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Pushing uphill in Patagonia and chilling in Antarctica

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JohnM

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I have finally gotten around to doing a TR of a Patagonia and Antarctica travel combination that I did in November-December 2013 that may be of interest to some folks.

The plan: PER-xSYD-SCL for nearly two weeks in Patagonia (Chile and Argentina), followed by a 10-night cruise from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula and return, flight to Buenos Aires on the day of return (20 December), overnight Buenos Aires before heading back via SCL and SYD to be home the night of 22 December in time for Christmas.
It went according to plan until arriving back in Ushuaia to be informed that an Argentine ATC strike had forced the cancellation of my USH-AEP flight. Flight out will be the next day - too late to make the SCL connection to my SYD flight.

Uh-oh. Christmas is fast approaching and QF doesn’t fly every day SCL-SYD. Phone QF. Next SCL-SYD flight is Monday 23 Dec. – but it’s full. Next one is Christmas Day and plenty of seats. Sweet!

While I would rather have had the enforced layover in Buenos Aires than in Santiago because IMO Buenos Aires offers a lot more, I think it’s prudent to get to SCL ASAP. Industrial unrest was a bit rife in Argentina in 2013, so I didn’t want to press my luck. LAN is brilliant at juggling me onto one flight EZE-SCL, then later another as undoing the ATC shambles in USH doesn’t quite go to plan and further within-day delays ensue. Ushuaia is flat-out with Antarctic cruises at that time of the year and many people are struggling to get home to all parts of the world by Christmas. Not to mention that there must have been plenty of incoming people who missed their cruise. Dangerous to fly into USH on the day your cruise is due to leave, IMO.

I can’t complain too much, but dang! - those striking ATC people caused me to miss planned dinner at my favourite Parilla in BA. This was the thing that p!ssed me off the most! Anyone going to BA, I recommend don’t miss Cabana Las Lilas: Cabaña Las Lilas Restaurant. La parrilla argentina en Puerto Madero. Great steaks form their own estancias and a sensational wine list. It’s an easy walk from the city centre.

Anyway, I take four nights in less exciting SCL on the travel insurance, get out on Christmas Day and arrive in PER on the night of Boxing Day.

The first map schematically summarises the whole trip. Obviously all lines except that USH to Antarctica are air sectors. The second map shows the regional trip routes, again schematically as the flights don’t follow the Great Circle Route, and the third the Patagonia region in more detail. The border between Chile and Argentina is a bit complex. They are not the best of friends and the air sectors weave along the borders. The other maps show the cruise route and landing locations.

After overnight in SCL, it was a LAN flight to Punta Arenas, rent a car and head to Torres del Paine. The country in the south is mainly tussock grassland with extensive sheep-grazing enterprises. I didn’t really think to take photos, as it looked much like grazing land in S Island NZ and a bit like the highlands in NSW or central Tasmania. English names are quite common in the region because many of the early settlers were British graziers.
After exploring the Torres del Paine National Park, I dropped the car in Puerto Natales and took a bus to El Calafate in Argentina. El Calafate is quite touristy, but a nice enough town despite that, IMO. It’s the jumping-off point for the famous Perito Moreno glacier in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, accessible either by road or by day cruise-boat trips on the enormous Lago Argentino. I did both. Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing, or at least ‘stable’.

The LAN flight from SCL-PUQ passed along the Chile-Argentina border just to the west of the glacier and fortunately it was a clear day at that point and I was on the left side of the aircraft. The view of the glacier was sensational. The ice advances across the lake to collide with a peninsula and dam the lake. After time (some years), the water level on one side of the ice barrier rises until periodically it breaks through and the resultant ice bridge eventually collapses spectacularly.

From El Calafate, I took a bus to El Chalten, a cute little town that is the centre for access to Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy in the northern part of Los Glaciares NP. Following that, I bussed back to El Calafate airport (FTE) for the flight to Ushuaia for an overnight stay before joining the Antarctic cruise. As with LAN within Chile, the Aerolineas Argentinas flight kept within Argentina, flying SE over Rio Gallegos before turning S to USH. No Great Circle Route stuff down there!

In hindsight, instead of flying SCL-PUQ, I would have gone SCL-xBuenos Aires-FTE and used El Calafate as a hub, rented a car there and used the vehicle to go to all destinations. I saw plenty of Argentinian-plated rental cars in Chile and spoke to people who said there was no problem going cross-border. The busses were fine, but I do like the independence of having my own vehicle!

The cruise departed Ushuaia in the early evening. It takes several hours to get out to the ocean along the Beagle Channel, under pilot control. Then it’s out into what can be some quite rough fun in the Drake Passage on the 3-night voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula. The first night was well above average rough and there were very few people at breakfast on the first morning. Fortunately, I don’t suffer from sea-sickness. The bacon and eggs went down a treat as the horizon went +/- 20-30 degrees!

There were plenty of activities during the day to fill in the time when only ocean (but plenty of spectacular pelagic birdlife) was outside. They had an excellent complement of people expert on the Antarctic (fascinating history and political background, the extensive scientific work done there, its wildlife, the ocean birdlife) who gave morning and afternoon talks. One was the retired deputy director of the British Antarctic Survey and who had represented Britain on the Antarctic Treaty. He knew the unique governance system for Antarctica and its history inside-out (more here for those interested: Antarctic Governance - Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition).

Two highly-accomplished wildlife photographers were also available to coach people with their photography. This was not really for me with my dinky pocket camera but there were plenty of passengers who had outlaid big bucks (maybe I should say even bigger big renminbi for some) for heavy-duty photographic artillery, and who definitely needed help in driving their gear.

There was also a gym and yoga classes each day. So there was plenty to do - as well as just relax and read a book (which suited me after some heavy-duty trekking in Patagonia in previous days), and fellow passengers to meet.
The passenger complement was just over 90. This was good because it is only permissible to land 100 people at a time on Antarctica, so it meant that everyone could go ashore at each stop. The ship was built as a Russian survey vessel. It was not a ‘luxury’ cruise-liner but it was certainly solid, very comfortable and the catering was very good. The smaller size, and bow and stern thrusters, was also an advantage in getting into smaller bays and channels where larger ships may not venture.

Once we reached Antarctica, the usual daily activity schedule was a Zodiac ride each morning and afternoon to either land on an island or, eventually, on the Peninsula proper or to cruise looking at the scenery or whales. For some of us, the Peninsula landing was our seventh continent visit experience.

OK, that’s a wrap of the overall trip. Now the pics will do most of the talking.

The route and destinations.

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The sun doesn’t set on 1K at that time of the year ;):cool:.

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Setting eyes on Torres del Paine. Note the rental car: HiLux dual cab 2WD. Suggested to me but as it turned out, not necessary. You can see that the dirt roads are good. Guanacos are quite cute.

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Cont...
 

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JohnM

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Sorry about the image stuff-up. Can't figure out the difference between an embedded image and an attached image - excpet I can't see how to delete an 'attached image'.

Carrying on:

After settling in to the lodge in the park, the next morning presents the challenge: the Torres del Paine is a 9 km trek. Am I up for a stroll in the park? Heck, why not? It’s only 18 km there and back. Looks easy to start with but the sign provides some advance warning of things to come on the last section...

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Picturesque stroll – but look at the pebbles making a very loose surface. Getting closer and that scree slope has to be traversed. Dang – cloud closing in. But whoa! Man, is that spectacular! Well worth the (big) effort!

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The return journey was, in many ways, more brutal than the outbound trip. Those pebbles made for hard balancing on the downhill slops and I didn’t have walking poles. Do not do this trek without them! Several big cervezas went down extremely well that night!

Lesson from Patagonia: don’t expect to be able to drive anywhere close to the most spectacular scenery – get ready to hike.

Next stop is Lago Grey on the western side of the Torres del Paine NP. Picturesque drive getting there. Pleasant view at breakfast from the Hosteria Lago Grey.

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There’s a boat there that does a trip up to the glacier at the head of the lake. Nice outing and there had been a light dusting of snow on the mountains overnight. Glacier is calving icebergs into the lago.

View attachment 33859

That ice is blue!
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JohnM

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Dang! What's going on? Images aren't embedding. Grrr!

I'll carry on and see what happens.

Next, drop the rental car at Puerto Natales and overnight there. Pleasant enough town full of outdoor outfitters’ shops (typical of Patagonia).

Next day take the bus to El Calafate in Argentina. A visit to the Glaciarium, a few kms outside of town is very worthwhile; it’s an excellent new glaciological interpretation centre. The first picture is looking back at El Chalten, an oasis of green in the quite dry environment in the rain shadow of the Andes – but there is unlimited fresh water for irrigation from the Lago Argentino. Obviously too cold and seasonal for intensive irrigated agriculture that far south, but they can keep the town green.

T he following day is a small bus tour to Perito Moreno glacier. It is spectacular. Second pic is looking straight at it from the peninsula it collides with. Second pic is looking to the west where I would later in the day take a boat ride up to the west face of the glacier.

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The first pic is the eastern side of the glacier, its main face. Note the boat – it is a big vessel (I go on that cruise the next day). That wall of ice is about 70 m high IIRC. The second pic is getting close to the western face. Note the contrail. Judging from the time of day, I suspect that is the LA flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago. Sit on the right side heading north and hope for a clear day! As noted previously, the view of Perito Moreno glacier from up there is spectacular.

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The next day is a ride on the boat seen near the eastern front of the glacier the previous day. It goes up two arms of Lago Argentino, first to Upsala glacier, then to Perito Moreno. Just a few general pics here.

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JohnM

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Next day, I bus to the northern part of Los Glaciares NP and El Chalten – the launch-point for Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy – very spectacular!

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The big termite mounds look gorgeous when viewed up the main street of El Chalten.

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Time for another hike. This is a 20 km round-trip to Laguna Torre at the foot of Cerro Torre. A lovely walk; fairly level with some picturesque scenery. A great full day’s stroll – but foiled somewhat by cloud obscuring Cerro Torre.

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Next day is a 12 km round-trip to a Mt Fitz Roy view-point, accomplished as an after-lunch to early evening walk. It is possible to go further but that requires preparation that is much more serious and a lot more time.

The days are very long in Patagonia in early December. It was a good walk, with a few steep sections to get the heart rate up. Again, cloud blurs the sharp peaks.

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OK, that’s it for Patagonia. Bus back to El Calafate and fly to Ushuaia for an overnight stay before heading to Antarctica.

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JohnM

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In Ushuaia I found a very good place to have dinner high up the slope looking over Beagle Channel on a beautiful clear, calm evening. Watched an Antarctic cruise boat serenely head out. Mine is due to leave about the same time tomorrow.

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Next morning check out my home for the next ten days. It’s the one on the right. OK, it looks spartan – but I think this is the way to go to an ‘adventure’ place like Antarctica. (Same in the Kimberley, which I did a few years ago). We board in the late afternoon; Ushuaia in the background.

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Comfortable lounge/bar, dining room and free access to the bridge (must stand to either L or R of the crew).

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First sighting of Antarctica. It is a continent, so it’s rocky.

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Heading in for our first landing at Port Lockroy, a British station that is now a museum operated in summer by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. It’s on an island, so not the true seventh continent yet. A couple of yachts were moored there – now, that would be an interesting way of getting to Antarctica!

On board the Zodiacs for the first landing. Rugged up in all the right gear.

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JohnM

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Rule Britannia and an idea of what it was like back in the early exploration days.

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Plenty of penguins from here on. Quite hilarious watching them trying to prevent robbery of their nest stones.

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The next morning dawns a lot more clear. Nice view from the cabin window and a spectacular mountain. Shed-loads of snow and ice.

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It was fairly early in the season and there was still quite a lot of sea-ice around that caused us to not get quite as far south as planned. But the water was so glassy.

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Another landing near some quite large penguin colonies. As a contribution to conservation and scientific knowledge, the tour company running the ship provides transport for some penguin biologists who census the populations.

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JohnM

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Penguins heading to the ocean to feed (and clean themselves!).

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Other creatures heading uphill in a penguin-like manner. It was a much bigger hill than it looks, with some very soft areas in the snow and trekking up it raised a major sweat. Off with some layers to cool off. Air temperature was zero and with no wind, there was no wind-chill factor to worry about.

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Looking down from that hill to the ship. The kayakers out, doing whatever it is that kayakers do.

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Mucking around in boats around the ship.

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More glassy water.

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JohnM

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One of the fun things was sleeping out on the ice one night. It’s only possible in calm weather, which we had the whole time at the Peninsula. Each pack was an insulating ground-sheet, a minus-lots-of-degrees sleeping bag and a bivouac cover. Dig yourself into a depression in the snow, settle down and listen to the ice cracking and groaning and avalanches in the distance!

First pic is getting prepared to settle in; the second waking up to a gorgeous clear morning. Sunset was at about 2330h; sunrise at about 0300h.

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This was a portent of a great, clear, sunny day – our landing on mainland Antarctica and an on-deck BBQ at lunch. Just sensational!

That hill is much higher than it looks. It was a hard slog up. Then we unfurl the no. 7 semaphore flag borrowed from the bridge for the 7-continent folks.

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Great view from up there on a stunning day.

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Coming down was much easier than slogging up. Followed by the outdoor BBQ lunch on a perfect day – the sun shining and no wind.

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Some whale-watching from the Zodiacs with hot rum toddies delivered by the penguin angels.

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JohnM

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The kayakers getting ready for a great morning of looking around a beautiful bay with some stunning icebergs on another sunny and still day. The rest of us did it in the Zodiacs.

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Some beautiful icebergs.

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More penguins. The chinstrap species – for obvious reasons - this time.

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Last landing. Half Moon Bay on Deception Island. This is a volcanic caldera that is active and the channel into it is a mere 200m wide. Only the few cm of water very close to shore was warm. Time for the Polar Plunge!
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Toast as we turn our backs on Antarctica and a bit of evening fun in the bar.

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That’s all folks! Unbeknownst to me at that time, my travel delay hassles await!

PS. Sorry about the image stuff-up up-thread. Don't know what happened there :confused:.
 

drron

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Great pics.
Antarctica is definitely a must see.
The ship going out when you were dining looks a little like the Silver Explorer.
 

lovetravellingoz

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Terrific ... how I wish. But now you have me hooked on the African aerial safari, I think this one may be a trip too far ...
Yes one continent at a time :rolleyes:

Africa in 2015 for me.

Antartica will have to wait a little while unfortunately.
 

zig

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Another amazing trip JohnM, let me know if you need someone to carry your bags next time.
I was in awe of your African adventures and now you throw in the Antarctic - just wonderful, and inspiring. Thanks for reminding us of the incredible world we live in. :)
 

JohnM

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Another amazing trip JohnM, let me know if you need someone to carry your bags next time.
I was in awe of your African adventures and now you throw in the Antarctic - just wonderful, and inspiring. Thanks for reminding us of the incredible world we live in. :)
Thanks. I also went to the Amazon basin in Ecuador and the Galapagos last year. Now that I'm in the groove, I will try to get around to doing a TR on that - hopefully before I leave on a 7-week DONE5 on 1 September :cool:.
 

zig

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Thanks. I also went to the Amazon basin in Ecuador and the Galapagos last year. Now that I'm in the groove, I will try to get around to doing a TR on that - hopefully before I leave on a 7-week DONE5 on 1 September :cool:.
Looking forward to it. :) Will try not to be too jealous :mrgreen:
 
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