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Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Years

Not much to do in Montevideo on a New Year's Eve. We went to a street market where I found a book about Mariátegui (Juan Manuel Casal, Mariátegui: El socialismo indoamericano; score!), and then we went to the beach. Warm, sunny. Temp shoots up to 37C which is enough to give me a heat migraine. We come back to the hotel tired & sunburned. 2 days in Montevideo, and it seems we should be out doing something. I've decided that I don't like being a tourist. It gives me a very superficial and partial view of what a country is like.

Saturday, December 30, 2006


Shopping for a new camera can be an interesting way to get to know a new city, I guess. We zipped around Montevideo looking for a place to fix or replace my broken one. What we discovered is that a) Canon does not have very good coverage in Latin America, and 2) digital cameras are 2 or 3 times more expensive in South America than they are in the States.

We finally found a $19US Chinese camera simply called "Digital Camera." As you can see, it takes pictures. One advantage of a $19 camera is that I don't have to compress the photos before uploading them to the blog.

Montevideo is a pretty laid back city, and it becomes even more laid back as we move into a long holiday weekend. Pretty much everything is shutting down. We caught a couple museums, but more were closed than open. We can, however, walk down the main drag 18 de julio and buy an ice cream cone.

Friday, December 29, 2006


We arrived in Montevideo this afternoon. I've now crossed one country off of my sabbatical list (Uruguay) and have 3 more to go (Paraguay, Dominican Republic, Haiti). Temperatures jumped from 15C in Ushuaia right over my ideal 25C to a blazing 35C that is enough to give me heat migraines. I think I finally acclimated to sub-antarctic temperatures, and I already miss Tierra del Fuego. This morning before leaving I ran up the hill behind our B&B & looked out over the snow-covered mountains behind town. Blue sky, sun. So gorgeous. As we flew out clouds were gathering and it was starting to rain. We lucked out, I think, at having 4 days of very nice weather. But now in Montevideo I'm sitting by an open window in the hotel with the moon shining in. By 10pm it's already getting dark; we can see that we are on our way back north.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tierra del Fuego national park

Yesterday in the Tierra del Fuego national park national park was so beautiful that we decided to return today. The weather was not quite as nice but still a good time was had by all. We hiked a trail that ends at the Chilean border. Lonely Planet says that an unimposing marker indicates the border. Unimposing indeed. All that was there was a orange bouy of sorts--no guards, no fence, no immigration, no nothing--not even something that says "welcome to chile" or "thanks for visiting argentina." (I would insert a photo here, but alas...) The trail continued, and I wonder where it goes--what's on the other side of the border? Wiren had a friend who once claimed that you could not truly claim to have been someplace until you peed there. Well, I was (however briefly) in Chile today.

If anyone is anxiously waiting, the sealions can now be viewed on my youtube site.

Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) for many people triggers imaginations of the end of the world. Ten days ago in Punta Arenas we had almost reached the southern tip of the South American continent, but here we are farther south than that. The Magellan Straits separates the island of Tierra del Fuego from the continental mainland. Ushuaia, on the southern coast of the island, is reputed to be the farthest south city in the world. That designation, of course, depends on what one's definition of a city is. Across the Beagle Channel from Tierra del Fuego are a string of more (Chilean) islands, including Puerto Williams and other small settlements.

Ushuaia is a thriving city, and seems to have lost that end of the world feeling. But it is from here where many excursions to Antarctica make their jumping off point. A sign at the port brags that from here it is only 1000 kilometers to that southern ice continent, and that the distance is much greater from South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. Looking at a globe does confirm that relative to other southern hemisphere land masses we are quite far south.

I initially thought we were coming south to enjoy the summer sun, but other than living under the ozone hole temperatures here remain quite cool (rarely about 17C). The days have been beautiful, however, without the chilling wind that we experienced farther north on the Patagonia slopes of the Andes. Patagonia weather is notoriously unpredictable (apparently due to the meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans), and I'm not sure whether we've lucked out, whether this is normal for Tierra del Fuego, or whether we've already adapted to a cooler climate. The sun is warm (even hot), but when it goes behind the clouds and the winds pick up the temperature drops quickly, as if we were in a mountain climate.

Here the Andean Mountains turn eastward after running south down the western spine of South America. Ushuaia is located between the Beagle Channel and the Andes. Snow capped mountains reach down to the sea. Penguins come up from Antarctica. It creates an incredibly beautiful scenery more beautiful, I would say, that either Torres del Paine or Chalten. The sky, the light, the mountains it's all so beautiful. The Tierra del Fuego National Park on the western edge of town is so alluring that we are returning for a second day of hiking. I scheduled an extra day in Tierra del Fuego, and at first worried that we would get bored with too much time here. Right now I feel as if I would have been happy to spend all three weeks camping at the park. This really is a special place.


The plan was to take El Tren del Fin del Mundo (The End of the World Train) to the National Park. We grabbed a bus from the center of town to the train station, and as we arrived the driver cheerily called out "trencito!" (little train!). The bus was full of hikers going the park, but we were the only ones to disembark. Oh boy, what were we in for?

Three years ago in Salta, thousands of kilometers away on the other end of Argentina, a travel agent talked us out of taking El Tren a los Nubes (The Train to the Clouds) and instead going on his tour alongside the tracks watching the train. Inside the train, he told us, riders are trapped and could not see much. Outside, we could see the train! What sold me on his tour, however, was the opportunity to visit archaeological sites along the route. It turned out that he knew little about the archaeological sites, and furthermore had never actually ridden on the train. His tour turned out to be a big disappointment, and I regretted not taking the train instead.

This time I was not going to make the same mistake and miss the train. The historic roots of the Fin del Mundo train was a narrow gauge line used at the beginning of the twentieth century when Ushuaia was founded as a penal colony. The train took convicts out with flatbed cars to harvest wood to heat the prison and generate electricity for the town. Nothing of that train or rail line remains. Instead, this is a disney version of a toy train with a steam engine brought in from South Africa and a diesel tug placed in front to pull the whole thing up the hill. Tour buses disgorge their passengers who swarm through the gift shops with their hands full of U.S. dollars and Visa cards and then push and elbow and shove to board the train. Guides on this for-profit enterprise tell dramatic stories over the PA system with swelling music under their voices. The train crawls along for its short distance to the National Park at a couple kilometers an hour.

At the park, we happily jump off the train and begin our hike down a road to where we pick up a beautiful trail that parallels the Beagle Channel. We've lost an hour and 110 pesos (roundtrip would have cost only 10 pesos more). Rather than taking the train, we should have stayed on the bus with the rest of the hikers.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sea lions

Here are the sea lions on an island in the Beagle Channel. I'm trying to upload a video to youtube, but it is a big file and isn't uploaded yet. Maybe tomorrow. Gotta go now.


Not the best video of a condor, but for now it is the best that I have. I took this yesterday at Estancia Halberton on the edge of Tierra del Fuego by the Beagle Channel. Condors live in pairs. When one mate dies, the other stays by the mate until it also dies. The estancia had a mounted pair that had died together that way. Condors are beautiful as they soar above the mountains in search of food.

I'm also uploading video of sea lions on the Beagle Channel, but you'll have to find that on my youtube site.

End of the camera at the end of the world

My camera died today at the end of the world.

Six months ago, based largely on Wiren's suggestion, I bought a Cannon Powershot SD700 IS. I've used it on all of my sabbatical travels--Nicaragua, Ecuador, South Dakota, Mali, Cameroon, Kenya, Venezuela, Chile, and now Argentina. This afternoon, I turned it on it the Tierra del Fuego National Park and received an error
message "Lens error, restart camera." The lens is now stuck out and the camera won't work.

More than 20 yrs ago I refused to carry a camera to Europe because I wanted to see Europe rather than looking at it through a camera lens. How much life changes. I've taken thousands of photos in the last six months with this camera (and no one to show them to!). Earlier today, I joked to Cheryl as I took a picture of snow covered mountains that I would decide later by looking at the picture whether it was pretty or not.

I have a couple more pix from the last 2 days that I'll post, and then we'll see what life is like. It just won't be the same blogging without photos. Today was a good day. The weather was beautiful, and hiking in the park was fabulous. Kevin complains that 30-40 percent of my blogging is complaining about stuff, and so I was going to give me a very postive post today. Oh well. such is life.

Here is the last photo:

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Beagle Channel

Just returned from a trip overland to an Estancia (ranch) and then onto a boat through Beagle Channel to see penguins and sea lions. And I got a video of a condor! I'll try to post some pix tomorrow.

Last nite I had a dream that my parents had left me home alone on the farm to milk the cow and it was 3am and I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to milk or feed them. In a panic, I woke up from the nightmare. It's probably the only type of dream that would seem like a nightmare at 3 am. So, like my mom I laid awake in bed for a couple hrs.

Pizza is here; time to go eat.

Monday, December 25, 2006


Arrival in Ushuaia, the southern most city in the Americas, and just a little bit grumpy cuz it's a holiday which means that everything is closed including restaurants so we can't get food and they promised to feed us on the plane and didn't and it was nice when we arrived here (17C!) but now it is rainy and we made the mistake to stay at a B&B way out on the edge of town so it is a pain to get back & forth (plus we'll get wet) and Lonely Planet says that they have Internet but they don't so we go to an Internet place w/ WiFi but they don't let me plug my computer into their electrical outlet & Truman sticks me with a 3.5 year old computer with a battery that is completely kaput so we go to a different place with a very slow connection which makes it hard to download email and everything is so expensive and now it appears that farthest south I'll ever get is on an airplane swinging around the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel as it comes in for a landing at Ushuaia.

Mirador los Condores

Before returning to El Calafate and then continuing on to Ushuaia, we hiked up 100 meters to a viewpoint over the visitor’s center. Cheryl wasn’t sure that she could make it, but now she’s officially joined the National Capital of Trekking. Our timing could not have been better. On the way up to the viewpoint, the clouds started to lift over the mountains. When we reached the top, we had an almost completely clear view of the Fitz Roy peak. On our way back down, it started to cloud over again. What good luck.

The viewpoint is named for condors, and I thought perhaps I would score my video clip of a condor soaring above the Andes. The trail had signs with little pieces of info about condors (did you know that they do not hunt, but rather look for dead carcasses for supper?), but we did not see a single condor. Nevertheless, the view of the surrounding mountains was stunning.


Chalten is Argentina’s newest town, and a bit of a weird one. It was founded in 1985 with the sole purpose of tourism, and the only tourist activity here is trekking into the Fitz Roy range of the Andes Mountains. Moist air blows off the pacific coast and is trapped by the Andean ridge, which means that the eastern pampa is often windy but dry while the Andes are windy and cloudy and wet. This is why I did not see much at Torres del Paine. In the late afternoon, the clouds lift a bit and through them I catch a fleeting glimpse of the base of the Fitz Roy peak (more properly known by its aboriginal name Chalten, that gives the town its name).

This is the farthest north in the Andes that we will go on this trip. It’s a bit farther north than originally planned (the itinerary called for us to stop at El Calafate), but hiking through the Andes mountains up here is stunningly beautiful and well worth the additional travel.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate’s principal (only?) tourist attraction, is a merging of four glaciers that come out of the Andes and crashes into Lago Argentina. Lonely Planet describes the glacier as both a visual and auditory experience. In reality, it is first an auditory and then maybe a visual experience, since sound moves so much slower than light. We hear a loud BOOM of the glacier calving, but by the time we turn in the direction of the explosion the ice has already plummeted into the water and there is little left to see except the resulting waves. It makes it very hard to get any decent pictures, because one has to have the camera on and at the ready before the explosion happens, before hearing anything to draw one’s attention, to capture something.

El Calafate is on the cold, windy pampa, but the glacier is easily accessible by paved road and this leads to a quickly growing tourist industry. So, we join the pilgrimage of tourists who crowd around for decent views. The glacier is huge, and even though we watch it from a hillside a kilometer away it still dwarfs us and it is impossible to watch the entire calving face at once. We watch it for hours, and it requires a certain amount of dumb luck to see any calving action. Some of the calving happens kilometers away, and all we are left with are blurry zoom shots. My goal is to catch some video for my youtube site, and finally I get a bit of lame, wimpy post calving action. Rains move in over the Andes, and so wet and cold we return to El Calafate where it is windy and cold, but at least it is sunny.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Summer Solstice

Last nite Tim commented that this year I would get to enjoy 2 summer solstices. It is cool and does not feel that much like summer. In Madison, our solstice celebrations are alternatively mosquito-laden or toe-freezing affairs. Here I have not seen mosquitos, nor am I in danger of losing my toes to frostbite. Perhaps it is an OK compromise. For those of us with seasonal affected disorder (SAD), the long hours of daylight are nice. I can stay late in Internet cafes catching up with bloggings, webpages, emails, etc., and still come back to the hotel before dark. Happy Merry Winter/Summer Solstice, where ever you might be.

Yesterday leaving Torres del Paine we saw a condor sitting on top of ridge by the side of the road. It took off, and soared around us. From a distance, I did not think it looked that big. Cheryl was impressed with its size. In a Salesiano museum in Punta Arenas, I saw a mounted condor that had a wingspan that exceeded 2 meters and a body that must have weighed 20 kilos or more. In Ecuador, there is a tale of a condor that kidnapped a young girl. Close up in the museum, the condor looked intimidating as if it very well could swoop down and fly off with a small mammal in its claws. Little wonder that they are so revered and respected.

This morning we took a bus across the Argentine border and north to El Calafate. Traveling along dusty gravel roads, we see mountains rising in the distance across the flat pampa. We’ll be here for four days, and are trying to figure out how to use the time. Tomorrow we’ll go to the Perito Moreno glacier, Argentina’s most famous calving glacier. I would then like to continue farther north to Chaltén. We’ll see how it all works out.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Torres del Paine

Another cloudy, drizzly day at Torres del Paine. After spending 96,000 pesos for the vehicle, 40,000 for diesel, 30,000 for the park entrance, plus hotel and food, I am left wondering whether it was worth it since we saw so little of the mountains. The park ranger said that this weather is normal. A guide book says that the park has no bad weather, just poorly prepared travelers. Maybe I needed to stay longer if I wished to see mountains. But tomorrow we are off to Calafate.

What we did see, though are guanacos. Lots of them. The park has worked to restore the population, and they are everywhere. So, I have a lot of guanaco pix, and even guanaco videos. (If you are wondering what a guanaco is, it is one of four members of the Andean cameloid family--the others being the llama, alpaca, and vicuña.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On the Road to Rio

In the 1980s when Nissan rolled out its new Pathfinder, it filmed a series of commercials in which a couple drove the vehicle to Rio de Janeiro for carnival. It had a delightful storyline (“we were lost so we knew we must be close” as they searched for a hidden Maya ruin, and the woman commenting that the man must be driving because she does “not bother to use the turn signals in the jungle” as the Pathfinder bounced wildly along a narrow track with the blinker flashing from the driver accidentally hitting the turn signal). I’m not sure how or why that commercial made such a deep impact on me, especially since I rarely watch TV and pay even less attention to commercials. The idea, however, of driving from Alaska to Patagonia stuck with me.

Now we have a Nissan Terrano to drive to Torres de Paine. In Mali, we met Eric who was driving a Toyota 4-Runner through Africa Chatting while we waited to board a ferry to cross the Niger River, it struck me how different experiences we were having. Driving your own vehicle and traveling as a tourist means being doubly removed from the world around you, especially compared to working and staying with fair trade artisans. I don’t really like being a tourist, I’ve decided, and maybe like this additional removal from people around me even more.

Today we drove to the Torres del Paine National Park. It was a dizzily day and the mountains were mostly clouded in. Not the best conditions. We came back wet, cold, tired. We’ll go back and try again tomorrow.

Monday, December 18, 2006


I'm finally uploading a video of penguins on Magdalena Island on the Magellan Strait from a couple days ago.

A little taste of the pampas

The original plan was to take a bus from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego through the Argentine pampas. Reading Lonely Planet convinced me otherwise. They describe an “endless expanse of nothingness.” Suddenly, spending days on a bus through a “monotonous” and “boring” landscape did not seem like such a wise use of time.

Today we came up on the bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales. Cheryl promptly fell asleep and remained so for much of the three-hour drive. Determined to get my money’s worth, I stared out the window at endless expanses of grazing sheep until I too gradually drifted off into a netherland.

Then we came into Puerto Natales that is located on the Ultima Esperanza Sound and surrounded by stunning snow-covered peaks. We’ve spent the afternoon setting up plans for the next two days. We’re renting a car and driving to Torres del Paine about 100 kilometers north from here. It is supposed to be Chile’s most beautiful national park, and one of the best in the world. I guess if this is reverse Alaska, we’ve started on the north slope and are now heading toward Denali. I’m wondering if we’re doing this backward–we should have started in Chile’s Lake District (Banff?) and gone south from there.

The sun is warmer here than it was in Punta Arenas (where it was cold and drizzly for most of our time there), but the wind whips off the sound that eventually become uncomfortable and chases me back inside. A grassy, sheltered place would feel so nice right now.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

End of the Continent

Today we traveled south of Punta Arenas to Fuerte Bulnes. The road stops short of Cape Froward, the furthest south point on the South American mainland. We stare south across snow covered islands with the clouds reaching down to us. Even though we are at sea level on the Magellan Strait, it seems as if we are at the top of the world. The view is stunning, but the landscape quite different from Alaska on this reverse-Arctic voyage. Even though we are about as far south as one can go in South America, looking at a map reveals that on the 53 parallel means that we are at about the latitude as Jaspar in Alberta or Moscow. Suddenly, it does not seem far south. No wonder that already at 11pm it is getting dark.

The Trip

This is the plan:
December 15: Fly through Santiago to Punta Arenas
December 18: Bus to Puerto Natales
December 21: Bus to El Calafate
December 25: Fly to Ushuaia
December 29: Fly through Buenos Aires to Montevideo
January 1: Fly From Montevideo through Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls
January 4: Fly back through Buenos Aires and to the States.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Magdalena Island

This afternoon we sailed 2 hrs up the Magellan Strait to Magdalena Island. The island is covered with penguins. It stays light until 11 pm. Cheryl's blog is more interesting.
Punto Arenas

It is supposed to be summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but here in Punto Arenas in Chilean Patagonia it is cold and rainy. Our taxi driver told us last nite that this was a virtual heat wave, that it rarely gets about 15C. So much for escaping the northern winter. I should have brought my parka and gloves.

This afternoon we’re going to Isla Magdalenas to visit a penguin colony. To get there, we’re traveling up the famous Magellan Straights. Tierra del Fuego, the end of the earth, lies on the other side of the Straights.

We had 4 flights to get here, and each of the first three on American Airlines was delayed. The final leg, from Santiago to Punto Arenas on LAN Chile, arrived early. But because of AA’s delays, we arrived exhausted at midnight after a lengthy 30-hour travel day. This also left us with an unplanned stopover in Santiago. I took advantage of the break to go to the Palacio de la Moneda and pay homage to my hero, Salvador Allende. On Monday my mom was worried about our safety because of police attacks on protesters in the aftermath of the death of Augusto Pinochet. The city is now calm, but the papers are full of the old dictator’s face. Conservative papers publish glowing tributes. I pick up my favorites periodicals such as Punto Final and The Clinic that are much more critical. The country is still deeply divided. It seems so unfair that, like Ken Lay, through death Pinochet escapes punishment for his crimes.

Friday, December 15, 2006

We’re on our way to Tierra del Fuego, but American Airlines always makes flying such a pain in the butt. We get on the plane in Madison, but then sit on the runway for an hour because stuff is backed up in Chicago. So we miss our connection to Miami. Fortunately, our plane to Santiago is delayed coming into Miami so we are here awaiting that flight. But that delay means that we are missing our connection in Santiago to Punto Arenas. We were supposed to get in at 3pm tomorrow, but now we won’t get in until midnite. American Airlines seems to miss more connections for me than it makes, and it creates very long and tiresome travel days. My head hurts. I’m tired. I wish I were in a bed. American Airlines mostly just makes me grumpy...

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