Archive for the ‘Patagonia’ Category

On Madonna and Penguins

November 9, 2009

I am back in Rio after my travels through the southern fringes of the earth.  Under a hot, sunny sky, I walked down the beach this afternoon to stretch my legs and take a break from work.  (Yes, I am working most of the time!)  Near the end of Ipanema Beach (near the point known as Arpoador, or Harpooner) I came across a restless crowd of photographers, cameramen, and curious tourists ready with cameras.  Turns out that Madonna is in town and she was inside one of the most exclusive hotels in Rio, just across the street.  I sat and watched the crowd for a few minutes and then headed back up the beach toward my apartment.

Strange as it might seem, the gaggle of photographers reminded me of the herd of tourists on my cruise through the Straits of Magellan.  In particular, on the last day of our cruise, we visited a small island across from the main port—Punta Arenas—near the Atlantic entrance to the Straits.  Besides a lighthouse, the island is inhabited by thousands of Magellanic penguins.  They are in the nesting season and the ground is riddled with shallow nests dug into the side of the hill rising up to the lighthouse.

Penguins & lighthouse

Penguins & Lighthouse

When we came ashore early in the morning (7 a.m.), many of the penguins were waddling down to the beach for a dip in the water–and breakfast.  Others were sitting on eggs (usually two) in the nests, and still others wandered around, beaks pointed straight up to the heavens, honking loudly.  (Just in case you wanted to know, they sound a lot like donkeys braying.)

Penguin nesting

Penguin nesting

Much like the paparazzi chasing Madonna in Ipanema, the hundred or so tourists from our boat (Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans, Australians) staked out the penguins and snapped photos with abandon.  Tourists have to stay on a roped off path that leads from the dock to the lighthouse.  At times, the cluster of tourists must have been amusing for the penguins.  (We were told not to use a flash because it damages the penguins’ eyes.)  Occasionally, we were tripping over each other to get out of the way of groups of penguins crossing our path on their way down to the beach, or back.

Penguins & papparazzi

Penguins & Paparazzi

I am not sure why humans find penguins so appealing, but we do.  They are curious little critters with their waddle and tuxedo coating.  The Magellanic penguins are not quite as striking as the Emperor penguins who became media stars after the March of the Penguins movie, but they are incredibly fun to watch.  Fortunately, their population is also expanding.   According to our guide, there are now more than 500,000 Magellanic penguins in Tierra del Fuego alone, and the community is slowly growing.  In a couple of months, they will all hit the water and migrate up the South American coast as far as southern Brazil, before returning next August.  They will come back to the exact same spot in the Straits of Magellan guided by some sort of internal genetic code.

Penguins & beach

Penguins on the Beach

I have to say that I gave Madonna about five minutes, before giving up on a sighting.  Fortunately, the penguins did not make us wait, were easier to photograph, and a whole lot more interesting than Madonna!

Penguin pair

Penguins waiting on Madonna to exit Ipanema hotel


Madonna finally makes an appearance to the delight of penguins and paparazzi in the Southern Hemisphere


Chasing Guanacos

November 6, 2009

I spent most of today chasing guanacos, the camelid cousins of llamas and alpacas.  They look very similar, but the guanacos are not quite as large and they produce less wool.  The guanacos number in the thousands here, up from a few hundred in the 1960s.  They travel in herds of about 60-70.  One alpha male dominates a herd of females and juveniles.  When the young males come of age they set out in search of their own herd either separating off some of their father’s or seizing females from other herds.


View from my hotel room

The herds move freely around the eastern side of the park, on the grassy steppes.  They seem very comfortable with the tourist buses and vans, but keep a distance of about 10-15 meters.  The trick is to ease up as close as possible before they get nervous and move away over the hills.  I was lucky enough to get some good photos, including one with a spectacular mountain backdrop.

Guanaco & Peak

Alpha male

The weather today was fickle, as always.  We woke up to a small snowstorm that covered the ground and blocked all view of the mountains.  By 9 a.m., the clouds had lifted and the view from my hotel room was stunning.  As we moved through the park in search of guanacos and a coveted photo of the towers (torres del paine) we went through patches of sun, snow, freezing rain, and (always) tremendous wind gusts.


The Torres obscured by clouds today

At lunch time we came to a beautiful lake with the view of the torres behind the lake.  Unfortunately, the torres were obscured by clouds.  When I was here four years ago, the weather was spectacularly good, so I had a previous image to compare with today’s.  Despite the obscured view, the scenery here—both the fauna and the landscape—are endlessly fascinating.  I have never been anywhere (except the Grand Canyon) where the scenery is as beautiful and inspiring.  Ansel Adams would have been very happy here.

Horses and towers

The Torres on my last visit in 2005

Stark Beauty

November 4, 2009

Sometimes, nature’s beauty is not lush and colorful,  sometimes it is stark and austere.  Here in the southernmost reaches of Patagonia I have seen some of the most beautiful natural scenes imaginable.  On the five-hour drive up from Punta Arenas, Chile to Torres del Paine National Park, the landscape is very much like sections of Montana or Wyoming—long stretches of rolling prairie with sparse vegetation, snow-capped peaks rising up from the plains, and enormous skies shifting constantly from clouds to rain to snow to sun.

Grey Glacier

Facing Grey Glacier

The Andes Mountain range stretches from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego thrust upwards over millions of years from the infinitely slow and continuing collision of tectonic plates from the Pacific sliding under the tectonic plates of the South American continent.  Down here on the southern fringes of Chile and Argentina, these spectacular mountains were carved up for tens of thousands of years with the advance and retreat of glaciers.  Since the end of the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, the glaciers have been receding, leaving behind deep and beautiful channels among the mountains.  Some of these channels filled with water from the oceans forming the Straits of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.  Others created the seemingly endless fjords that stretch from Tierra del Fuego up the Chilean coast for a thousand miles.

Glacier chunks

Glacier fragments

Unlike the heavily forested Rocky Mountains, the peaks in Torres del Paine are stark, bare rock carved by glaciers, snow, ice, and water.  Today, as we moved around this vast national park the weather was constantly shifting.  As we approached the long, flat gravelly terrain that spread like a beach for about a mile I realized that it was the bed (moraine) of what had once been an enormous glacier.  What was left of the glacier was ahead of us across an icy lake containing icebergs—large chunks of ice that had broke off from the face of the Grey Glacier and were now floating across a vast body of water in front of the glacier.  Rising up on either side are rugged mountains covered with snow.  By the time we reached the shore of the lake the clouds had begun to roll in.  As we made our way up the path rising above the right side of the lake the sun still shone down on the glacier and surrounding mountains.  By the time we reached the lookout point and started taking pictures, a small blizzard completely obscured the glacier and a dry snow began to cover everything—the trees, mountainsides, and our clothes.

Grey Glacie2

Grey Glacier from lakefront

As we made our way back down the slippery path and across the expanse of the gravel field, a layer of snow covered the entire area.  Yet, as we drove out of this valley, the snow subsided, and we began to move across an open valley washed in bright sunlight.  Our elevation had not changed more than a few meters.  What they say about Patagonia is true—wind, rain, snow, and cold come and go with great and unpredictable speed.  The weather shifts constantly.  This fierce and fickle weather, however, produces a constantly morphing landscape that is striking and spectacular.  I am fortunate to witness this stark beauty at the end of the earth.


The End of the World

October 31, 2009

I arrived this afternoon at the “end of the world”, or it at least that is what it says on the signs in the Ushuaia airport.  Ushuaia (oo-schwhy-ya), Argentina, is on the southern shore of Tierra del Fuego, and claims to be the southernmost city in the Southern Hemisphere.  The jumping off point for expeditions to Antarctica (for those going south) and to Patagonia (for those going north), Ushuaia is a boom town that has grown from 7,000 to 70,000 inhabitants in just thirty years.  Tourism has fueled this growth.  Constructed in the style of a lodge, the new airport has one runway and two gates.

I have come here as the faculty “lecturer” on a Vanderbilt Alumni tour.  Tomorrow evening we board the Via Australis to spend three days cruising through the Straits of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.  We will then dock in Puntarenas, Chile and head overland to the north to Torres del Paine National Park, a spectacularly beautiful terrain with mountains, glaciers, and herds of guanacos (cousins of the llama).  I was here in Patagonia once before on an earlier Vanderbilt tour and we also visited Torres del Paine.  Next Friday, we will fly to Santiago, Chile, and on Sunday I will fly back to Rio.

Ushuaia mtns3


Patagonia is rugged and the weather is always challenging—normally cold, windy, and rainy.  We were lucky today.  The sun was out, and although it was snowing, the temperature was in the mid-thirties.  The surrounding mountains are covered with snow, but the city itself is dry and snow free.  The surrounding mountains form a spectacular setting with their snow capped peaks rising up alongside the Beagle Channel.  The lower slopes of the mountains are covered with hardy beech trees, lots of lichens and mosses, and peat bogs.  Incredibly, the Yamana people who occupied this territory before the arrival of the Europeans, lived in the climate with no clothes!  They built simple teepees out of trees and brush.  Much of their life revolved around hunting sea lions and gathering mussels.  When Anglican missionaries arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, they clothed the Yamana and congregated them.  Within two generations they had all died from European diseases and abuse from settlers.

Yamana Family

Yamana Family 1880s

When Fernando Magalhães (Magellan) passed along what today are the southern shores of Argentina in 1520, the native peoples were so tall and impressive they seemed to be giants.  His on board chronicler, the Italian Antonio Pigafetta, called them Patagones, a reference to a monster in a Spanish novel (hence, Patagonia, land of the Patagones).   Supposedly, the fires of the Yamana lit up the night sky as Magellan passed through the Strait now named for him, and he gave the area the name Tierra del Fuego.

On board the ship over the next three days I will be retracing the voyage of Magellan and of the Beagle, the ship that carried the young Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s.  The channel running in front of Ushuaia is now named after that ship which on an earlier voyage had successfully established the route as an alternate passage to the Straits of Magellan from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  In my next blog, I will tell you what this voyage was like.  Although I grew up fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, I have never spent much time on the open sea, and certainly not in a body of water with such notoriously difficult weather.  Although summer is beginning here, we will face ice, snow, and rain, sometimes within a few hours.  Time to head for the ship and to disengage from the global electronic village . . . .Beagle Channel