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Photo Trek to Patagonia

Day 1 Patagonia

Manhattan Beach to Buenos Aires Where’s Patagonia? To many norteamericanos, it’s a place that can be described as: I-know-the-name-and-I’d-like-to-go-there-because-it’s-beautiful-but-I’m-not-sure-where-it-is. Patagonia is expansive tundra, mountains, lakes, rivers and hearty people, spanning southern Argentina and Chile. Home to wildlife, huge ranches, livestock and genuine cowboys. It’s also headquartered in Ventura, California if you’re thinking about outdoor clothing.

It’s raining, storming during taxi ride to airport. No upgrades, sorry. Scheduled 45 minute connection at Chicago to Buenos Aires reminds me of several frantic O’Hare Concourse G to K sprints I made in the 1990’s, just like the Hertz-era OJ commercials. Plane buttons up at LAX only 10 minutes late, so I’ve a reasonable chance of making the connection. Unfortunately, there isn’t any ground crew available to back the plane from the terminal. Finally, we’re backing out, 40 minutes late. Assuming no headwinds, that leaves me five minutes to deplane, race across O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and board the plane for Buenos Aires. And my checked bag? The tail-wind God is smiling, though, and we make up much of the time, Bag and I make the connection.

In Chicago, two dozen people on the stand-by list, it’ll be a full flight. My American seat mate, a petite, mature woman, asks me if I’m American. Yes. She says: “You don’t look American; you’re not fat.” Even armed even with a sleeping pill, I’m wide awake, which is typical. Listening to Marvin Gaye, The Doors, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mozart, Weather Report, Bob James, Crosby Still, Nash & Young and other artists makes the trip go faster. Watching the monitor on the wall as it shows our progress inching towards the southern hemisphere - altitude, time to destination, outside air temperature…we’re over Cuba, hope there’s good things in store for that island in the near future.

This is a domestic airline - service doesn’t quite match the international airlines, in my humble opinion - with one very matronly, very angry cart driver, wounding seats, elbows and ankles as she careens up and down the aisles. After 11 hours, touch down in Buenos Aires. Yeah!

Day 2 Patagonia

Buenos Aires Arrive at Ezeiza International Airport, to be met by Malena, who is coordinating our transportation and lodging while in B.A. She’s a former professional tango dancer, and in really good shape.  Some of the crew show up in the next hour: Mirjam, professional photographer and principal of PQA, the company arranging this excursion, and; Tom, the principal professional photographer, has shot for National Geographic, many adventure magazines. Were off to the beautiful, early 1900’s Hotel Royal Dandi, in historic cobble-stoned San Telmo district, where I meet Marcelo, our Argentine guide, and Lisa, Mike, Carl and Rodrigo, fellow trekkers. Walk to Plaza Dorrego, photograph tango dancers, very physical! Imbibe a rusty nail - the drink, not the thing you hit with a hammer - as the bartender was unfamiliar with margaritas. Dinner at Esquina Homero Manzi, two hour tango show, a big production with lots of dancers and singers, accompanied by a bandoneon - like an accordian, buttons only - grand piano, violin, bass and guitar, all styles of tango. They DO have margaritas here, along with tasty Argentine wines. Some of us off to local wine and beer bar, where I have a beer for the first time in 10-something years. The bartender kicks us out at two in the morning. I’ve been up for 30 hours. Sleep in tomorrow? Nada.

Day 3 Patagonia

Buenos Aires At 7:25am, classic Argentine music BLASTS from the ceiling speaker so loud that it hurts. I wake, completely disoriented, no clock radio in site. Maybe an Argentine holiday / special way to start the day? After the third song, put on clothes, shuffle down three flights of narrow and steep stairs, the receptionist tells me there is a rheostat - known as a “knob” for you luddites - that controls the volume on the wall. I trudge back up, find it, turn it off. How did it get turned on?  Is my room haunted? Breakfast of prosciutto, fruit and pastries, then off to La Boca district and Caminito Street in the old port area, more tango dancers, brilliantly colored buildings, lots of dogs with distinct personalities roaming the streets. I’m reluctantly photographed with a [female] tango dancer, hope those photos never see the light of day. Rain off and on. Photo workshop in the evening on a variety of techniques, including off-camera flash. Cool! Fantastic dinner of young wild boar at La Brigada, one of B.A.’s better known eating establishments. And we celebrate Tom’s birthday for the second time in 24 hours; he’s aging fast. Drinks afterwards in an elegant and quiet pub across the cobblestone street.

Day 4 Patagonia

Buenos Aires to Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten / Fitz Roy Morning, back to La Boca, no-show for two tango dancers we’d hired to model for us, but hire two others, all get some great photos. Off to airport, board an Aerolineas DC-9 with [too] many cycles on it. I’m in the last row, which is narrower than the others, incredibly, and next to the lavatory, which is convenient, I’ve been able to at least make eye contact with every person on the plane. Three hours later we land in El Calafate, Argentine gateway into Patagonia. Tom’s luggage, which was missing, took a different van to the airport and a different flight to El Calafate, but eventually they reunite. We meet Jorge, our very gracious bus driver for the trip. Two and a half hours to the steppes village of El Chalten, along River Santa Cruz, near Lago and Glaciar - lake and glacier - Viedma, and stunningly right at the base of the Fitz Roy chain of peaks. The native Tehuelches named Mt. Fitz Roy “Chalten”, meaning “smoking mountain.” We stop on the way into the village to photograph Mt. Fitz Roy at sunset, awesome. The few restaurants in town all seem to be…pizza parlors. It’s like an Italian Alps village. Out until 1:30am, looking forward to finally getting some sleep….

Day 5 Patagonia

Los Glaciares National Park …except that I’m up at 5:00am to catch our ride out to photograph sunrise on Mt. Fitz Roy. So we’re all wondering why it remains dark until 7:30am…perhaps our motel proprietor thought it was funny to have us get up early. Not much materializes, except clouds, but tomorrow may be better. Sun eventually comes up, clear, warm, and we stage a photo shoot of gaucho Rodolfo and his horse, wonderful to photograph. Work with reflectors and off-camera flash to get some great shots! Then up the Santa Cruz river valley to an incredible vista of Mt. Fitz Roy. Can this get any better? Off to Rio Salto - waterfall - beautiful, work on soft water scenes using filters and low shutter speeds. Back to motel, write a few postcards. Marcelo and Jorge craft a delicious Argentine barbecue of beef and lamb. Off to a restaurant that we discovered the night before for a margarita, turn in around midnight.

Day 6 Patagonia

Los Glaciares National Park Up at a more reasonable time, drive out to catch the sunrise, beautiful pinks, but did not bring a tripod - stupid - here’s the math: Hand-held camera + slow shutter speed = blurry photo. On to Lago Viedma, 45 minute boat ride to incredible Glaciar Viedma. Hike up over beautiful orange and brown glacier-scraped rocks onto a glacier that’s only 40 years old. We mount crampons, up onto the ice, hiking over ice ridges and between ice valleys, beautiful. Walk into a shallow two-week-old, ice-blue cave - things move fast around here - incredibly brilliant. Ice trekking is a blast! Ride back across the lake. Back at hotel, workshop @ using PhotoShop software, dinner, then margaritas at small, quaint log cabin restaurant. Patagonians seem to like their buildings really warm inside, even when it’s warm outside, perhaps to compensate for being cold in the winter? [it’s summer here right now].

Day 7 Patagonia

Los Glaciares National Park to El Calafate Up for another sunrise, it’s UNBELIEVABLE. Have tripod this time. Sky turns from deep, dark gray, to dark blue, to purple, to pink, to gold, to brilliant blue. Venticular clouds around the peaks are fantastic! Between shots I munch on leftover pizza - I seem to the only one interested in leftover pizza - for the second morning. Head out from El Chalten, Marcelo and Jorge invite me to participate in their ‘mate’ sipping ritual; an honor! Mate - pronounced “mah-tay” - or yerba mate, is an herbal drink, drunk from a carved, hollow calabash through a silver straw called a bombilla. It’s a bitter espresso on steroids, producing enough caffeine to power our bus across Patagonia and back again. The preparation is precise, the sharing amongst friends a ritual. Imagine what fun for me, given that I haven’t had a cup of coffee in 20 years. I like it, though, and purchased calabash, bombilla and yerba - with the guidance of Marcelo and Jorge - to bring home. Does your Venti Brazil Ipanema Bourbon Espresso sprinkled with crushed Organic Shade Grown Mexico beans topped with whipped cream not do it for you anymore? Check this out:


Back in El Calafate to shop, eat at a restaurant named Casablanca, roam the main road, window shopping - meaning I didn’t buy anything - for two hours. On to El Gapon del Glaciar, an estancia [ranch] located on Lago Argentino, half an hour from El Calafate. Catch a sheep shearing / herding demonstration, walk the adjacent wildlife preserve. Quietly walking on my own along the shoreline, several horses with riders gallop out of the thicket. I move to the side so they can pass, because size does matter. One big-eyed woman - apparently with no riding skill - and her big-eyed horse take aim for me as I dive for the sand, camera flying. Seconds later, a gaucho - with riding skill that would impress Roy Rogers and Trigger - stampedes down the beach and rescues the run-away rider. Cool! Dinner features an enormous array of meats plus lamb, roasted Argentine-style over an open pit. Guitarist / singer and two dancers - traditional Argentine dance rather than tango - perform for a bit longer than necessary. After dark, we conduct light painting…you’ll have to see the photos, not sure how to describe it.  Stay in a nice wood-paneled room with a really comfortable bed, a step up from our accommodations in El Chalten. Get my first real taste of infamous Patagonian wind that evening; batten down the hatches!

Day 8 Patagonia

El Calafate Morning starts with shooting [camera] a gaucho and his horse - the duo that rescued the runaway tourist-on-horse-that-almost-trampled-me - working off-camera flash again, nice shots! Off to Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park. Beautiful, huge and active, it’s constantly calving, watch a few slide off the glacier face. Back at the estancia for dinner and I have THE BEST THING I’VE EVER EATEN, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME: COPA PATAGONIA. So good, I can’t do it justice in writing as it requires one to vocalize yummy sounds, you’ll have to ask me. Stay up drinking wine with others, while we catch up on a week’s worth of emails in the bar - they have a wi-fi / internet connection here, something we didn’t expect, but really appreciate - until late. Three of us were going to ride bicycles into El Calafate - on a dark narrow road, late at night, perhaps 20 kilometers each way - but fortunately a storm blew in, relieving me of the burden of whimping out on the ride - I’m pretty sure we would’ve been run over - and keeping my fragile male ego intact.

Day 9 Patagonia

El Calafate to Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile Up at 6:30am, several hour bus ride across the tundra. We want to make the Chile border before the tourist buses behind us, otherwise, we could be stuck at the border for hours. There’s no bathroom at the Argentina border station…argh! 30 minutes later we’re on to Chile border station - the 10 or so kilometers between the border stations; what country were we in? - they have a bathroom. All bags are inspected, we eat lunch at a small store on the Chile side. Really good hamburger, which I mooched as leftovers from the others. While they were ordering, I was busy, um, struggling with something I hadn’t been able to do for the last two days. [Note to self: Remove prior sentence].

Approaching Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, guanacos - similar to llama’s, and they spit too - alongside the road, reasonably tame, approach within five meters, photograph. Further on, we stop and four tiny Patagonian gray foxes approach us, major photo op. On to our hotel, which is on an island on Lago Pehoe (pronounced pay-way), walk across a long wooden pedestrian-only bridge to get there. And right in front of us are the fabulous Cuernos [horns] del Paine, incredible! Meet some senior Brits in the bar, they’re touring the entire length of Chile, just come from Easter Island. Behind the bar, Andreas makes an excellent from-scratch margarita, though he only has enough tequila for three. Disaster! Have cameras ready to go to photograph the Cuernos at sunset, but the weather doesn’t happen. Cap off the evening sipping Baileys Irish Cream in the lounge upstairs, talking [photo] shop.

Day 10 Patagonia

Torres Del Paine National Park Up at 6:30am to photograph the sunrise on the Cuernos, but it’s cloudy. Only Mike and I are out, the others intelligently still in bed. A very modest breakfast - perhaps it’s hard to get food (and tequila) delivered this far out in the countryside - then off to Salto Grande Falls. As we’re parking, a pair of beautiful crested caracara’s (peregrines) are right there in the trees, un-intimated by lenses, regardless of length and girth. The waterfall is a beautiful green, photograph using the afore-mentioned technique to dial down light and lengthen exposure for silky smooth water. Then an hour hike up near the base of the Cuernos, past a lake, feel like Bilbo in the Misty Mountains. On the road again, periodically stopping to chase guanacos, condors, geese and ibis. Spot some horses, poised before background mountains, which would make a beautiful photo, but as we’re walking across the field, a rainbow appears, horses forgotten. Further down the road, another dozen horses off in the distance, in front of a lake, with mountains behind, great photos! As had happened innumerable times, Jorge stops the bus, Tom yells “disburse” and our tightly coordinated squad of photocommando’s stealthily disembark and fan out across the topology in pursuit of prey. There were many incredible things to photograph and we’re all exhausted. Except Tom, who has the energy and enthusiasm of an eight-year old.  And Mirjam, who constantly re-energizes herself by yelling: “UNBELIEVABLE.” After dinner and drinks, walking back to room after midnight, stars in the sky, could it be a great sunrise tomorrow morning?

Day 11 Patagonia

Torres Del Paine National Park It IS a great sunrise! The wind is howling, though, have to hang onto camera / tripod so they don’t blow away. The Cuernos are out in glory. Another modest breakfast. On the road again, we seem to stop every few minutes, shooting [camera] guanacos, solo or in groups, silhouetted against the mountains. We’ve become adept at group stalking of guanacos, they’re shy, but walk away, don’t run. Several Andean Condors soar above us, Mike has a long lens to capture some great shots, and Marcelo also grabs some wonderful photos on his point-and-shoot. Why don’t I have any shots of flying condors?  I was busy making excuses. Stop at a small lake, beautiful aqua color, surrounded with what looks like a white ring of salt, but it isn’t salt, it tasted like dirt (I had to). Cuernos and the Torres (towers) in the background. Arrive at Lodge Cerro Guido, located on 300,000 acre Estancia Boutique. 45,000 head of sheep, 100 horses, lots of herding dogs. The various buildings of the lodge are beautiful, luxurious and tasteful, architecturally consistent with the many working buildings of the estancia. Waldo, a teething sheep herding puppy, adopts me and chews on my shins [I’m the only one wearing shorts] while I’m trying to shoot. For dinner, lamb roasted in pit with a three meter-diameter range hood, gigantic! Tastes extraordinary. Our waiter, nice but persistent, repeatedly comes by with a steaming plate of delicious lamb, ignoring our “no thank you, we’re full” muttered in both espanol and anglais, dropping hunks of lamb on our plates. The first two times, I smiled and ate what I was served, the third time, Marcelo saved me by eating what was dropped on my plate. If our waiter had come around one more time, I might’ve wrestled him to the floor and disarmed him of his plate of lamb. Lisa took bones and scraps outside for Waldo and his lamb-loving kitty friend. Perhaps Waldo will now chew on Lisa’s shins instead of mine.

I’m dragging by this time, lots of activity and little sleep is catching up. A few drinks in the quiet restaurant / bar on the hill, our small group are the only guests. Too many clouds to create star trails - really long exposures where you photograph the motion of the stars - tonight. Tonight would be a good time to practice light painting, but instead I pass out, as everyone else does. Where’s Waldo?

Day 12 Patagonia

El Calafate to Manhattan Beach Wander around El Calafate, shopping - not my favorite activity - all morning. Our flight to Buenos Aires has been delayed a few hours, meaning I’ll miss my connection to Chicago. So I head out earlier than the group to catch the last seat on an earlier flight [thank you, Marcelo], connect in Buenos Aires, have time for a 15-minute massage in the terminal, load up for 11-hour flight to Chicago. The American sitting next to me has disturbingly yellow and brown teeth. And a peculiar odor. He’s been riding horses for 10 days in Patagonia.  Regardless, he was a nice guy. People probably look at me and wonder why I don’t get a haircut, or shave more diligently.  I was able to sleep off and on, perhaps my best sleeping performance on a long distance flight to-date. Likely because I was exhausted, a busy two week trip, up for most sunrises, out late, always active in-between. We land at O’Hare before the gates are open, wait at the gate, then stampede immigration and customs at 5:00am. I appear to be the only traveler at O’Hare wearing shorts. Connect for four-hour uneventful leg to Los Angeles.

Fantastic trip! Learned lots of new photography skills, made new friends, pestered those friends with questions about photography, experienced a people and countryside I’d wanted to experience, and was not disappointed in any way. Patagonia is beautiful, both sides of the border. The people are wonderful, the Argentinos perhaps a bit more gregarious and outgoing, the Chileans more reserved, but both friendly to and tolerant of norteamericanos. And my traveling companions made it the best!

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