Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Patagonia - El Chalten Wine Bar

Patagonia – El Chalten, 
a village at the foot of the FitzRoy Mountains 

A visit to La Vineria, an unexpected, amazingly well-stocked and sophisticated Wine Bar. 

[Part 3 of my Patagonia Journey]

When I checked Wikipedia, here is what is said about the small community:

"El Chaltén is a small mountain village in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. It is located in the riverside of Río de las Vueltas, within the Los Glaciares National Park (section Reserva Nacional Zona Viedma) at the base of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains, both popular for climbing. For this reason this village is well-visited by trekkers and climbers.

The village was built in 1985 to help secure the disputed border with Chile. Today the sole reason for its existence is tourism. It is 220 km north of El Calafate.

"Chaltén" is a tehuelche word meaning smoking mountain, as they believe it was a volcano for its peak is most of the time covered by clouds. Other visited tracks and sights are Torre Glacier, Laguna Capri, Piedras Blancas Glacier, Chorrillo del Salto and Laguna de los Tres.

The village provides national park information for visitors, as well as commercial camping (with showers) and a very limited number of beds, catering mostly for backpackers. On the treks outside of the village free campsites are provided. There are two automated teller machines and relatively no cell phone service. The tourist trade has spawned a few restaurants and shops in town, with a large variety of outdoor equipment for sale, while some of the accommodations provide internet and phone access and show regular movies. Other than that, the town is fairly far removed from the normal flow of news and communication, even during high season (November–February). The town is nearly deserted during off-season (the southern hemisphere winter).

Climate:  El Chaltén has a dry -yet unpredictable- climate, with light precipitation distributed on a large number of days: despite the semi-arid setting, bad weather is exceedingly common. Summers experience long daylight hours, very windy weather, and cool temperatures, mostly below 18ºC (65F) during the day and below 5ºC (41F) during the night. Frost can and does occur in the summer too. Winters bring snow in moderate quantities, and average temperatures around 3ºC (37F) during the day and -4ºC (25F) during the night; however, the coldest nights are much colder than this. Spring and fall are variable, but generally cold as well."

Well, the village of El Chalten is still far away from any other towns.  During our 220 km drive north from El Calafate we only saw signs for the occasional ranch (Estancias) along the way.  But much has changed in the village over the last decade since tourism has increased and with it the number of guesthouses and hotels.  Now, modern accommodations for the non-trekking traveler are sprouting up all over the village, and we stayed in a very nice western standard hotel.  Small restaurants offered excellent food and the local Pizzeria tells of the northern influence.  But what was really surprising is that El Chalten has a wine bar stocked with a wide variety of Argentinian and Chilean wines.  One afternoon, our group was invited to sample a large number of different wines each accompanied by recommended food matching in character and complimenting the bouquet of the wine.  To find such a sophisticated place here in a place that one could classify as ‘at the end of the world’ is amazing.

The Wine bar sported an amazing number of different wines.

Elegant decorum

Are those the tastes that go with wine?

Ready for more tasting

Tish is admiring the wall of wine bottles from Argentina and Chile

Ready for the next round

Our Group of 15 sure filled the small wine bar.

Tasty morsels before the next wine.

Even as far south as El Calafate, where the climate is cold most of the time, wine is grown and prepared.

Cheese to clear the palette between the different flavors.

Ed and Pat waiting for the next sample.

Some of us walked back to the hotel under a beautiful sky with the FitzRoy Mountains slowly sinking into the night.  Another successful day on my journey in Patagonia.

Til next time,

Torre Ceres and FitzRoy Mountains in last light

Part 1:  Patagonia - Overview of my Journey is linked here.
Part 2:  Patagonia - Glaciers and Rugged Mountains is linked here.

Comments?  I love to hear from you.  Please use my email mraeder33@gmail.com to reach me.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


PatagoniaLand of Glaciers and Rugged Mountains

Patagonia and the southern tip of the South American Continent has become an ‘exotic’ travel destination.  Just about 10 years ago, it was mainly a destination for trekkers and climbers that flocked to places like El Chalten near the FitzRoy massive or Torre del Paine with its rugged mountain peaks.  Now it has opened up and seems to be on the list of places offered by many tour groups.  Little towns like El Chalten sport several new hotels – or hosterias – which made more comfortable accommodations rather than tent camps available for the mainstream tourist.

Western Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) presents ragged mountains of the Andes topped by enormous glaciers,  and an ever-blowing wind even in the summer months.  The eastern regions, the arid ‘steppe’ (grasslands) is populated by ranches – estancias – with cattle and sheep.  As one travels south towards Chile the precipitation is more ubiquitous and the density of sheep increases.  It is said there are more sheep than one can count in a lifetime of sleepless nights. 

As I left Buenos Aires after a short visit I flew to El Calafate and traveled overland north to El Chalten.  It was sunset as we approached to our evening destination.  On route, the sun was setting and the FitzRoy massive with its high peaks of 11,000 ft glowed in warm colors.  These very steep mountains peaks are a paradise for climbers and not for the faint of heart. I rather marveled in sunsets and sunrises with beautiful colors (More of the FitzRoy Massive in a later Travel TidBits).

While I would see numerous glaciers during my time in Patagonia, the first 2 are memorable since I walked on ice and among the crevices of the Viedma Glacier near El Chalten and for the enormity of the Icefield of Perito Moreno Glacier part of the larger Upsala Glacier near El Calafate, both belonging to the Glaciers of the Los Glaciares National Park which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1981. 

The Viedma Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field (SPI) and is one of the 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Icefield shared across the Andes by Argentina and Chile.  This icefield is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water!

From the air one can see its terminal phase flowing into the western end of Lake Viedma which was created by the receding glacier and melting ice and its end moraine.  Its glacier terminus spans 2 kilometers wide as it enters Lake Viedma.  Moving slowly downwards chunk of ice fall into the lake and float as icebergs before eventually melting.  With the melting ice, debris of soil and rocks ground up by the moving ice are swept into the lake giving it its typical glacial green color as typical seen in glacial lakes.

The dark streaks in the middle of the glacier terminus are formed when rock debris gets intermingled with the flowing ice mass.  Due to the pressure from the above icefield and depth of the ice, the middle ice moves faster than the sides of the glacier forming the appearance of a river of ice moving towards the lake where it ends in a cliff like structure.

To reach the glacier terminus, we drove from El Chalten to Lake Viedma, where a boat awaited to take us over the lake to the ice.  

It was a gorgeous day for a boat ride and hike.

Little did I know that walking on the ice means donning crampons, climbing up and over crevices, looking down into small glacier ‘lakes’ that form in the crevices.  After landing on a barren rock we first had to hike up and thankfully, the guides had left the crampons near where the ice met the rock. 

 The boat fit snugly into a little rock cove and we disembarked over the front end onto the rock.

The view from the top onto the glacier’s end shows the mass of ice ‘gliding’ into the lake calving ice into the lake periodically accompanied by loud noise.

After being properly fitted the crampons – I had never in my life walked with crampons! - a big step brought us face-to-face with a rather unfamiliar environment.

We initially hiked up following a valley leading up to the Crevice field.

It looks like a labyrinth but thank God we had a guide who knew where the next path would be.  

The different colors of the glacier ice were amazing.  Depending on the density of the ice it can shimmer in shades of blue with grey added by the moraine debris.  The enormity of the ice field is overwhelming and we are just a speck on the ever expanding ice.

The slopes of the hills and valleys were made walking slow and our guides carved steps when the grade was too steep.

This was a new experience for me and I was at awe at nature.  The cracking noises – much louder than I ever had imagined – reminded us that we were standing on a ‘living and moving’ mountain.  The occasional loud noises sounded like canon balls exploding as the glacier face calved enormous chunks of ice into the water.  Nature was certainly at action here.

Hiking down from the crevices, unloading the crampons, climbing over the rock face and back into the boat, the day had passed by fast with so many new impressions.

[Courtesy of Dan Cox]

Thinking that one day this may no longer be available to experience made me sad.  The below image of another glacier shows how globally glaciers are receding as our climate changes.  

From USGS Archives

The USGS images span a century and this seems a long time in our life yet it is a tiny spec in Earth time.  Of the 48 glaciers of the Southern Patagonia Icefield, only the enormous Perito Moreno Glacier is fed by enough precipitation to counter balance it relentless flow to its terminus in Lake Argentina

I will show images of the Perito Moreno Glacier and Lake Argentina - another great glacier experience - in my next Travel TidBits as my journey continues.

Til then,

Comments?  I love to hear from you.  Please use my email mraeder33@gmail.com to reach me.


Interesting reading:  
A study titled  “Ice Loss from the Southern Patagonian Icefield, South America, between 2000 and 2012” by the authors:  Michael J Willis, Andrew K Melkonian, and Matthew E Pritchard, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA [http://www.agu.org/news/press/pr_archives/2012/2012-41.shtml, 5 September 2012] observe: “The Southern Patagonian Icefield together with its smaller northern neighbor, the Northern Patagonian Icefield, are the largest icefields in the southern hemisphere — excluding Antarctica. The new study shows that the icefields are losing ice faster since the turn of the century and contributing more to sea level rise than ever before.”  Even on the highest elevations rain is more prevalent than snow which softens the ice and contributes to a more rapid downward movement.  ‘Warming air temperatures contribute to the thinning at the highest and coldest regions of the ice field, Willis said. Moreover warmer temperatures mean greater chances that rain, as opposed to snow, will fall on and around the glaciers. This double threat of warming and more rain may, in turn, change the amount of water beneath the glaciers. More water means less friction, so the glaciers start to move faster as they thin, moving even more ice in to the oceans. Rising lakes at the front of the glaciers may also play a part as they eat away at the icy edges faster, causing the glaciers to retreat even further.’

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Patagonia and Magellan Strait
Argentina and Chile, South America

Today, on my birthday, I am back at home and will celebrate with friends and family. 

However, the last 4 weeks I traveled far from home and explored Patagonia and the southern region of the South American continent.

Overview of my Journey:

My journey took me from San Francisco to Buenos Aires in Argentina – albeit not in a straight line fashion as indicated on the above map.  Painfully, I had to go through New York before the night flight to the capital of Argentina.  But traveling with my good friend Lynda made the long flight and layovers bearable.

After a short trip for the airport to the inner city, we were met by our Photo tour group at the hotel and spend 2 nights exploring the ‘city of tango and music’.   Our next flight took us further south to El Calafate in the heart of Patagonia, the most southern region of the South American continent shared by Argentina and Chile.  

The next 14 days, we explored the FitzRoy Massive, a mountain chain with its highest peak at ~11,000ft, walked on the Viedma Glacier after strapping crampons under our hiking boots, met with an original ‘gaucho’, the South American Cowboy, and his dog and horse,  heard the rumblings of glaciers as they move and saw calving big ice sheets from the glacier face, observed sheep herding on an authentic sheep ranch, Estancia Alicia, photographed guanacos, the cousins of alpacas and guanacos endemic in the South American Andes in the Torre del Paine region, took a great ferry ride to Terra del Fuego (Land of Fire) and saw our first penguins, a small and newly established King Penguin colony – and I fell in love with these curious and beautiful non-flying birds.

On the Punta Arenas-El Porvenir Ferry crossing the Magellan Strait

Lynda and I left the group to return to Punta Arenas where we explored the most southern town of 150,000 inhabitants and explored more penguins, this time the Magellanic Penguins on Isla Magdalena, before joining our next group for an expedition on the Magellan Strait.  We traveled by small boat – 15 participants – that carried zodiacs and kayaks for the further exploration of the shores and waters.  During the next week, we had an incredible experience with humpback whales that played in the waters by spyhopping, slapping their narrow white flippers on the water, and breached.  We saw mothers followed closely by their babies and observed the little ‘baby breaches’ as they tried to imitate their mothers.  Curiously, the whales were often followed by fur seals that also jumped out of the waters as if to say:  we can also breach as our big cousins.

Our home on the Magellan Strait

Curious Young Elephant Seal

The time passed quickly with so many wonderful experiences and soon we were back in Punta Arenas not looking forward to our long haul back to the USPunta ArenasSantiagoBuenos AiresNewarkSan Francisco.

Last day on the Magellan Strait - finally the sun made an appearance!

But what a journey it was!!  High mountains, open seas, wildlife on land, on sea and in the air.  Seeing 8 condors taking the thermals up higher and higher was an unforgettable sight better enjoyed without the camera in front of my eyes.  What a joy to see these enormous birds with a 3 m (9ft) wingspan taking flight and soaring in the high sky.  They are not threatened in these mountains, gliding over the enormous glaciers and over the fjords and islands of this untouched land. There is a beauty in the rough landscape that tells of hardship for man and beast who try to penetrate it.  Those who survive the raw nature in this region are richly rewarded.  Since the land in the southern cold climate offers sparse, low and hardy vegetation, the seas mostly provide food for the condors, albatross, petrels, fur seals, elephant seals, humpbacks and all the other critters that make their life here.  I am thankful having been given all but a glimpse into a world quite foreign to me.  I loved having the wind blowing in my hair, happy that I did not fall into the icy waters when kayaking! - and mastering my fear of climbing on crampons over glacier crevices. 

 Moody sunset over the Magellan mountains

Now I am back home.  My camera and I were very busy during the trip – amazing that I did not get cramps in my index finger from triggering the shutter release - and I will share my images as I work through and relive my trip. 

Til next time soon,

Comments?  I love to hear from you.  Please use my email mraeder33@gmail.com to reach me.