|Snow from the plane as we passed over mountains|
The name of the area came from one of two sources: Patagon was a name used by Magellan to refer to the tall natives (the Tehuelches) . He saw their big feet, which looked bigger than normal because of their animal skin foot coverings. (The word "pata" in Spanish refers to feet, especially those of animals.) It could also refer to a character in a popular novel of the time (the 1500s).
The town of El Calafate is located at 50 degrees south. It is named for a common bush in the area with yellow flowers and blue-ish purple berries. The bush was just beginning to flower when we were in town.
Originally there were groups of shepherds in the area and a small store that began in the area of Calafate. The shepherds were from England, having come in the 1880s when Argentina was advertising for immigrants. They felt that if sheep could adapt to the Malvinas/Falkland steppe climate, they could adapt to this region. The store owner brought in a school teacher to educate his children and by 1900 other sheep ranchers' children joined the school. Then enough people came that a priest was brought in for a church.
The town was the center for bringing wool from ranches. Then one ton of wool was sent out on carts pulled by bulls. Calafate later developed as the first small town for backpackers. 25 years ago, there were 3,000 people in the town and now there are over 25,000.
The area is mainly cold steppe, a dry grassy plain with limited precipitation and often strong winds. That wind makes it hard for grass to grow. As a result the area could only sustain one sheep per square kilometer. As a result, estancias (sheep ranches) were often 10,000 to 70,000 acres big, fenced and subdivided by seasons. The life expectancy of the sheep in the area is low as the special, hard grasses grown in the area ruin their teeth. (Australians are trying to make false teeth for the sheep on the lower jaw where they have teeth.) You can see below how Argentina and Chile own different parts of the area in this region.
After checking into our lovely hotel, the Kosten Aike, we were on our own for the afternoon. Some walked over to the Laguna Nimez Reserve, where for a bit over $10 US, one could see a lot of birds at a distance in their natural habitat. Since it was mating season, people saw the birds pairing up. . The nature reserve is where the two small lakes are in the center top of the town map below.
Calafata has 300+ days a year of rain, snow, and strong winds, but we were super-lucky and had sunny, mild days.
Nava, Les and I walked along Argentina Lake with a wide roadway next to us. The lake is one of the largest in the country and hosts the more than 5 glaciers in the region. It was windy and the area empty of people and cars. We passed a beautiful but empty playground and wondered why there was such a big playground in such a windy spot. We later found out that President Cristina Kirschner is from the area and has a large house here (and her sister-in-law was running for governor of the region), so she "favors" the area with special perks, including good roads in town.
We ended up walking about three miles and went back to the main street where we went to a chocolate specialty store which also had a small cafe. I got maracuya (passion fruit) ice cream and Nava got calafate ice cream. Yum!!
|Windbreaker and gloves kept us warm|
Then we browsed the shops, especially the book store (Butique el Libro), ArteIndio (a cooperative of beautiful items) and Artesan Alley (open from about 5 to 10 p.m.) with lots of little booths. I bought some small jewelry items of blue lapiz luzuli, the national gem of Chile. We also saw the rose-colored gem of Argentina, Rhodochrosite.
There was even a vegan restaurant in town, Pura Vida, but when we tried to eat there two day later, we got there too early--7 p.m.-- and we were too hungry to wait . We walked past several restaurants that were roasting whole lamb in the special Patagonian way.
That night we ate as a group in the El Cucharon (the ladle) restaurant. Since we ate at 7, the place was empty as the locals eat much later! The food adventure of the day for most was to have Argentine lamb stew for dinner.
And in this town, we were treated to Calafate Sours, a variant of Pisco sours with Calafate liquor ....also quite yummy, in small doses.
The next morning after breakfast, we met our guide for the next few days, Ximena.
We later saw quite a few condors thanks to the great eye of our driver, Andres (?). We also saw a lot of Southern Lap Wings, Aplan geese (which are native to the area) and crested ducks.
We were delighted by the rare, awesome reflection of the mountains in the lake. Our guide Lu said that this was the first time she had seen it in the 8 years she has been leading tours here. We were at 48 to 52 degrees south latitude, similar to Seattle or London, and about 600' above sea level and the mountains were a maximum of 4500 feet tall. There is a huge ice cap in Patagonia, the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. The Chilean fjords have 7500 square miles of ice.
|A black-chested buzzard-eagle, I believe|
We also saw our first guanacos. They were not too happy to see us and quickly turned and walked away. There are easily a half million of them in South America in the highlands and arid areas. Unlike llamas, they are not easily domesticated.
We saw sheep too as we drove. The sheep are a hybrid of merino and Scottish Lincoln, developed in New Zealand. Their wool is not as fine, but it is sold to India and Thailand. Also, most of the ewes have twins. The sheep are sheared twice a year, once a full body shear and the second time just in the face so that they can see the grass to eat in winter. Hereford cows also give birth and graze here until the calves are moved north to fatten.
As we rounded the corner, we saw this amazing sight, the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Los Glaciares National Park was established in 1937, in part, for Argentina to be sure that this area would remain inside the country. There is afee of 260 pesos ($17 US at the blue rate, and $27 at the official rate) and is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. This glacier is the most accessible one in the park.
The path was beautifully made, with a metal base that allowed for snow to melt and pass through.
Again, we had amazing weather, even though it was cold. Often one can experience all 4 seasons in one day, but we were lucky with sun (and some wind--with about 50 degree temperatures) most of the day. The sun was in my eyes in the photo below. I wore a buff around my neck and often wore it over my face to stay warm, and I was wearing a light weight down jacket.
You can see how much the glacier has receded. The first photo below was taken in 1931 by Alberto de Agostini. The same are was taken in the early 2000s. At this point the Perrito Moreno glacier is neither growing or shrinking. I had a bit more written here but my 15-month old grandson "discovered" the backspace key. Oops!
Of the other main glaciers in the park, Pio 11 is the biggest and the only one that seems to be growing. Viedma is the 2nd largest and Upsala is the third largest and shrinking the fastest. Perrito Moreno is the 4th largest.
It is the easiest to access and is approximately 160 square miles, the same area of Buenos Aires. People can trek on the glacier but only if they are under 65 and is really really good shape. My son and daughter-in-law hiked on it in the spring of 2009 on a tour with a group of about 20. They walked a couple of miles on the glacier wearing crampons and said that it was exhausting. They did have a drink with ice from the glacier.
Over 300,000 people visit this glacier a year with 2,000 a day in high season from October to Easter. In the winter it is a snow park where children can see snow for the first time.
We walked in the opposite direction of most, facing the glacier as we approached. Icebergs float and are 10% above water and 90% below.
Perrito Moreno is 2 miles wide and about 17 miles long. It moves 6 feet a day in the center and two feet a day on the sides, slower in winter and faster in summer. The face of the glacier that we see is 500 years old.
The colors were not as blue today because it was so sunny. The ice itself is crystal clear but the more compacted is the ice, the less air, so the bluer it reflects.
Sometimes when the glacier pushes again the land, a tunnel forms as it did about two years ago.
Below is what that same area looks like now, so in another couple of years, another tunnel may form.
On our way back, we all had a taste of Calafate liquor. Yum!
And another view of a condor...
We learned a bit more about Calafate as we drove along. In about 1990, there were 3,000 people in the town. By 2001, there were 6,000 but now there are at least 25,000. The place is growing quickly.
The open air town dump had been in town, but was quite smelly. In 2010, a group gathering signatures to move the dump and create a system to classify garbage. The dump was moved out of town and the government got a loan from the Inter American Bank, thanks to the Argentinean Minister of Tourism, to convert the open air dump into an area with organic mater to recycle into compost and another part to bury. Also, recyclables would be sorted out. Since this is an area that Pres. Kirschner is interested in, they are working to get this program in place and to teach people to sort. They are hoping for a grant form the IAB to cover 80% of cost and money from the state to cover the rest. Part of the funds would be to teach people to sort recyclables and to teach children in schools and families in neighborhoods.
The public schools here are on shifts with one group going from 8 a.m. to non and the second from 1-5 p.m. The few private schools have a full day program with English, the arts, etc. in the afternoon. One building in town runs a high school from 8 a.m. to noon, a secondary school for kids at risk from 1 to 5, and a junior college with a focus on tourism from 7:30 to midnight.
Ximena also told us about Douglas Tompkins who founded the North Face clothing and equipment stores. He was considered controversial because of his for profit businesses but he retired in 1990 and he and his wife Kris began to work in South America to save many of the natural area. He would but estancias (sheep farms) and then turn them over to the government to manage as national parks. They created the Conservation Land Trust, and one special site that he bought was the Monte Leon national park on the coast. You can read more about it at
and about him at: http://www.tompkinsconservation.org/about_kris_and_doug_tompkins.htm
She also told us of a proposal of China to build two hydroelectric dams on the Santa Cruz River.
|Part of the area in question|
The next day we traveled a lot by bus as we headed to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
|Inside our bus|
Very little rain falls here, but the wind blows a lot. The sheep eat the festuca grass that grows here. The mata negra bush makes lamb taste bad, but it is easy to burn and has deep roots so it prevents erosion.
Our guides Lu and Ximena and the driver Andres were sharing drinks of mate (pronounced "mah'teh") tea. Along the way we were given a history of the drink.
The Jesuits were the first Spaniards to drink Mate. They got closer to the natives by drinking with them, especially with the Guaranis in the northeast. The scientific name of the plant is Ilex Paraguayensis, which grows naturally in the north of Argentina.
|The bush, the leaves, and the dried mate|
|The gourd and bombilla|
|A bag for carrying mate supplies|
|A picture of some of the animals in Patagonia|
|Mama ewe and baby lamb|
For details see: http://wander-argentina.com/argentinas-gaucho-saint/ and
There are colorful shrines along the road for him, and people stop to bring beer and ask for something or thank the gauchito for helping them, and they are very serious about it. We too stopped at a shrine around the road.
Lu sprinkled beer there, and anyone from our group could ask for a favor and/or sprinkle beer on the site.
On the anniversary of his death on January 8th, hundreds of thousands of people go to the site of his death to honor the Gauchito Gil.
We again saw condors along the road, both on the Argentinian and Chilean side of the border.
We also saw black chested buzzard eagles which are 20" tall from head to tail. The females are bigger and have more body heat for the nest. The "agila mora" is the only eagle in Patagonia.
When we got to the Chilean border, we changed buses and ate at the El Ovejero restaurant at the border (on top of a tourist shop and coffee bar). And as we left Argentina we said good bye to our local guide Ximena and met our Chilean guide Cota.
The Argentinian border staff did not have electricity. They did have a generator that worked a few hours a day, usually in the evening. The Chilean authorities were computerized and had electricity full time. Also, they had a nicer building and better roads. (We had ridden on dirt roads in Argentina most of the time since leaving Calafate.)
|Welcome to Chile|
|End of the World route|
|Downstairs seating--we ate upstairs--yes, the sheep skins are real|
|Ewe with twins|
However, the structures at the Sarmiento Lake (thrombolites) were formed after the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago. The microbialites can be divided into three groups: thrombolites, stromatolites and dendrolites. These microbialites (white rocks of varying sizes and some crumbled at the beach) found by this lake are very rare and scientists from all over the world come to study them. Some of the microbialites are huge and are hundreds of thousands of years old. There are few places where they exist but are here due to the very dry weather. They are a huge attraction for scientists, Pavilion Lake in Mexico has some and possibly Mono Lake in California. Wind gusts in this area are up to 85 mph.
As we got closer and closer to Torres del Paine National Park, we saw lots of guanacos. The dominant males tend to have a "harem" with anyway from several dozen to up to 70 or 80 females. Several females help him guard the group and chase off other males. The dominant male has to service the females in mating time and also must find the best grass for his group. If the grass is bad, the females do not nurse, and babies die. Males have longer teeth than females and fight other males. Their life expectancy is about 14 years. Only 10% of the male babies survive the first year and they are fed less than females.
As you can tell, I really enjoyed watching these animals in their natural habitat.
The word "Paine" (pronounced pie-nay) is from the local native language meaning "sky blue."
We finally stopped to take a 3.8 mile hike in the park, first to see a stunning waterfall and then walked toward the main peaks in the park, not part of the Andes but caused by magma pushing up and glaciers cutting the tops.
|A busy beginning to flower in the area--one of the few bits of color|
The walk was beautiful but along the way we saw the results of a huge forest fire caused by careless hikers from Israel from Dec. 2011- Jan 2012.
You can read more about the park at:
|Part of the towers of the Torres del Paine--see how tiny group members walking are in comparison|
In the past 11 years, there have been two devastating fires in the park. The first in 2005 was caused by a Czech backpacker, destroying over 60 square miles. From Dec. 2011--Jan. 2012, a fire started by an Israeli backpacker burned over 68 square miles (34,000 acres). The Israeli govt is helping to replant the area and educate travelers. Because of the harsh weather conditions here, it takes much longer for a forest to grow back. We saw seedlings that had been planted and more that will be.
We stayed at Hotel Rio Serrano outside the park w a stunning view of the peaks from our room. It is located in an area which used to be sheep ranches. An old one remains but the rest of the area is set aside for a natural area or to support tourism. The hotel was built to support the natural tourism in the area. The hotel is open from September through May and workers are housed on site. They come from all over Chile but also other countries, including one from Cuba and several from Peru.
The buffet dinner here was amazing and lots of vegetarian choices. We had another pisco sour to toast our arrival. Of course I was plenty dizzy when I saw down to eat!!
There are plenty of calafate bushes all around the hotel.
|Rio Serrrano Hotel|
The second night the staff cooked lambs the traditional way on a special BBQ spit. It was first for a special group but there was plenty left over for the buffet that night. It was tasty and very fresh.
The next morning I stayed back because of sinus issues. The rest of the group went on a hike to a lake with ice bergs.
That afternoon we went on a nature walk and also a horseback ride.
Below are some of the birds we saw on the walk.
We saw quite a few of the birds below but it was hard to get a close up photo as they did not want us to approach.
|The male, trying to scare us away?|
The horseback ride lasted close to an hour and was a lot of fun! We mainly walked though my horse trotted a bit on the way back. I had not ridden for at least 15 or 20 years but it came back easily. BTW, there was no "horn" to hold on to. It was the first time I wore a helmet while riding.
|Great mount, Nava!|
|Nava exiting a walk through a small stream for about 100 meters|
The next morning we went on our last hike in the park before heading south toward Puerto Natales.
After driving a bit, we stopped at Lake Pehoe and again were treated to a beautiful view on a sunny day with clear reflections in the lake. I couldn't stop taking photos of the reflections. Below you can see part of the lake with the Pehoe Hostel (on a small island accessible by a bridge) with the Torres del Paine mountains in the background.
Nava and I with the same view of the hostel.
Stunning reflections in the lake
An important bug in the park
As we walked along here, the land was spongy and damp.
The views toward the hills were stunning. A glacier?
The large clumps with orange flowers budding were stunning but it was sad to see other low plants slowly dying from lack of water.
There was a national campaign to stop using so much gas and to avoid using it year round for heating. Much of Patagonia is cold, so the region needs heating most of the year. The people in Punta Arenas realized that corporations nationally use much more gas than people in Punto Arenas. When the government passed a law to raise the gas tax 30%, the people in Punto Arenas went on strike in 2011. Barricades were put up and business in the area stood still. Anyone arriving at the airport had no way to get to town or to leave. After a week, the government relented. They still raised the gas tax but less than 30%. Magalenes is the 12th of 14 regions in Chile and one of the largest in area (140,000 sq kilometers). It is sparsely populated with 1 person per square kilometer and a TON of sheep.
She also told us of the disaffection of Chileans for politics and that many feel that their vote has no value. Something I did not know: General Pinochet greatly admired Hitler and felt his one error was to not kill off all of his enemies. She also said that the people of Patagonia trust the local politicians much more than the national ones.
The rivers we have seen flow into Last Hope Sound in Puerto Natales (where we spent the night). About 13,000 people lives in Puerto Natales. The first European to arrive here was a Spanish explorer in 1537, looking for a passage to the Straits of Magellan. Many Europeans arrived here over time to work with sheep, etc., and the city of officially founded in 1911.
Puerto Natales is developing as a tourist place too, with hiking, backpacking, and kayaking.. There is a statue of a Grand Sloth at the entrance of the town as this animal used to live here. You can read more about the town at this website:
Our hotel was right next to the sound, and a cute playground and small skateboard park as well as art work were on the shoreline.
|View from front of hotel|
|Skate Board Park|
|Yes, it was cloudy and cold!|
|Our hotel, the Australis, is on the right|
|Our dinner menu a the hotel, just one menu offered (About US$24)--most food is imported from warmer areas|
We passed a shrine for another populist Saint, la Difunta Correa, who died of thirst but her baby was found alive two days later attached to the beast and nursing. People leave water bottles at the shrine, or pour the later out at the shrine and leave the bottles in her memory. I even found her on Wikipedia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difunta_Correa
Next Cota told us a fascinating story of the Chilean-born poet Gabriela Mistral (pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga)who won Nobel Prize for Lit in 1945. She was the first Latin American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature for her lyric poetry. You can read about the facts of her life in Wikipedia:
But Cota also told of the many emotional aspects of her life including the news later revealed that she secretly had a woman partner.
We also heard music of Victor Jara, a singer, song writer, teacher, and political activist, who was arrested by Pinochet soon after he came to power, tortured and then shot to death. His songs inspired many including Bruce Springsteen.
Among the sheep ranches and fields for sheep to graze, we made a bathroom and hot drink stop at Cafe El Patagon in the de Huerta district.. The place had a lot of character with all kinds of stickers affixed to the front windows.
Before we went in, we saw several foxes running away from us. I managed to get a non-blurry picture of one of them!
Cota made mate tea while we were inside.
I ended up giving her the photo of me with my dog Ziva.
Along the way, we heard about the non-war between Chile and Argentina in 1978 over ownership of land and water in Tierra Del Fuego. We also heard how Pinochet allowed Chile to support Thatcher against Argentina in the war over Malvinas/Falkland Islands.
Cota told us a very special story of her father's involvement in the Malvina's War in the 1980s and how he later met up with another soldier. She showed us a special badge that he had given her and asked her to tell his story.
One calf headed out on its own, and the herder sent dogs to bring it in.
Meanwhile the cow belatedly noticed her baby was gone and jumped the fence to look for it.
She eventually went back and found her baby, but it was quite a show!
As we approached Punto Arenas (about an hour away), we made a detour for a special stop to the Estancia Fitz Roy. We had to take a three-minute ferry ride to Isla Riesco and then drive a short distance to get to the 3000 hectare (about 7500 acre) ranch.
Isla Riesco is one of the largest islands in Chile (almost 2,000 square miles) and has Chile's largest known coal reserves, with mining dating back to the 1880s. Coal mining was the first use of the island by immigrants. After WW II production went down but it has risen again recently after energy demand increased.
We stopped at the 3000 hectare sheep ranch owned by the Fernandez family. They family leaders first started driving buses. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a need for a form of transportation from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas, a distance of 240 kilometers that meandered in an out of Chile and Argentina. The distance took 6 to 12 hours, depending on the weather and road conditions, with 20 people in the vehicles that went 30 to 40 km (18-24 miles) per hour . Then in 1947, Fernandez started his own company, and it changed things. It also had buses for students as Puerto Natales didn't have secondary or technical school.
Then the family branched out and bought ranches on this island. The one we visited, Estancia Fitz Roy, was the last of 13 ranches bought by them on the island in 1996. In 2000 they started tourism business at this ranch. The head of family also collects implements used in the past on such ranches and had an amazing collection which was nicely displayed indoors and out.
Then we would see first hand more about sheep ranching and to have a wonderful lunch.
One of the daughters of the current owner was our guide.
|Started with a bus company|
We then watched one sheep sheared the traditional way with clippers, which is not what is commonly done. Sheering is much quicker nowadays and, therefore, easier on the sheep.
The average weight of the wool sheared is 10-12 lb.
We also saw alpacas on the ranch.
The ranch had a puma in a large cage. Our guide raised is as a baby with a bottle after its mom was killed.
We walked over to the chapel on the ranch which was built it time for the wedding of one of the daughters. It was beautifully made with local wood and a ranch theme.
|Capilla of San Nicolas de Fitz Roy, initiated Dec. 2003|
|Where chapel tabled was sliced from|
|Taking the lamb off of the barbecue skewer|
We also had salads, etc. as part of the lunch.
I think this was the best lamb that I ever tasted. Others said that it was much better than the lamb they had had elsewhere, in Chile and Argentina.
And more alcoholic drinks: an after dinner liquor of either almond, mint or camomile flavor. I tasted the last one (thinking it was the mildest) and it was too burning strong to drink. I later found out that the almond was the mildest.
We also saw baby lambs 1.5 mo old and a three month old pup learning to herd them! Aren't they cute??
Before leaving, part of our group put on their special penguin earmuffs and had a photo shoot!
We got back on the bus for an hour on the Road to the End Of the World to head to Punta Arenas.
Punta Arenas is approximately 800 miles from the coast of Antartica. It has about 130,000 inhabitants, including our guide Cota. You can read about it at:
We had a few hours to see the town and/or could rest get on the internet at the Australis hotel.
We drove by the "palace" of Sara Braun, a Jewish woman who had lived in the town for many year. The palace was in the main plaza of town. Sara was born in Russia and arrived in this area in 1874. She married a Portuguese businessman there who exported gold and was a pioneer in sheep raising. He died of TB but she inherited a fortune and finished the house in 1905 that they had planned together. The house is now part museum and part hotel. As part of the sheep business, many of the natives were pushed off their land and many died.
Several of us shopped and a local store and found some nice sweaters, etc. It also also some fascinating books there including one of the last Indians of the Yaghan tribe or at least the last speaker of that language.. You can read more about her and the Yaghan at:
Others found "buffs," light weight neck warmers, at local stores or from street vendors. I got one from an Indian street seller from Otavalo, Ecuador who had arrived in town a month ago and planned to travel to Spain soon, among other reasons because Punta Arenas was too cold!
|Statue in the main square to Magellan|