SOUTHERN PATAGONIA; ARGENTINA and CHILE

We had originally planned to stay in South America into January of 2017, but by now, in October 2016, we were tired and had dipped into our reserve travel funds.  So we decided to change things up and treat ourselves to an extravagance for us; a cruise through he fjords of the far south – land’s end at the tip of Patagonia.  But first we would check out Buenos Aires Argentina.

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It’s mid-October – springtime in Patagonia and a good time to go. Since we had to fly to Buenos Aires in order to then fly to Ushuaia (ew-SWI-ah) where our cruise started we decided to stay a few days in Buenos Aires. In Ushuaia we’ll catch the Stella Australis, a small cruise ship that we reserved for a three night/four day cruise through the Straits of Magellen and around Cape Horn, the famous passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the southernmost land in the world before Antarctica.

NOTE: You can enter Argentina and Chile with just your passport; no special entry visas required. But, until recently, Argentina and Chile imposed a $160 per person “reciprocity fee” on American citizens entering their countries. Chile and Argentina charged Americans this fee because the U.S. charged citizens from Chile and Argentina $160 usd each to enter the United States, s the reciprocity fee was sort of a tit for tat (if you charge me, I’ll charge you). Luckily for us, the United States revised its immigration policies in August, just two months before we arrived in Argentina, and repealed the $160 visa fee requirement and so Argentina and Chile responded by repealing their “reciprocity” fees as well. That change saved us $640 usd since both Sonia and I would have had to pay $160 each to enter Argentina, and then another $160 each to enter Chile. Now you can enter Chile or Argentina without having to pay any additional fees.

We hadn’t originally planned to go to Argentina, but as soon as we arrived in Buenos Aires we were glad we did. Famous as the birthplace of the tango, Buenos Aires is a big, sprawling city of three million on the south side the Rio de la Plata (river of silver). The “river” is actually an estuary off of the Atlanic Ocean and is so huge you can’t see the other side, but if you could you would be looking into Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.

We immediately noticed the air wasn’t contaminated like most other Latin American big cities (later we found that most commerical vehicles run on propane instead of gasoline). The streets were clean and wide with lots of big parks where flocks of parrots flew around in the trees.

We had reserved an efficiency suite through airbnb in the trendy Palermo District, an upscale area with shady, tree-lined boulevards lined with outdoor bistros, bakeries and bars. The apartment was small, but clean and fresh, a dramatic change from the rough, cold and uncomfortable apartments we had been staying in in Cusco. This would be a good place to rest up before flying on to Ushuaia in a few days.

I was still suffering a head cold and now I couldn’t clear the pressure from my ears from the flight from Cusco, but we managed to walk up the street to a nearby delicatessen for an excellent sandwich and a small bottle of a truly great Argentinian malbec. After that we were in bed by 9 pm, exhausted.

At first I was having some trouble understanding the Argentinian Spanish that everyone spoke with its distinct Italian twang, but I soon caught on and everywhere we went people were friendly and helpful. Strangely, most people thought I was from Europe (Germany or Skandinavia) and Sonia from somewhere in South America. They seemed surprised when we told them we were from the United States and Sonia was born in Mexico (after that most people immediately asked us about the elections which were only a few weeks away). Yep, things were looking good for Buenos Aires.

We had two goals for our time in Buenos Aires: eat a good Argentinian steak and see a tango. But first we signed up for a city tour to get oriented to the city.

NOTE: We’ve learned that taking half-day bus tours is an efficient and economical way to quickly get familiar with big cities that we visit. After seeing the highlights from the tour we can go back to áreas we are interested in plus we know how to get to them. We also usually get good advice from the tour guides for good restaurants or points of interest that we can return to on our own later on.

The bus tour took us through the plaza de armas and the Casa Rosada (Pink House, the presidential palace) and we walked through the cathedral where the tomb of Jose de San Martin, hero of the war of independence, was guarded by Argentinian marines. We continued on through the “old town” of San Telmo and the original shanty-town settlement of Boca del Rio, or La Boca, from which Buenos Aires developed and where the tango developed. From that tour we knew we would return to San Telmo and La Boca for further exploration. But first, back to Palermo for our Argentinian steak dinner.

We selected the upscale La Calbrera restaurant in Palermo for our expensive steak dinner and after waiting an hour to get in we ordered a small bottle of Argentinian malbec and anxiously awaited our meals. But though tasty, we were disappointed – I cook a better steak. The following day we tried again at a likely looking place, the Parrilla a Los Bifes in San Telmo, but the steaks were overcooked and tough. In fact, we never did find the legendary tender Argentinian beef while in Buenos Aires.

No matter. After our disappointing meal in San Telmo we took a taxi to La Boca and we settled into a street side bistro where a tango show was going on. And that was worth the effort with tango dancers, singers and musicians playing on a small stage on the street shared by dogs and kids while we sipped a fine Argentinian wine.

NOTE: In the 1880s millions of European immigrants arrived in Uruguay and Argentina bringing their food and music with them. Spanish flamenco and European waltzes mixed with the Afro-Caribe rhythms of freed African slaves in the rough, lower class neighborhoods of Montevideo and Buenos Aires. By the late 1800s the resulting music and dancing had become established in the poor working-class barrios and was called by its African name, Milonga. It was a street dance between only men in a form of competition as they waited for prostitutes to become available. The melancholy lyrics and music of the tango supposedly derives from the desperate living conditions and homesickness of the immigrants living in the poor waterfront barrios. Until the early twentieth century it remained a low class street dance shunned by proper society and found only in the shanty towns of Uruguay and Argentina.

But the music and dance evolved, became more lyrical and complex, and became known as tango, a term thought to derive from the portuguese tanguere (to touch) or from African dialects for “a gathering place.” Either way, by the early twentieth century the orchestrated, melencholy lyrics caught the attention of bohemian Paris while back in Argentina the sensual dance attracted thrill seekers from the upper class. Argentinian composers like Juan de Dios Filiberto and Carlos Gardel wrote classical tangos like the “Caminito” and by the 1920s tango had emerged from the barrios and waterfront shantytowns into mainstream society.

But it remained mostly an Argentinian/Uraguayan cultural phenomon until the musical movies of the 1950s spread it across the world again. Then it died away only to be resurrected in the 1980s in the form we know today with well dressed, sexy dancers performing dramatic steps and dips to the unmistakable tango rhythm usually performed by a small, formal orchestra. In 2009 the United Nations added the tango to its list of mankind’s cultural treasures alongside folk music, dances, crafts and ceremonies from around the world.            

After our tango show we explored La Boca. The central área is now a tourist área, but along the side streets many of the tin-sided buildings of the original shanty town still in use. It’s a fun place to visit during the day, but it’s dangerous at night, so as evening arrived we left.

We were getting to like Buenos Aires – a lot. But it was time to move on to Ushuaia in the far south to catch our cruise through the Straits of Magellen. We spent our last day in Paermo eating at our now favorite local deli, I got a haircut, and we went to the nearby Eva Peron museum.

NOTE: Maria Eva Duarte de Peron is considered “Santa Eva” (Saint Eva) or more affectionatly, Evita, by many working class people Argentina even today. She was born in the poor countryside, but was ambitious and rose through Buenos Aires society becoming the second wife of Argentinian President Juan Peron and the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952.

As first lady Eva Peron promoted women’s rights and the rights of the working class. She toured Europe and became famous as an emissary of Argentina. One of her more well known humanitarian works was distributing thousands of sewing machines to rural communities to help women find employment and depictions of Evita and her sewing machines are still a poplur pop culture symbol.

But she was also criticized for living extravagantly and attracted powerful enemies in the military and conservative wings of government and when she ran for vice president of Argentina she couldn’t overcome the conservative opposition. After her death she became a folk hero not only in Argentina but around the world and is still remembered as such today. The streets of Buenos Aires were filled with tens of thousands mourners when she died of cancer in 1952.

The next morning we left Buenos Aires on the three and a half hour flight to Ushuaia, capital of Argentinian Patagonia and known as the Fin del Mundo (the end of the world) since it is the southernmost city in the world and jumping off point for excursions into Antarctica.

After Ushuaia heading southward there is only the unihabited fjords and islands until you hit land’s end at Cape Horn. We planned a couple days in Ushuaia before our ship sailed and settled into what we thought was an airbnb apartment, but turne out to be a bedroom in a local family’s home.

Ushuaia is a strange mix of ramshackle houses climbing up the steep, forested hills above the downtown area that’s full of high-tech hiking and climbing stores and fancy restaurants including a brand new Hard Rock Cafe going up on main street. It is fronted on the Beagle Channel where Charles Darwin once sailed and backed up against the snow-capped and glaciated peaks of Tierra de Fuego (land of fire). It was both trashy and spectacular at the same time reminding me a lot of small town Alaska.

NOTE: Tierra de Fuego is actually a large island at the southern tip of South America and Ushuaia is located at the southern end of the island. The name Tierra de Fuego (land of fire) comes from the indigenous inhabitants that lived on the island and kept fires burning to ward off the cold. European explorers could see these fires as they approached Cape Horn or the Straits of Magellen (which separates Tierra de Fuego from the mainland). The fires became a landmark that early explorers could see from out at sea and so they named the area the Land of Fire (Tierra de Fuego).

We spent the next two days exploring the town, eating crab souffles and going to the local museums where there were excellent displays of Ushuaia’s indigenous people, early explorers including Charles Darwin, Ushuaia’s history as a prison camp, and the epic ordeals of Ernest Shackleton that became marooned in Antarctica in 1912 when his ship was trapped in the ice and hauled life boats of supplies across the ice shelf and then sailed across the Weddel Sea to a whaling station and ultimately saving all of his crew.

On our last day in Ushuaia we took a taxi to the small ski area outside of town and hiked up to the Martial Glacier hanging from a mountain at the edge of town. From there we had magnificent views over Ushuaia and across the Beagle Channel to the remote, saw-toothed Navarino Range of mountains.

I was still suffering a head cold that I’d had since Peru and finally went to the local hospital where I was examined by a doctor, diagnosed with a bronchial infection, and prescribed a strong does of antibiotics. Total cost for all this was $70 usd. By the following morning I was already feeling better. We completed our travel plans and bought air tickets from Punta Arenas Chile to Mexico City for the day we disembarked from our upcoming cruise.

Then it was time to go – to board the ship and head south to Cape Horn. We took our luggage to the Australis office in Ushuaia, filled out our Chilean immigration forms (the cruise starts in Argentina, but ends in Chile) and walked the waterfront until it was time to board ship.

Around the town and especially on the waterfront we noticed many references to English invaders. Even the entrance to the city docks had a large sign proclaiming a city ordinance that read, “Prohibido el Amarre de los Buques Piratas Ingleses” (It is prohibited for English pirate ships to dock here). At first we thought that all these references to English pirates was a joke until we came across a large memorial commemorating the Argentinian sailors that died in the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and Great Britain. Obviously, in Argentina feelings still run high about this.

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NOTE : The Falkland Islands (called the Malvinas Islands by Argentina) are off the Atlantic coast of Argentina. Britain had occupied the islands since the early 1800s, but Argentina continued to claim the islands and in 1982 sent its navy to expel the British residents from them. Britain responded by sending its fleet to the Falklands and in the battles that followed Argentinian warships were sunk, sailors killed, and Britain retains control of the islands to this day.

Then it was time to board ship. We walked down the long pier to the Stella Australis, a sleek cruise ship tied to the pier, and boarded along with groups of German, French, Australian and American tourists. As we prepared to get underway we had magnificent views of Ushuaia and the the mountains all around.

NOTE: We were taking the last “low season” cruise before prices increased in November, the start of the Patagonian summer. At $3,000 usd for both of us it was both a good deal and a luxury expenditure far over our normal travel budget. The cruise was all-inclusive with all meals and an open bar included. And we would stay in a comfortable cabin with two beds, a private bathroom and a large window to watch the fjords and glaciers of Patagonia pass by from the comfort of your own bed. Also included were guided landings in inflatable zodiac boats at glaciers and a penguin colony. And, maybe best of all, the Stella Australis is a small ship with less than 200 passengers, so we would be able to access areas that larger ships couldn’t.

The crew slipped the mooring lines and the ship smoothly glided away from the dock on a sunny, warm afternoon. Our first stop was just across the Beagle Channel in neighboring Chile where the ship stopped while Chilean authorities checked our passports and immigration documents. So, we went below to the dining room for the first of many excellent meals aboard ship. Afterwards we strolled the decks until dark, which was 9:30 at night this far south, and searched the constellations for the Southern Cross. We went to our comfortable cabin to sleep, slightly unbalanced from the gentle rocking of the ship.

The next morning, early, was our first and maybe most iconic stop; Cape Horn.  As dawn broke with a spectacular sunrise I could tell we were approaching Cape Horn as the ship started to pitch and roll in the rough seas for which Cape Horn is famous. As first light lit the horizon I looked out of our cabin window to see porpoises jumping alongside the ship, easily keeping up with us. I quickly dressed and went up to the open deck and as we cruised up a wide fjord the famous rock came into view. It was a small, rocky island with a low lighthouse perched on top; almost anticlimatic for being the “end of the world.”

The guides briefed us on the boarding procedures to take the inflatable zodiac boats to the island, but as the ship approached it turned cold, the seas rose into rough swells and the wind picked up. As we waited in the upper deck salon with our life jackets and down coats on, the captain announced that conditions were too rough for us to land on the island – we would have to move on.

We were disappointed of course, but as a consolation the captain navigated the ship around Cape Horn instead of turning back down the fjord we had come up which was the normal route. This took us through magnificent fjords and bays rarely visited by other ships either comercial or recreational. We had passed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean and the ship rolled and bucked in the heavy swells coming in from the west.

Besides, we had another stop to look forward to; Wuaia Bay and a hike into the mountains. We sailed past uninhabited islands, forested near the water but bare rock after a few hundred feet elevation. The landscape became more and more spectacular as we sailed further west down the Beagle Channel until it opened into a wide bay; Wuaia. We loaded into the zodiacs and landed on a gentle sandy shore, the weather still holding; cloudy and cool, but not raining or snowing.

We hiked two kilometers up through the hardwood forests to viewpoints where we could see the ship n the bay far below and the mountains stretching away to the horizon. One of the hikers was a single American woman in her sixties and as we talked I found that she had also sold her house and belongings and set out for long term travel like us. Now she was traveling around the world on her own. That inspired me since I had been wondering lately if we had made a mistake by leaving our comfortable home and setting off on long term travel. I realized that we hadn’t.

As we hiked back our guide stopped at a beaver dam and explained how enterpreneurs in the 1940s had imported beavers from Canada to develop a fur trade in Patagonia. The attempt failed and the beavers were abandoned and now they had spread out across Patagonia destroying forests and becoming pests.

When we returned to the zodiacs the crew meet us with cups of hot chocolate and whiskey. It had been a great stop and we soon forgot our failure to land at Cape Horn earlier in the morning. And, the scenery became more and more spectacular as we continued on through the Beagle Channel towards the Straits of Magellen.

NOTE: Our camera had been functioning erratically since its soaking in the hurricane in Colombia and now it died completely. The rest of the photos in this article were taken with our computer tablets.

I woke early. Today we were landing at Aguila Glacier (Eagle Glacier). Now the landscape was truly fantastic; large glaciers flowing in rivers of ice to the sea from impossibly sharp-peaked mountains. Small icebergs floated in the channel and the water turned from a aqua-marine blue to a milky white from all the ground rock sediment flowing into the sea from the surrounding glaciers.

We boarded the zodiacs again and landed on a cobblestone shore. After a short walk down the beach we turned up a small river and faced the glacier pouring off of the mountain into a small lake. We spent the rest of the morning admiring the river of ice and the blue crevasses cutting through it.

Then back to the ship for another excellent lunch and cruising for the rest of the day to the Straits of Magellen. It seemed as if we had been aboard the ship for a week, but it had only been two days. Tomorrow was our last day.

The last morning aboard ship arrived with a spectacular sunrise as we entered the Straits of Magellen and the gigantic Magdelena Bay. We passed Punta Arenas, our last port, and arrived at the island of Magdelena two hours later. Here was a huge colony of Magellenic penguins and we boarded the zodiacs one more time and landed on the island.

There were penguins everywhere and they waddled past us as we walked up to the lighthouse. At times we had to wait as groups of penguins marched across the trail on their way to the sea. It was a lively place with penguins squaking at each other, skuas (large seagulls) hunting for penguin eggs, and other penguins sitting on their nests in shallow holes dug into the grassy hillsides. It was an excellent way to end the cruise, but it was the end.

We returned to the ship and made the short run back to Punta Arenas Chile. There we disembarked from our comfortable ship, picked up our packs in Chilean customs, and walked to the main plaza in town. We stopped at an ATM for enough Chilean pesos to pay for lunch and a cab ride to the airport and settled into the Cafe Tostada for an excellent chicken ceasar salad. Then we caught a taxi to the airport and flew off to Santiago Chile. And just like that, our South American travels were over.

We flew out of Santiago at 1:30 in the morning arriving in Panama City at 6:30 am. Our connecting flight to Mexico City wasn’t until 7 pm, so we took a taxi tour to the colonial center of Panama City and then to the Panama Canal and watched how giant cargo ships are passed through the surprisingly narrow canal.

It was a grueling flight to Mexico, but we were glad we did it. We finally arrived in Mexico City at 11 pm, took a taxi to our hotel in the trendy Cuahtemoc district and fell into bed exhausted. We didn’t make it to Torres del Paine or other places in Chile – but I think we’ll be back. Meanwhile we were excited about the last part of our travels for the year; a swing through southern Mexico and into Guatemala to see Mayan ruins and to relax and snorkel on the white sand beaches of the Caribbean.

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