Friday, March 10, 2006


From notes I wrote at Comodoro Rivadavia, Patagonia, Argentina

February 9:  At our hotel in Mendoza we met 6 Boston youths who were
enroute to climb Aconcagua without oxygen.   Collecting the week's
laundry delayed our departure to 11 AM.   We drove 240 miles, much of
it on 75 mph divided toll roads, as well designed (shoulders) and
maintained (no holes) as those in the US.    Tolls averaged a cent per mile.
For lunch we ate excellent big steak sandwiches and a liter of Coke, for
$2.50 total, at a truck stop with clean facilities of equivalent quality to
those in the USA.    The amenities, road, and vineyards gave the appearance of California.

We stopped for the night at Villa Mercedes, a small agricultural center not
in our guidebooks.   Finding a hotel and restaurant was difficult partly
because of the local dialect, which sounded like Italian, reflectingArgentina's
Italian heritage.   We heard "Ciao"
countless times.   At supper, our steak-ham-cheese sandwiches cost $1.50
each, and a liter of Budweiser (I had ordered a "bottle") cost $1.20 .
I shared it with the next table.  Our
hotel room, with AC and TV and a 1930s ambiance (no credit cards) cost
$14.30.  Cheap for us, but gasoline is $2.10 a gallon, which explains the
small size of cars in Argentina and Chile.

February 10:  The next sure beds were 460 miles ahead, so we started
driving early for us, 8:30 AM.   We soon left the Santiago-Buenos Aires
turnpike and headed straight south.   Speed limits were reduced to 70 mph,
lower through hamlets with gas stations about 50 miles apart.   Cultivation
was replaced by cattle ranching, the basis for Argentina's main export.
This was nearly flat semi-desert, with trees rare, and the far horizon
constantly in sight. We had crossed
the narrowing continent to the Atlantic port of Bahia Blanca (White Bay).
Our hotel was quite modern, a great improvement over the previous night.

February 11:  Another 450 miles. We crossed the Rio Colorado and entered
Patagonia.   As the land became more arid, covered with sparse shrubs
about 5 feet high, sheep gradually replaced cattle.   We saw our first rhea,
a small relative of the ostrich and emu, with which it had a common
ancestor before the continents split apart.   At our destination, Puerto
Madryn, our chosen hotels were full, because this is summer and the
adjacent Peninsula Valdes, a World Heritage Site, has "one of the most
incredible arrays of wildlife on the planet".   So we stayed this and the next
night at friendly quirky mediocre Hotel Muelle Viejo (Old Wharf). Our
excellent supper was at the most expensive restaurant in town: $20 total with too much wine.

February 12:    The approach to Peninsula Valdes was 60 miles of
pavement. Then we drove a loop of 160 miles of gravel road, called ripio,
allegedly for what it does to tires.   Driving required full attention, for
the car easily slewed as if it were on a few inches of wet snow.
Sometimes the tracks were so deep that the driver has to keep the
tires on the narrow ridges to avoid scraping the undercarriage.   We
saw herds of guanacos, the smaller wild relative of the domesticated
llama and alpaca, with which and the camel it shares a common ancestor.
Rheas were ubiquitous, usually mingling with sheep.    On the coast we
saw colonies of sea lions and elephant seals.   We missed seeing right
whales, which congregate in a bay from June to December, and killer
whales snatching sea lion pups that nap too close to the sea.
Incredible as it was to us, an orca (killer whale) can lunge its front
half onto a ledge, and retreat on a following wave with a giant
mouthful.   At the museum we saw photographs of this, and learned that
here was the approximate southern limit of a deadly snake, and the
northern limit of Magellan penguins.   Our biggest thrill was coming upon
a flock of thousands of these birds, apparently fearless, standing erect in
their tuxedos.   Somehow the creatures had waddled up the steep 200
foot seaside hill, some to the top, to reach their nesting burrows.

February 13:    We made a late start to Trelow, founded by Welsh pioneers
in 1851.    More Welsh had followed, fleeing the industrial poverty of
their homeland, so well portrayed in the 1941 classic, How Green Was My
Valley.   This heritage is most ardently preserved in nearby Gaiman, a
verdant river bottom oasis in the desert.   The town has many Casas de Te,
which serve tea and crumpets starting at 2 PM.   At the tea house which
trumpeted its patronage once by Princess Diana we enjoyed the
sumptuous grounds of palms and roses at 1 PM, then found a more modest
tea house which opened before 2 PM.   250 miles of our loneliest road yet
followed.   We were buffeted by the famous Patagonian gales, air which
sweeps around the globe, the only obstacles at this latitude being South
Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the diminishing Andes.   When meeting
a big truck on the narrow road, with a relative closing speed of 140 mph
and a separation of 6 feet and a background of gales, the driver must
clutch the wheel firmly as if his life depended on it.     It does.

We arrived at our hotel, the Lucania Palazzo, and found it and the city so
delightful that we extended our reservation from 1 night to 2.   Our room
is on the 10th floor, looking over a monument to Argentines killed in the
1982 Falkland (Islas Malvenas) war, to the high white waves of the sea.
We have never stayed in a more luxurious accommodation, though
perhaps that was not really gold on the plumbing fixtures and dinner
plates.    $170 for the room and $65 for supper, but divide by 3 because
they use the dollar sign for pesos.   No AC, but it is not needed because
temperatures seldom rise above the seventies  . It's sweaters
from here to Ushuaia, which we expect to reach in 4 or 5 days.
We walked around town and enjoyed watching couples dance the tango,
which they do on a closed off street on Friday nights like this one.

From our Footprints guide: "Winds here average 25 mph, sometimes
reaching 150 mph.. .Every day is a bad hair day.   Picnics?    Nobody
remembers the last one... Scientists agree that Patagonia is the
natural candidate to become the Kuwait of wind energy... Plans are
for wind to supply a fifth of Argentina's power needs by 2012".
Huge wind turbines spin on the hill above our hotel.

Oil was discovered here in 1907, but the supply is waning.     Argentina was
the richest country in the world in 1900, but synthetics largely replaced
wool and the governments accumulated huge deficits, until the economy
collapsed just 2 years ago.     It couldn't happen to the USA .... could it?

What a contrast is Argentina to Central America. Every official we have
met in this country has been efficient and courteous. People go out of
their way to help us, even when they just see us studying a map.
There is tremendous tourism potential here.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After 3 days here, the feeling of unreality has not worn off yet.   We made
it !   Actually it`s easy to get here.   The great majority of travelers
arrive by jet.   A relative few come by cruise ship, a minuscule number by
car (like us, after a long journey over long and finally bad roads), or by sailboat
(most enroute to a circumnavigation of Earth).

Names of several place names in this vicinity get lumped together as
synonyms for remoteness, like Timbuktu.    From the north, the Strait(s)
of Magellan separates the mainland Patagonia province from the island
province of Tierra del Fuego, the south side of which is defined by the
Beagle Channel.   On the north side of that channel is Ushuaia, on the
other side more of Chile, and beyond that small islands culminating in Cape Horn.

Much of the aura of this place, to me, comes from its storied visitors.
First was Magellan, whose 1520-22 expedition was perhaps the most daring
and important ever.   His discovery and passage through the 250 mile
tortuous constricted passage that bears his name seems nearly
impossible.   Because tacking across the open sea south of Cape Horn is
supremely easier, almost no commercial vessels used his Strait again until
steam was supplanting sail in the last decades before the opening of the
Panama Canal.   The return to Portugal of one surviving ship and a few
surviving men, which did not include Magellan, proved that the world
was continuous, with no dropoffs.   The next famous traveler to this area
that I remember was Darwin, who traversed the area in the ship Beagle,
via the Channel now bearing its name, enroute to the theory of evolution.
...Around 1900 Joshua Slocum, the quintessential circumnavigator,
connected the oceans in his salvaged sloop Spray .... During those waning
years of the Age of Commercial Sail my great-uncle Captain Myron Bailey,
whom I met once in 1932, rounded Cape Horn about 30 times.   Some of
his letters to his employers, the Sewalls of Bath are in the Maine Maritime
Museum in Bath..... Next in my memory
is our favorite painter, the socialist adventurer-painter-author Rockwell
Kent, some of whose work is in the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art.   He lived in,
painted, and wrote artfully about Greenland, Monhegan, Newfoundland
and Tierra del Fuego, places where we've visited some of his haunts...
Then pilot-yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester, the first non-stop-solo circumnavigator.

Studying a globe here reminded me that land-wise the world is
top-heavy.   South of here are only a few small barren islands, and the
Great White Continent.   At the equivalent north latitude are Edmonton
and Oslo.   North of the Arctic Circle live more than a million people.
South of the entirely wet Antarctic Circle live maybe a
thousand human off and on, and more permanently, lots of penguins.

Ushuaia`s economy has been capricious.   It plummeted in 1914 when the
oceans were joined at Panama.   Until 1947 it hosted Argentina`s Alcatraz,
or Devil`s Island.    Since then it has become the main supply port for
Antarctica.  Accessibility by jet has continued to strain the hotel capacity,
and the more affluent tourists continue to Antarctica.   Russian icebreakers
and other ships, even some commercial sailboats, shuttle to Antarctica
during the summer, which is winter in the USA.... Backpackers and
help-wanted signs abound.    There are no beggars or shoe-shine boys.
Some prices (except things heavily taxed in Buenos Aires but not here)
are nearly double those of northern Argentina.   Local taxes
provide much better facilities than in northern Argentina, we are told.

Now back to the end of the previous post, #7:  Mendoza to Ushuaia.

February 15.   Our sleep was short because the previous day was
Valentine`s Day, Saturday, with weddings at our hotel in Comodoro
Rivadavia, where the restaurant opened at 8.30 PM and we ate near midnight.
We drove to the wind power farm above the city, where European-made
windmills, like animated Easter Island monoliths, thrashed their 155 foot
diameter arms with pulsating "whooshes".   These were mingled with the fading
icons of energy, petroleum pumps.   Continuing southward, the trees
disappeared, leaving only bald brown
grass rolling to the horizon.    More guanacos and rheas, and ever fewer gas
stations.    We stopped for the night at the port of San Julian, whose history
belies its population of only 6500.   Magellan spent 5 months there in
1520, then came Sir Francis Drake, Darwin, and Antoine Ste. Exupery, the
legendary pilot who wrote Wind Sand and Stars, and The Little Prince.
By coincidence, as we entered our hotel room and turned on the TV, a
story on the History Channel in Spanish told about the Lindbergh airplane
shipping box, now a museum in Canaan, Maine.

Near here we passed the estancia (ranch) of Douglas Thompkins, the USA
backpacker turned billionaire, the founder of North Face.   A decade
earlier he bought several thousand square miles of southern Chilean
scenery for $55 million, lived there in a "shack" with his little
Cessna outside for occasional transport to civilization.    He groomed
that vast property, Parque Pumalin, for a gift to Chile.    Conspiracy
theories arose (CIA, Jewish homeland, etc.) so, disgusted, he gave the
park to Chile and moved to Argentina, where he could buy similar realms
cheaper.   His example inspired other tycoons to buy and protect
Patagonia while it is still cheap.    One was the Italian
clothing billionaire Benetton, who has put thousands of sheep on his
land, to help revive the moribund wool industry.

February 16.   Gasoline in Patagonia is 40% cheaper than in northern
Argentina, about $1.30 per gallon, taxed low by the government to
encourage settlement.... On the 220 miles of paved Route 3 to Rio
Gallegos we met another vehicle only about every 15 minutes.
Accommodations became scarcer, and we had reserved the last
available room in town.

Definition of "ripio", if you've skipped over previous segments: narrow road
of gravel and rocks, with two wheel ruts.   Between the ruts is a ridge OK
for trucks, but so high for our Yaris that when we don't drive on the side
of the ruts, the  ridge rubs the bottom of the car, so that even at 20 mph the
loud crashing seems to indicate imminent loss of oil and death of car.

Highlights this day:
* 40 miles of some paved, some bad ripio to
the border with Chile.   That country is shaped like a 2900 mile spine,
usually under 100 miles wide between the Andes and the Pacific, with
the Strait(s) of Magellan as its coccyx.   There Chile has its only 8 miles
of Atlantic shoreline.
* Customs and immigration twice: out of Argentina, into Chile.
* 40 miles of ripio to the Straits of Magellan ferry, which doesn't run for
about 3 hours of low tide.   We reached the ferry in time to avoid that
hiatus.   Bus passengers had to walk across, to lighten the bus enough to
negotiate the angle between the sloped beach and the boat ramp.
* 100 miles of ripio, swerving carefully around oncoming trucks to avoid
a cracked windshield.   Ripio roads lack shoulders.
* Out of Chile and into Argentina again.   Fortunately all this processing
was efficient and courteous.   A sign declared that it should be so, and
how to report if it were not.
* 10 miles of PAVEMENT to our fortunately reserved room in Rio Grande.

February 18.   190 miles, half ripio, half asphalt, the last of our 2500 mile
arc from Santiago to Ushuaia.   As our route curved westward and
approached the Andes the ground rose and rolled, and low conifer forests
appeared.   We traversed a spectacular mountain pass via cliffside
construction.   The last 25 miles to Ushuaia were on new asphalt, which
Argentina is extending northward.   We transferred our one-night-stand
reservation to a hotel where we could stay for several nights.  We investigated the possibility of heavily discounted passage to Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker, about which we had read.

Ushuaia is spread out on the curved steep rim of its harbor, with a
semicircle of snowy peaks and glaciers above it.   We drove up to a
chairlift, parked, and were carried up towards a glacier.   There we enjoyed hot
chocolate and a magnificent view.   The little city gets its water from
glaciers above it, like Boulder, Colorado.

February 20. We took a 9 hour catamaran excursion down the Beagle
Channel, passing a few yards from separate colonies of sea lions,
penguins, and cormorants, and stopping for an hour at an estancia
(ranch) founded and still run by Englishmen.   Marge caught her foot
on a metal stair on the boat, but after the fall followed our guide and
group on rough trails.    When we returned to our hotel in Ushuaia the
pain, swelling and coloration of her left shin mandated a visit to the
local hospital emergency room.   She was wheelchaired down long
faded corridors, and treated by solicitous and apparently competent
nurses and a doctor.   Xrays determined the bone
was not broken.    Total charge: 4 pesos, or $1.35.   An injection, pills, ice
and rest have greatly improved her condition.   The hospital sign at right says, "Be nice to those who visit us.  The tourist is a friend who will return".    Indeed that's the way we were treated, we will remember it, and we want to return.

Supper was our worst slowest pizza ever.   When I asked the hotel clerk for an extra pillow to prop up Marge`s foot, an Indian-from-India doctor, a tourist, volunteered to give a second opinion.   Marge was quite surprised when he walked in, but pleased at having her condition discussed in our language.   What a nice man !   The picture shows Marge's damaged legs, the left one worse.
PS: It's still so marked in 2015.

February 21.   Marge stayed put.    I tended, shopped, and used the
Internet.   The government tourist agency told me that there were cabins
left on the 3 Russian ships leaving for Antarctica that evening, and the
price had been reduced to $1,500.   Considering that demand exceeds
supply, it was not surprising that that turned out to be false.   Minimum
passage is $2,400, and the norm $4,500, which was too much for us.

February 22.     I continued composing this opus and Marge updated her diary.    She
went out with me to eat and shop, a good sign that she was recovering.

Tomorrow we will head north, for hundreds of miles of ripio and gorgeous
mountain-glacier-lake scenery, enroute to Santiago.

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Monday, March 06, 2006


                                                                     El Calafate, Argentina

February 23.    Ushuaia to Rio Grande, Argentina.   190 miles, mostly ripio
(gravel, dirt etc. road) I rate ripio by maximum tolerable speeds: 2
mph to 50.   This was 30 to 50.    Again we saw the "massive
environmental destruction" caused by the 1947 importation of beavers
for the fur industry on the island of Tierra del Fuego.   They have no
enemies except man down there, but fortunately have not escaped to
the mainland.   Many areas of the island and Patagonia produce oil and
gas, so service stations dispense both gasoline and gaseous gas.

February 24.   Rio Grande to Punta Arenas, Chile.    Until just after we
recrossed the Straits of Magellan northbound we were retracing our route
to Ushuaia.    I was given a private tour of the ferry's modern engine room.

February 25.   We stayed in town.   Marge's leg was recovering too slowly,
but was helped by elevated bed rest, and buying sort of an elastic
stocking.   We saw an elegant mansion, with furnishings imported from
Europe by still respected owners who got rich by paying hunters one
English pound per Indian corpse, to make room for sheep.   We ate in
the "best" restaurant, where in addition to the usual cow and sheep
meat, beaver and guanaco were offered.   We met 2 women from
Portsmouth, NH.   They looked like wrestlers.

February 26.     Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.    Our last all-pavement day
for quite a distance to come.   It was dark and raining, and we had been
unable to reserve a room ahead at any price, so we knew Natales would
be interesting.    Twenty miles before that port I capriciously investigated a
side road signed "Llanuras (Plains) de Diana".    I turned from that to a
drive marked only by crushed stone and careful grooming.   What a gem
we had stumbled on!   We parked amid lawns and gardens where hybrid
lupines had gone to seed in the approaching autumn, but roses still
bloomed.   We entered a lodge designed only 3 years ago by a Santiago
architect who must have been Scandinavian.   We were shown room # 3
(keep it a secret), where heavy drapes opened to disclose a window wall,
framing low conifers, in the center of which a yard-square waterfall
entered an intersecting stream.   The plumbing was better than in the
USA, and the whole place exuded unobtrusive elegance and quiet charm.
At that place and time, the room-and-breakfast price of $60 was a
bargain without the above adjectives, apparently because the lodge is
one of a group of cooperative retreats for Santiago executives.   We
grabbed it. At supper the patrician elderly waiter smiled and bowed slightly
when we entered.   Seldom has "this sure beats working" been more appropriate.    There were only 2 other couples as guests.    Puerto Natales information offices had never heard of it.    The hostelry had satellite TV, but accepted no credit cards.
PS February 2010: We regret that a huge hotel has been built to replace this exquisite little inn.

In town we shopped, used the Internet, and lost my diary.   We met the two women from New Hampshire again.

February 27.     Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park, a World
Heritage Site.   We drove 100 miles, mostly on ripio, for the first time on
roads not shown on our GPS.   At the park entrance, where a 4.5 mile
side road to our Hotel Torres began, we met the NH women once more..
unfortunately.   The volume of them and their massive backpacks in our
crowded little car was bad enough, but the extra 450 pounds changed
what had become an interesting tour to an Adventure, defined by
Chesterton as "an inconvenience, rightly considered".   That was our
worst ripio before or since.   Even at 2 mph in the worst spots, the
undercarriage crashed and banged.    I thought of the nearest mechanic
being 100 ripio miles distant, and later checked for leaking oil or
gasoline...   Our hotel was an inescapable $197 per night, but Chile
partially offsets the entrance penalty, $100 for Americans and less for
others, by exempting foreigners paying in dollars from the 19% food
and room tax.    The $24.30 buffet supper was the most sumptuous
we have ever enjoyed, however.

February 28.   When the generator stopped for the night Marge and I went
outside. The clouds had gone, leaving a field of stars more brilliant than
we had seen in decades.   The dome and zenith were split by the edge of
the galaxy, the Milky Way, a belt of diffuse brilliance.

We drove 48 miles of sinuous ripio, by spectacular Torres (Towers),
glaciers, lakes, which threatened to distract the driver, to Lago (Lake)
Grey.   We'd been misinformed by the tourist bureau about
reservations and timing, but were lucky that we had 8 minutes to spare
to buy 2 of the last 3 spaces on the boat and join the guided group.
We walked 200 rough yards (not easy for Marge on her wounded legs),
boarded Zodiac inflatables, and were taken to a bigger boat with glass
panoramic windows.   What we saw was spectacular and well described in
our guidebooks.   The boat motored along the face of the
glacier, and nuzzled up to a grounded iceberg about 50 feet high and
150 feet wide.    Its colors ranged from a cobalt blue of the oldest most
compressed ice, to pastel blue, fading to the brilliant white of filigrees
and Rorschach shapes.   We were served Pisco Sours with glacier ice
in real glasses.

February 29  <-- b="">  A rare day !  Torres del Paine, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina.
Heavy rain all day, which was unusual in the semi-desert we traversed.   The
hotel access road included an ancient suspension bridge, where we
stopped and measured less than a 6 inch clearance on each side.  Beside it,
grey waters of the flooding stream lapped.   Any higher and we would
have been trapped.  An hour of ripio later, at the
tiny border town where we were told cheaper Argentine gas was
available 27 miles later, we cautiously had the gas tank filled from the side
of what looked like an outhouse.

The border crossing took 40
minutes from Chile because of a busload of Italian tourists, and just 5
minutes into Argentina, where the only building on many miles of
treeless pampa housed a few bored officials.   Here we began the
infamous ripio Route 40.   That rough furrowed washboard required
20 mph for 20 miles, then we were delighted by the appearance of an
unmapped new paved road, apparently coming from the direction of
Puerto Natales.   In 10 miles that led to the reported gas station, which
seemed to have been abandoned for the day.   Had we not gassed up, it
would have been 280 miles between refills.   Rain was making ripio
difficult with mud and puddles, so we ignored the advice of 3
sodden Swiss cyclists at the station, and took the alternative fork which
promised pavement, though 60 miles longer.   However, the map didn't
show the miles of ripio construction we encountered later.

We stopped to offer aid to the driver of a car that had just careened off
the road, but he seemed uninjured, calm, and grateful that he didn't have
to drive more in those difficult conditions.   By USA standards his car was
totalled, but maybe was worth restoring here, considering that mechanics
get about 50 cents an hour.   At that point we
had driven about 1000 miles of ripio, with 500 of it to go.    Besides the
loose gravel and the embedded fangs, their worst feature is corrugations.
Measurement and simple calculation show they administer about 10
hammer blows per second to the car and us.   If we and the car can survive
until we get to pavement, we should be healthier, with no remaining
kidney stones or cylinder carbon.   About 20 years ago Scientific
American, in an article on the harmonic distribution of particles under
stress, explained the dimensions of ocean waves and the corrugations on
poorly maintained dirt roads.    I must read that again sometime.

March 1.   We took a tour, bus then boat, to Glaciares National Park. Some
books describe this as the most spectacular natural sight in South
America.   More on that later.

Marge's leg is improving, slowly.

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