Three Patagonian Towns
Three National Parks
A 400-year-old Glacier
A Gateway to Antarctica
A Jurassic-period Petrified Forest
All in a week
Three Patagonian Towns
Three National Parks
A 400-year-old Glacier
A Gateway to Antarctica
A Jurassic-period Petrified Forest
All in a week
Sailing the Beagle Channel from the port at Ushuaia brought us to the tip of the Southern Ocean. It is also the starting point for those setting off for Antarctica who would continue sailing across the Drake Passage before reaching the icy shores.
The expedition/cruise ships can take several routes to Antarctica but the port at Ushuaia is almost always chosen because it has a deep harbour that is safe from strong winds, tangling seaweeds and rocks. That explains why Ushuaia, the Southernmost point of civilization, thrives as town with income from tourism.
When we sailed, we saw Sea Lions and Comorans in their natural habitat. The Sea Lions’ poop is an alarming bright red streak – not blood but the remnants of their King Crab binge they had earlier. They eat really well. We docked at Bridges island to do a short trek to the hill where we could clearly see both the Argentine and Chilean Andes. Breathtaking views.
At the furthest point of our route, we saw the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, made famous by the Jules Vern novel, The Lighthouse at the End of the World, that stood tall in the gusty winds. This is often confused with the actual lighthouse at the end of the world manned by the military. No one is allowed near that one.
Our little adventure along the Beagle Channel is the closest we would ever get to Antarctica. Yep. We have covered six continents in our travels except for this elusive last. Funnily enough, when presented with the opportunity to get on an expedition to the final frontier, we were not eager. Cost and time were not only the main detractors, observing the vast bareness of the land also wasn’t one that appealed though I remain curious.
So, the fact that we will not cover Antarctica in our lifetime finally sunk in. I was not at all disappointed but perhaps just a tad wistful about being almost there.
Fossilized trees, lava ash, quartz, basalt, mineralized rock, dinosaur bones amidst silt and sedimentation – that was what we saw at La Leona Petrified Forest. It is one of the few in Patagonia with others spread across the different continents in N.America, Asia and Australia.
The formation of these forests from what was essentially the land of the dinosaurs is something we are fairly familiar with: A catastrophic volcanic eruption of unfathomable size destroyed the once lush and verdant land, decimated its t-rexes and velociraptors, and forcibly robbed it of life. Because of this, the land split into the continents we know today; mountain ranges like the Andes rose out of that destruction. The rebirth meant that the land parcels once again faced the natural elements and had wind carrying seeds, water flowing through and sunshine tending land.
But in the Patagonia Steppes on the inside of the Andes, the elements created a vastly different climate – harsher, drier and one not conducive for living things. Water and wind brought about erosion through the years and uncovered what the volcanic lava buried – dinosaurs from the Jurassic period. Erosion also shaped the landscape and resulted in the gnarly peaks we see today. Trees that managed to grow fossilized into rocks after they fell due to pressure and mineralization. The landscape remains dynamic – a rock-hard tree trunk just rolled off its perch the other day.
The 3-hour long trek was an eye-opener. Again, my fear of heights was exacerbated by tiny paths next to slopes of hell. This misfit had to be handheld by the guide like a child. Heh.
Nevertheless, I finished the trek. Yay to me!
The third largest in the world, the Southern Patagonia Ice Field spans 370km by 35km. The largest ones are Antarctica and Greenland coming in first and second respectively.
There are three main glaciers in this Ice Field and the Perito Moreno located in the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina is one. The others, Uppsala and Viedma, are found to the north of Perito Moreno. The Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 to preserve a large portion of the southern Andes, including the Patagonic forest, steppes and glaciers.
With something so impressive, people would surely make their way there to explore it. I had the opportunity to do a minitrek on the Perito Moreno glacier and it blew my mind, figuratively and literally.
Nestled between the Brazo Rico and Lago Argentina, the magnificent mass of ice sits like a grand 400- year-old dame, shimmering in hues of brilliant blue and white with undulating peaks. While I was ecstatic to trek up some of those peaks, they scare me at the same time. Heights and I do not get along.
The iron crampons I had weaved upon my booted feet did offer a good grip but I was just illogically terrified of slipping and falling. Some of the peaks were at an approximate 70 degree incline and I crawled instead of walked. I was so bad that the guide singled me out like a misfit and had to handhold me for the rest of the way. Lolz! Embarrassing!
I was way quicker after but I was still rather unsteady at certain narrow paths and inclines. Despite that, I stomped my cramponed feet into ice and finished the whole circuit. Aching everywhere but so proud.
Entrance to Recoleta Cemetery: Rest In Peace
Nestled in the affluent neighborhood of Recoleta is the Recoleta Cemetery famous for having important and famous people as residents. Argentina’s past Presidents, Nobel Prize Winners, business moguls, warriors and of course, First Lady, Eva Peron form part of their serene community.
According to our fast-speaking guide, the place has about 4700 graves, and at least 150,000 bodies buried. Each grave belonging to a family unit, depending on how large they are, can cost anything from USD70,000 to a quarter of a million; each one contains anything from 1 to 150 bodies. Tunnels are dug below each grave to create more final resting places for family members – apparently no one really keeps track of the situation below but it seems the maximum capacity has been reached and no more tunneling is allowed for fear of corrupting the city’s systems.
The graves are ornate showpieces, some better kept than others but all have their own tales. Our guide told us many stories as she led us through the winding corridors – some factual, some of legends, some quite creepy. She also entertained questions about incorporeal figures hanging around but was quick to establish that she wasn’t the best person to answer that. I was sure I did not want to hear any of it so was quite relieved she didn’t go into the gory details. Ack, I’d be mortified!
Although I am not one too fond of necropolises, I would visit one if it were part of history and/or is of cultural significance. Like the Pyramids in Egypt and shrines, mausoleums or other similar erections in many parts of the world. It is always interesting to hear about how a person lived and died, how others remember them, and the legacy they have left behind. Hearing these makes me think of the kind of life I want to lead: not getting caught up in the transient things, developing strong relationships, helping people and focusing on the positive.
I’ve always believed in having a life manifesto built around what you want to be remembered for. Greatness, Love, Intelligence, Courage, Hope, Sacrifice? I draw inspiration from the stories I hear about lives led … a bit morbid now that I read the words I am typing out … but there are lessons for me to learn, teachings from which I can use to calibrate my course as I work on mine.
We stayed on the Argentina side in Iguazu because we read that it was safer and cheaper. Two very good reasons upon which to make a sound decision methinks. I don’t think I need to belabour the point that the Falls are simply breathtaking. UNESCO and the World Wonders people have already given their stamps of approval. If my voice counts for something, I would be more than happy to shout about how amazing the experience was, and tell people in two minds about making a trip there to just GO!
Failing which, there are a few things that we learnt on our trip that may be useful to share with others making the same.
1. You should know that there are two ways into the Falls
The entrance to the Argentina side of the National Park is a short 10-minute drive from the small town of Puerto Iguazu. There is a total of 275 waterfalls in Iguazu, and 270 of them are on this side. The entrance fee for an adult (not from the area or bordering countries) is 215 Argentine Pesos, payable by cash and in Pesos only.
The journey to the Brazil entrance of the Park is about 40 minutes from Puerto Iguazu, including going through border customs under normal traffic conditions. You will collect 4 large chops on your passport after the entire trip. The entrance fee for an adult is 52.20 Brazilian Reals (after bus fees and taxes), and may be paid via cash in Reals/Pesos/USD, or credit card.
One can take the public buses that plough the routes to and fro, and the hotels should be able to give advice on the schedule and where to catch one. Or one can also arrange for transport and a licensed guide through travel agencies, which makes for a more fruitful trip since it will also come with a narrative from a dependable source for 190 Argentine Pesos per adult (of course, price varies with the tour agency you use).
2. Excursions within the Park are not included in the entrance fee, but do one that brings you into/under the Falls.
For us, there was just more to do on the Argentina side. If you are not too adventurous (i.e. Rappelling) nor too keen on splurging on rides (i.e. Helicopter), then take either the Grand Adventure or the Nautical Adventure on the Argentina side. The former takes you through the jungle on a motorcar, in a boat through 1km of Rapids, and finally to the Bossetti and San Martin Falls to get drenched. The whole ride is a bit over an hour and costs 520 Argentine Pesos per adult; The latter is a 12 minute ride that takes you to the same falls for a jolly good bath at an affordable 270 Argentine Pesos per adult. Choppy rides come with life jackets, waterproof bags and a bar somewhere to hold on for dear life.
3. Buying raincoats
Don’t get them in the Park. Bring from home or get them from Puerto Iguazu for cheaper. You will need one if you have zero intention of getting drenched (meaning not going on any waterfall rides) or damp from the random spray of the Falls. Our advice: forego the coat. A towel would be more useful. You are there to experience the Falls, and get wet you will.
4. Animals and Plants in the Park
There are over 2000 species of flora and fauna; specifically, 474 species of birds; 7 species of cats, including the puma and jaguar here. This Park has the equivalent of 50% of the total number of flora/fauna species found in Argentina we were told. Coatis, or the local raccoons, roam freely in the Park. They have very cute faces, sharp teeth and claws. Do not feed or pat it unless you’d like for it to leave you gashes and bloody memories. Even if you are hungry, do not take food out or they will come at you. Similarly, for the monkeys that swing by, do not tempt with food or worse, with your palm. Be warned.
5. Must-do walks for free
For the Argentina side, there are the Upper and Lower Circuits that you need to do to fully see the Falls from every angle possible. If you do both and another called the Green Trail, you would have walked about 3.5km and they are very easy to to do. But slippery always. If crowded, you would likely land on someone if you fall. There is also a train (included in the entrance ticket) you can take to the platform overlooking the Garganta del Diablo or Devil’s Throat. But due to flood damage that occurred in June this year (2700 swelled to 47000 cubic meters per sec!) the place is closed for repairs and will reopen in December.
For the Brazil side, there is only one way to the Garganta del Diablo. A 1.6km long walk after you arrive at the starting point. You cover the first 10km by a bus, compliments of the Park Management on the Brazil side! I know I would never make it to anyone’s throat if I had to hike 11.6km to it per way!
6. Cambio to get Pesos
There are two rates for the exchange of Argentine Pesos: the official one that is ~A$8.5 to US$1, and the black market one that is ~A$13 to US$1. We didn’t know about this until a few days before we left for South America when we were working out exchange rates and conversions we needed to do. Change your US$ in a shop called Argecam Cambio, about 800meters away from Puerto Iguazu. It uses the black market rate. Super!
7. The little town of Puerto Iguazu
The first thing that struck me about the town servicing visitors of the Iguazu National Park was the red tinge in its streets and pavements. These stains caused by the red clay in its soil, unfortunately, added years to the already tired-looking place. The small, quiet town centre is easily covered in a stroll of 45 minutes. I didn’t do a count but if I were to estimate, I would say that the town has no more than 50 shops of souvenirs and clothing mostly catered to tourists. There are two or three restaurants that operate in the town, but it seemed to me that the most popular is the one in the corner, Angelo Cafe – and easily the one that would look most like a restaurant to city folks. The refreshing blended fruit juices there are phenomenal to have on a hot day! Very affordable too at 26 Pesos each for a fairly large cup. But appearances aside, the people here seem content, and are genuinely nice and very friendly. You can walk here without having to look behind you every few minutes.
There was no way one could stay dry. Some degree of wet should be expected when visiting the Falls. Soaked if cautious; Damp if wrapped up like a mummy. Thunderstorms will exponentially increase the certainty of wetness along the extremities, leaving the rest up to the Falls.
Which was what happened to us when we were trekking along the Upper Circuit in the Argentina side of the Falls. The heavens opened and rain came pouring down. But we were ready with our S$2 rain jackets bought from Daiso! We whipped them out, put them on and congratulated ourselves for being so clever.
But alas, our smugness was shortlived.
There is a 12min speedboat ride that visitors can take to go directly under the Bossetti and the San Martin, two of the larger falls in the area accessed via the Lower Circuit. SJ was looking forward to the ride, me not so much. We trudged down the steps hewn out of rock towards Iguazu River and headed for the embarkation point where our ride was waiting. All this time, the rain continued to fall. I was still dry under my raincoat and was determined to stay that way. As we got nearer, we were given life jackets to wear, and waterproof bags to keep our belongings. “Pffftt, what for?”, I thought since my bag was already made wet by rain on the outside. But I took it anyway.
So with our raincoats on, life jackets strapped tight, bag on lap and butt in seat, we were ready to meet the Falls. Off we went to yells and hollers of the excited.
30 choppy seconds later, I felt a gush of cold creep up my bottom. Rainwater. From the pool that accumulated on my lap that had found its way through the front flaps of the raincoat. Already?! I wasn’t even near the Falls yet. But that was a mild taste of what was to come. I had grudgingly said a reluctant goodbye to staying dry.
5 minutes in, we were completely DRENCHED. Hair, body, clothes, socks, shoes, underwear – Everything. Got. Wet. Dashing in and out of the Falls at high speeds was exhilarating, made more so by the rain pelting down on our faces while bobbing about in choppy mud-colored water. It was hard to keep my mouth closed to the river water because I was yelling so much. Pouring water out of my boots had never been so much fun.
The Brazilian side was way more manageable. You get sprayed by 2700 cubic meters per sec of falling waters at Devil’s Throat when you walk the bridge to the main observation point. Very safe with a raincoat. It is an understatement to say that the view from here is spectacular. I have never seen so many rainbows in one place. 🙂