I found Colby Brown on the internet (https://www.colbybrownphotography.com/workshops/). He was leading a fall color tour that met my requirements. I didn’t know him from Adam but he is apparently well known in the world of photography. In fact, when we were shooting the sunrise together next to the road leading to El Chalten, someone leaned out of a passing car and yelled, “Hey, that’s Colby Brown.”
Road to El Chalten
But I'm getting g ahead of myself.....
I signed up for the trip in November, even though the trip was for early April the following year. Booking that far in advance allowed me to get a great price through LATAM airlines and also get hotel rooms booked for the night before and for two nights after the tour. During the peak season, these places can book up fast.
The most direct flights down to Puntas Arenas (the start of the tour) that I could find still required 20 hours in planes and airports (one transfer from Los Angeles to Santiago Chile and from there to Puntas Arenas). The return flight (from El Calafate through Buenos Aires, Santiago and back to Los Angeles was a minimum of 27 hours. I decided to spend an extra night in El Calafate and one in Buenos Aires to rest and break up the return trip.
The next hurdle was packing. I didn't want to check any bags, but I wanted to bring two cameras, two tripods, a half dozen extra lenses, various filters and other photo gear. Add in a laptop computer, trekking poles, a waterproof windbreaker, jacket, long underwear, waterproof over-pants and a couple of other layers and that left room for just 4 long sleeve t-shirts and a half dozen socks and underwear. I packed and repacked until I threw out enough stuff to fit my gear in the overhead compartment. As it was, I had my LowePro camera bag, a tripod case and a duffle bag. The airline kindly allowed me to carry on my tripod case even though that was a third bag. Oh, and I wore a lot of my layers of clothes, a waist pack and stuffed my pockets too.
Finally the day arrived. My wife drove me to the airport and we kissed goodbye. The adventure had begun.
First glimpse of Patagonia from above
I met one of the participants (Sunita) and the co leader of the trip, Peyton Hale, in the Santiago airport. When we arrived together in Puntas Arenas along with the rest of the tour group, Colby picked us up at the airport and drove us to the hotel Rey Don Filipe in Puntas Arenas. http://www.hotelreydonfelipe.com/ The following morning, all the participants gathered in the hotel lobby for an orientation before the drive to Torres del Paine.
Colby explained to the 10 of us that this was our trip. If we wanted to get up before dawn to hike up a mountain, he or Peyton would accompany us. If we wanted to rest at the hotel. That was fine too. He also said we should ask he or Peyton anything. No question too basic or too advanced. Also, feel free to ask for help at any time. They were there to help us have a good trip.
It turned out that they were good to their word. At one point, one of my tripods needed fixing. Peyton pulled out at set of tools and fixed it. Same with my headlamp. If I needed help with Spanish or changing money, composing a shot, etc., they were always ready to help. They doubled my knowledge of Photoshop as well. I can't recommend them highly enough.
The first part of our drive was along the Straits of Magellan. The road turned inland through fairly flat country. We didn't see much livestock along the road , but now and then we would see a sign indicated that some vast tract of land was a ranch (estancia).
Driving by the Straights of Magellan
Bus stop on the road to Puerto Natales
We were stopped by the Chilean police at a checkpoint. It seemed odd to me to have a checkpoint between towns. I suppose they were looking for drug traffickers, human smugglers and tax evaders. I was glad Colby had the car rental papers and insurance in order. I also noticed throughout the trip that Colby always drove the exact speed limit, despite locals whizzing past us. Smart.
Old Pier at Puerto Natales
After stopping for an excellent lunch (a generous chicken and avocado sandwich) in Puerto Natales, we headed out towards Torres del Paine National Park. Before long, the road turned to gravel and dirt.
The road to Torres del Paine
We passed Lago Toro along the way.
Our first view of the Cuernos del Paine at the entrance to the park
The road by Lago Pehoe
We stayed on a little island in Lago (lake) Pehoe. The hotel (Hosteria) is only accessible by footbridge. It is not a fancy hotel, but it is in one of the most stunning locations in the world. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. http://www.hosteriapehoe.cl/
Foot bridge to Hosteria Lago Pehoe
Berries by the hotel lounge
View from the dining room.
Peyton emerging from our room
Peyton was my room mate on this trip. Our room was small, with two single beds and a really small bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, my knees were pressed against the wall in front of me.
We spent the afternoon getting shots of the lake.
As you can see, I used a slow shutter speed to make the water smooth.
While we were shooting, Colby noted how mild the weather was. Patagonia is famous for it's near constant wind, rain and cold. We had no wind and the temperature was around 70 degrees. I told Colby that I had remarkable luck with weather. He asked what I meant and I told him about seeing a moon bow the night after I mentioned one, or getting great shots of Horsetail Falls at sunset with very few photographers around because it was supposed to be raining. So Colby said, "How about some lenticular clouds at sunrise?" I visualized it and said, "Sure" (all the while thinking, "Why did I open my mouth").
Moonrise at sunset from the top of the island.
That night the moon was bright on the water.
The early morning (after moonset) allowed the Milky Way to be seen.
After my pre-dawn shooting, I joined the rest of the group for a buffet breakfast provided by the hotel. In fact the hotel was the only source of food for many miles around, except for a small campground with an even smaller store about a mile away.
The hotel provided meals to our group as a group, with a fixed menu, but they were very good about accommodating for special diets. We had a vegetarian in our group, two gluten-free and I don't eat dairy products. The food was very European - that is to say bland for my taste. I really wish I had heeded the advice of a friend and brought some hot sauce.
One complaint I have about all the places I went in Patagonia is that they would pop the top off a bottle of water and pour you a glass before asking if you wanted anything to drink. Bottled water (like other beverages) was added to the bill even in a fixed price menu. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink (and delicious) and they wouldn't serve that. I suspected (starting in Puerto Natales) that the waiters were popping the caps off of water bottles that they had filled with tap water. That was confirmed at Hosteria Pehoe when I asked "No bebidas por favor" (no beverages) after the waiter had popped off a bottle top. He promptly popped it back on the bottle!
Anyway, as we sat around that morning editing photos and getting help with Photoshop from Colby and Peyton, some of the other participants became interested in my night shots and asked to join me on subsequent nights and early mornings.
After lunch, we all headed over to the nearby campground so those that wanted to could pick up some snacks. While there, we saw some interesting wildlife.
Black & white bird at the campground
There he goes
A red fox peeking out from under camp store!
Close up of the fox
Back he goes
Across the campground was a Southern Caracara
There he goes!
After we left the camp store (which is about 12 feet by 15 feet - so don't count on doing all your shopping there), we drove a few miles out to the trailhead of a hike past a waterfall to a lake.
Less than a quarter mile from the parking lot, we came to a beautiful waterfall.
Salto Grande Falls
Salto Granda Falls with rainbows!
Hiking a little further brought us to another powerful cascade, this time with a view of the mountains beyond. One of our photographers in the foreground gives the scene perspective.
Cascades with the Cuernos del Paine beyond.
After leaving the river, our path took us through the twisted trunks of dead Lenga trees. They were apparently wiped out in a fire started by a hiker. Their twisted shapes beside the path were beautiful.
Hiking trail leading towards Cuervo del Paine.
When we arrived at the lake, the sun had already set. The water in the lake was fairly still and the reflections beautiful. Here are a few shots from there.
Twisted wood by lake.
Last light on the peaks.
Penumbral light and ghost trees on the return hike.
Back at our Island, the moon lights the night sky.
The next morning, I got one of my favorite shots of the Milky Way.
Joining the rest of the group for sunrise, we left the island and headed for the campground for another perspective. Along the way, we stopped and got a shot of our island, looking like a fairyland.
Hosteria Pehoe at dawn.
I learned something about weather being out several mornings in a row. That is, that the temperature would always drop just as the sun's rays lit the sky. I would be out enjoying the Milky Way in the low 40's and then as the sky lightened, the temperature would drop into the 30's. I think what is happening is that as the air above heats, it expands and pulls air up from closer to ground level. That also accounts for how we would begin seeing waves on the previously still waters at dawn. It also explains the cause of one of the most beautiful effects in photography , namely fog.
Fog and a view of Cuernos del Paine from Pehoe campground
A little later, as the light warmed.
Frost on Lengas by the lake.
After breakfast, more photo editing and lunch, we headed out to find guanacos. As we left the hotel, we saw a boat coming towards us on the footbridge.
Catamaran on Lago Pehoe.
It didn't take long to find guanacos. They compete with sheep and cattle for forage and their fur is valuable so they had been decimated by hunters and ranchers. They are now a protected species, their only predator being the puma. A week later on the drive from El Chalten to El Calafate, we saw hundreds of them beside the road.
Guanacos members of the camel family. They have beautiful soft fur and lovely eyes. We were careful not to disturb them. These photos were shot from about 30 feet away with a 200 mm lens.
This one seemed to be keeping an eye on the others - probably the male.
Two grazing guanacos.
Still keeping an eye on us.
One of our tour members accidentally called them "Guanachos". The idea of guanaco nachos became a running joke in our group.
From there we drove back to yesterday's trailhead and saw more caracara's before heading off to the lake.
Caracara taking in the scenery.
We again arrived late in the afternoon. The water was still, making for great reflections, but the light was diffused by clouds obscuring the sunset, so there was no light on the peaks.
Photographing reflections in the lake.
Cuervos del Paine reflection.
That night was cloudy, so I didn't go out shooting the stars. The next morning I was up early and got to the shoreline of the island where we were staying in time to see a magnificent sunrise. Colby and the rest of the group arrived shortly thereafter and we were treated to.......lenticular clouds! My luck continued to hold. The sunrise color lasted a good half hour, so we had time to move around the shoreline and get a variety of shots. It was a glorious experience. One of the best sunrises of my life...
Lago Pehoe sunrise - with lenticular clouds!
Wider angle, nice leading lines.
Even as the light faded, it looked awesome.
At breakfast we learned that the area was expecting gale force winds and 70 centimeters of rain that day. Boy were we glad to be heading out for Argentina!
One last look at Lago Pehoe as the storm gathered.
After that spectacular morning shoot and a good breakfast, we packed up and got into the cars. Most of the rest of that day was devoted to driving. First, we headed back to Puerto Natales, had a quick lunch and a couple more shots of the pier, then headed off to the border with Argentina.