Archive for January, 2009

Is This a Freaking Sweat Lodge?

I now have enough data from our travels, as well as input from fellow sojourners, to definitively say (with wide sweeping brush strokes) that every hotel room in southern Patagonia seems to be set to “sauna” on the thermostat (which is often under the sole control of the hotelier)!

Sadly, it is not uncommon for me to writhe in bed to dreams of smothering heat, which is ridiculous considering it’s really cold and windy outside. In fact, it’s so windy that it is usually not practical to leave your window open for some relief. Thus far, the best stretch of sleep I’ve gotten here in glacier land occurred when I propped open a balcony door 3 feet from my bed so that the cold Antarctic winds could buffet me all night long.

The latter is a great example of just how effective radiant floor heating (which I now call “sweaty feet heat”) can be at warming up a room…or in this case, a cabin.

Life on Board the Love Boat

loveboat1Okay, it wasn’t exactly the Love Boat, but our trip aboard the Via Australis (a 137 passenger boat run by Cruceros Australis) was a new, and mostly positive, experience for us all.

THE GOOD

  • Nice hot showers.
  • Access to beautiful and remote areas.
  • Anyone can be a good photographer in these locales.
  • You don’t have to think about your day in terms of food or excursions (this is particularly nice if you have kids).
  • The trip was the right length, 5 days and 4 nights. Any longer and I would have had cabin fever on a boat that size.
  • The open bar (a plus for Ian and Tom, anyway).
  • Meeting mighty nice people. There were 14 countries represented on our boat. Two of our favorite passengers are pictured here: our tablemates Mary and Tommy, from Scotland. (We’re still speaking with our bad Scottish brogue thanks to them!) Tommy is the oldest Linux user (self-taught, no less) that we’ve ever met. Mary was a professor in elementary math education until she recently retired. (Her biggest triumph, though, may have been putting up with Tommy all of these years!)
  • Surprisingly nice rooms.
  • Whiskey and hot chocolate available at the end of land excursions. (Johnny Walker cooling in glacier ice pictured below.)

THE BAD

  • They gave Tom and I two twin beds instead of the queen bed that we had reserved.
  • The drains in the bathroom had some issues.
  • A table of French passengers got angry at us for closing the curtains in the dining room on the first night (we were blocking the sun from shining in our eyes). Maybe it was our imagination, but they seemed to maintain their anger throughout the trip. (Couple that with their loss in the table trivia contest and we almost had an international incident.)
  • The desserts looked good, but were really pretty sub standard. (Once they start putting corn in a signature dessert…well, need I say more?)

THE UGLY

  • Really poor guiding. The lead English-speaking guide, who was nice enough, was spectacularly bad at his job. He prattled on endlessly in poor English and had no real information to impart. Ian had an order of magnitude more knowledge gained from his trip through the region 5 years ago than did our head guide. As a family, we made it a point to avoid all of his lectures and lagged behind during excursions so that we didn’t have to listen to him yammer about nothing. I would have expected a naturalist/historian/archaeologist type to be available on board, but this you will not find. We recommend self-study prior to taking the trip.

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Cape Horn Excursion

I, the albatross that awaits at the end of the world…
I am the forgotten soul of the sailors lost,
rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world.
But die they did not in the fierce waves,
for today towards eternity, in my wings they soar,
in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds.

Sara Vial (Chilean author and poet)

No one was very happy about rising early to gear up for a 7:00 a.m. attempted landing at Cape Horn. On the last two cruises to the area, our ship encountered 100 km/hour winds and they were not able to beach the zodiacs. (For those of you that don’t know, Cape Horn is where the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean meet between Antarctica and South America, creating unique and intense atmospheric conditions — translation: roughest seas in the world.)

We were lucky and our dawn excursion was met with lovely weather (for the southern end of the world) and we were able to land, eradicating our early morning crabbiness! Pictured here from Cape Horn are the light house, two views of the memorial to dead sailors in the shape of an albatross, an old chapel, and few shots from the area where we landed the boats.

You can see from these photos how quickly the weather changes by looking at the sky!

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Por Favor, Not Another Glacier

glacieralley6Is it possible to suffer from glacier fatigue? (No smart-ass comments about glacier fatigue setting in as a result of blog viewing!)

As you can see in these pictures, every time we looked out of the window while on board our lovely cruiser gliding through the fjords, we were treated to a scenic tableau of the blue beasts flowing down mountains lapped by light green glacial melt capped with big skies. What this must have looked like for Darwin, Fitz Roy, and Magellan!! (And, by the way, those guys were nuts for bringing their primitive ass sailing technology down to the end of the world!)

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Love the Process, Damn the Results

process1Why do all young children’s finger painting efforts end up as black sludge? Because they enjoy the process of creation and don’t give a rat’s ass about the end product.

Traveling with the girls has been interesting because they embrace this philosophy throughout their lives. We view an overnight bus trip as something to be endured until we get to our destination…they view the same trip as a cornucopia of delights to be experienced: lay the seat down, open the blankets, watch the movies, check out other passengers, eat snacks, plug in headphones… .

The Zs love the docks, the bus stations, the cab rides without seat belts, the airports, sitting at the bar on the boat, going through security, donning life jackets, the airplanes…

I know there is a lesson in there somewhere, and when we get settled in Buenos Aires once again, I’ll try to figure out what it is! (Random vistas from the fjords pictured here.)

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We Are Charles Darwin

darwin1Our big travel splurge: a five day small-boat cruise through the inland waterways of Southern Patagonia, including an attempt at Cape Horn.

Charles Darwin’s youthful trip on the HMS Beagle through these areas are what gave him the building blocks for his theories on evolution, and it has been fascinating to retrace some of his steps. Our first full day on the boat included a visit to an area recently vacated by a glacier (the red field of moss pictured here). We also spent time on an island with penguins, cormorants and skua, the latter are fiercely predatory birds that look something like a brown, overgrown bird-of-prey seagull! All are pictured below. (I’m sure my avian-loving parents believe these bird sightings are totally wasted on me!)

The final picture below is from a small island with elephant seals which we visited, but with our camera, it’s hard to make out the big lug…it is the light brown-looking rock on the beach!

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Don’t Park in Punta Arenas

puntaarenasI learned a very important lesson in Punta Arenas — Chileans really crack down on parking scofflaws. As we walked around town, I noticed that there were parking enforcement officers stationed literally every two blocks. (They stand sentinel over their small slice of territory all day long.) It seemed that most parked cars had a ticket under their windshield wiper. I’m not sure what the rules are for parking since there were no meters, but these people meant business.

Another fun fact about Punta Arenas is that instead of city buses, they have little cabs with big numbered signs on the top that act as public transportation. The little colectivos stop at scheduled locations and are generally packed, sometimes taking on the appearance of a clown car.

We also learned that Punta Arenas was once one of the most important cities in South America due it’s vital role as a stop for the world’s mariners on the trip around Cape Horn . The town is a quiet village now and is pictured here in the background.

I Am Sir Edmund Hillary

glactrek1Tom and I put ourselves in the shoes (or crampons) of an adventurer and mini-trekked on Perito Moreno with Zoe (who just made the age limit by the skin of her teeth). In truth, our ice hike was not all that strenuous, but we felt intrepid nonetheless!

(Zelda and Ian went on a boat tour of the glacier since Ian had already walked on a previous visit and Zelda was too young.)

Our trekking adventure began with a boat ride across the lake to access the glacier where it abuts the land (here the glacier flows at about 10 cm a day). After hiking to the edge of the glacier, we were outfitted with crampons and began trekking on the worn path shown here. The trail is light in this photo because it has been worn down to cleaner ice through the darker, dirtier glacier. I wasn’t expecting a lunar landscape when we started!

The tour was limited to the periphery of the glacier. (One wants to avoid the craggy middle with newbies. The ice flows in the center of the glacier at about one-and-a-half meters a day.) The “trek” was 100 percent pure fun that wended through paths with high ice walls and near sink holes in the ice. It also allowed us the chance to imbibe glacier water and whiskey (ye old watering hole on the glacier is pictured below).

If you ever have a chance to take this tour, DO IT!

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Serious Sheep Session

estalice11This photo says it all in terms of why we loved El Calafate.

These were taken on a tour of Estancia Alice, which we had the joy (and luck) of experiencing on a rare warm and windless day that featured dramatic skies due to rainstorms that were on the way. (The ranch is the red-roofed property in the first photo below.)

In advance, we had some fears that the tour might be a bit, well…touristy! But, it was actually quite interesting. We had the privilege of seeing a sheep denuded (which resulted in the single blanket of wool shown on the sheering floor below), we took a nice walk to the lake, we observed some herding dogs in action (gaucho is pictured below), and most importantly to the girls, they got to pet the sheep in their pens for what seemed like hours!

Fun sheep facts. Argentina is the 3rd largest wool producer behind Australia and New Zealand. 50% of the wool produced in the world goes to China. For those of you hoping to open a sheep estancia, you will need about 4,000 to 5,000 animals and 20,000 hectares of land (49,421 acres) to have an economically viable operation. A professional can sheer an animal in 2 to 3 minutes and will usually finish about 300 animals a day.

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Craps in El Calafate

calcasinoFor those of you who are jonesing to read another dice update from the casinos of Southern Patagonia, you are in luck, for I have just completed my report on the craps table in El Calafate.

(Apologies for our lack of information on “buying the 4 and 10″ and hopping bets. We also failed to discover if they allow you to lay odds on the Don’t Pass/Don’t Come — in truth, our basic play freaked out the dealers so much that we just didn’t have the nerve to go the extra mile!)

Table Security is Whacked. They put a lot of trust in dealers here… something rare for a casino, which is always worried about collusion (a dealer in cahoots with a player). In El Calafate, the stickman moves the dice to the dealer on base, who picks them up and physically hands them directly to the player shooting the dice. This is such a huge security lapse, I don’t even know where to begin. There are a lot of opportunities to switch dice here. Table limits don’t really justify organized cheating, but they’re practically begging for it. There was a boxman and there also was one camera on the table that I could see.

Impossible Shooting Rules. Generally, a casino wants a shooter to bounce both dice off of the back wall — how a player gets them there is normally not too much of a concern. Not so in El Calafate, where the rules for shooting were mystifying. They wanted me to throw underhand and have the dice hit the table in front of the table’s midpoint, throwing with enough force that these spotted cubes would continue on to bounce off of the back wall. This is nearly impossible and leads to two problems: 1) the dealers can call a “no roll” on nearly any throw based on how close you get to the “mid-point”; and, 2) the dice plow through all of the chips on the table making a mess.

Too Few Chips on the Table. First of all, they didn’t use real chips. They used a strange plastic chip that had beveled edges and didn’t stack or fit in the rail. Even more unusual, they had about 1/10 of the chips they needed on the table to successfully deal the game. Because of this shortage, the dealers were always trying to color up our chips (exchanging lower denominations for higher denominations). This is a bad policy from a casino’s standpoint because people bet more when they have “bullets,” the denomination of chip most commonly used to wager. You don’t want to exchange the bullets for higher denominations, which a player may put in their pocket rather than wager.

Higher Minimum Place Bets. The table minimum was $10 pesos, but they required $20 pesos to make a place bet, $10 pesos more than Bariloche.

Weird 6 and 8 and Single Odds. Same deal as Bariloche’s casino, only single odds on pass line/come bets and $10 wins $11 on the 6 and 8.