charges over hill and dale for a private polar dip. I read later that we could have taken a path to the right and circled the small lake, even climbed to the glacier that feeds it. 

We were surrounded by mountains. Every turn brought another ahhhhhh vista.

This grey fox appeared on the return trip not far off the trail. It seemed amenable to being photographed as we were not the first to click cameras around it. Earlier, we saw an Andean Condor. Quite a thrill! However, it was too distant and active for a photo.
  The fox hurried downhill, perhaps tired of attention.
 It was fun to see that its tail was as long as its body

 and twice as bushy.
Chelsea, her hair still damp from her polar plunge,
couldn't contain her enthusiasm as we made
our way back to the trailhead. 
 Agreed. It was a fine day!
We were back in Ushuaia in time for lunch, and were
jazzed about sampling the King Crab for which the area is known.
Alas, the cruise ship had spilled so many people into the town that
finding four seats in a seafood restaurant at 2 p.m. was as unlikely as
having clean boots after navigating a peat bog.
Our last look at beautiful Ushuaia as we sailed away on this unforgettable New Years Day. I feel bad about not having had time to see the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park or any of the SEVEN museums in a town of around 60,000 (as of the 2010 census.) 

(The negatives about cruising, which I plan to explore in a later post, include port visits that can only touch the surface.)

Ushuaia has a surprising electronics industry in addition to tourism and a naval presence. However, its major claim to fame, emblazoned on many a T shirt and hat, is that it is located at The End of the Worldthe southern most city in South America.   


Rounding Cape Horn - a New Year's Eve to remember