Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chile: Torres del Paine

This park is to Chile what Yellowstone is to the United States. Both are unique and quite different, yet superb in landscapes and wildlife. No comparison as possible so each must be visited. I was at this park the first time back in 2003 and took me until 2010 to return. I traveled from Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natale in Chile, where I rented a 4-wheeled truck to go to the park. It is mostly known by its huge granite pillars from which takes the name, and also Los Cuernos (the Horns). These are primary the reason why landscape photographers and tourists to go there.

The weather here is like in Iceland; it changes every 15 minutes, so warm as well as foul weather clothing are a must. The roads within the park are not well marked and rough requiring stressful driving. Recently the access roads to the park have been paved but those inside the park are still narrow gravel roads. Talking to one of the locals, I found out that there is some controversy going on between the purists and the realists. The purists want the roads left as they are to “protect” the environment while the others want them asphalted. There is heavy traffic with large tours buses that I wonder how they manage to get through those roads. They should be upgraded to slow down erosion in the shores next to the lakes as well as to keep the dust down, but mostly for safety reasons. The photo below speaks for itself.

I stayed at the same hosterias as in my previous visit; but there numerous new ones are now available but they do not offer such great views of the park. My favorite ones are: (a) the one in Lake Pehoe that is located in a small island that provides an outstanding view of the Torres particular in the afternoon and (b) the one in Lago Gray where the glacier is visible and located inside a wooded area full of wonderful creatures. I spent the first night at the hosteria in the island from where the landscape photos in this blog were taken.

Next I stayed at Hosteria Lago Azul where there is a family foxes that live on the grounds of the complex and are accustomed to humans. One early morning I was out taking photos and ran into a large fox that was growling at me about 10 feet away, my first though is that it was rabid, so I took photos and moved on (no, I was not afraid of getting rabies since I was bitten by a raccoon a couple of months earlier and freshly vaccinated). Later on in the morning, I told one of the staff in the Hosteria about my encounter. He laughed and proceeded to take me an area where the fox’s liar was. And there the whole family was lying around, including the one that harassed me at sunrise. Most amazingly, it appears that since now I was properly introduced, I received no more signs of hostilities. I just sat on the ground ignored by the vixens that played chasing each other and jumping on the parents. According to the staff member, families of foxes has been there for years and the present male, took over when he pushed his parents away 3 years ago. It is obvious why these foxes are here…they get fed and/or raid the trash containers. But they have not learned to beg from tips when photographed.

The Patagonian parrots were nesting in the nearby old trees and their cacophony was the first thing to be heard in the mornings. They were hard to photograph due to the harsh early morning red light and constant activity. I had seen then in my previous trip but did not have the opportunity to get close. They feed on the leaves and fruits of favorite trees, I noticed this one morning so the next one I arrived at the location earlier and waited, within minutes they were there within 10-15 feed and totally ignored me.

That morning I saw a small beautiful owl seating on a branch where it stayed for hours. I decided that I was going to catch him at the time when he would fly away; as always the owl took off so fast that I missed the shot.

Another common bird is the Cincloides patagonicus. This small bird spent the time wading around the shore of Lago Gray feeding. He is constantly jumping around and turning around stones looking for insect larvae.

After a few days in the shores of Lago Gray, it was time to move to the northern part of the park which I will discuss in a future blog. Boat tours to the glacier originate from the vicinity of this Hosteria. I did not go since I have taken the tour during the previous visit. One of the amenities of this trip is that the crew offers you cocktails with glacier ice fished from the lake, while the tourists partake, the blue iceman watches begging for some too.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Calafate and Perito Moreno

Calafate is the gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier in the providence of Santa Cruz, Argentina. This glacier unlike most other glaciers on earth is growing and is to Argentina what the Masai Mara is to Kenya as a tourist attraction. Most visitors will stay in Calafate and visit the glacier for the day. As a result, the tourist accommodations are booming at an incredible pace. I was there the first time in May 2009; and returned in February 2010, I was amazed as to the number of new hotels and lodges rising along the shoreline of the lake on the road to the glacier. The old sleeping town is gone. Still much of the old charm is still left as illustrated above.
I have previously visited glaciers in Iceland and Alaska but none compares in majesty and awe to Perito Moreno. The iceflow covers approximately 100 square miles and has and average height of 200 feet where it flows into Lago Argentino. One of the major attractions for this glacier, is the fracture. This occurs when the ice flow creates an ice dam splitting the lake in two. When the dam is eventually broken it causes a spectacular water rush. This event is not easily predictable and not an annual event. Just watching and listening to iceflow moving is most interesting. One hears like rifle shots as the ice flows and chunks of ice break and fall into the lake. This process of large pieces of ice separating from the glacier is called calving; these calves then float about the lake pushed by the winds and water current until eventually melting away.

As tourism increases in Perito Moreno, the government activities to accommodate the influx of people is impacting this natural wonder. An extensive elevated metal trail and stairs ways is being completed. No doubt this will expedite the movement of visitors but at a cost of impacting the beauty of the area. They have constructed several “orange colored” rest stops along the trail that ruins the view. Could have they done this in a more subdue way? Is there a need for these structures in the first place?

The hand of bureaucracy using the excuse of “safety” has struck again in Perito Moreno. When I was there in 2009, I was able to access the shoreline in the area where the ice dam is formed (see image below). Now the old elevated trail that provided access to the shoreline has been closed.
No longer will visitors be able to experience to be close to the iceflow from land, see the deep blue/cyan colors created by the light filtered through the cracks in the clear ice from ground level, or touch the milky blue waters. Yes, there are boat tours that take you close to the iceflow or trekking on the glacier, but another experience to enjoy the glacier has been lost. Where else in the world could one experienced standing near the base of such a massive wall of ice?
I found that renting a car to visit the glacier for the day is more cost effective plus gives you the flexibility of staying at the glacier longer and stopping along the road to take landscape photos. One thing about Argentina that is more extreme than in other countries that I have traveled, is their gouging of tourists. You will pay ten times more for entering the national parks than a local citizen; but their practice of charging higher airfares to foreigners I have never experienced before. And is you are a US citizen and fly into the country, you will pay $130 fee, the good news, once you pay it, the passport is stamped and good for multiple entrances until the passport expires. In fairness this practice is not limited to Argentina, the same applies in Chile , but if you cross the border by land this fee is not charged, so walk or drive, don’t fly.