Sunday, 16 December 2012

Walking with Penguins

 After an early breakfast on Friday morning, I hurried down to the harbour to catch the shuttle bus for the penguin tour with Piratours.  I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning.  As we were waiting, I met Joseph from Croatia who was also travelling on his own, and we ended up chatting for most of the trip.  There were 20 people in our group – Joseph, myself and a couple from the UK were the only ones who spoke English so our guide Santiago conducted a great bilingual tour.

Santiago explained that we were driving 90 km to the boat and it would take an hour and a half.  The first half of the drive was on gently curving winding roads, the last half was on really winding gravel roads that steeply rose and fell as we made our way through the mountains.  Thank goodness I was sitting near the front.  Along the way, we saw a fox that ran along with us for a few minutes and we stopped at the top of a hill to take photos of windblown trees.

When we arrived at Estancia Harberton we made a quick pit-stop and then boarded the zodiac to head to Isla Martillo to see the penguins.  Everyone was so excited – you could feel the anticipation as we pulled onto the shore.  We were told that when we were on the island we should stay low so we wouldn't frighten the penguins, keep quiet, don’t smoke or eat, and take lots of photos!  When we got off the boat the penguins were right there and there were so many of them.  Santiago explained that the colony began in 1970 when a couple of penguins settled on the island (no one knows why) and the population is now about 4000 and growing each year.   The penguins were very curious and waddled over to check us out.  I was surprised at how close they wanted to come to us. 

We hiked uphill to another area of the island, away from the beach, where the penguins were nesting with their babies.  The babies hatch at the beginning of December so we were fortunate to see many of them in their nests as well as out with one of their parents.  I had always envisioned penguins living in cold Antarctic conditions so it seemed odd to see them in a meadow of long grass and on the hillsides with shrubs all around.  I was also surprised how noisy they could be when they would bellow to one another or warn one of us that we were getting too close to their nest. 

Curious penguins checking out the visitors

Adorable baby penguins with the parents

Penguins on the beach...

Penguins in the meadow, penguins on the hill....

Penguins on nests

We had an hour to spend on the island, photographing and watching the penguins, and it seemed like it was over in a moment.  We reluctantly climbed back into the zodiac and sped back to Estancia Harberton.

Cool old truck at Estancia Harberton. I'll have to ask dad more about this
truck when I get home - year? make?  It says "PowerWagon" on the side.

Outside the Museum
We had half an hour before we left so Santiago suggested that we visit Museo Acatushun on the property, or we could eat our lunch.  Joseph and I wandered through the pasture area, taking photos of the horses and rusting equipment, and then over to the museum.  What appeared on the outside to be a regular farm shed turned out to contain a remarkable display of marine skeletons assembled from remains that have washed up on the shores nearby.  Much of their vast collection was found at Bahia San Sebastian where a difference of 11 km between high tide and low tide leaves marine animals stranded on the beach. The UK couple had skipped the museum so Joseph and I had an exclusive English tour while the rest of the group went on the Spanish tour.  The displays all had English labels and information, which was very helpful. Who would have thought you would find such an amazing museum literally in the middle of nowhere?   

Displays inside the Museo Acatushun

Soon it was time to head back to town to eat a late lunch, hike back up the hill one last time to gather my things from Tzion and then say goodbye to Ushuaia.  What a remarkable place. 

Ushuaia is the launching point for all Antarctic cruises.  If I only had a few more weeks and a LOT more money….. 

When I looked in my guidebook back at the B&B, Lonely Planet described the Estancia Harberton as a ‘don’t miss’ destination in Ushuaia.  Tierra del Fuego’s first estancia, it was founded by Thomas Bridges and his family in 1866 and became famous after his son wrote a memoir titled Uttermost Part of the Earth about his experiences growing up there among the now-extinct Selk’nam and Yahgan people.  The museum specimens have been compiled by biologist Natalie Prosser Goodall.  If you are interested in visiting, be sure to contact them ahead of time by email as there is no phone and hours vary or book your visit through one of the agencies in Ushuaia. 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Ushuaia – The End of the World

Ushuaia - nestled along the side of the Andes,
gateway to Antarctica
 My trip to Ushuaia began as many trips do in Argentina, with a delayed flight.  My flight from El Calafate to Ushuaia was supposed to leave at 11:25 am and I had hoped to arrive in time to do a cruise on the Beagle Channel to visit a penguin colony.  However, the penguins and I had to wait a little longer to meet as my flight finally left at 2 pm.  By the time I arrived in Ushuaia, made it through security with my luggage and checked in at my Tzion B&B most of the afternoon was over.  I used the rest of the day to check in with the tourist information agency, book my penguin cruise for Friday and find someplace for dinner.  When I booked my B&B on, the reviewers raved about the caring family who ran it but mentioned that it was located about 8 blocks from downtown.  What I didn’t realize is that Ushuaia is built on a very steep hillside leading up to the mountains, so whenever I left the B&B I walked 8 steep blocks down, only to return 8 steep blocks uphill later in the day. 

View from my bedroom window -
Mountains, town, Beagle Channel
On Thursday, I was up early to catch the shuttle bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park to do some hiking.  It was cool and damp when we left Ushuaia at 9 am and within a few minutes it began to rain, at first just a drizzle but then changing to a good steady rain.  As the driver dropped us off at the trekking station, he said “Pick up 3, 5, 7.”   So he was dropping us off in the cold and rain at 10 am and not coming back until 3 pm at the earliest.  I wondered what I had gotten myself into – how was I going to kill 5 hours in this park without freezing to death?  I envied the more prepared hikers with their weatherproof outfits and hiking boots. I had a nice fleece coat and rain resistant coat (I found out the hard way that it is no longer rainproof a few years ago), jeans and my sneakers. I thought to myself that more commercial operations would have equipment to rent – hiking boots and waterproof pants for unprepared tourists like me.  But there was no such kiosk here so I took my hiking map and headed off in the same direction I had seen a few other people go.  After about 15 minutes, I realized this wasn’t a trail for me – walking along a lake for mile after mile - boring, and turned back to go in the other direction.  As I walked, I noticed large noisy birds hunting for insects nearby and stopped to take some photos. 

Changing direction, I went south towards the National Guard station and a series of short hiking trails.  Trail #1 was supposed to be an easy 15 minute hike.  I must have taken a wrong turn as it took me about an hour.  Even though I stopped to take many many photos, even without stopping I couldn’t have done that trail in 15 minutes.  I had to scramble up and down steep rocky sections that were slick with rain and mud and at one point I slipped and landed on my bottom.  I thought I’d better head back to the main road and find an easier trail.  If I was to fall or twist my ankle, it could be a very long time before anyone wandered by and there was no cell phone service in most areas of the park. 

Trail 2 looked boring – a short hike to a lake so I wandered down to trail three which stopped at the end of Route 3 where there was a nice lookout area and busloads of tourists.  By now the rain had stopped and the sun was beginning to push through the clouds and the rest of the day was overcast but dry.

Trail 4 was a beautiful hike through beech trees and a peat bog. Again I took many many photos of the beautiful scenery and interesting birds to share with anyone back home foolish enough to ask to see my vacation photos.

The views along trail 4

In the morning, I had thought that five hours was an eternity. Instead I found myself hurrying back to the drop-off point where the restaurant was now open and a warm fire was burning in the fireplace.  I had a cup of tea and chatted with some fellow tourists – a girl from Holland, a couple from Denmark, and another couple from France who were also waiting for the bus.   Once back in town I debated – do I hike back up the hill to the B&B, rest for a bit and shower, then hike down the hill for dinner and back up the hill for bed?  No.  Instead, I killed some time shopping downtown while hauling my backpack with me, had an early dinner, stopped at the grocery store to pick up snacks for tomorrow’s boat ride and then called it an early night.

Things I’ve noticed:
Unlike other areas of Argentina where we have lived and visited, there is no litter in El Calafate or Ushuaia.  Residents and tourists alike are vigilant about caring for the environment. 

My suitcase was definitely in the minority at the luggage carousel in both towns as most tourists here are hiking, trekking and into other outdoor adventures.  Big backpacks are the norm.  I felt a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor in Green Acres as I wheeled my big suitcase out of the airport past the backpackers, but I’m heading home to Canada after our weekend in Buenos Aires so I’m packing a ton of stuff that I won’t need here but will need at home.

More gorgeous scenery

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Trekking on a Glacier

El Calafate – Day Two
Our first look at Perito Moreno Glacier
15 km long and 8 km wide

I had set my alarm to wake up early, as I had booked an excursion to go glacier hiking at Perito Moreno National Park. I needn't have bothered as the rooster next door began crowing at 3 am and didn’t stop.  After a quick breakfast, the big tour bus pulled up out front and I hopped on.  We drove through town picking up tourists at other hostals, and then wound our way up into the hills picking up more people as we went.  Then it was about a one hour drive through the steppes to the park.  We stopped at a scenic lookout to take photos of our first look at the glacier and drove on to the visitor centre where we had two and a half hours to hike on the trails and eat our lunch.

One of my millions of
glacier photos
As we were walking on the trails, there were constant sounds coming from the glacier that sounded like shotgun blasts in the distance.  All at once there was a louder sound, like thunder when lightning strikes nearby.  I turned to look at the glacier and there was a crack that was so loud it was like the sound of a jet plane taking off as two huge sections of the glacier separated and fell into the water.  The visible part of the glacier is about the height of a 23 story building, and the pieces that fell were each about 10 stories tall. They were huge and watching them crash into the water was breathtaking!!!!!

 Now you are probably wondering ‘where are the pictures of the ice falling?’  I have none.  I had been standing and looking at the glacier and then had begun walking up one of the trails when I heard the first really loud noise.  As I turned and started to walk back to the glacier, I saw the ice falling to the water below.  I could have tried to grab the camera around my neck and take a photo, but it was happening so quickly that I decided to just enjoy the moment rather than trying to capture it in a photo.  It wasn’t until afterwards that we realized that icebergs that size calving like that happen very rarely – we was fortunate to be there at the right time.

After lunch, we all boarded the bus to the boat dock and took the boat to the base of the glacier.  We met our guides and broke into two groups – those wanting an English tour and those wanting a Spanish tour. The English group was much larger, and we took off hiking down the beach in our two mismatched groups as our guides gave us some basic background information on how the glacier formed, etc.  As we neared the glacier, our guide informed us that the groups would have to be redistributed as the English group was too big, and that the other group would get a bilingual tour. I volunteered to join the bilingual group but our guide Louis said no, he needed me in the English group since I was alone in order to balance out the numbers.  So the bilingual group ended up being a mixed group of middle aged couples, two Korean guys in their late twenties, a Spanish family with a teenaged daughter, and others.  The English group was a group of second year American university students in their early twenties all travelling together, and me. 

As we walked toward the huts where we would get our crampons, I overheard this conversation:
Female student 1: I’m thinking of training for a marathon this spring.  I really need to get back in shape.
Female student 2:  Really?  I was thinking of doing the ‘try a tri’.  You want to do that with me?
Other students were comparing which routes they take when they go for a run. 

Awesome -  my group consists of uberathletes who think that entering a triathlon is a good way to get in shape for summer and 50 year old, asthmatic, out of shape me. 

If you look carefully, those little specks are hikers on the mountain.
In front are the little huts for putting on crampons

Crampons - so awkward!
The crampons were far more awkward than I thought they would be. This must be what it feels like for adults who have never skated the first time they put on ice skates.  After a short orientation on how to walk in them – feet far apart; uphill like a penguin; downhill like a monkey; always smile – we set off on our trek up the glacier.  The pace was very reasonable and we had many stops along the way to take photos and drink glacier water.  Several times we went off-roading when Louis would leave the well worn path of other groups and take us on a little side trip to see something cool like a really deep crevice.

View from the summit

Hiking through a crevice

After hiking for about an hour and a half we arrived at our final rest stop.  Louis chipped the glacier into small chunks and scooped them into a bowl, then dumped them into glasses for whiskey on the rocks, Patagonian style!



Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Time For A Cold One

Before I went home for Christmas there were two places in Argentina that I really really wanted to visit – El Calafate and Ushuaia.  In El Calafate, you can go hiking on the Perito Moreno glacier and Ushuaia is ‘The End of the World’ – home of Tierra del Fuego and the Beagle Channel.  John had no desire to go to El Calafate (I’ve seen glaciers before, he scoffed) and couldn’t get time off work to go to Ushuaia, so this week I’m travelling solo.  After I booked the trip, I had two pieces of advice that were too late to use but that I will definitely keep in mind for future travel. One couple told me that if you book the flight with an Argentinian credit card or on the Argentinian website the price is reduced by about two thirds. Another person told me that since it is the off season, I could have used about 10,000 miles from my Delta Skymiles account to book my flights.  Something to keep in mind for next time.

Courtyard of Hostal Amancay
First stop on my southern journey – El Calafate.  I took an early morning flight from Cordoba to Buenos Aires and then had a three hour layover that turned into four hours before flying to El Calafate.  When we landed, I booked a spot on the shuttle bus which dropped off passengers at little hostal after little hostal until soon it was only me and a lovely retired couple from Philadelphia who have been coming to South America every winter for the past seven years.  On the drive, I marvelled at the scenery.  El Calafate is a small town (population 20,000) perched on a hill overlooking Lago Argentina in the Patagonian steppes. There is little vegetation due to the lack of rainfall, and the ground is strewn with rocks of all sizes.  Some of the hostals that we stopped at were located on the hills overlooking town on winding unpaved roads.  You couldn’t really call them gravel roads as they were covered in rocks that ranged from the size of golfballs to the size of grapefruits. Many of the hotels and hostals were gorgeous cedar buildings but Amancay Hostal Patagonia, where I would be staying, was fronted with corrugated steel.  Not very attractive on the outside but inside it was warm and lovely.  The rooms surrounded a courtyard with roses and lupen in bloom and chairs and hammocks for guests to relax in, my room was cozy and clean, and best of all, it was one block from the main street with restaurants, shops and trekking companies.  (What they call a hostal, we would likely call a bed and breakfast).

Lupens grow everywhere in town

I asked the clerk on duty about the shuttle bus to the Glacerium and he informed me that it left every half hour about three blocks from our hostal.  It was 5 minutes before 6:00 so he told me if I hurried I could make the 6:00 shuttle.  I said I thought I’d go and get something to eat but he said they closed at 8:00 pm so I’d better go now.   I hurried to the shuttle bus parking lot and climbed aboard with tourists from all over the world. 

When we arrived at the Glacerium, I figured I had time to either tour the museum or visit the ice bar.  I’ve been to lots of art galleries and museums since arriving in Argentina but have never had an opportunity to visit an ice bar before, so I ditched culture and chose to party instead!  Each person paid an $80AR cover charge which included admission to the ice bar for twenty minutes, a protective cape and gloves, and all you can drink. 

Ice Age bar meets Space Age outfit

A group of about twenty of us trouped downstairs, donned our futuristic insulated capes and gloves and entered the ice bar.  It was so cool (pun intended!)  The walls, the furniture, the bar and the glasses were all made of ice.  The bar was sponsored by Branca, makers of Fernet, so there was a large eagle holding a bottle of Fernet, a puma, a fireplace and even couches and tables made of ice.  Everyone was so busy taking photos but then we realized that we only had a short time so everyone ordered their drinks at the bar. I tried a shot of Calafate liquer which is made from the Calafate berries that the town is named for, while many of the others drank Fernet and Coke.  Two elderly ladies were drinking shots of tequila from shot glasses made of ice, and soon a conga line was winding through the bar as music blared.  At 7:30, the bell rang and the party was over – shortest party I’ve ever been to, but lots of fun! 

I hopped on the bus back into town and chose one of the many many restaurants for dinner.  Today’s food had consisted of medialunas and tea at the airport in Buenos Aires, crackers and a cookie on the flight, and an empanada at the Glacerium.  I dug into a hearty bowl of risotto, then it was back to the hostal for a good night’s sleep. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Are you ready for some futbol?

This past weekend John and I wanted to go to a futbol game, or as we would call it back home, a soccer game.  We learned that two local teams were playing on Saturday night, and one of them, Club Belgrano, plays only a few blocks from our apartment.  John’s secretary had told us that the game starts at 7:30 pm but to be at the stadium by 6pm to get our tickets.

Finally found the right stadium

After walking to the local club, a street vendor told us that they don’t play their games at that stadium and only hold practices there.  We would need to get a taxi, which we did, and go to the Estadio Marco Tempe which was located on the outskirts of the city near our old apartment.

Home team entrance gate
The guidebooks all warned us not to wear team colours, lest you end up sitting in the wrong section.  When we arrived at the stadium, there was a great stream of people in blue team jerseys waving giant blue flags, all of them cheering and singing songs while impromptu bands played drums and horns.  Police on horseback watched over the mass of people while street vendors sold chorzipan, water, tshirts, flags, and other merchandise. 

The ticket booth
John approached the ticket office but all the seats in the home section were sold out.  We had to walk back out to the road and hike all the way around the giant stadium to the ticket booth where they sold tickets for the visitors section.  What a difference!!! On the visitor’s side, a few people straggled toward the entrance through the heavy police presence, nothing like the throngs of people on the home team side.

The 'band' warms up prior to the game

Once inside we found a seat in the shade (general admission tickets by this time) and watched as the pre-game hoopla reached its frenzied pinnacle. The stadium was divided into two sections – the enormous home section which was comprised of one end zone and both the east and west side of the stadium which were all packed with people in blue, and then one end zone for the fans of the visiting team which was barely one-quarter full.   The visiting team, Estudiante, had fans that were few in number but no less passionate. They were all dressed in their team colours – red and white – and our section also had a band, and flags, and team songs to sing. 

Inside the stadium - a sea of Belgrano Blue
From the moment we entered the stadium until the whistle blew for halftime, the fans for both teams never ever stopped.  The band of fans with their drums and horns played continuously while everyone stood and sang and waved flags and jumped up and down.  I’ve been to many professional sporting events but this was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  It was two local teams playing and yet the fans were so energetic and passionate that you would have thought it was game 7 of the World Series or the Stanley Cup. 

At half time, the bands stopped, the flags came down and everyone took a quick break. There is no halftime show or entertainment – it’s all about the game.  When half time was over, Club Belgrano’s fans unfurled a flag that covered the entire end zone seating area. It was pretty spectacular.

The giant Belgrano flag - wow!

Twenty minutes before the end of the game, the score was still tied at 0 – 0 and John and I decided to leave early to beat the crazy traffic jam that was sure develop at the end of the game.  Everyone else stayed til the bitter end.  On the taxi ride home, we listened to the radio broadcast of the game and Club Belgrano scored on a penalty kick, which we then watched in replays on TV at home.   It would have been exciting to see it live at the stadium but c’est la vie…..

Wednesday, 5 December 2012


Last Saturday morning, John and I went on a quick day trip to Villa Carlos Paz with Jose and Claudina.  In the Lonely Planet guidebook, they describe Carlos Paz as, ' a mix between Vegas and Disneyland, this lakeside getaway is dotted with theme hotels and centered around a massive cuckoo clock.'  Our driver took us on the scenic route called The Road of 100 Curves, and we stopped to see a dam and some roadside souvenir shops.  I thought my dad would really enjoy all the souvenirs made of cowhide - coasters, blankets, bags and all sorts of things.
Riding the Aerosilla

When we got to town the driver dropped us off at the Aerosilla, a chairlift that takes you to the top of the hill so that you have a view of the whole city.  However, we didn't get there until noon, and the chairlift is closed from 12:30 - 3 pm in the afternoon, so we only had time for a quick ride up, took some photos and then back down again. 

The giant cuckoo clock

We walked into the town for a leisurely lunch, and then headed downtown to all the shops. Except that 75% of the shops were closed from 2 - 5 pm - frustrating!  We did some souvenir shopping, stopped in an arcade, went to see the giant cuckoo clock and then decided to head back to Cordoba for drinks and dinner.  "A mix of Vegas and Disneyland" was definitely oversell.  I'd say more like a typical beachside town that gears up for summer tourists and is sleepy for the rest of the year.  Like Jersey Shore in the States or Grand Bend in Ontario - arcades, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and hotels.

About a month ago, we went on a day trip to Villa General Belgrano with two of John's coworkers. It is a town with a strong German heritage but since we were there in November, we missed their big Oktoberfest  celebration.  Instead, we wandered in and out of the souvenir shops that were open (it was Sunday so many of them were closed) which all seemed to sell beer steins and other German themed merchandise.  The restaurants all advertised artesianal beer or artesianal ice cream or both.  It was very odd to be sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Argentina eating sauerkraut, wurst, and drinking German beer while being served by a Spanish speaking waiter. 

A little bit of Germany in Argentina

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Sunday Afternoon at the Movies

A friend recently clued us in that many of the American movies here in Cordoba are shown in English with Spanish subtitles while others are dubbed in Spanish.  I had just assumed that they would all be dubbed - and you know what happens whenever you assume anything.

This morning after breakfast we went onto the Hoyts cinema movie listing website and checked out the movies playing within walking distance of our apartment at either Patio Olmos mall or Nuevocentro Mall.    We clicked on the movies that we wanted to see and if it said SUBTITULADA then the movie is in English with Spanish subtitles.  Sure enough, there was a 1:00 pm showing of Skyfall with subtitles, so off we went. 

Bond, James Bond

When we paid for our tickets, the cashier pulled out a map of the theatre and we were to choose where we wanted to sit.  Our movie tickets were for seat G4 and G5 - assigned seating just like a Broadway theatre or a musical concert.  Even though the theatre was nearly empty, everyone who came in dutifully checked their tickets and sat in their assigned seats.  Tickets were $38AR each, approximately $7.50C, about the same as at home.

John slipped out before the movie began to get some popcorn and a pop, although he could have had  beer as the snack bar had beer for sale as well.  He was so excited to have some nice salty, buttery popcorn.  As the movie started, he turned to me and said, "You're not going to believe this.  Taste it."  I've mentioned before that Argentinians seem to really like sweets.  This was no exception.  We looked at the side of the bag and it said "con azucar" - with sugar.  Popcorn with sugar.  Not exactly what he had been expecting.  But then the movie started and we got caught up in the adventures of James Bond, Q and M. What a great way to spend the afternoon.