After leaving Bariloche, Argentina, I made my way south through Patagonia en route to my final destinations: Tierra del Fuego and then Antarctica. All of these locations had held my imagination and fascination since childhood: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica. Such exotic and adventurous places, and I was finally on my way to explore them.
I had visited some of the areas around Bariloche on the weekends during my working stay on the farm. These included Nahuel Huapi, El Bolsón, Esquel, and Parque Nacional Los Alerces. All were beautiful places to explore the outdoors, as well as sample the wonderful brews of the area! One slight disappointment was taking a taxi all the way from El Bolsón to El Maitén (about 45 minutes) in order to do a ride on the Patagonian Express, an old steam train, only to learn that it wasn’t running that Saturday despite what the website said. And there isn’t much else in El Maitén, so I just had to wait a few hours for the bus. It served as yet another reminder to always take schedules and information in South America with a grain of salt.
Now though, it was time to move on from Rock’s Heim Farm. I hugged Cris, Alex, and Fran goodbye tightened up my backpack and walked out that dirt road I had walked in on three weeks before, and walked along many times in between, to wait at the bus stop. I went back into Bariloche, had a bit more to eat and picked up some gloves and a head warmer before heading to the main bus terminal. Soon, I was on another long bus ride south through Patagonia.
We zigzagged back and forth between the rugged, snow-capped, forested mountains and the dry shrubbery of the Patagonian steppe along Route 40. As usual, I had reserved a seat in the front of the upper level of the bus so I could watch the changing landscape ahead as we travelled. It also allowed me a bit more legroom than other seats. After almost 24 hours, I finally arrived in El Chaltén, in the southern part of Argentinian Patagonia, in Los Glaciares National Park. As the bus drove along the shores of Lago Viedma, I could see the mountains that make this area a prime tourist destination. The imposing Fitz Roy and the craggy peak of Cerro Torre, which from my particular vantage point at the time, looked like a mountain dreamt up by a fantasy writer.
El Chaltén is a town that is only about 30 years old, and was founded purely to support the growing tourist industry of Patagonia. As such, I personally did not like the town much, as it did not seem to have any character to it other than to cater to backpackers and hikers. However, it is a pleasant enough town that suits its purpose well. And more importantly, the hiking in the area truly does live up to its well-deserved reputation. The first afternoon, I did an easy hike to a nearby waterfall. The second day, I did the more demanding hike to El Lago de Los Tres. The frozen barren landscape, dominated by Fitz Roy standing over us, was breathtaking. Especially when I walked around the frozen lake to get a better view of a glacier, I saw the glacier, and the runoff from the frozen lake, fall into another lake below, radiating a brilliant turquoise color. The full day hike through a variety of different terrain (deep forest, barren mountain, scrubland, river beds, lakesides) allowed my mind to wander and appreciate the grandeur of creation.
That night, I took another bus, to the nearby, and large, town of El Calafate. The main attraction I went to see in El Calafate was the Perino Moreno Glacier, an amazing wall of ice, with active movement that could easily be heard (if the other visitors were considerate enough to keep their voices down, which was much rarer than it should have been). More impressive, there was a regular crash of an iceberg being calved into the waters below. I was fortunate to see one calving happen right in front of me, as I just happened to stay at that particular overlook for a little extra time. Later in the afternoon, I enjoyed a glass of whiskey cooled by a chunk of glacier ice. Then, upon returning to El Calafate, I had an amazing evening out with some new friends from the hostel. It included a giant meal at a parrilla (an Argentinian steakhouse) full of amazing meat and wine, and then ended up attempting to dance at a local dive bar where I was the only non-Argentinian there (excerpt for a Brazilian who was now living and working in El Calafate).
Despite the hangover, the next morning, I was on another long bus ride. This time crossing the border into Chile to the town of Puerto Natales, and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. This national park is the poster child of Patagonia, full of rivers, lakes, fjords, mountainscapes, forests, and glaciers. Many travelers come here to hike the “W”, a 4-day trek through the park that forms a “W” on the map. Upon arrival in Puerto Natales, there was a bit of chaos. There had been heavy rain for the past few days which overwhelmed the water system of the town and there was no running water, and many businesses were closed. Additionally, some of the trails in the park had been closed, including their adjoining campsites. I had no idea if my reserved campsite would be available the following evening when I went hiking into the park. Luckily, I had heard from many people that sites are not allowed to just turn people away for obvious safety reasons. Because of this, I felt comfortable going ahead with my planned trek to the towers that give their name to the park.
I packed relatively lightly for my overnight trip to Torres del Paine, and was thankful I did so. Many people were doing the “W” trek or the even longer “O” trek which was opening that day, and had the full packs including all of their gear. Luckily, I was renting my tent and sleeping bag directly from the site so I did not have to carry it with me. At the start of the trek, it was far more crowded than I would have liked, but as the day wore on the lines began to spread out and I was able to hike alone with my thoughts for the majority of the time, again through ever changing landscapes. Along the way, I noticed signs put up by AMA, a nonprofit group that helps with some of the areas around Torres del Paine. I had actually applied to be a volunteer to help with some of their conservation programs. Unfortunately, they did not get back to me to confirm my acceptance until shortly before they needed me, and by then I had already made other volunteering plans, so I could not participate. However, it did seem like they were making an impact in helping maintain some of the trails and signage around the park. While I think I liked the hiking around El Chaltén slightly better than the admittedly small region of Torres del Paine I witnessed, I could still appreciate the incredible vistas and natural beauty of the park.
Throughout my week travelling south through Patagonia, all of those hikes, and camping, and experiences reminded me of my enjoyment of the outdoors throughout my life, especially all the times I visited national parks. The concept of the national park has been called America’s best idea, and I can definitely understand that sentiment. Maintaining the majesty and beauty of these places for future generations was such a novel concept 150 years ago. I am lucky to have been a beneficiary of that spirit of conservation and owe it to future generations to preserve such beauty for them as well.
This was reinforced all the more over the next couple of weeks. After finishing my time in Torres del Paine and Chile, I ventured south again. Crossing the border back into Argentina and going to the island of Tierra del Fuego and the city of Ushuaia. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and calls itself “El Fin del Mundo”, the End of the World. While getting to the end of the world was a great experience in and of itself, I had a reason for being there. I had hoped to do some exploring around Tierra del Fuego, but this unfortunately did not happen, as I had one day to do some travel planning and get some final supplies before my next big step: going beyond the end of the world to the bottom of it… Antarctica.
As luck would happen, a couple of people staying in my hostel were going to be on the same ship to Antarctica. I felt better about the trip, because from what I had heard and read, I expected the ship to be full of retirees. My new friends, Andrew and Jason, were expecting the same, but we would turn out to be greatly mistaken. This expedition was geared towards the adventurous types with camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing, and mountaineering all included. This attracted a much younger and more active demographic.
The 11 days aboard the Ortelius were amazing, mostly because of the incredible group of travelers I met and shared such an amazing adventure with. Many long nights were spent in the “Krill ‘em all” bar (named because this ship actually took Metallica to Antarctica to perform a concert there for a select group of fans and researchers) enjoying the society of such fun and interesting human beings. I am not going to spend much time talking about the surreal and magnificent environment of Antarctica. Instead, a couple of my shipmates have put together far more expressive videos that convey the experience far better than my empty words ever could. Therefore, I will include links to those videos at the bottom of this post.
I will simply state that the vastness of the place was enveloping in a strange comforting sense. Looking around at the pristine white and gray (not including for the smell and stains of penguin droppings!) gives the sense that you have been dropped into a dream world. It is a place that you feel a longing to be a part of, but intuitively know that you are a stranger, not meant to be there.
The crew and guides of the ship were obviously dedicated to maintaining the magic of this special place. You could sense it when they spoke to you, when they gave talks throughout the trip, when they guided you out into the white wilderness. I learned how the early explorers suffered and died there, how they often made horrid impacts on the local wildlife, how only slight changes in the temperature have completely changed the ecosystem due to different algae and plankton that have taken over different regions only because of a 1-degree change in average temperature. The areas we visited and observed vast colonies of Gentoo penguins used to be populated by Adélie penguins a few decades ago, but this change was due to the aforementioned temperature change and resulting disruption to the food chain. It seems minor, but it is just an example of such changes going on around the world that we don’t yet fully understand. I also learned that our expedition guide, Sebastian, had founded a nonprofit with a small group of friends: Fundación para la Conservación del Patrimonio Antártico. They advocate for the historical significance of the area, working to help maintain some of the sites, as well as trying to promote dialogue amongst the different stake-holders in the region. This was yet another amazing example that I’ve seen throughout this journey across the world of people taking responsibility for something they care about and making a positive impact in their world.
After the week and a half flew by much faster than expected, and we crossed the Drake Passage with a melancholy pall as we soon had to say goodbye to wonderful new friends, I prepared to end the South American and Antarctic chapters of my adventure. The past three weeks or so, travelling to the end of the world and beyond, and seeing such awe-inspiring examples of God’s beautiful creation, impressed further upon me the fact that these wonders absolutely do need to be protected. Less than 2 weeks after the events of this blog post, I found myself in the examination area of the wildlife hospital at the Australia Zoo (more about that endeavor coming soon!) While standing there, I noticed a quote on the wall that is attributed to the Audubon Society and perfectly sums up my feelings about my time in Patagonia and Antarctica:
A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.
MORE INFORMATION AND HOW TO HELP:
The organization founded by our expedition leader to Antarctica. It seeks to preserve and promote the heritage of Antarctica, and foster better cooperation and preservation, especially regarding Argentina’s role in the Antarctic.
A coalition of NGOs working around the world to focused on conservation of Antarctica.
An organization focused on conservation in and around Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile. They run volunteer programs that allows visitors to come and help with the conservation efforts in a variety of roles. This was the program I had hoped to participate in, but due to a structural overhaul of the program this year, they were unable to confirm my acceptance until after I had already made other plans.
As the name suggests, they are dedicated to the survival and protection of the world’s penguin species. Penguins are the iconic animals of Antarctica, but they live throughout the southern regions of the Earth.
An organization dedicated to getting more of Patagonia protected as national park lands. They also have volunteer programs for visitors to come and participate in. I looked into these, but the timing did not quite work with my schedule.
The charitable arm of the US National Park Service.
Website with ways to get involved directly with the US National Park Service.
ANTARCTICA COMPILATION VIDEOS BY MY SHIPMATES
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btKKkMqeIY0&feature=youtu.be Video by Marcey Lietta