Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Four Thousand Miles of Patagonia thru the Eye of an iPhone.

Argentina is a large country and Patagonia is the southern region of the country - sparsely populated and devoid of vehicular traffic; breaking down will be a great problem. La Pampa is one of the provinces of Argentina that will be traversed during the trip but “pampas” is a grassland biome not limited to this country that extends from the Atlantic to the Andes.  It is mostly a flat and dry grassland and usually very windy. The wildlife is sparse but varied and the most common seen are the guanacos, rheas, foxes and armadillos. A few birds - mostly vultures, hawks and small seedeaters.  Departed from Buenos Aires via Route 5 to Santa Rosa, changing to Route 154 and then to Route 251 towards San Antonio Oeste and then following Route 3 to Routes 2 and 47 and arriving at Punta Delgada in the Peninsula de Valdez, the first stop. All the photos in this blog were taken with an iPhone with images further processed in Photoshop.

 The Peninsula de Valdez is a famous National Park and tourist center with most tourist facilities based in Punta Delgada, a point of the departure for whale watching tours and access to the park.
The park is famous because this is the place where the orcas attack the sea lions resting on the beaches.  This is my third visit to this park but never witnessed the actual attack, but this time it was close; arrived 30 minutes late after an attack took place.  The orcas were still in the area and they will swim parallel to the shore looking for more prey but no more attacks occurred.  The Magellanic penguins nest here and the beach areas are the breeding grounds for the sea lions.  There are also foxes, armadillos and maras; the latter ones I had seen before but this time was able to photograph them for the first time (there will be a follow-up blog with photos taken with my regular camera that will show more details of the orcas hunting and the maras).

 At sunset departed the Peninsula de Valdez via Routes 47/2 to Puerto Madryn to spend the night and departing early the next morning towards Punta Tombo and Bahia Bustamante via Ruta 3.
When arriving at the detour for Punta Tombo, found a sign stating that it was closed.  This is where the largest nesting colony for Magellanic penguins is found in the world; they have already finished the season and returned to the sea.  I was here in 2011 and the cacophony of the breeding penguins and the stench of the nests left a lasting memory.  Continued south in Route 3 towards Bahia Bustamante and encountered the same situation there, so to Comodoro Rivadavia to spend the night.  One peculiar situation between Puerto Madryn and Comodoro is that there just 2-3 gas stations that usually have no gas. So you wait for the gas truck that may arrive that day or tomorrow.  I was familiar for this situation from previous trip so had 4 extra gallons of fuel that allowed covering the distance between the cities previously mentioned.  Ironically the area around Comodoro Rivadavia is the Argentinian version of Houston where most of the oil wells are found.

 There was an early arrival at Comodoro, what to do?  Obviously the local micro-breweries and in no time all the brews were tasted and I settled for the local Indian IPA. The stop here was a for a surprise reunion with my friend Mariano Huberty who in previous trips guided me along southern Argentina to various locations with nature and landscape photographic opportunities. He is now a prominent photographer and professor but I learned from him to crawl like snake to approach the choiques and other shore birds.  Unknown to Mariano, arranged to meet him at Puerto Cangrejo, the best restaurant in this city where we ate last 9 years earlier…he was surprised…me too; now he dresses in business suits. During the Falklands Islands war, Comodoro was an important war operational center and that the reason for the monument in memory of that war.

 Early next morning continued to Caleta Oliva via Route 3 and then took Route 12 to Pico Truncado to join Route 43 towards the West all the way to Los Antiguos.  This area of the pampas is rich in rock formations full of dinosaurs; the reason for these monuments along the route; note that the second one is made with scrap iron from the oil industry and plays soccer. (Note: If ever in the area, do not miss the dinosaurs’ museum in Trelew.  It has a world class collection just deserving a trip there for that reason.)

 Continuing in Route 43 stopped at the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, the largest freshwater lake in Argentina with bluish milky water color revealing its glaciers origins seen in the horizon. Arrived at Los Antiguos, the Cherry Capital of Argentina and of course, got to eat cherry pie, ice cream and jelly. Spent 2 nights in the village that served as the base for the first crossing the frontier into Chile.

 Los Antiguos in Spanish means the “old ones’ and it used to be a Tehuelche Indian village whose name means “Place of the Elders” and tradition is that the elders of these nomadic hunters spent the winters here. At the top of the hill behind the town there is a giant statue of Uendeunk that in Tehuelche mythology was a “good spirit” that protected young children. One sunset returned to the lake to photograph; strong winds drove waves that crashed into the rocks.

 Crossed the border at Chile Chico and via la Carretera Austral and drove towards Villa Cerro Castillo and Cohihaique towards the Marble Cathedral in General Carreras Lake (it is the same Lago Buenos Aires that changes name in Chile). This is a place that always wanted to visit---now I can say “I was there.”

 These formations are made of calcium carbonate that has been carved by the lake’s wave actions and water level fluctuations. There are 3 main rocks called the Cave, the Cathedral and the Chapel formed more than 350 million years old.  Boarded a boat at Bahia Mansa toward the rocks and although a bit rainy, the sights were spectacular with the boat going in and out of the various grottos.  The photos are the best description and after a lengthy visit returned to the shore to admire the vegetation.  Later on drove back to Argentina by the same road, fast trying to beat the clock to arrive at the border crossing before it closed for the night.

 The next morning back tracked via Route 43 to Perito Moreno to take the famous Ruta 40 heading south. At Bajo Caracoles took a gravel road crossing fantastic canyons originating about 150 million years ago due the melting of the glaciers in the Pleistocene. The Pinturas River formed the canyon in the image below. At the end of the road another dream fulfilled: La Cueva de las Manos. The paintings were carbon dated back 9-11,000 years. The hands were painted by using hollow bones (probably birds) to blow the pigments. 


It appears that the artists were mostly right handed since they used it to hold the spraying pipes so what is stenciled are mostly left hands of various sizes depending of the age and sex of the owners.  There is a hand with six fingers; can you find it? In addition there are hunting scenes of guanaco hunting using bolas as well as images birds, insects and lizards

The image below was converted to B&W to facilitate details.  The arrows in red point to the footprints of rheas which I am sure earlier were the eaten by the artists. The green arrow points to a figure that could have a shaman and at its feet one can see a rope with a ball at the end that could be a bola. And the blue arrow points to a six fingered hand--check yours --was it you?  Notice the hands prints are superimposed, smaller and more numerous closer to the ground, assume that this was the work of the children.

 I had visited caves with petroglyphs on several continents but these are the most impressive.  While writing this blog my brain remembered that my friend Vicente Gonzalez Mimica gave me a copy of his book “Arte Rupestre/Rock Art” that was published in 2009.  I really never bothered to look at closely it until now. What I gather from the book is that this site has the best petroglyphs of the multiple sites photographed thru Argentina and Chile. I can say again “I had been there.”

 Returning to Route 40 South and when reaching Route 23 headed west to El Chalten considered the trekking capital of Argentina, another place that I wanted to photograph. It is similar to Torres del Paine in Chile regarding the massive rock formations and the glaciers but it is more tourist friendly with easier access to the various trails. The village at the entrance to the park has numerous hostels, restaurants, groceries and gas stations. El Chalten wins over Torres del Paine when it comes to comfort amenities and choices. The first sighting when arriving is below where the Cerro Fitzroy (center) and Cerro Torre (in the background and smaller to the left with snow at the peak) are seen in the horizon and the River de las Vueltas in the lower foreground.  Chalten in Tehuelche means “Smoking Mountain” very properly because most if the time I was there was covered by clouds. The second image below is an igneous rock intrusion that broke thru the sedimentary rocks forming a wall that at one time blocked the river before eroded; its remnants can also be seen in the opposite shore.

 The image below is from the Mirador Torre and the next two views are of the Rio de las Vueltas.  The trek to the Mirador was a bit rough on me and was able to make it due to someone lending me a pair of walking sticks. But the effort was worth it…don’t get old.

 El Chorrillo del Salto is about 70 feet high, easily accessed and at the time is was fall time and the trees were at the peak of colors.  It is the end of the Chorrillo River whose headwaters originated from the melting FitzRoy Glacier where its waters enter the Rio de las Vueltas. Needless to say it was full of photographers carrying their tripods and battling for the best view site…my iPhone gave mobility and fun…can you tell the difference in the image quality?  No wicked camping is allowed at the falls.

 Returning to Route heading south encountered La Leona Hotel. The historical importance of the place is Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid and Etta Place hid for a month at this site after robbing the bank in Rio Gallegos in 1901. The gang continued to Bolivia where Butch and Sundance were killed in 1908. Etta disappeared but was allegedly seen in California in later years.

 Continued on Route 40 towards Route 11 and finally arriving in Calafate.  I was here the first time in 2009 when it was still a sleepy town. Returned in 2011 when it was growing and the lakefront busting with apartments. Now is still growing and looking very prosperous with micro-breweries. It is the base to visit Los Glaciales National Park with the easiest access to Perito Moreno Glacier (below) the most visited and the only one in the world still growing.   The Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers are accessible by tour boat.  

 The Upsala glacier is one of the fastest retreating glaciers; there is an interesting
YouTube video showing the effects at

 After visiting the glaciers on the way to Calafate, encountered this young guanaco stuck when jumping a fence.  These are frequent views when traveling in Patagonia with live and carcasses hanging from the estancias fences used to keep the sheep in. I insisted on stopping to photograph this situation and upon returning to the vehicle, it was decided that this guanaco will live to jump another fence and was released from the deadly trap.

 Left Calafate via Route 40 heading south to the Argentine border crossing with Chile at Rio Gallegos. The first image below shows a view of the pampas with a rail gate with scarecrows but in this case to scare sheep from crossing. Crossed the Chilean Custom Station arriving at Torres del Paine.

 First visited Torres del Paine in 2004 with numerous returns allowing me to witness the detrimental effects of ecotourism.  Below is an example of photographers searching for the elusive pumas.  You can search for my previous blogs for more details.

 Torres was the end of the trip returning to Calafate to take the flights back to the USA.  Below is the Cafeteria Ovejero (tourist trap) at the custom crossing back to Argentina. You can have a cafĂ© espresso for 8 dollars and a bar of chocolate for 6 dollars if you only speak English.  But if you speak Spanish with a Chilean accent, the prices are half of that; start practicing.

In closing this was a long trip but among my most rewarding and dreaming of a prompt return to the Route 40.  I have to start working in the digital SLR version of the trip; stay tuned.