Finding a location to take my camera during the summer months has always presented challenges. In recent years the problem has been solved by heading north to find the mid-night sun or cooler weather in North West Iceland. It isn’t that I dislike the heat but rather I find the greens of summer less inspiring and prefer the drama of more inclement weather.
This year I decided that another solution was to chase winter south and set my sights on Patagonia which is about as far south as you can get without going to Antarctica. I was to travel with my Canadian friend Connie.
Initially I started to look for a possible photo tour company as I had never traveled in South America before and thought this would be the safest introduction but there were no available winter options and eventually I found a small UK family company that specialized in organizing Argentinian tours who were able to support us to go independently. The idea was to let them organize accommodation, internal flights, car hire and the itinerary and as they had a photography background they promised to plan a route around good locations and make specific suggestions to get us to sites we may have struggled to find ourselves.
The whole process started in January and the final touches were still being put in place before we left at the end of July. The itinerary changed several times due to rising prices associated with internal flights and then the lack of any available accommodation in Torres del Paine (Chile) due to the winter season. We ended up with a very simple trip with just two main locations in Argentina (a week staying in Calafate and a week in El Chalten). The simplicity had benefits but to be honest if I’d known this was to be the final plan I may have dispensed with having someone organize it as it added significantly to costs, involved an enormous amount of time liaising with three parties involved and the accommodation and car rental were easily bookable on the Internet. It did have the benefit of knowing that if we had had any problems there was someone available at the end of the phone to help get us out of trouble and that is worth a lot when so far from home. To be fair I also think I would have been nervous of going without this support because of it being winter and due to my preconceptions. It is only with hindsight that I can say it is a very safe and easily manageable location for independent female travelers BUT we did have AMAZING weather when we could have had the opposite. For details of the tour provider please follow this link, they offer group tours as well as putting private itineraries together and if you require a complex multi-destination trip with advice on good photographic locations I would highly recommend them as you get a very personal service from people who obviously know Argentina intimately.
The trip started at Heathrow Airport. I had opted to travel via Toronto with Air Canada which may seem totally illogical but made sense for my purposes not least because it saved £400 on the British Airways flights (either direct to Buenos Aires or via Madrid) and also meant my travel partner and I arrived in Buenos Aires at the same time. Yes, it was a long set of flights (seven hours to Toronto, a four-hour stopover before a ten hour flight to Santiago where we refuelled before the final 3 hours to Buenos Aires) but made sense for me and I like flying. I found these flights via Expedia and was paid for on one ticket. The international airport is about a 45 minute taxi ride into the centre where we had a lovely hotel booked. Early the following morning we headed to the domestic airport (15 minutes away) for our three-hour flight to Calafate with Aerolineas Argentinas – be careful when booking on-line because there are two prices, one for Argentinians, as they pay taxes to support the airline, and another for foreigners and this isn’t apparent until you come to pay. We collected our hire car at the airport.
UK citizens do not have to pay a reciprocity entry fee but as a Canadian Connie did and this HAS to be paid for on-line before traveling.
When hiring cars I always opt to take out independent insurance to cover any insurance excesses. In this case it turned out to be more reassuring than usual as we found out that there was an excess of 35,000 pesos (£4,000) if you hit a guanaco (llama like animal) or damage the car as a result of wind (we are not talking normal winds here but windscreen shattering, car tumbling 200km an hour winds). For £50 a year I get an annual worldwide policy that gives great peace of mind and is far cheaper than buying the excess insurance cover the hire companies try and hit you with when you collect the car. We were given some useful advice as what to do if we did encounter the notorious winds and we did see numerous cars with smashed rear screens.
On the subject of winds when I was researching the location I came across numerous tales about their ferocity. I also knew that it is a phenomenon mostly associated with the summer. In two weeks we had one mildly windy day, this was a slight disappointment as it is the winds that create the famous lenticular clouds over the Andes but I’m not complaining as it is hard to comprehend what the winds would be like if caught out in the semi-desert steppes where the dust and shingle must be churned up into a giant sand blasting machine.
Calafate was just 23km from the airport. It is actually called a city but is not much bigger than the large village I live in. I can imagine that in high season the population must swell enormously as it is a town of hotels and hostels and numerous (closed in winter) outdoor gear shops. There are a few supermarkets and enough restaurants open to serve the winter visitors. We were staying in a self-catering cabana (think several wooden lodges grouped around a reception area where breakfast is available) called Linda Vista. The owners were delightful Koreans who were exceptionally friendly and rightfully proud of the service they offer. I usually prefer to stay well away from towns when on photo trips but Calafate is small enough to escape in minutes and it was useful having all services at hand. In particular petrol can be an issue – once out of Calafate there are no petrol pumps for hundreds of km so we kept the tank full before heading out. The only issue I have with the town is the totally incomprehensible one-way system. They like one way streets in Patagonia. There is considerable development going on around the town and they have built km of roads leading to apparently no-where but it looks like in a few years the town may indeed become a city to serve the growing tourist interest in Patagonia.
It may be worth talking about the weather at this point. I know we Brits seem to have an endless fascination with weather but for a photographer it really does make or break a trip. I had deliberately headed to this region in search of winter and was kitted out with all necessary gear for sub-zero temperatures. The car we’d asked for was well equipped for snow with reassuring studded tyres. However, we arrived in sunshine and for two weeks the sun shone on us. Some of the locals told us it was unusual and others told us that the winter weather is vastly exaggerated. Calafate is firmly within the steppes region with the cordillera of the Andes within sight in the distance and being in the rain shadow the lack of rain/snow wasn’t a surprise but the mild temperatures were. For our second week we were heading to the mountains and I was expecting a more mixed climate but the sun kept shining with just one night fall of snow which was very welcome. There was evidence that it had been significantly colder before our arrival with lingering frozen pools and rivers and obviously the higher you climb the colder it gets but in two weeks I rarely had to don my gloves, even at dawn. During the day a thin fleece was all that was needed and in the sun even that got a little warm.
Daylight at this time of the year is limited to nine hours. For a photographer there is some joy in this as sunrise wasn’t until 9:30 AM so being on location at 8:30 AM was about right. Sunset was 6:30 PM with interest in the sky lasting until about 7:30 PM. Due to the sunny days we had there were less exciting landscape opportunities during the day as it got very bright and hazy after about 11:00 AM but that did make for some good wildlife shooting with the bright light enabling chances for flight shots of birds.
Patagonia is a region, not a country, with Chile and Argentina sharing a border that falls within the centre of the Andes. It is vast, covering an area equivalent to that of Spain and France. The population density is just 1.9 per sq km. To the west from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Andes there is a huge area of steppes. This is a semi-desert region that is split up into massive estancias where sheep and cattle range It is a place of open spaces, shingle beds and prickly plants. Due to over-grazing the pampas is all but gone. Calafate lies on a huge lake (Lago Argentino) that is fed from the Andes.
On the shore by Calafate are some lagoons and it is these that attract a huge variety of birds. The Laguna Nimez wildlife reserve is a treasure and for a small fee you get a ticket that enables access for your whole stay and you can enter as early or as late as you want. Once in the reserve you can quickly gain access to the lake shore as well which proved a good sunrise and sunset spot.
Our first evening found us at the reserve looking for the flamingos that we had been told may be present if the water was not frozen (if it is they head east). To my joy they were there and continued to be so all week in various locations, even as far west as the Los Glaciares National Park.
One of the main attractions in this region is the Los Glaciares National Park and in particular the Perito Moreno Glacier. Regular tourist buses head that way and in summer it is crowded but in winter I was the only one there as the sun set (one of many advantages of having our own car). It is an awesome sight made even more so by the noise of the cracking ice which literally explodes off the face. There is an entry fee to the park itself and it does close at 8pm in winter and I was ushered away by a ranger at 7pm just as the colours were peaking as it is about a 45 minute drive to the gates. It was a great sight but opportunities to get something original is limited by restrictive access. This is understandable as prior to controls being enforced people were being killed by the exploding ice.
En-route to the park we saw numerous birds of prey and condors. One especially memorable moment was when we spotted an excited crowd of birds on the ground and further investigation revealed they were sharing a dead hare. The caracaras were slightly jittery by our presence but the buzzard-eagle wasn’t in the slightest bit threatened and let us settle down and watch as he devoured his meal.
I returned several times to the nature reserve and every time there was something of interest to see.
Once out of Calafate we rarely met anyone and even the main route to the national park was deserted. Our agent had suggested we visit a small estancia called Rio Mitre which had a small restaurant. This involved a short drive down a dirt track. On arrival it was closed but on spying a man leaving his house we gave a friendly wave and he welcomed us in and showed us around and let us cuddle his kids (the baby goats). He turned out to be an amateur fossil hunter and collector of indigenous Indian artefacts that he found on his land and was delighted to show us his collection and his photo of himself with Princess Beatrice who had been a visitor. He also had a stuffed puma and condor and this got him talking about his many puma encounters, he says he saw 80 in 12 months (maybe the same one 80 times?) and had an amazing set of photos showing his dogs fighting one off. If I was to come this way again I’d want to stay here for a night at least as the setting is superb.
In the UK we are not accustomed to having to think about the possibility of meeting a potentially dangerous wild animal that may want to eat you. Whilst in Patagonia I walked on my own on some occasions and when the condors were circling above me I did consider what the chances of being dinner were. At the El Chalten visitor centre the advice if we saw one was to make yourself as big as possible (I’m 5 foot 2), scream (easily done) and to throw sticks and stones and not to bend down – so was I supposed to be carrying the ammunition just in case??
After a week in Calafate we were ready to head to the mountains. The drive took about four hours with stops. The roads were empty but well maintained. The final drive into the town gives incredible views of Mount Fitz Roy and the surrounding mountains with Lago Viedma on your left and Glacier Viedma shining blue at its end.
We were staying in another cabana and this proved as good as the first - Aires del Fitz.
El Chalten is literally at the end of the road and exists simply as a base camp for those wanting to hike the surrounding trails or for the very adventurous to climb the mountains which are amongst the most challenging in the world. It has a real “hippy” feel to it with numerous painted VW campers and partially constructed home alongside some newer and rather incongruous hotels.
My main wish was to see the mountains in morning light and this was achieved our first morning. Some people report they have come here and never even seen the mountains due to cloud but we found ourselves wanting more as wall to wall blue can get a bit tedious (never happy are we!).
As the week progressed we ventured down the dirt track to Lake Desierto, a return route that is about 70km in total but as speeds are severally limited takes a good part of a winter’s day as there are photo opportunities at every turn. The lake itself is a bit bleak and dark as surrounded by high mountains but the journey itself is a joy and one I’d explore again and again in different light.
One morning I awoke to a white world as it had snowed in the night and this gave a very different perspective, by the next day it had all but melted.
One morning we drove about 14km down the track for an alternative view of the mountains and found a nice spot for some reflections in the partially frozen river.
On the way back we called into Camp Bonanza for a look and the delightful couple who ran it made us very welcome. This is in fact a little gem of a place and along with some permanent eco-tents they are building some small cabins – this is a spot that is to die for, on the river and with a fantastic mountain view a stroll away and if I return this is a definite place to stop for a night or two. It is open all year round but that day was empty so we sat in the sun and drank up the view in perfect solitude except for their many cats, dogs, puppies, cows and hens. It was from this charming couple I learned that a puma had been spied on their lane just the day before. I had decided to let Connie drive back while I intended to walk part of the way in the hope of seeing some wildlife – I didn’t see the puma (they generally hunt at night and dusk) but did enjoy the snow covered nothofagus forest and a woodpecker.
For our last night we were to stay in Calafate again so were close to the airport for our morning flight. I had one last morning with the mountains before heading back. I couldn’t believe how many different views we had managed and how lucky we had been to witness the mountains turning every shade of colour imaginable. This morning the main theme was pink…
It is worth mentioning about petrol in El Chalten – there is one place to buy it from but we had been warned that if the weather turned for the worse it could run dry before new supplies got through. It took half a tank to get there so we ensured we always had enough to make our return trip. It is however very low quality fuel and our 4×4 needed a high octane. To offset this we kept adding small qualities to what was in the tank we’d bought in Calafate to keep the mix as high as possible.
Petrol in the Santa Cruz province is heavily subsidized and very cheap. Food prices were generally high due to everything having to be brought in to the region (except meat). The lodgings were bargains but prices probably rise in summer.
The long trip home started with another overnight stop in Buenos Aires and a morning discovering the street cafes. All connections went smoothly. I had opted to have a 16 hour stopover in Toronto so I could find a hotel, shower and sleep before an overnight flight back to Heathrow and then a morning coach home. This plan was slightly disrupted due to an over enthusiastic immigration’s officer who could not comprehend my travel arrangements and was obviously convinced I was up to no good. I was questioned and kept waiting and it took nearly 3 hours to escape the airport and left me feeling somewhat upset and despite being tired was too wound up to sleep.
Before I go on a trip I usually have some preconceptions that are proved wrong. I’d done lots of reading before I went and had some photographs in my mind that I wanted to achieve and they all involved me standing in freezing temperatures fighting the relentless wind. There was relatively little information about winter travel and most of what I’d gleaned was from novels and histories about the early settlers all of which spoke of the harshness of the climate. Climate data indicated that temperatures in the lower altitudes could be a manageable minus 5 at worst and there was a definite consensus that the formidable winds are mainly in the summer and that the Chilean side of the mountains are considerably wetter and more unpredictable. I was expecting some challenges; it is after all described as one of the last wildernesses. I came away thinking we’d had a walk in the park compared with my expectations. The growing infra-structure indicates that they are expecting a surge in tourism and I think that is right, it is going to be the next “must go” destination but I think it will be a while before people discover that winter is a good time to go. I may have had a slightly unrealistic experience due to the weather we had but talking to the local people indicates that it really is a great time of the year to visit if you like solitude and are prepared to hire a car and do without all the tourist trappings. My sort of place for sure.
For photographers it is a paradise with the added benefit of getting to sleep late and still catch dawn. Another bonus is that it is perfectly safe, Buenos Aires felt a little raw but then I’m not a city sort of gal.
Would I go again? Most certainly – and most definitely in their winter.
Claire – more images available here.