30 April 2012

We arrive in Buenos Aires at about 1am and are greeted at the airport by a wonderful taxi driver arranged by our BA tour guide, Marcelo. He drives like a sane man–imagine that! We are grateful for his careful driving. Our destination is the CE Hotel de Diseño. Originally we had booked an apartment. But when our arrival time was rescheduled by the airline about 2 weeks before we left California (from an 8pm arrival to 1am the next day) our apartment manager said he would not meet us at that time of the morning! We considered staying our first night at an airport hotel and then transferring to the apartment but I did not want to have to pack up one extra time. So, with Marcelo’s help, we found the CE Hotel and booked it for the 4 nights we were to be in BA. Our hotel room was beautiful! Our only complaint was that the streetlight shines into our 3rd floor window. It took 2 nights of wearing sleep masks before we realized that we had blackout curtains. The staff is incredibly helpful and they all speak excellent English. I wish that we had a better grasp of the Spanish language. There are so many valuable traveling phrases that we’ve mastered in French; it is frustrating to not have those words available in Spanish on this trip. While we were in Patagonia we only had the tour group to communicate with and if we were at breakfast or dinner Rex or Jonathan easily stepped in to help translate. But in the cities we are on our own and I hate people thinking that we are Americans who don’t have respect for other languages and cultures. The next time we come to South America (and I hope we do) we will be better prepared. Before our heads hit the pillows I check our email. We have not had email access for about 48 hours. We are horrified to see that Nancy is asking us to come home. Len has taken a serious turn for the worse. Then we read a subsequent email and he seems to be better and stable. We go to sleep wondering what news we will find in our email when we awake. We sleep about 6 hours and have a fabulous breakfast. They have: real coffee (unlike those coffee-hating Chileans) with hot milk, croissants, delicious OJ (I swear we had Tang at most breakfasts on the road), granola, bran cereal (I do believe we need that), nut and dried fruit mix, fresh grapefruit, big grapes, plums and yogurt. They have toast with dulce de leche–sweet caramelized milk that we happily discovered on this trip. The common areas of the hotel are nice and homey. We will come to love the basement bar and lounge area. We call Nancy about Len and she assures us that he is stable and to enjoy BA. We are relieved and feel a little selfish to carry on with the vacation–but we don’t feel bad enough to call the airlines! We are grateful that we put Nancy and Dorothy in place two years ago to help Len when we are not able to do so. Otherwise we would have been in AZ long before now. Today and tomorrow are holidays (tomorrow is the 1st of May–Workers’ Day or Labor Day) so the traffic is light and everyone is in the long holiday weekend mood. It is a gorgeous day so we take off on a little sightseeing walk before we meet Marcelo for our half-day tour. Buenos Aires is a gorgeous city! We pass lots of parks as we make our way to a pedestrian mall about 15 blocks away. We are accosted by hawkers of every trade: tours, tango shows, currency exchange, leather shops, and restaurants to name just a few. I’m on the hunt for a baby alpaca-hair scarf or shawl. Baby alpaca fiber is incredibly soft and is considered a superior fiber in many ways to cashmere. Alas I cannot find a color I like. We come upon an Italian restaurant and have salad and pizza–not great but OK. We are scheduled to meet our guide, Marcelo, at 2pm and we find a very likable, knowledgeable young man. We found him on TripAdvisors–our favorite vacation resource. Where do I start with our incredible tour of the beautiful city of Buenos Aires?? Argentina’s history includes unbelievable tragedies; incredible resilience; and unforgettable political figures. I’ll begin with the most incredible parts– many of which you will know some of this history but you will say to yourselves “how could human beings do such things?” Between 1976 and 1983 the Argentine military dictatorship “disappeared” people who criticized the government in any way. The estimated number of people who were kidnapped, tortured and then disappeared ranges from 9,000 to 30,000 people. After these people were tortured they were thrown out of airplanes (alive) over the ocean to make sure that their bodies were never found. While they were in custody it is estimated that 500 children were born. These children were taken from their parents and secretly adopted by the very criminals who perpetrated these heinous crimes. In 1977, 14 mothers of the disappeared, wearing scarves embroidered with their children’s names, began walking around the plaza directly in front of the presidential palace. The “Mothers of Plaza de Mayo” grew in number and strength and continued their walks every Thursday to show that they would never forget their children. Three of those women disappeared, joining their children. It was not until 2006 that the mothers’ group was satisfied that the government was finally bringing the criminals to justice and they had their final March of Resistance. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo will never see their children again. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are still looking for their grandchildren who were born of the disappeared. Even today there are commercials on television telling 30 to 35 year olds that there is free DNA testing available in an attempt to reunite the grandchildren with their families. Imagine finding out that the father you loved all your life was involved in the brutal murder of your real parents. Eighty-seven of these grandchildren have been found to date. The Spanish that is spoken in BA is the Castilian dialect. Double “L”s are pronounced as “Y” in the Spanish dialect that we learned. In Castilian it is a “sh” sound. It can be very confusing. Marcelo speaks perfect English but he does occasionally quiz me on my knowledge of Spanish. He corrected how I order at a restaurant. It’s as it is in France: you want to say “I would like the steak” rather than “I’ll have the steak.” I appreciate him helping me. Marcelo takes us on the metro. It is scary to take the metro in an unfamiliar city. He also takes us on the bus. He makes us buy the tickets and it is very easy. We should feel more confident taking public transportation! We get more interesting history lessons. Marcelo says that Argentina models itself with the USA in its efforts to gain independence from Spain. Jose San Martin is the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru from the Spanish. We see monuments to this great man in every country we visit in South America. I should describe Buenos Aires. It SHOULD be a Spanish-style city based on its history. However you would think you are in Paris as you walk through this beautiful city. The buildings are very much European. The city lay-out is influenced by Houseman who made Paris what it is today. Buenos Aries decided long ago that it did not want to have any evidence of its Spanish influence and it’s done a good job of making itself unique outside of Europe. Marcelo takes us to a cafe that also has a tango studio on the second floor. The people who come here just love the dance and come every day to enjoy it. We told ourselves we’d come back in the evening when the dancing would be HOT but we were too lazy. We’ll do that the next time for sure. But let’s go back to the cafe. The cafe was a very traditional European-style cafe. Unique to Argentina I ordered a “submarine” coffee. I got a capuccino with a dark chocolate candy to stir into the hot coffee. Marcello was disappointed that the candy was not actually shaped into a submarine. That is the Argentine tradition. But it tasted great no matter what shape it was in. As we end our day with Marcelo he kisses us both on each cheek. He says that we will enjoy that tradition each time we meet and say goodbye to one another. It is so sweet–I love it!! I can’t wait to greet him with a kiss tomorrow. We enjoy a nice cocktail hour (pisco sours, of course) at our hotel’s basement bar. The bartender puts on the tango video on the movie screen–it is so interesting! Then we walk about 10 blocks to the restaurant Marcello recommends. It is a Argentine MEAT (notice the emphasis) BBQ place. OMG, what a place. Marcelo says that an Argentine tradition is to have sweetbreads (mullejes) as an appetizer. We LOVE sweetbreads (veal thymus) and we love our sweetbreads appetizer. Howard has strip steak and I have rib-eye cooked rare to medium rare (called “jugs” in this part of the world). Mine is much more flavorful; Howard is jealous but there’s enough to feed 6 people. We have GREAT French fries. I’m in heaven. We start our walk back to the hotel and I realize that I’ve lost the map. We’ll never find our way back! We should have dropped breadcrumbs! We hustle back to the restaurant and there it is on the floor. We’re saved! Wow–this is a LONG blog but it has been an incredibly interesting day!

29 April 2012

We wake up to a very cold morning in Punta Arenas. We had hoped that some shops would be open but it’s Sunday so there will be no shopping for us. Rex and Jonathan are leaving early for their long trip back home. Fortunately I found an ATM last night (and two “thank you” cards) so we have nice tips for our “guys.” Both Rex and Jonathan truly went above and beyond the call of duty in making this trip memorable and photograph-filled. I just wish we had left Scott in the desert on the first day–then the trip would have been perfect! HA! We take a very cold walk down to the shore and try to see Tierra del Fuego. Maybe we catch sight of it in the very far distance. Lunch is hamburgers at a local hangout. Clearly we’re not at McDonalds. The beef, says the waitress, is freshly ground. It has more of a strong taste then we are used to but it is very good. Why don’t they have French fries with their hamburgers?! And we enjoy a local beer. There’s some scrambling to pay the bill. We are all trying to get rid of our Chilean pesos so there is a mixture of pesos and $US. But finally we pull together enough for the meal and a tip. (Later, in Buenos Aires, I realize that we have squirreled away a forgotten wad of Chilean pesos that could have been used for our share of the meal!!) Seven of us head off to the airport: Karen, Bill, Mari Ann, Ben, Howard and me plus that goofball, Scott. We will all take the same flight back to Santiago but then our paths will diverge. When we depart the plane in Santiago, the three couples kiss and hug and vow to stay in touch. I am just able to stretch my hand out to Scott to wish him a good flight home. That’s the best I can do–he is an incredibly self-centered man and, at best, he caused all of us to waste time for his personal benefit and, at worst, he nearly wrecked everyone’s’ long-awaited and expensive trip to Patagonia. That’s enough said about that jerk. Howard and I must find our way to the international terminal and it’s really confusing. Just as it was on the first day we arrived in Santiago, the taxi drivers, even though we say we do not need their services, ask us if they can help us. And we get pointed in the right direction and are eventually are off to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

28 April 2012

It is a full day’s drive to our destination, Punta Arenas, at the southern end of Chile on the Straights of Magellan. We will fly out tomorrow afternoon. We stop at Puerto Natales

Old Puerto Natales pier
Old Puerto Natales pier

for a very nice seafood lunch. Howard and I have bay scallops and they are quite good. We do a little shopping and while I have Jonathan alone I ask him about a gratuity for Rex, the tour owner/operator. The 3 couples have had discussions about tips. It was suggested that we tip our drivers, Norberto and Jonathan, but the 6 of us thought that since Rex was the owner of the tour company we should not tip him. Boy, am I glad I asked Jonathan! We suggested that we tip Rex $200 to $400 per couple. Yikes! Everyone now needs to check their resources and we discover that we need to find an operable ATM (which can be difficult). As usual, Scott disappears and cannot be found when everyone else is ready to leave Puerto Natales. My name may end up in the headlines before this trip is over! As we head out of town Jonathan informs everyone that we will be driving through a top-secret military area and anyone caught taking pictures will be imprisoned and fined. Of course that’s a lie for the benefit of Scott–no one wants to stop until we reach our destination. Before Jonathan’s announcement we stop at a religious shrine called “Defunta Correa.”

Difunta Correa
Difunta Correa

Roadside memorials (sometimes incredibly elaborate ones) are frequently seen in both Chile and Argentina. A couple of times we’ve seen plastic soft drink bottles surrounding the shrine but until now we had no idea why the bottles were there. Apparently there was a woman with a baby that was lost in the desert without water. She died but her baby was able to nurse from the dead woman until they were found. It was considered a miracle that the baby lived so now there are shrines with the drink containers as a remembrance. Compared to the other shrines we’ve seen, this shrine is over the top! There are hundreds of soft drink bottles around several statues of a dead woman with a nursing baby along with other religious statues, flowers and candles. These people are serious about their memorials and religion! We arrive at our destination and the Hotel Los Navegantes. Make note of that hotel so that you never stay there! Our room smelled like someone had been smoking nonstop for 100 years. The bedding was as thin as netting. But we all did have a nice happy hour in Karen and Bill’s room–and finished all the wine. We go to a beautiful old hotel for drinks in the Shackleton Bar, named after a famous explorer whose ship was lost in the Antarctic ice but was able, after a harrowing journey, to save his crew. Unfortunately the beloved dogs were not saved–they were dinner. All 10 of us toasted our wonderful journey and expressed our gratefulness for new-found friends. We had dinner at our hotel and it was not bad. I had a steak with mushroom sauce and Howard had conger eel. For dessert we had mousse made from the berries of the Calafate bush, a local plant. It was delicious. Off to bed to dream our last dreams in Patagonia…for this trip anyway.

27 April 2012

Howard has caught my cold and is inclined to stay at the resort today and look through his pictures. I’m happy to do that too. Breakfast is not especially great. There is instant coffee–ick. But Rex has his coffee press so we get a bit of tasty Peets coffee to wake us up. Howard takes beautiful photos

View across Lake Pehoe
View across Lake Pehoe

from the resort property as the rest of the photographers drive to other vantage points. We are left on our own for the day. In the afternoon everyone else goes on a boat tour to the glacier. They said it was well worth it but we still are glad we stayed in the ‘hood. We pay a mere (!!) $40 for a meager lunch of soup and salad and a couple of glasses of rough wine. Have I said that Argentina is expensive?! Mid-afternoon we take a 1 1/2 hour hike and get some nice photos of reflections in the calm lake.

Reflections in Lake Pehoe
Reflections in Lake Pehoe

The Pisco Sours are much more palatable today. Dinner is just OK–I had hoped for beef again but we get rather fatty baked pork ribs. My artichoke heart stuffed with tuna is inedible. The only tasty item is a puree of potatoes and pumpkin. The lemon meringue tart is left over from yesterday and is getting “weepy.” The resort closes tomorrow for the season so we are not getting freshly baked items–we are to finish up the left overs. At dinner Rex says “we should have gone to the spa.” So why didn’t he say that yesterday?! Oh well…the next group may get that option. Tomorrow is our last night in Patagonia. It seems to everyone that we’ve been gone for a month or more. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good trip–we all think it’s been spectacular.

26 April 2012

The photographers get out before sunrise hoping to catch the first light on the mountains.

Morning at Estancia Cerro Guido
Morning at Estancia Cerro Guido

The photo-shoot is not as great as they’d hoped but they’ll have more opportunities tomorrow when we’re closer to the mountains. We have a wonderful breakfast that includes delicious cherimoya and strawberry juices; pastries including a wonderful strawberry tart; eggs and toast; cheeses and meats. We are in the warm dining room gazing out the huge windows at the beautiful mountains.

Estancia Cerro Guido
Estancia Cerro Guido

A lively white horse gallops around the area just outside the window. Then 3 gauchos and 15 dogs (!) ride past apparently on the way to a nearby sheep camp. I can’t believe they need that many dogs–I think they just wanted the company. As we’re packing up to leave, 2 cute rambunctious puppies run over for our attention. They are hilarious. As they scramble for us to pet them I realize that in the kennels they probably don’t get a lot of affection from humans. We leave with Rex, Karen and Bill. Each morning there has to be a “huddle” to discuss who’s traveling with us and in what car. I REFUSE to travel with Scott. So, the three of us set out for our ultimate destination: Torres del Paine National Park. We make a stop at a new hotel, Tierra Patagonia, to check it out. What a place! It was designed to blend into the surrounding terrain.

Tierra Patagonia Hotel
Tierra Patagonia Hotel

It’s all gorgeous wood and stone–and costs about $4000 per couple for 3 days (all meals, park excursions and transportation are included). It has a beautiful spa–now that sounds really good. Their post-wind facial would be just the ticket. But, no, we must move on to the snow-covered mountains we see from the luxurious hotel’s windows.

Infinity pool at Tierra Patagonia
Infinity pool at Tierra Patagonia

We drive through areas that were burned from a huge camper-ignited fire last December. Some of the bushes have spouted but the beech trees that were destroyed will probably never come back. We take lots of photographs of raptors and birds taking off in flight along the way. We finally get photos of rheas,

Rhea
Rhea

the ostrich-like bird that has been so shy. We arrive at the hotel that will be home for 2 nights, the Hosteria Pehoe.

Hosteria Pohoe
Hosteria Pohoe

The view is unbelievable but the room and resort amenities are a bit of a step down. The Pisco Sours are incredibly strong–Howard says “lots of Pisco and no sour.” Dinner is good however–the best beef that we’ve had and we have the French dessert “Isle Flotant” (meringue floated on custard). At dinner I try to get a group together to go back to the resort for spa treatments tomorrow but no one will commit. I don’t press it because the treatments are not cheap–but I think it would be worth it. There is an early morning photo shoot ahead for the photographers. Howard decides to stay at the resort for sunrise photos. The view can’t be any better somewhere else. We get emails saying that Len is not doing well at all–in fact he seems to have lost his mind completely. It’s likely that the anesthesia from the surgery is clearing his body slower than expected and he has also been receiving strong pain medications. There is concern that he has an intestinal infection that is also causing him pain. All-in-all it does not look good but Nancy says to not make plans to return home yet.

25 April 2012

The photographers visit Laguna Nuñez Bird Preserve before dawn and get some great bird shots.

Birds on Lago Argentino
Birds on Lago Argentino
Flamingos at Laguna Munez Bird Park
Flamingos at Laguna Nuñez Bird Park

We have a full day’s drive to our next stop, Estancia Cerro Guido. As we take off we all say silly things like: We’re off like a herd of turtles! We’re off laughing and scratching! But Jonathan says: Off like a prom dress! We stop in town and I scurry around trying to find a birthday card for Karen; today is her birthday. That was not an easy task. When I finally find a place that had cards I couldn’t decipher what they said! I also bought a box of confections of the region for a little gift. Today we call Karen “The Birthday Chick.” We all stop at the grocery store and buy a bunch of wine. Heaven forbid we’re caught short. And Jonathan rounds up food for our picnic lunch. While we’re on the road, we come upon about 15 raptors (Caracaras, Variable Hawks and Buzzard Eagles) around a carcass. What a photo opportunity! We also watch a sheep round-up with 3 gauchoes and about 8 to10 dogs. It’s really interesting to watch the process.

Gaucho and dogs rounding up sheep
Gaucho and dogs rounding up sheep

They eventually run the huge flock across the road. What a sight! We stop for our picnic and a bathroom stop. I’m in the toilet and the window is open. I hear moaning and groaning and wailing just outside the window! It was Stuart after taking a fall on the icy concrete. I swear that level of commotion should only be used if someone cut off your leg without anesthesia. We arrive at the estancia at about 5pm. It’s quite a large place. It includes a school for the workers’ children and about 20 dog kennels. It looks like a modest place but looks can be deceiving. We are escorted to the guest house and our rooms. We are amazed at our beautiful rooms! There are huge king beds

Estancia Cerro Guido bedroom
Estancia Cerro Guido bedroom

with luxurious bedding. We even have a fireplace. We have a wine get-together in the large,

Estancia Cerro Guido Public  room
Estancia Cerro Guido Public room

elegant front room.

Mari Ann, Ben and Stuart
Mari Ann, Ben and Stuart

Our orders were to meet at the reception desk at 7pm to get our passports and go to dinner together. Howard and I are there right on time but no one else shows up. Jonathan says in a stern voice: You are not following orders! We make our way to the dining hall. A gaucho in full regalia is roasting a lamb for our dinner over a huge circular barbecue. The dining room is lovely with a gorgeous view of the snow-covered mountains we will travel to tomorrow. We start with Pisco Sours (of course) with coin-shaped pieces of fry bread and Pebre. Jonathan and I look at the wine list and order a red Matetic wine (the winery we visited near Santiago). It is perfect with the lamb–the best lamb we’ve had! Karen gets a cake with candles and we all sing “Feliz Cupleanos Para Usted.” We get an extra dessert of cheesecake and Cherimoya juice. It really was a great evening and a great birthday celebration. We drift back to the guest house and sink into our wonderful beds.

24 April 2012

We depart Hotel Nothofagus

Leaving Nothofagus
Leaving Nothofagus

for the town of El Calafate and the Parque National Los Glaciares (Glaciers National Park). We first stop at the Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins ranger’s station in El Chalten to get a map of the park as a souvenir. The ranger is not just going to give us a map; he wants to give us a little background on the park system because he is so proud of what they have here! He takes 15 short minutes of our time to tell us about it. Argentina’s national parks effort started with Teddy Roosevelt and his visits to this country. He tells us about the other national parks in Argentina and how they compare to Yellowstone in space and grandeur. Bill asks him about an attractive small medal he has on his uniform. It has to do with the Malvinas Islands–you know, the islands in dispute with England. The English call them the Falkland Islands. Howard says later: “Don’t use the “F” word (as in Falkland) around anyone from Argentina! When we left we were really happy that we’d come. The town of El Calafate is bustling! It really is a cute place; wish we could stay more than one night. We have our picnic lunch on the shore of Lago Argentino (Lake Argentina) and spend time looking and photographing water fowl.

Birds on Lago Argentino
Birds on Lago Argentino

There are several dogs that clearly know how to earn treats–they are so friendly and love being petted. The view of Moreno Glacier is our reason for stopping in El Calafate. Several of us need to make a “pit stop” but when we arrive all the facilities are closed. We are told that there are facilities at the end of our journey so we set off. A maze of metal paths and stairs miles long (it seems) with great view points of the huge glacier is before us. Howard and I set off at a rapid pace and for a long time we do not see anyone behind us. Onward and upward! Honestly it seems like the stairs are never ending. I HATE the stair-master at the gym and this is just as bad…or worse because I forgot to bring water. There are choices of several paths and I’m a little worried that we’re getting off course. We stop frequently and take pictures of the massive wall of ice in front of us. It is ice blue and the surface is beautifully jagged.

Petito Moreno Glacier
Petito Moreno Glacier

And we see the glacier calving!! Enormous pieces of ice break off and fall into the water with incredible booms of noise and water turbulence. After I’ve climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest, I rest and Karen and Bill catch up. There is a “community” need for a restroom. Howard sets out to find “the way.” I wait for what seems like hours (do you think I’m exaggerating??) when he finally returns and assures me that he did not dawdle and he has found the destination that we have been praying for. Up we all go onto more and more levels but before we wet ourselves we do reach the toilets. And miraculously as I exit the facilities I see Jonathan. We are saved! As other people in our party wander in guess who’s “lost”? But I don’t care. We buy beers and potato chips (and Jonathan augments with other snacks) and we sit on the deck sunbathing until that idiot, Scott, is found. We then are off to our hotel: Casa de Los Grillos, house of grasshoppers. Our hosts are very nice people and the accommodations are homey. Mari Ann and Rex actually found some glacier ice on the earlier trek and they have brought it “home” in the cooler. Our hosts have a local-made vodka that is infused with the essence of a local herb.

Karen & Bill with the glacier cooled vodka
Karen, Bill & Rex with the glacier cooled vodka

We have it on glacier ice. It was great! I think the herb flavor really was the secret. As we’re unpacking I find we have even more men’s underwear then we should!! A size comparison indicates that we have two more pairs of Ben’s underwear. As I had feared earlier, Howard has worn one pair. If they had been white I would have bleached them before returning them. But they’re black. So I set out to wash them as thoroughly as I can in the sink. Dinner is at Rick’s in the bustling downtown area. This is a serious Argentine BBQ place. There is no ambiance–just BBQ flames, bright lighting, cafeteria side-dishes and MEAT (it’s a screaming meat place). They bring us platters of meat–some cuts are unrecognizable. There is beef, lamb, chorizo, blood sausage, and chicken. You want to make sure you got the cut you’re after. It’s a disaster to get blood sausage if you are not intending to eat such an item. After dinner we find a nice artisan alley with locally made items. We’ve wanted a mate cup and straw as a souvenir (to drink the local Yerba mate tea). We find one with a nice motif; now we need to “cure” it.

23 April 2012

We are happy to sleep in this morning and forego the sunrise photo-shoot. It was so cold yesterday and Howard says he can’t do any better than the photos he got then. When the die-hard photographers get back, they confess that the light was not as good as the day before so we are happy that we were lazy. Our destination today is Lake Capri–a 5 kilometer hike.

Getting ready to go to Lago Capri
Getting ready to go to Lago Capri

It is a steady up-hill trek but we go at our usual “slow and steady” pace and it is quite an easy hike. We have lunch at an incredibly beautiful viewpoint. Jonathan spreads out the familiar checkered tablecloth on the ground and we have empanadas in addition to the usual fare.

Jonathon making lunch
Jonathon making lunch

My favorite guy, Scott, stuffs food in his mouth while he stands over the food on the tablecloth. Debris is falling out of his mouth onto the food below him! I tell Jonathan that I will not eat any of those “contaminated” leftovers! He promises to throw them out. When Rex arrives with Stuart and he says they saw Magellanic Woodpeckers! They are the largest woodpeckers in the Americas. We are sick to have missed it! We are once again subjected to the routine pleas for Stuart o have something to eat–god, that gets old! After lots of photographs of the beautiful scene and our picnic lunch,

Howard & Christine at lunch site
Howard & Christine at lunch site

we continue our hike to the lake. We see Condors, White-throated Treerunners, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and a Chilean Flicker. The lake is beautiful and is partially frozen. The photographers hope to capture the reflections of the snowy mountains on the lake. As we start our descent our eyes are peeled for those woodpeckers. And we find a whole family! Except for the female, who is elusive, the birds appear to be unconcerned about our presence.

Megellanic Woodpecker
Megellanic Woodpecker

We spend a good while photographing and I take some nice videos, I think. Jonathan radios Rex, who is behind us with Stuart (of course) and Scott, about the woodpeckers. To give Rex an idea of where we are, Jonathan tells Rex that he is so close he can smell him. Rex says that’s Scott he smells. Now I know for sure who did not have their laundry done yesterday. As a reward for our hard work, cold beer awaits us at the van. Jonathan is really a funny guy with a lot of energy. He can frequently be silly and Mari Ann is getting a little tired of not getting a straight answer to important questions. He also has the patience of a saint. He is the go-to guy for problems and he always solves them. He’s a “glass is half-full” kind of guy. He said the other day “is ANYthing all right?” The point being that at least one thing must be fine–don’t dwell on things that are not all right. Jonathan has a wealth of natural history knowledge of this region and we really appreciate hearing about it. We are in the small town of El Chalten,

El Chalten
El Chalten

the native culture’s name for the largest peak (also called Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle, Darwin’s ship on his famous voyage). Jonathan says El Chalten means “smoking mountain” in the native language. Frequently the peak is shrouded by clouds that look like smoke. Jonathan is an American who first came here when he was 19 years old and loved it from the beginning. I’m not sure how long he’s been here full-time but it’s been long enough to build an “adventure” business.  His website is Patagonia Adventure.  He puts together some extreme treks that include difficult ice field crossing–so not for us “old folks.” I suggested that he consider a sort of senior citizen’s outward bound program.

Christine, Jonathon and karen
Christine, Jonathon and karen

I think it might work. His ranch is located in a very remote area. His description of getting there made us all tired. It entails a long drive, a primitive water crossing, a horseback ride and a trek on foot. He’s trying to improve the property enough to have visitors stay at the ranch and make treks from there. But he also needs to get an easier way to get there. Rex is a good match with Jonathan. Rex is a quiet, steady guy. There is frequently a pause when you ask him a question–he gives thoughtful, slow responses. He always has a sly half-smile on his face as if he knows a secret joke. We are lucky to have such great guys as our leaders. Seconds before we leave for dinner, Ben asks if anyone has seen his Ex-Officio underwear. I look quickly at the underwear stack and I realize that we have more underwear than we came with. Now I’m worried that Howard is wearing Ben’s underwear. I pull Howard into the room, shut the door and tell him to drop his drawers. He says “Christine, can’t this wait???” But I want to know now. I think I’ve figured it out: Howard’s Ex-Officio underwear has the brand name on the waistband elastic and Ben’s has a label attached to the elastic. I give Ben his 2 pairs of underwear and assure him that Howard did not wear either of them. Whew! We go to a funky little restaurant. The lady is very welcoming and friendly. The guy in the chef’s hat walks through the reception area more than once with an incredible scowl on his face as he looks at our table. Within 10 minutes of our arrival the chef leads 2 small children out the door and we think he’s going to lock them in the car; that’s not good. But instead he drives off. Where is the chef going? Who will cook our meal? He eventually drives back and brings the children back inside still scowling at us. We realize it was a grocery run because he has a package of meat with him. Howard orders the “Argentine lamb” and I order lamb goulash with speatzle. Howard’s lamb is unrecognizable. It’s cut into weird pieces and much of it is so dry it’s like jerky. (I should not remind myself of jerky–that brings back bad memories of horses and hair.) That scowling chef got his revenge (for what we don’t know) on poor unsuspecting Howard with that inedible lamb. My dish was not bad.

22 April 2012

We all wake up early to photograph the incredible Fitzroy peak and the surrounding mountains at sunrise. We all must squiggle under a fence to get to a good photo location. It is REALLY cold and once we’re set up we have to wait an hour for the peaks to finally glow pink from the sunrise. I walk towards another viewpoint and I see that Bill is sitting on the frozen ground. Karen says that he is not feeling well and is quite dizzy. So Karen and I pack up his gear, grab his arms and slowly hobble over toward the car. I’m waving at Jonathan for help but he later says he thought I was just waving hello. We get Bill back under the fence and on his way to the warm van to recuperate. But then he sees Fitzroy glowing

Fitz Roy morning
Fitz Roy morning

and asks to have his tripod set up! HA! These die-hard photographers… So it’s settled once we get back to the hotel: the four of us (Karen, Bill, Howard and me) are sticking close to home for the day while the others take a hike to the nearby river.

Rio Gallegos with icebergs
Rio Gallegos with icebergs

Jonathan says he will take care of everyone’s laundry and we can’t believe he would assume such a huge undertaking. In fact there are jokes that he might have an underwear fetish. But he’s not actually doing the laundry! He is taking it to the “fluff & fold” place. Howard uses his free time to look at his photos. I try to catch up on the blog. Bill is feeling much better–we think maybe it was low blood sugar. So, the four of us go back to last night’s restaurant for lunch. We need restorative soup and we also have empanadas. That does the trick for us. I have a bit of a cold so in the afternoon Howard and I visit the pharmacy. Later I can’t find my sunglasses and I think I’ve left them there. Karen accompanies me when I go back. I try to explain that I’m looking for my sunglasses but apparently my pantomime is not very effective. Karen’s Texas-twang Spanish does the trick! But, no sunglasses. Later I find them right where they should have been. It is really easy to lose track of things when you’re moving around so much. The gang returns from their hike and there are lots of moans and groans. Stuart is really like an old lady–going on and on about his aches and pains (new and old). He’ll tell anyone who will listen about his tales of woe. He relishes attention from a few people in the group. They zip up his coat to make sure he’s warm; ask him if he’s eaten (“no (sigh) I just don’t want anything to eat”); cajole him to put one foot in front of the other as we ascend the trail; even cut up food for him at dinner! I want to grab him by the lapels and shake some masculinity into him! Several of us take a short hike up to a waterfall before dinner.

Waterfall near El Chalten
Waterfall near El Chalten

We get a little tour of the town. When we get back our laundry is ready for us. Jonathan says we each owe 1/7 of the total. Wait there are 8 of us. Who did not have their laundry done?? I do believe I know who… Just before dinner Howard calls me into our bedroom and says “now stay calm and don’t panic”! Oh, lord, what is he going to tell me?? A piece of his hearing aid is stuck in his ear. I try to extract it with two different tweezers but I can’t get ahold of it. I tell him he’ll just have to live with it till we get home. That’s not the answer he wants to hear. He says he’ll need to see a doctor tomorrow. Now I’m really motivated to get it out! Mari Ann has neat tweezers that open when you press them and close when you release (the opposite of regular tweezers). I have that foreign body out in one try! We have another great dinner. We start out with delicious rolls and a carrot spread (instead of traditional pebre). The rolls are dense and yeasty with an egg-wash crust. I order trout but apparently mispronounced the Spanish word for trout and all Spanish-speaking people go silent. I won’t do that again. Howard has delicious lamb ravioli. Rex notices that Scott was leaning against the wall where an electric box is situated. He joked that we all were hoping the current would do him in. So when I felt bad the other day that he would be gassed in the room, maybe others were secretly hoping the same thing!

21 April 2012

We have a very light breakfast but the thin little croissants are quite good. There are packaged muffins that we stick in our pockets. We are are grateful we have them to snack on later in the morning. The petroglyph group sets off. Jonathan has a cryptic map and we hope it will get us to our destination. We arrive at the designated corral and begin a relatively steep ascent.

Ascent to pictographs
Ascent to pictographs

Mari Ann was in a serious car accident several years ago and she needs to take her time but we’re not in a hurry. I was expecting a cave but when we arrive at the rock face we find a few paintings. As we slow down and take our time looking we cannot believe the number of petroglyphs and their beauty. One theme is a labyrinth.

Labyrinth
Labyrinth

We see a labyrinth circle about 2 feet in diameter surrounded by irregular circles. Another small labyrinth is multicolored: red and black. There are “families”

Family scene?
Family scene?

of figures; lots of animals; positive hands

Hand
Hand

(the hand was dipped in dye and placed on the wall) and negative hands (dye blown around the hand on the wall); arrows; slash marks; a spotted cougar; and places high up on the rock wall where Jonathan says they inked rocks or balls and threw them up the wall–maybe for target practice. We are so happy that we visited this ancient site. On the walk back to the car Jonathan says he feels like we are being watched. He turns around and tells us to look at our hiking friend: a little fox that follows us for a little way, apparently unafraid. We have a full days drive to the small town of El Chalten in the shadow of Fitzroy Peak, an iconic image of the region. We travel from Chile to Argentina on rough, unpaved roads through boring pampas land. The most exciting thing we see is a Hairy Armadillo.

Hairy Armadillo
Hairy Armadillo

We nearly scare the little guy to death trying to coax him out into the open for photographs. When we are in sight of our destination we are amazed to see Flamingos on the small lake on our right and a glacier filling the mountain valley on our left. How can the two be seen together?! The snow-covered mountain range that includes Fitzroy fills the view ahead of us.

Fitzroy Massif ahead
Fitzroy Massif ahead

Ben wants to set up his tripod and catch the sunset but the rest of us, including his wife, Mari Ann, want to move on to our hotel. Jonathan tells us that there are just a couple of rooms with private baths and we want to stake our claim. After a bit of discussion (and I think some grumbling about my assertiveness from Ben and Jonathan under their breath) we leave Ben for pick-up later and get to the hotel first. As it turns out there were 3 rooms with private baths so the 3 old married couples get those rooms and the single guys have to share a bath. We will be here for three days–hurray! Howard says he’s run out of gas after 8 days on the road. We decide to stick around the ‘hood tomorrow while the others have a photography hike. And besides we must do laundry. I can’t stand myself any longer! We have a fabulous dinner! Our Pebre (the pico de gallo appetizer we find so often and love) has lentils in it and it is great. Howard orders tasty lentils and chorizo–that should get him back on schedule, if you know what I mean. Bill and Rex think they are ordering a lamb appetizer but the waiter brings two huge bowls of delicious lamb stew and we all dig in. Others order pizza to share and I have a HUGE bowl of pasta. We all fill our bellies and even ask for doggie bags for tomorrow’s lunch.