WEEK 3 -TO SEE THE PENGUINS & GLACIERS


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South America » Argentina » Santa Cruz » Río Gallegos
December 20th 2006
Published: January 22nd 2007
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WEEK 3
TO SEE THE PENGUINS
A special 120 k journey to Punto Tombo on the coast. We had a 12 seater mini bus all to ourselves. (We don’t often do things in style - but there is no public transport!) This is the largest accessible breeding ground of the magellan penguin with over half a million birds. A quick stop to pay park fees. Once in the park the driver pointed to a penguin standing under a bush. We laughed and thougt it was stuffed - but much to our surprise we learned that these lovely tame creatures nest up to 800m inland in the sandy dusty scrub land. The males arrive first and renovate or excavate hollows often under bushes. The females arrive later and lay 2 eggs in the nest. Both parents take it in turns to lie on the eggs for 40 days until 10 cm grey fluffy chicks are hatched. The parents share the feeding, waddling to the sea- swimming beautfully for up to half a kilometer and diving up to 12 meteres deep to catch anchovies and squids -which they carry back and regurgitate to feed their young. Each trip can take up to an hour. Young are fed for around 3 months before they become self sufficient and start going out to sea to forage. Meanwhile thousands of immature birds stand along the shoreline waiting to moult and preening themselves as they do not breed until they are 5 years old. During the visit we walked along a well managed route passed by thousands of waddling chuntering penguins who ignored us completely. Although it was a bit smelly at times it was a wonderful experience to be so close to these wild creatures. Photography was easy here compared to the whales!

DINOSAURS & FOSSILS
From Trelew we visited the Bryn Gwyn Paleontology Park, the first of its kind in South America. Erosion of the valley sides by the Chubut River has exposed intact horizontal bands of sediments and fossils exhibiting 40 million years of changing climates, habitats, fauna, flora and volcanic activity of the area . It was hot and dusty - almost a lunar landscape as we followed a trail through the site and observed a variety of fossils from plants and creatures which roamed the area over 25 million years ago- many of which are now long extinct. The site is
Perito Moreno Glacier. PatagoniaPerito Moreno Glacier. PatagoniaPerito Moreno Glacier. Patagonia

Looking up the glacier
complemented by an excellent museum in Trelew which exhibits and intereprets the fossils as well as having excellent dinosar fossils excavated from sites near by. It was fascinating looking in the lab where huge dinosaur bones are being analysed and skeletons reconstructed.

ON THE ROAD
From Trelew a day journey to the oil town of Comodora Riverdavia 1820 km south of Buenos Aires. The distances are vast. Argentina is the 8th largest country and it is bigger than India. Once again travelling through arid steppe land with short shrubby bushes and grey green short tufted grasses..The approach to the town was heralded by rhythmic oilwell heads. The town although oil rich generates a large proportion of its electricity from wind generators located high on the ridge tops above the town.
It was not particularly exciting. Our accommodation was in a family run hospedaje which was a bit tired. The old lady of the house was rather dour but we had lovely white fluffy towels and white real cotton sheets. This somewhat made up for the peeling walls and the grotty carpet!

On the bus again. Initially along the narrow sandy shore line of the Atlantic coast which stretched
Perito Moreno GlacierPerito Moreno GlacierPerito Moreno Glacier

14k of crevassed glacier
for miles. Gradually as we turned inland across the Patagonian steppe desert, known as the ‘bad lands’ the small bushes and green scrub gave way to pale scrubby grassland which was flat and feaureless. Then strange grey shapes appeared hovering on the horizon. These I later realised were isolated flat toppped hills with mirages beneath. We passed occasional rolling undulating areas where rivers had eroded wide valley floors where sheep grazed. There were rare clumps of trees sheltering an isolated estancia homestead with its rotating windpump to lift water.

The road sides had wide fenced verges from which aggregate was scraped to lift the road above the level of the surrounding land. These slightly depressed areas along which the seed bank had been more recently exposed and which were probably a bit wetter were more textured and colourful than the badlands beyond the fence. Occasional swathes or cushions or tufts of individual plant communities thrived giving litle patches or blotches of yellow, white or pink colourful flowers or more lush green leafy patches.


SAN JULIAN
It was raining and chilly when we reached San Julian - just like Scotland - and at a similar latitude south it
Perito Moreno GlacierPerito Moreno GlacierPerito Moreno Glacier

Snout is 60m high- as high as a 15 storey building
is hardly surprising!
Coffee first at the bus terminal to consult the Lonely Planet and then to the tourist office for a map of the town. The young girl in the tourist office was overjoyed to have customers and prepared mate for us- my first taste of the local drink. It is herb tea- originally containing coca leaves. It is served in a special container shaped like a brandy glass without the stem. It is filled with dried herbs onto which is poured hot water. A bombilla - like a straw but metal and shaped like the stem of a pipe with a fine bulbous filter on the base is popped into the mate. Drinking mate is a social occasion and the cup is passed round in a clockwise direction. After a short time more hot water is added. So customary is the drink that most of the locals carry a thermos and drink mate anywhere at any time.

Our accommodation was with a family and our room was large with 4 beds and an ensuite built into the corner of the room. Quite plush for us - but Carole who felt a bit under the weather appreciated the
Upsala Glacier PatagoniaUpsala Glacier PatagoniaUpsala Glacier Patagonia

Boat by Upsala Glacier
comfort.

San Julian is probably the first Patgonian settlement - founded by Magellan in 1519. Drake and Darwin also came here. The Spanish King Carlos II attempted to create a Spanish community here called Floridablanca and sent out families, craftsmen and livestock. Volunteers from penal settlements further north were give the option of coming south and contributing to the building of the settlement.. The community co- existed well with the local indian tribe but gradually many inhabitants died of scurvy due to the lack of nourishment and harsh dry cold conditions where agriculture could not thrive and insufficient food was produced.
Today San Julian resembles a frontier town with wide grid streets along which the wind whistles. There a few old corrugated iron houses, a few colonial buildings and to the north end of the town a new plush housing estate of cement clad brick with green corrugated iron roofs with a new concrete road. However San Julian had character - a real Argentian settlement and so much more interesting and appealing than the larger commercial towns.
Just recently completed was a monument with a suspended fighter aircraft - a memorial to the war dead of 1980-2006 including the
Upsala PatagoniaUpsala PatagoniaUpsala Patagonia

Ice berg from Upsala Glacier
Las Islas Malvinas -theFalklands War . A sad list of local soldiers who perished - many of who were no more than young boys-ill trained and poorly motivated who were sent to war by General Leopoldo Galtieri trying to improve his political standing in the country a the time of an economic recession and mass social unrest.

ON THE ROAD
We are now 2200 kilometers South of Buenos Aires and approaching Rio Gallegos after a 7 hours journey-once again travelling through endless horizontal steppe desert plateau land occasionally passing through wide open valleys eroded by rives flowing east from the Andes. The main excitement being the odd sheep, emu, or guanaco (like a llama) and road works.
Just an overnight at this busy commercial town and then on the bus again to El Calafate. Another trip across the steppe - and then suddenly the sighting of the snow capped peaks of the Andres rising abruptly from the horizontal horizon. We were then at least 2 hours ride away which gives some indication of the height and scale of the mountains.

TO THE GLACIERS
At El Calafate, 3000 km south of Buenos Aire, a young lady with a board advertising her hostel befriended us at bus terminal and we spent 5 happy nights at Ikeuken Hostal located on a hillslope overlooking the turqouise Lake Argentino the views are wonderful. The first night in the 4 bed dorm was shared with a rather handsome young male- but he did snore and after that we had the dorm to our selves. El Calafate is a growing resort and the to the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It was one of the main objectives of Carole´s trip to see the glaciers and we spent 2 wonderful days on tours.

At last - a journey through the mountains. They were beautiful - peaked and snow capped. The lower slopes, once tree covered had been cleared by pioneers for grazing land and are now eroded and degraded but still used for sheep grazing. Higher up on the steeper slopes the trees remain. These are mainly Northofagus - southern beech with tiny shiny leaves, and covered with lichens and epiphytes. The forest floors are carpeted with wild flowers and ferns. Everywhere was a wonderful green. We appreciated the fresh air - free from dust and pollution as we walked along the trail from the lakeside and up through the forest to a view point above the glacier. We were surrounded by wonderful chilean fire bushes (Embothrium coccineum) with their bright red flowers.
The glacier was awesome. It is 39 km long and 4 km wide. We could see 14km of its ragged crevassed length. The snout with a wall of turquoise cracked ice is 60 m high. The height of a 15 storey building! The glacier moves and melts 2 metres everyday and retains a relatively stationary position in the landscape. As the compressed ice comes under increasing pressure at the snout the crevasses split further with incredible explosions like gun fire. From the boat below the towering wall of ice the crevasses are a beautiful dark turqoiusesy blue. The towering irregular blocks of ice (seracs) are brilliant white in the sunshine. Suddenly without warning huge towering chunks of ice collapse in cloud of ice spray and crash into the lake below making an enormous splash and sending ripples through the water causing smaller ice blocks to crash together and make a metalic tinkling sound. The larger sections begin an independent life as icebergs and slowly float along the lake- only 15% of their mass protruding above the surface of the water.

The visit to the Upsala glacier was by boat - or rather large modern flashy catamaran, one of a fleet of 6, with aircraft type seats, a café, video maps and sound system. An incredible investment for a potential projected growth in the tourist industy. This glacier is 60 km long and 6 km wide. The most wonderful feature of this visit was the journey along the Brazo Upsala Lake passing by massive ice bergs -natural sculptured monuments in incredible shades of turquoise and blue. The snout of the glacier was less impressive than Moreno but the stripes in the Upsala glacier indicating a medial morraine were impressive- as were nearby water falls. The Spegazzini glacier which we visited and viewed from a distance rose at the snout to height of 80metres.

El Calafate, named after a local plant of the berberis family with yellow flowers and edible berries is a settlement of a few thousand population. It is projected that the town will become a major all season tourist resort with a population of 50,000 in 10 years. (I´m pleased that we are here now!) Currently there is new building everywhere - with no apparent planning regulations or limitations on structure or design. New and flashy large hotels are appearing now that the airport is established. There are numerous good quality - but expensive tourist shops- but fascinating for window shopping.
Two local lagunes nearby, now a reserve area, provided an interesting guided walk and give access to the lake side from which we saw flamingos, a goose with stripes and yellow legs and her large family, southern pewits, coots, ducks and shovellers raking through the shallow waters. Sadly the chicks of another goose were being hotly persued by large white and black kelp gulls renowned for helping themselves to a lazy meal.

Although my objective for this trip was to escape from the Scottish winter and find the sunshine, I find as a geographer, I am drawn south to visit Tierra del Fuego. Carole has begun her journey north but I opted to continue south and spend Christmas in Ushuaia, the most southerly town in the world and over 3000 km south of Buenos Aires.

Hopefully new year will be spent cruising up the west coast of Chile for 4 days on a regular cargo, vehicle passenger ferry. The voyage is reputed to be incredible, sailing in and out of magnificient fiords to service the small settlements along the coast where no roads exist.







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