Patagonia: Civil Strife in Puerto Natales & Evacuation

12 January 2011: The road to Puerto Natales

It was supposed to be a simple day, we were suppose to drive to Punta Arenas today, and I would split up with the group and go alone by bus to Ushuaia. But the last few days there were some rumours about a civil strife in this part of Chile, mainly in Magellanes region over the rise of heating fuel. The whole region was supposed to go into a protest mode and they showed their displeasure by trying to hurt the economy of their own region, and in this place it means shutting down the tourist machine. At this point we were not too sure about what that means, there were police at the hotel this morning in Las Torres but they didn’t know what the latest status was. All we heard is that at Punta Arenas, the road to the city was blocked by protestors and tourists will have to walk the whole distance.

The choices then was either to drive back to Argentina to escape the blockade, or continue the drive to Punta Arenas, and have the option to spend the night at Puerto Natales if the situation was not favourable. Even the drive to Argentina was not guaranteed as the protestors could block the border too.

It was basically plenty of unknowns and at worst case it was a regional lock down.

But anyway we loaded up the bags into the cars and started the easy drive down south and we did not encounter many cars on this day.

Continue reading “Patagonia: Civil Strife in Puerto Natales & Evacuation”

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Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

7 January 2011: Argentina to Chile

 Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park
 Old truck at lunch stop in Esperanza
Old truck at lunch stop in Esperanza

A whole day of driving. From El Calafate we cross into Chile today and will spend the next few days in Torres del Paine National Park, arguably the highlight of this trip, but I think they are all equally awesome. We took Ruta Nacional 40 in the loop towards the border, stopping for lunch and bit of sightseeing in the small town of Esperanza, then westwards on small highway 7 and joining back to Ruta 40 again. 

At the border crossing, the Argentian side is just a few buildings in the middle of nowhere, easily a km away from the actual border. Passport control was simple enough, we just had to queue up behind a bus that was coming in from Chile. In Chile, we got onto a road called Y205 and after 3km drive, we come to the border crossing, where luggage scan and passport control was required. The border post in Chile, in fact even the road here, seems much better than the part in Argentina. This border crossing is in a small town, and when I checked on google maps after the trip, it seems to say that the town is also called Torres del Paine. There’s a souvenir store next to the immigration booth, which is just swell as bus load of tourists can shop while waiting for their cohorts to finish the formalities. 

 Before Lago Sarmiento, when the road goes from paved to gravel and with the Cordillera in the background. On the road up ahead is part of the group walking around looking for things to shoot.
Before Lago Sarmiento, when the road goes from paved to gravel and with the Cordillera in the background. On the road up ahead is part of the group walking around looking for things to shoot.

First stop is our stay for the night at Laguna Verde, but first I got the first glimpse of what I was about to see over the next few days, including a drive past Lago Sarmiento and onto gravel road before reaching Estancia Lazo on the banks of Laguna Verde. Its a working ranch in a really pretty (and I don’t usually use that word) by the banks of Laguna Verde. Spent the rest of the day and the next morning exploring the banks and taking pictures of the laguna in the foreground and with Cordillera del Paine in the background. I can stay here forever. 

 Estancia Lazo with Torres del Paine peaks in the background behind Laguna Verde. This was taken during a photographic survey, looking for the best vantage point for that evening and the next morning.
Estancia Lazo with Torres del Paine peaks in the background behind Laguna Verde. This was taken during a photographic survey, looking for the best vantage point for that evening and the next morning.
 Laguna Verde at the water line. Notice the strength of the wind whipping up waves. I think I took one of my favourite shots here the next morning with the pebbles in the foreground on a wide angle lens.
Laguna Verde at the water line. Notice the strength of the wind whipping up waves. I think I took one of my favourite shots here the next morning with the pebbles in the foreground on a wide angle lens.
 Trees in this part of the world grow in strange shapes, primarily caused by exposure to strong winds.
Trees in this part of the world grow in strange shapes, primarily caused by exposure to strong winds.
 Evening setup from the hotel room for a whole night of star trails shooting.
Evening setup from the hotel room for a whole night of star trails shooting.
 Good morning, Laguna Verde!
Good morning, Laguna Verde!

8 January 2011: Laguna Verde to Lago Grey 

 Stromatolites along the shores of Lago Sarmiento. These are calcium deposits that are found all around the shore of this lake. Read up on it online. 
Stromatolites along the shores of Lago Sarmiento. These are calcium deposits that are found all around the shore of this lake. Read up on it online. 
 First closeup view of the Cordilleras while driving along Lago Nordenskjol. 
First closeup view of the Cordilleras while driving along Lago Nordenskjol. 

I don’t know, I think today is one of the best drive in my whole life. No joke. Today we drive around Lago Sarmiento and right by the masterpiece of the park, the Cordillera del Paine peaks while going along Lago Nordenskjol, Lago Pehoe where I think some of the best sights are to be found, and then skirting the end of Lago del Toro and ending at Lago Grey. They call the main bit, which is the one with the black top the Cuernos (the horns). Not to mention the countless stops that we made to chase guanacos, and condors. The only thing we didn’t see today was the puma. 

 Rickety bridge across Rio Grey, close to Lago Grey
Rickety bridge across Rio Grey, close to Lago Grey

Lago Grey is fed by Glaciar Grey, and ice from the glacier breaks off and gets sent by the strong Patagonian winds to the south bank, which is where Hosteria Lago Grey is located. The air here is decidedly cold, and the hotel has just recently been renovated, and it is probably one of the most upscale place that I’m staying in so far in this trip. 

 Rooms at Lago Grey. The light from the windows were blown out, otherwise the icebergs would be visible outside.
Rooms at Lago Grey. The light from the windows were blown out, otherwise the icebergs would be visible outside.

At Lago Grey, you can see icebergs on the beach, and on a good day, one could take a walk along a sand bank onto a small island. 

9 January 2011: Lago Grey

Today is a full Lago Grey day. While I tried to take the walk along the beach, the weather is not cooperating… strong winds, and light rain pounded us the whole day. The wind blew away the plastic cover that covers my backpack. Looks like I will have to come back again sometime in the future. Oh, and I did spot a rare Patagonian Huemul (deer) here on the way back to the Hosteria… call it a lucky day.

 Just in case you get lost at Lago Grey. But there's not much of a path to get lost here.
Just in case you get lost at Lago Grey. But there’s not much of a path to get lost here.
 Icebergs of Lago Grey. Note the incoming storm.
Icebergs of Lago Grey. Note the incoming storm.
 On the small island on the southern end of Lago Grey. Grey's Glacier is visible in the distance.
On the small island on the southern end of Lago Grey. Grey’s Glacier is visible in the distance.
 Incoming storm starting to obscure the Cordillera del Paine peaks. Can't get great weather all the time... too bad.
Incoming storm starting to obscure the Cordillera del Paine peaks. Can’t get great weather all the time… too bad.

10 January 2011: Las Torres

 The Cuernos in the clouds taken on the way from Lago Grey to Salto Grande. I think this is where I took one of my favourite shots of the trip.
The Cuernos in the clouds taken on the way from Lago Grey to Salto Grande. I think this is where I took one of my favourite shots of the trip.
 Along Lago Pehoé. I think the views here are stunning because of the colour of the lake, and the surreal shape of the peaks in the background. It was a cloudy day but with a bit of patience, it was possible to get a nice shot.
Along Lago Pehoé. I think the views here are stunning because of the colour of the lake, and the surreal shape of the peaks in the background. It was a cloudy day but with a bit of patience, it was possible to get a nice shot.
 Shooting the Cuernos from the banks of Lago Nordenskjol.
Shooting the Cuernos from the banks of Lago Nordenskjol.
 Salto Grande waterfall, joining Lago Nordenskjol and Laho Pehoé.
Salto Grande waterfall, joining Lago Nordenskjol and Laho Pehoé.

From the western end of the national park, we drive today again past the central Lago Pehoe while stopping for photo opportunities whenever we could. There’s time to take a walk up to Mirador Pehoé, and a short hike past Salto Grande waterfall for the view of Cordillera del Paine across Lago Nordenskjol. The best time is probably early in the morning or in the evening, and I was there during the noon sun – but the scenery here is so beautiful I don’t mind. Again, the winds here are crazy strong. Don’t bring anything that flaps in the wind since it will probably not stay on you for a long time.

 At Mirador Pehoé. Normally a easy hike after lunch, but made extremely comfortable because of the shrub with the spiky leaves. I found a couple of the spikes in my shoe months after the trip. I call it the asshole plant. Because it is.
At Mirador Pehoé. Normally a easy hike after lunch, but made extremely comfortable because of the shrub with the spiky leaves. I found a couple of the spikes in my shoe months after the trip. I call it the asshole plant. Because it is.
 And this is the result, and mind you this is a panorama from a Canon S95.
And this is the result, and mind you this is a panorama from a Canon S95.

The next few nights, and the last stop is at Hotel Las Torres, a large estancia that has been converted into a resort. This si the closest hotel you will get to the start of the trek up to Mirador Las Torres, our last strenuous climb. 

 Guanacos on the way to Las Torres. Notice the sharp triple peaks in the background? That's where we're heading on tomorrow's hike.
Guanacos on the way to Las Torres. Notice the sharp triple peaks in the background? That’s where we’re heading on tomorrow’s hike.
 After the transfer into smaller cars, heres the squeeze through the narrow bridge.
After the transfer into smaller cars, heres the squeeze through the narrow bridge.

The final section of the drive to Las Torres requires that we get off the small bus and transfer to hotel SUV for the drive across a narrow bridge that barely clears the side mirror of the SUV. The hotel has a proper lobby and just about any convenience that you would expect, or not expect in the middle of the wilds of Torres del Paine. It feels that you are not in an adventure while staying here. Its just too comfortable. Maybe there’s a reason for that, the trek tomorrow would be 9km and 800m elevation gain up to Mirador del Torres and back down again. 

 Las Torres lobby
Las Torres lobby

No need to mention about the food here. Steak… You will gain weight.

 Not my usual food picture... check out the chunk of meat. Cut to measure, Patagonian style.
Not my usual food picture… check out the chunk of meat. Cut to measure, Patagonian style.

11 January 2011: Mirador Las Torres

I will not describe the trek in too much detail. Apparently most of the trek is over private land, and you walk along the valley will you get to the base when it becomes a boulder climb up hundreds of meters before you get to the mirador, which is a glacial lake on the top of the mountain – where you realise that the whole trek was well worth the view. I packed sandwich lunch and some fruits so this is a good place to take a break and enjoy a view that I probably not get to see again for some time. 

 On a great day, start of the trek up to Mirador Las Torres
On a great day, start of the trek up to Mirador Las Torres
 First junction
First junction
 Trekking along the valley, it doesn't look as scary as this picture. But its not fun to fall, I agree.
Trekking along the valley, it doesn’t look as scary as this picture. But its not fun to fall, I agree.
 Plenty of camping area
Plenty of camping area
 Water bottle refill zone
Water bottle refill zone
 Almost at the end of the trek, now all there is left is to climb to the top of the glacial lake
Almost at the end of the trek, now all there is left is to climb to the top of the glacial lake
 ... looking back
… looking back
 Almost there...
Almost there…
 And voila!!!
And voila!!!
 The large boulders makes it difficult to move around but it is possible to get close to the lake for a souvenir shot
The large boulders makes it difficult to move around but it is possible to get close to the lake for a souvenir shot
 Time for a break
Time for a break

I guess the trek is not as difficult as I made it out to be. I think the trek at Cerro Torre was more difficult even though the elevation gain was not as bad, mainly because it was hotter then. On top of that, my backpack was choke full of camera gear and a mid size tripod. There was not too much water since I replenished it along the way in the stream. 

 Going down, not really easier as it really kills my knee
Going down, not really easier as it really kills my knee
 The GPS helps to tell how far left to get to the hotel
The GPS helps to tell how far left to get to the hotel

 After a long day of hiking, this bridge was the best sight as it signalled that we were close to the hotel
After a long day of hiking, this bridge was the best sight as it signalled that we were close to the hotel

Needless to say once I got back to Las Torres later in the day, dinner never tasted so good. The buffet dinner comes with a big chunk of beef that is cut to order, and I asked for a double thickness chunk of meat. Well deserved. 

 And finally!
And finally!

Great end to an amazing photographic holiday. Or so I thought…

Patagonia: El Calafate, Santa Cruz, Argentina

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Flamingoes on Lago Argentino

6 January 2011

El Calafate is the largest town here at Parc Nationale de Glacieriares but it is still a small town with tens of thousand inhabitants. It is named after Calafate berry that is close to blueberry and make very good jam and sorbet. I know because I’ll be on a lookout for it at every meal. This is where the airport is, a port of entry for most tourists to this region of Patagonia. As you would expect, tourist shops and fancy restaurants with Argentinian themes are all over the main street and once you step off one block away it dies down to the feeling of a small sleepy town. There is even a casino, just in case tourists are sick of the mountains and decided to go back to something more “exciting”.

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Welcome to El Calafate, I guess.

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The Casino

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The drinking hole…

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… and some local souvenirs…

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Not to mention some shopping places.

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Old trucks

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Lago Argentino

Outside the western end of the city is a nature preserve with flamingoes standing on one leg. They looked pretty far away, even with a 600mm telephoto you’d probably get just a pink speck. The water is not deep at all and i don’t think it is worth wading in it to get close to the flamingoes. They would just fly away anyway. But there is probably nothing much more to do other than to look at the tourist shops and buy a fridge magnet or some artisanal chinese-made souvenir, so the best thing to do would be to take a good walk to the lake. It is, after all, a place for some R&R.

It is a pretty long walk. A few kilometers at least, and takes me through the heart of the tourist El Calafate. The main street is full of tourist memorabilia and outdoor shops, parilla-style and italian restaurants plus a casino smack in the middle of it all, clearly intended to be the centre of attraction. The prices of the restaurants on the main street is comparable to the ones that you find in Buenos Aires, which is normal I guess. Off the main street the prices seem to drop somewhat. There are pockets of area where the shops seem a little more upscale, kind of like the place where rich tourists would visit. I don’t get the idea of looking for a quaint shop in the middle of a town that is obviously not quaint. Its like looking for local hamburger in the provinces in China. It just doesn’t fit in, but you see that in every tourist town. Perhaps that’s how you tell a tourist town from a real functioning town with its own economy that doesn’t really bother with tourist dollars.

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Parilla, how could I resist…

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Saying the people here are carnivores is an understatement. This is a platter for 2. 2!

The cars here are a mix of old and new. The old cars here are pretty old and badly maintained. It’s probably not such a bad thing since this town is so small people don’t drive faster than what is required with a first gear anyway. I did see some speeding along a secondary road but most cars were going 20kmph at the most. Even at that speed it takes 15 minutes to get from one end of the town to the other end. Then on the other end of the spectrum are the fast cars, and I have no idea where they are planning to go in such a hurry.

We get to the nature preserve and noticed that while there is no man made barrier between us and the birds, one would have to go over marshes and mud to get close. And don’t let the distance fool you, it looks quite far away, but in actual fact it is even farther than that. So I’m happy enough to stay close to the main road and hope to get some shots of the flamingoes from there. There are some birds around closer to the main road as well, so I take those as easy prey. The flamingoes get to escape from my camera this time. I figured out if I could get close enough and getting mud all over me from doing so, there is no guarantee that it will not just decide to all fly off at the same time. I think flamingos could fly.

Generally there is not much to do here. But considering there are not too many towns in the vicinity, El Calafate would make a good base with Moreno glacier less than 2 hours to the west and Cerro Torre and Fitzroy 3-4 hours drive away around Lago Argentino and Viedma to the northwest. Next, bring on Chile!

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Waking up to sheeps outside the hotel window!

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Southern Lap Wing

Proceed to Torres del Paine National Park, Chile…

Patagonia: Perito Moreno Glacier, Santa Cruz, Argentina

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Perito Moreno Glacier in the hot summer sun

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This picture gives a sense of how big this glacier is

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Tourists on the glacier

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On the glacier

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More lenticular clouds

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Perito Moreno Glacier early in the morning before sunrise

4 January 2011
Leaving El Chalten this morning on the paved Ruta 40 down south past Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino, leaving behind Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. I’d say that I have been lucky to be in El Chalten and having a few days of clear skies. Today as we leave El Chalten, the peaks are already obscured by low clouds. It would have been depressing to come all the way to not see any of the amazing peaks at all, so I’m thankful to the weather gods.

Highway 11 brings us to El Calafate in time for lunch. El Calafate, named after a local berry (which makes a very nice breakfast jam, very close to blueberries, raspberries but a little more tangy sour) is more like a large camping ground. With a casino. Its a brainless way for bureaucrats to stimulate a boring local economy with a casino. For lunch, a local pizza place served up a large portion of food, do people here eat a lot… Even North Americans think the portions are too big. I ordered a special sandwich with bacon, egg and I think a small slab of steak, and it was filling enough I had no more space left for desserts.

For the short drive along highway 11 to Perito Moreno, the bus went along the banks of Lago Argentino. There are a few glaciers that feed into this massive lake, and every once in a while (more like every few hours) a large chunk of ice breaks off the glacier and floats on the lake. Imagine seeing ice bergs in a lake in summer. This, I was told, was mostly coming from Glacier Upsala which is melting the fastest of the lot. I don’t remember but this could be one of the glacier highlighted in “An Inconvenient Truth” as being a fast disappearing glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the largest in the region. Supposedly larger than the space occupied by Buenos Aires, 35km across and at the point where it meets with the lake and the part that is easily visible, 5km wide and it is supposed to be stable and in equilibrium. Continue reading “Patagonia: Perito Moreno Glacier, Santa Cruz, Argentina”

Patagonia: El Chalten, Santa Cruz, Argentina

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Arriving in El Chalten: Cerro Torre and Fitzroy in the background

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Fitzroy in the morning

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Rio Blanco from the top of the moraine at Laguna de los Tres

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On the trek up Laguna de los Tres

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Hikers at the start of trail to Laguna Torre

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Cerro Torre

31 December 2010
… Continued from the previous post. After Laguna Azul this morning, and a long drive around Lago Viedma later arrival at El Chalten was perhaps one of the best road trip I’ve been on. From far, the mountains I’ve seen in magazines and pictures start to appear slowly, and while the bus stops in many spots for us to take panoramas, it always seem to look better the closer you get to it. Normally there are not that much traffic on the road, but when the cars do appear they drive fast. Just before the descent into El Chalten there is a look-out point with a nice view that is spoilt by certain inconspicuous large buildings in the town.

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Entering El Chalten Continue reading “Patagonia: El Chalten, Santa Cruz, Argentina”

Patagonia: Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aire

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La Boca, Buenos Aires

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La Boca, Buenos Aires

25 December: Microcentro, San Telmo, Puerto Madero, Palermo & Recoleta
I’d arrive in Buenos Aires on the eve of Christmas, mainly to recuperate from the 2 days of flying from Asia, and also to have a look around the city before the real Patagonian adventure starts.

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First Morning in Buenos Aires

First day of this trip and i will attempt to walk around without carrying a DSLR. There is something strange about carrying one around a city. I barely, if ever, print any city scene beyond 5R. That is also why I prefer to be quick and fast around cities with small cameras like the Canon S95. My plan on this first day is to start off by surveying the tourist area of Buenos Aires next to the hotel at Microcentro smack in the centre of town. There’s a tourist street called Florida. Think Oxford Street, Orchard Road and you get it right. There’s probably much more souvenir shops here than anywhere in Buenos Aires, and I would be expecting quite a number of football jersey shops. Most of the shops are all closed today, being Christmas and the Argentinians being pretty religious and all, except for the usual tourist stores selling tourist paraphernalia. Seems to be quite a number of Burger Kings around in the city centre.

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I am where it says I am.

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At the park: I was hoping it was not my mind playing tricks on me, these tree branches just look unique. Continue reading “Patagonia: Buenos Aires, Argentina”

Patagonia 2010/2011: Pre-Trip

Trip date: 23 December 2010 to 20 January 2011

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Nothing to do with the post, but I like this shot taken close to LAX

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Over Cuba. One day I will visit this place.

It is not everyday that one gets to make a trip that is so long it is almost epic. That’s an overstatement perhaps, but I had to ask for a month off work around Christmas and it was not that easy to convince the boss that I need to disappear that long, most of the time in areas of the world where I would not be sure if my mobile phones would work.

The last day at work started with a late 3am sleep on the day of travel, no thanks to a late night cup of coffee. Then there was the work day that got extended while spending too much time looking for the “out of office” menu item in Outlook. (Eventually found it was a victim of my overzealous extension pruning in the name of performance-optimization, accidentally removed it and never knew OOO was an extension!). There was also the last minute packing routine, making sure I have enough power adapters, and minimum clothing and the right equipment. Got to the airport extremely tired and then realised that Singapore Airlines booked me on a connecting flight with less than 2 hours layover at SFO going from international to domestic terminals.

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In LAX: I don’t know what the fuss is all about water coming from Fiji, my daily latte, and a book to keep me awake when I should.

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Only SFO had free wifi. The other airports I went through were too stingy with the internet, but at least they had free power supply.

That was a long winded opening without really mentioning where I was going, although the title should have given it away. It is December in the northern hemisphere, and of course it is summer down south. This trip was already planned close to one and a half years ago.

It is Patagonia, baby! to get there I will have to fly into San Francisco, then Los Angeles, Miami before hitting Argentina. I will start off with a few days and Christmas in Buenos Aires, and then a domestic flight to El Calafate to loiter around El Chalten and particularly the peaks of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. It will be a totally landscape affair, main attraction being the landscape photography opportunities and of course plenty of pampas-fed beef steak. Next would be the glacier at Perito Moreno, my first glacier. There were a couple of chances to visit one in China but I skipped it, so this one is a good start. A long drive later, crossing the border I will end up with a week at Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Punta Arenas is the next destination, and I will then make the trip down to Ushuaia by bus, again going back through Argentina, and into Terra del Fuego. A few days there to claim that I have been to the bottom of the world, I would fly back from Punta Arenas to Santiago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and finally back to the far east. Plenty of flights, many connections and if everything goes well, and no delays, I should not be missing any flight. Just to be sure, I inserted a buffer of a day in Los Angeles to break up the tens of hours in economy class.

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Waiting for an early morning flight at Miami Continue reading “Patagonia 2010/2011: Pre-Trip”