Vacation of a Lifetime – Part 2


The snout of Perito Moreno Glacier towering over sightseers.

After leaving the steaming jungles of Iguazu (see previous post), we find ourselves in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.  This part of the island province of Tierra del Fuego is a breathtakingly beautiful home to alpine skiing, cross country skiing, and dog sledding during these winter months.

The calafate berry gives the town its name.

It is almost spring, and we have one last destination in southern Argentina to visit on the shores of magnificent Lake Argentina filling a deep, glacier-carved basin covering nearly 600 square miles (1,500 km²). We are flying into El Calafate over a vast grassy plateau that spreads out like the Great Plains. It is an artsy tourist town pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The town features numerous hotels, hostels and restaurants, a variety of shops and bookstores, and one of the finest assortments of artisan chocolate shops to be found in the western hemisphere. Prized for making mouthwatering jams and jellies, the calafate berry provides the ideal creamy filling for gourmet chocolates, reminiscent of sweet cherries, only better! Had I known then how difficult it would be to find calafate anywhere else on this journey, I would have purchased a pound or more to energize our final seven weeks.

Calafate is a tourist shopping Mecca when not out sightseeing the vast countryside.

We visit Argentina’s Parque Nacional de Glaciares and view Perito Moreno and Ipsala Glaciers, just two of the 30+ glaciers comprising the Andean Ice Shelf, second only to the Antarctic Ice Shelf in size and among the last remaining glaciers on the planet not shrinking. At last the fulfillment of my lifelong dream is realized – to stand amid the vast expanse and beauty of Patagonia, and I am not disappointed.

Our journey continues by bus across the border into Chile. We are immediately impressed with the infrastructure. Roads are paved and lined. And there are road signs! (We take much for granted in the northern hemisphere.) We have chosen Punta Arenas as our weeklong resting spot before the six week long driving tour the length of Chile, analogous to driving from Los Angeles to Ketchikan.

Florence visited historic buildings and the cemetery while my hiking guide took me to a historic fort with

Magellan National Reserve is just outside of Punta Arenas.

stunning views across the Beagle Channel where Darwin journeyed in 1833. But the highlight of Chile was the daylong driving tour through Torres del Paine National Park. The towering granite peaks thrust so dramatically skyward that the peaks rival the most impressive mountains anywhere. The most interesting discovery I made was what I call “God’s wind chimes.” One of our excursions was a walk along the shore of Grey Lake, a landlocked, mile-long lake at the base of the Grey Glacier. As icebergs calve off of the glacier and float with the wind, they melt into smaller and smaller chunks of ice.

The unusual, well-manicured Municipal Cemetery of Punta Arenas.

Eventually, the ice melts down to the size of ice cubes that line the shore. The light chop of the water’s surface causes the cubes to gently collide with one another causing a bell-like pinging like faintly tapping a water glass. The faint sound can only be heard within ten or fifteen feet of the shore and it sounds just like wind chimes. The ice cubes are perfectly clear without fractures because they come from glacial ice formed over millennia under tons of pressure. A tradition here is to bring glasses and your favorite liquor and pour a drink to share with these centuries old pieces of ice.

Centuries old ice cubes tinkle in the breeze.

On the three hour drive back to Punta Arenas we see dozens of grazing wild guanacos (llama family), a few cassowaries (emu-like flightless birds), and a fox or two. We sort of regret not stopping for a day or two in Puerto Natales, which we pass through both going and returning to Punta Arenas because the four day ferry trip to Puerto Montt passes through the wildest, loneliest, most stunning coastline and archipelago imaginable. That’s going to be worthy of a return trip in itself someday.

Our adventure to explore Chile by car from south to north is about to begin. It would be appropriate here to begin a slide show, because words themselves cannot do justice to the string of cities and the memories evoked by Puerto Varas, Valdivia, Pucón, Santa Rosa, Concepción, and Valparaiso/Viña del Mar. And that’s just the southern half of Chile. I will add another installment of this vacation to do justice to the beauty and diversity of Chile.

As always, your comments are welcome.

One of the source rivers of Lake Argentina with the Andes in the background

A hawk watches our approach to the Punta Arenas overlook.

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Vacation of a Lifetime

Near Ushuaia, Argentina – September is still Winter

I was so tired of my job. I was 61 years old, almost a year away from eligibility to file for Social Security early retirement. My wife missed traveling, something she had done a lot before meeting me on a cruise ship to Alaska in 2005. One day we were discussing retirement plans and she asked me, “What’s on your Bucket List?” Without even a pause I replied, “I’ve always wanted to see Patagonia.”

My wife, “The Count” muppet of planning (I love to plan things – mwahahaha!), immersed herself in organizing what became known to friends, acquaintances, and eventually to us as The Vacation of a Lifetime. In June, 2011, we gave notice and we sold our cars, house and furniture. We hauled everything remaining, mostly clothes and tools, to my brother-in-law’s airplane hangar in Southern California and launched a four month adventure in Latin American. We felt my Spanish was adequate to satisfy us that we could get by in foreign lands.

We picked the top five countries we would consider as places to live. Ultimately, our choices included Panama, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. (Panama and Nicaragua inspired previous posts. Uruguay and Chile are on my to-do list.)

Iguazu Falls from the tour boat; the revving motors are drowned out by the roar of the falls crashing on the rocks. The mist is like spray from fire hoses.

After a week in Buenos Aires, we were ready for some open country. First stop, Iguazu Falls. Selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, Iguazu is a mile wide river splitting into 275 separate waterfalls and cascading 269 feet over the cataracts. Like Niagara, the falls need to be experienced from each side.

With the roar of the falls still ringing in our ears, we board our flight to the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, and just like that it’s winter. Good thing we packed lots of extra clothes, because we used them all! The thrill of seeing the Andes Mountains up close for the first time is the fulfillment of a lifelong desire. I drink up the views of towering, snow-capped peaks as the low angle of the sun reflects off their summits. The pure, clear water of the lakes and rivers and the pristine forests are like an elixir that clears my head and buoys my spirit. The mountains are like temples of the gods. How else to explain their grandeur.

Patagonia is a region that includes part of southern Chile. How was I to know the best was yet to come? The next installment of Vacation of a Lifetime will go there.

Part of the mile wide Iguazu Falls as seen from the Argentina side.

With the roar of the falls still ringing in our ears, we board our flight to the end of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, and just like that we switch from summer to winter!

Lake Fagnano and the Andes Mountains from the road 10 miles outside of Ushuaia, Argentina.

September is still winter in Tierra del Fuego. These huskies love to run. We Huskies (University of Washington) love to hang out together!

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