We were not hassled at all at the borders. We all had to show our passports of course, and surrender our white tourist cards (issued on entry) as we left Chile. It is important to keep this document in with your passport at all times as it allows foreigners to avoid paying the value added tax imposed on citizens. This means that every time we checked into a hotel, we had to show that paper to get the best hotel rate.
The two border control points were several miles apart. The only people we saw having a problem at the border was a couple who were apparently bringing a new television into Argentina without paying the tax. The television was confiscated. I don't know what happened to the couple. Mostly, we were waved through checkpoints. I think because both Chile and Argentina need the tourist dollars.
One my last day in Argentina for example, three of us took a cab to the airport in El Calafate. The cab driver was stopped at the checkpoint and had to produce his cab license, insurance and driver's license. He muttered something that indicated this was a common event for him, whereas our tour had driven three times through that checkpoint and were never stopped. These internal controls struck us Americans as strange. We noted that we could drive from Los Angeles to New York and never cross a checkpoint.
After crossing the border into Argentina, we spent the next four hours driving over a featureless, arid plain. Eventually, we turned towards the mountains and saw the lake next to El Calafate below us to the West.
A lot of nothing on the road to El Calafate
More nothing...and Colby's arm.
We arrived in El Calafate before sunset. Our hotel Mirador Lago is located on the main drag, just across the street from a bird refuge. El Calafate looked like a nice little town, with lots of restaurants, shops and people out enjoying themselves.
Boardwalk by bird sanctuary
Bird sanctuary in El Calafate
We had dinner that night at the hotel where we were staying, the Mirador del Lago http://www.miradordellago.com.ar/. Since we ate at 8:00 PM (that is as soon as the restaurant opened) we had the place to ourselves and sat together at a long table. At home, I normally eat by 6:00 PM, but in Chile and Argentina, that wasn't an option.
By this point, we photographers had become a very cohesive group. We had a lot of laughs together, told stories and made memories. Reflecting on the trip when I returned home, I realize that the best part of the trip was getting to know the other participants. We became good friends for a short time. I miss them still.
Early the next morning, we headed out to Perito Moreno Glacier. It is about and hour and a half drive to get there. We spent about 5 hours there and returned to the hotel for dinner that evening.
On the road early to Perito Moreno
Entering Glaciers National Parque
Perito Moreno Glacier from above.
The way the park is set up, there are nice walkways that lead down to the cliff that faces the glacier. The center section of the glacier is about 70 feet tall and the whole thing is about a half mile wide. There is a water channel between the viewpoints and the glacier. As we had an overcast day, we spent our time looking for moments when the light broke through or small chunks of ice fell into the water. We could hear rumblings as ice fell internally, but most of the sections of ice we saw fall into the water were very small.
Lenga tree in foreground.
Left side of the glacier.
Glacier and icebergs to the right.
Detail of center section with sunshine.
Large chunk breaking off.
Icebergs in the channel below.
The big picture.
Towards the end of our time there, I zoomed in and focused on a section that regularly produced small chunks of ice falling into the water. I turned on the video and within seconds the biggest chunk we saw that day fell into the water. It was spectacular!
Perito Morreno Glacier calving.
That night, we had another excellent meal together. More stories. More laughs. I should note that the food was fancier than I expected. This was generally true when we ate in hotel restaurants in both Chile and Argentina. For example, that night I had a roulade of salmon stuffed with crabmeat and topped with a foam made from ginger, along with a salad of butter lettuce, dried fruit, roasted pumpkin seeds, slices of chicken and chunks of soft fresh cheese. The meal was preceded with a variety of breads and herbed butter, served with nice silverware on a white tablecloth. The price for a meal like that? - around $18.
Similarly, the hotels were a little nicer for the price than a hotel in the US. Nice tile work in the bathrooms for instance, and there was frequently a bidet. Even the bed sheets were starched and pressed!
Breakfasts were less to my liking as I don't eat eggs, ham or cheese. I never saw oatmeal at any hotel in South America and the orange juice was always Tang. Breakfast buffets were heavy on pastries, coffee, sliced ham and cheese.
Speaking of ham and cheese, in the airports at Buenos Aires, you could purchase a ham and cheese sandwich, or if you didn't like that, you could purchase a ham and cheese salad. I was also surprised that I never saw chimichurri sauce in Argentina. I thought it is the national condiment. The only time I ate anything with any spice or garlic was in El Chalten, where I had lamb ravioli's in Arrabbiata sauce.
Bidet in bathroom at Mirador del Lago.
Street near hotel.
The next morning, we left early to drive to El Chalten, a small town known as a backpacker's hub because it sits at the base of a beautiful mountain range. This range includes Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. The later is a vertical spike that looks more like the Washington Monument than a feature of the natural world.
At 11,020 feet in elevation Fitz Roy is the tallest peak in the area. It was named after the captain of the HMS Beagle, the ship that brought Charles Darwin to South America and eventually to the idea of evolution by natural selection. Darwin and Fitz Roy (an ardent Creationist) debated the ideas that became the basis for The Origin of the Species. Years after the publication of the book, Fitz Roy committed suicide, believing that his conversations with Darwin had sharpened Darwin's argument
Road to El Chalten.
Entrance to the Los Glacieres Parque.
Entrance to El Chalten with Fitz Roy in the background.
The town of El Chalten is very small, with only a few paved streets. Dogs run freely among backpackers from all over the world. There is a small grocery store, a laundry, pastry shop, camping equipment store, a youth hostel and several small restaurants among some nicer hotels. We stayed at one called Lumaguim (http://www.lunajuim.com/). It was relatively elegant and included a nice restaurant.
The management was kind to us. When we wanted to leave for an early hike, they would set out food for an early breakfast. They freely gave advice and helped us change money. Security was casual however. Each room had just one key and it was attached to a decorated block of wood that we were asked to place in a basket on the front desk whenever we weren't in the room. That way the management could know when to send in the cleaning crew. The receptionist said that the town was very safe, and I figured that if one of the locals showed up with an expensive camera that everyone in town would know what had happened. I decided to to worry about it.
After checking in, we went back to the road leading into town to get some shots of Mt Fitz Roy. After a lovely salmon and risotto dinner, we went back out to see Fitz Roy by moonlight.
El Chalten street
Sun setting behind Fitz Roy,
Night sky over Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy.
The next morning, we drove out of town to get a shot of the road leading into town at sunrise. We spent the rest of the morning, developing images and learning more Photoshop techniques.
We went into town together for lunch at Restaurante Ahonikenk Chalten Fonda Patagonia. I had lamb raviolis in butter and hazelnut sauce. It was delicious!
That afternoon was overcast, so we went to a waterfall just out of town, called Chorrillo del Salto. The lenga trees were colorful.
Sunrise on Fitz Roy
Close up of Cerro Torre
Chorrillo del Salto (waterfall)
The next morning, we met in the hotel dining room at 4:30 AM, had some breakfast and set out by van to the Fitz Roy trailhead. I should note that the trailhead is just on the edge of town, less than a mile away. Driving just gave us a head start.
It was cold, so I was wearing a warm jacket and thermal underwear. Between all the clothes and my backpack full of camera gear, water and food, climbing the hill in the dark was an effort. I should note that most of the participants were young enough to be my children, so I had to push to keep up with them. On the other hand, they frequently stopped for long breaks to catch their breath. After a few of those, I asked Colby if I could just walk at my own pace. He said, "Sure. Just was for me at the divide in the trail."
I took off on my own, with the trail lit mostly by moonlight as my headlamp batteries were failing. I reached the fork in the trail and waited about 5 minutes before anyone else joined me. The sign said "Lago Treos" was just over the hill on the left fork, so I decided to just go check it out. Then two others from our group arrived and decided they would join me as well. I was under the impression that we were going to photograph Fitz Roy reflected in the lake. I was the ringleader of a group of delinquents.
After being at the lake for awhile and realizing that no one was following, we heard a voice up ahead. It turned out to be Peyton, who had come looking for us. Peyton led us down another trail, looking for Colby and the rest of the group. We made a large loop of trails looking for Colby and decided we weren't going to find him in time for the sunrise, so we got out from under the trees to a spot where we could see Mt Fitz Roy in the pre-dawn moonset.
Mt Fitz Roy moonset.
Peyton decided we should head farther along the trail to try to get closer to the river (Rio Cascades). He knew that Colby was heading towards some cataracts along the river with a view of Fitz Roy, though he didn't know the way as this was his first time to Patagonia.
The sun began to rise behind us, under lighting the clouds and giving an intense red glow to the trail and trees surrounding us. We came to an opening on our left that allowed us to head downhill to an area with a view of Fitz Roy. Suddenly, Taylor (a young woman in our group) yelled, "I hear a waterfall" and began heading quickly downhill. We all ran as best as we could loaded with gear and on a steep, rocky hillside, to follow her.
When we arrived, there were other photographers (not from our group) already staked out on the cliffside above the waterfall. The light was changing fast and I had on the wrong lens and tripod quick-release for the scene. Working frantically (and swearing colorfully), I quickly changed my gear and set up my tripod on a rocky outcropping above the waterfall. Within a minute, the pink light was gone, I had just enough time to get a couple of shots.
Fitz Roy Sunrise and waterfall.
After a tired but happy trudge back to the vans, we waited for the rest of the group. The first thing I did when he arrived, was apologize to Colby for not waiting at the fork in the trail. He said, "Did you get some good shots?" I replied that I did and he said, "That's all that matters."
Turns out that he did not know where that waterfall was and had hoped to find it himself, so my getting us lost and Taylor's discovery was good for all of us. Following our directions, Colby led a group to the waterfall the next day.
The path back down the mountain.
The valley of El Chalten below.
The beginning and end of the path.
We each had lunch on our own in town. I found lamb empanadas at the pastry shop. I asked the proprietress if she had any made with chicken and she shook her head "no", but the next day when I came back, she proudly brought out chicken empanadas and gave me a slice of pastry as well!
We were all pretty tired that afternoon, but happy about our shots. We began asking Colby about what other hikes there were in the area and in particular, where he got that shot of Cerro Torre at sunrise with glaciers floating in the lake. He said he got that shot when he had camped with his wife near that location for several days. He told us he didn't want to lead us there because it was 6 miles each way and we would have to leave at 4:00 AM. He said if we really wanted to go, he would arrange food with the hotel and that Peyton would go with us. Peyton is certified in wilderness survival, orienteering and first aid as well as being a fine photographer.
Five of us decided to go, so we arranged to meet in the hotel lobby the next morning. It occurred to me that with the time difference, I was getting up when I normally go to bed in Los Angeles.
In the afternoon and evening, we edited photos, saw a spectacular sunset and had a fine dinner at La Tapera, arguably the best restaurant in El Chalten.
Swirled lenticular cloud.
Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
Lamb ravioli at La Tapera
In the pre-dawn darkness, we could see that there were some wispy clouds in the sky. The air was cold, but there was no wind. Because of the distance, I decided to bring just one lens, my 24 by 70mm.
The strongest hikers in our group headed out fast up the mountain. I got behind and then compounded my delay by missing a turn. I was walking at about 4 miles an hour on a rocky trail in the moonlight, going as fast as I could because I didn't want to miss sunrise.
Finally, I came over the glacial moraine and saw the four fastest hikers to my left along the lakeshore. It was slow going to get to them as there was no trail, just a jumble of boulders. Finally, I arrived and found rocks that would hold my tripod. The first shot of Cerro Torres is lit by moonlight.
Cerro Torres by moonlight.
There is a glacier at the far end of the lake. We frequently heard booms as large sections of ice fell. At one point though, we heard this enormous gurgling, swishing sound in the water a hundred feet away. In the dark, it sounded like a sea monster. I said, "What the hell is that?" and Peyton replied, "That's an iceberg turning over in the water. You hear that all the time in Iceland. Sometimes we would have to run back from the shore if it was large enough to send a wave towards us."
Not long after that, the sun began to light the spire. As usual, it became very cold as the sun was starting to rise. We didn't have any interesting clouds to give texture to the sky, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
After shooting the sunrise there, I began working my way back the way I had come along the shore of the lake, stopping at a number of nature's lovely compositions to take some shots.
Sunrise on Cerro Torre
A little later, from another spot.
Small iceberg masquerading as a duck.
The hike back was absolutely glorious. The air warmed and the daylight illuminated all the beautiful scenery I had hiked past in the dark. Among the beauties I passed were a couple of reflecting pools and lenga trees ranging in color from green, yellow, orange and red. I told the others to go on as I was in no hurry. There was so much beauty around me.
Trail leaving the glacial moraine.
Peyton and the group going on ahead.
Valley of lenga's.
Reflections in a pool beside the path.
Path through the lenga trees.
Cerro Torre reflections.
At one point, I stopped to photograph an interesting section of path and heard a loud tapping noise above my head. I looked up and saw a red headed woodpecker! As soon as he flew away, a flock of parrots landed next to the path! It seemed like and enchanted forest. The memory of that walk comes back to me often.
Sign back towards El Chalten.
The next morning, we got up early and headed just out of town for one last sunrise on the mountains. It was very cold, probably in the low 30's and with a pretty stiff wind. It underscored once more what great weather we had been having. We heard from the hotel that a photographer had come there for four years in a row and never seen the mountains. We saw them every day.
After breakfast, we packed up and loaded into the vans. On the way back to El Calafate, we saw a number of herds of guanacos, grazing beside the road.
Once back in El Calafate, Colby and Payton dropped most of the group off at the airport and took three of us to the Mirador Lago to rest one more night before making the long trip back home. We had a lovely dinner together that night and shared a cab to the airport in the morning. We also transferred by bus together from the airport where we landed (BUE) to the international airport for departures (AEP). I spent one more night at the airport Hilton before flying the following evening back to Los Angeles.
Sunrise on Fitz Roy.
Guanacos by the road.
Leaving El Calafate.
Approaching Buenos Aires.
Getting ready to leave Buenos Aires.
I left my hotel in Buenos Aires at 2:00 PM for an 8:00 PM flight. There was nothing I could eat at the airpot. Dinner was served after we changed planes in Santiago, about 1:00 AM. They served breakfast around 5:00 AM and we landed in Los Angeles around 6:00 AM.
When you add in 5 hours for the time difference, it is a long trip (about 22 hours) with my knees pressed up against the seat ahead of me. That's the biggest deterrent to going back there twice a year.
It is such a magical part of the world, wild raw landscapes, friendly people and good accommodations. What made the trip really special though was the support of Colby Brown and Peyton Hale, and the camaraderie of the other participants. All that was missing from this trip was my wife. I was so happy to see her waiting for me at the airport. Maybe next time...