Kayaking Patagonia: The Icebergs of Upsala Glacier

We are standing on a ferry cruising across the icy blue waters of Lago Argentina in southern Patagonia. We are in our underwear. Our thirteen shipmates—Germans, French, Argentines, Spaniards, and Brazilians among them—are also in various states of undress. We are alone on the water, two hours from any hint of civilization.

Somewhere ahead of us lies Upsala Glacier, the country’s second largest, and we have disrobed in preparation to kayak among the icebergs that have sheered from its face and tumbled into the lake. In the distance, a giant iceberg grows larger as we draw near.

Kayaking in such a place as this requires special gear. Each participant starts with a base layer, which is essentially a thermal onesie for grown ups, and then wriggles awkwardly into a dry suit that seals at the wrists, neck, and ankles with rubber gaskets. Next come a pair of neoprene booties, and finally kayaking skirts, which will stretch over the mouth of the kayak to seal out the lake’s icy water.

The guide gives careful instructions in both English and Spanish. He demonstrates how to squeeze out the extra air trapped in our dry suits. We crouch in the fetal position, knees together, elbows in, and pull at the rubber gasket around the neck of our suits, forcing the air out. We’ve become human whoopee cushions, and as the air loudly expresses itself between the rubber and our necks, we giggle. But the action is no laughing matter; if we were to fall in the water without performing this crucial step, our suits would be buoyant, but our heads would not, and we would drown.

The boat pulls ashore—a pebbled, black sand beach framed by rocky promontories. In the water, icebergs balance awkwardly, opaque limbs protruding in all directions. Upsala Glacier looms in the distance, partially shrouded by the rain that has begun to fall.

On the beach, in the gentle drizzle, the guide gives basic kayaking instructions and leads the group through a series of stretches. Moments later we shove off into the water and paddle for a giant iceberg that towers 20 or 30 feet above the surface.

The tempo is quick in an effort to experience as much of the area as possible in two hours on the water. With one eye on Patagonia’s ever-changing sky, the guides weave us around. Like a row of ducklings, we follow, gliding single file from berg to berg, pausing to admire each one’s signature look: this one, a half pipe for skateboarders; this one’s been shot clean through with a cannonball; this one has a lever you can push to make waves.

For the finale, the guide offers each kayaking pair the opportunity to enjoy a “Patagonian shower;” a glacial waterfall that flows over a rocky ledge and empties into the lake. We pull our kayak parallel to the cliff and paddle hard toward the falls. The water pounds down on our heads with a deafening roar, and time momentarily stops until the guides shouts of “Keep paddling!” cut through, and we emerge breathless on the other side.

It was an allegory for all of Patagonia, a place that takes your mind and body by force, and turns you out on the other side wide-eyed and amazed.

If you go:

  • The glacial habitat is highly protected; our 15-person group would be the only one sailing that day, and departures are allowed only 4 days of the week.
  • Mil Outdoor, in partnership with Viva Patagonia, runs the Upsala Kayak Experience from November through April. To book online, we used CalafateMountainPark.com and checked in at the Viva Patagonia office in El Calafate the evening before our trip. It sounds confusing but it all went very smoothly.
  • The guides take plenty of pictures and at the time of our trip, provided them to participants for no extra charge. Bring a flash drive with; otherwise they’ll upload them to a website for a couple weeks, and you can download them when you have a chance.
  • It’s a two- to three-hour sail to the icebergs, but time passes quickly, between taking in the scenery, getting into the gear, and learning about the ecological and geological significance of the region from the guide. I and many others passed out hard on the ride back but awoke to find a photo slideshow of our day playing on the ferry’s tv screen.

Finding Solitude in the Patagonian Steppe

IMG_6858 The approach to El Chalten, Argentina.

This past March, we spent time in southern Patagonia at the tip of Chile and Argentina, hiking in Torres del Paine, El Calafate, and El Chalten. Though those destinations offer some of the most epic scenery in the world, driving across the steppe to get to these destinations (around 20 hours on the road over 9 days) was an experience in and of itself.

The steppe are the rolling, wide-open spaces that dominate Patagonia. Set against the dramatic Andes mountains to the west, with their enormous glaciers and milky blue glacial lakes, it would be easy to overlook the dry, arid steppe. But in its endlessness, its remoteness, and its barrenness, it is equally dramatic.

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The elements are simple: scrub, wind, sheep, and a thin line of simple fencing that traces along Ruta 40. (It became a game to scan the fence for skeletons of sheep who got tangled in the wire and were picked clean by birds of prey, such as condors, eagles and falcons.)

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Guanacos and rheas are common roadside sightings, as well.

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Guanacos are as common as deer are in the states.

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A gaucho surveying his terrain.

Even after 20 hours of driving across southern Patagonia, the steppe never got old. There was beauty in its sparseness, drama in its scope. To be on the steppe is to know what it feels like to be alone in the world. To leave all trace of civilization behind. No power lines, no airplanes, no exits, no lights, no traffic, and no buildings, except the occasional estancia set far off the road.

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To be in a place so vast and so far from any elements of civilization, and to be able to look across hundreds of miles of nothing is just as inspiring as any mountain or waterfall. There is only the highway, the endless steppe, and you.

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Carrying extra gasoline in a “bidon” was a necessity due to the lack of gas stations between destinations.

Stuck in the Mud: Dirt-biking in Cambodia’s Wet Season

[Guest blogger Toby Jacobs discovered Cambodia in 2007 while traveling the world. Having fallen in love with the place, he moved there permanently and set up a motorcycle touring company, Ride Expeditions, with his partner, Anna.]

Running a motorcycle touring company in Cambodia has provided me with some eventful stories over the years, but I feel particularly obliged to share about a certain tour I ran a few years ago. “Eventful” doesn’t come close to summing it up. Why?

This tour took place during Cambodia’s wet season.

Visiting Cambodia during the wet season has its perks—fewer tourists, temperate weather, and lots of greenery. Wet season also means the rivers flow high and fast. Dirt roads turn to mud. Ruts and pot-holes appear. Dirt-biking, while a popular adventure activity in Cambodia, is a whole other story during the wet season.

However, during the wet season of 2012, I was approached by a young and adventurous group of bikers who were keen to travel the country on a dirt bike. I pointed out that October is the wettest month of the year, and although a tour is possible, the conditions are far from perfect. There would be many parts of the country that would simply be impassable.

“Perfect!” they said. “The more challenging, the better.”

I explained further: We will get stuck. We will break down. We will have to camp out, likely in the rain.

Well, now they were more excited than ever.

The entire two-week trip was left me with a book’s worth of stories. For this post, I’ll share with you just one from early in the trip—a river-crossing on the very first trail.

We arrived at a river in Mondulkiri, a province of Cambodia, and tried to locate the local boatmen to ferry us across. After checking with the locals in the nearby village, however, it became apparent that there were not going to be any boats coming our way on this occasion. Not to worry though—we’d come prepared.

Giant truck inner tubes are the way to get yourself out of a situation like this. We inflated them most of the way using the exhaust of one of the bikes and then finished them off with a hand pump. And there you have it: a vessel capable of carrying a dirt bike!

A river, 12 bikes, and a truck inner tube.

I jumped in the river and swam to the other side to tie a safety line to a tree—easier said than done in a fast flowing river with steep banks on the other side and sharp bamboo bushes.

By this time the sun was starting to get lower in the sky. There was no point starting the task of shipping the bikes across the river today, so we left the bikes and tube in the bush and walked back to nearest village.

In any other country, a big group of hairy, smelly, muddy bikers probably wouldn’t be greeted with much welcome. Here, though, the villagers were thrilled to see us. Everyone came to have dinner with us, sacrificing a couple of the village chickens and opening bottles of rice wine. A jungle party and a warming campfire was a very welcome surprise for us wet and muddy bikers!

The next morning we woke in our hammocks to the sound of the village starting to come to life. We threw a couple of coffees and some noodles down our necks, said goodbye to our new friends, and trekked back to the river to begin the floating the bikes over to the other side.

Now, the way you do this is to lay the bike flat on its side on the inner tube with the foot peg in the middle, tying the bike to the tube with rope. Next, you connect another piece of rope between the bike and the safety line that is attached to trees on either side of the river. This prevents the bike going on a tubing trip downstream. Next, you attach another long rope to the bike and have someone swim over to the other side to help pull the bike across. Two other people then swim behind the bike helping push it across the river. Slow going, but simple.We were way behind schedule, but no one seemed to care. It is an incredibly fun and adventurous way to cross a river. Needless to say, our group of riders were in their element!

This was just day two of a two-week adventure that, unbeknownst to our happy group, would include a ride in a near-sunken boat, a boot full of leeches, a bike getting washed down a fast flowing river, getting stuck in a swamp, trench foot, more camping in the jungle, and hauling all our gear, the bikes, and our group in small long-tail boats for a 3 -hour boat journey up the river. It was epic!

Ridding ourselves of leeches.

The riders loved every minute of it, but if I’m ever approached by a group who wish to ride a similar route in October, I tell them these stories. Two years later, I still have not come across another group crazy enough to go through with it.

 

Beautiful British Columbia: Vancouver Edition

What do most Americans really know about Canada?

  1. It’s to our north.
  2. Its citizens have a charming accent and end all their sentences with “eh?”
  3. Hockey.

Does that about cover it? That’s fine. Frankly, I don’t know that much more about the place, even though I’ve visited three times in the past three years. So my goal here today is simple. I want you to add one more item to your Facts about Canada list:

4. It’s beautiful.

I’ve written about Canada on this blog before, here and here and here, telling tales of our trip to Banff National Park and Yoho National Park. I was surprised while planning the trip by blank stares when I mentioned these places, particularly Banff. Upon clarifying with, “You know, in the Canadian Rockies,” I’d get noncommittal nods of vague familiarity. Similarly few people seemed to know that Vancouver is a worthy vacation destination, a world-class city wedged between snow-capped mountains and the rugged shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. All this made me realize that we Americans are sorely missing out on a very nearby, very accessible, and very stunning source of beauty.

Vancouver is on the western edge of Canada, in the province of British Columbia, which is also home to Whistler, a well-known (?) ski destination, and much of the Canadian Rockies.

On our recent trip to the city and its surroundings, we ventured to Pacific Rim National Park, a long, narrow stretch of protected shoreline that rivals the beaches of Hawaii or the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

We biked the seawall around the perimeter of Stanley Park, an urban park within Vancouver city limits that is considerably larger that Central Park in New York City and juts out dramatically into the Pacific Ocean.

We kayaked among the rain-forested islands of Clayoquot Sound, where giant red cedars housed families of bald eagles.

Even their warning signs are beautiful, like poetry.

And amid our adventures we ate like kings and queens, because Vancouver is as much a foodie destination as it is an outdoors one.

To cap it all off, Vancouverites are nice to the point where it almost seems silly.

You could spend 10 lifetimes exploring beautiful British Columbia and not even scratch the surface of what it has to offer. And that’s in just one of Canada’s 10 provinces and 3 territories. (And yes, I had to Google that.)

Traveller Tip: Use screen shots to get where you’re going

We just returned from a short trip to Vancouver, British Columbia. I’m not highly technological, so bear with this very basic explanation. I knew we wouldn’t have access to our data network. Instead of buying a SIM card in Canada, we opted to go without our data plans for the duration of the trip. It’s not hard to get by in Vancouver, since you can pick up free wifi from cafes just about anywhere in the city. But I rely on Google Maps for getting me from place to place. So I started pulling up directions while within wifi range and taking screen shots of maps and directions that I could access later, in my camera roll, from the road. This is a good strategy if traveling to Canada, or anytime you’re traveling to remote parts of the US where service may be spotty.

Literal Awesomeness: Iguazu Falls

[No one gets to go on an adventure of a lifetime and not tell about it on Go Go Go. Especially not when you’re the former editor-in-chief of said blog. A warm welcome back to Claire, who does her best to describe the indescribable. We miss you, Claire!]

I don’t remember the first time I saw a picture of Iguazu Falls. It was probably on one of those Hundred Places to See Before You Die shows that I tend to nap in front of while visiting my parents for the holidays. But I remember very clearly the first time I saw them in person, first from the plane, circling over twice in rocky air so both sides could get a good view, and then from every conceivable angle of trails and boats as we explored the park for the next two days.

It’s a hard thing to explain, actually seeing a place in person that you’ve dreamed of going to for more than a decade. It’s damn near impossible to explain the literal awesomeness of a massive, mighty force of nature like that. But Brooke has requested that I try.

Iguazu Falls rushes through the corner of South America where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. They are some of the widest, tallest, and most powerful falls in the world, and certainly one of the most visually stunning, erupting from a lush jungle and curving in a huge broken horseshoe formation lined with well-tended trails.

This is a highly touristed national park, so don’t expect a rugged or solitary adventure. It’s two parks, really, although the great trails and views are mainly on the Argentine side, with the Brazilian side requiring a separate visa (this is a relatively new development and one we didn’t know about until it was too late, thus resulting in one annoyed cabbie and two disappointed tourists) to get a wide vista of the whole falls. On the Argentine side, there’s a wide variety of hikes and activities to choose from. I’d recommend doing the tour that includes the boat trip down the river and right under the falls, soaking passengers Maid-of-the-Mist style. It’s a fun adrenaline rush, and you get views you can’t see from land. Any other tour, though, including the rides through the jungle, aren’t really worth the extra cost. You won’t see any animals with a rumbling truck carting you around, and the tour guides are adequate but nothing special.

Plan to take two days to see the park. If you save your ticket from Day 1, you can pay half price on Day 2 (check back with the ticket desk before you leave the park on Day 1). It’s a huge place, all of the trails are worth walking, and you don’t want to rush yourself. You’re going to want to just stand in the majesty of these falls for a long time. With two days, you can easily explore everything without overextending yourself.

And overextending is easy to do. While the trails aren’t steep and they’re all well-maintained, this is a humid tropical area, and the heat can get intense. Bring a hat and gallons of sunscreen and water to keep yourself safe, and plan to get to the park right when it opens so you can avoid the worst heat of the day. I definitely overdid it on the first day, when the temperature was about 95 with not a single cloud to interrupt the sun, and I wound up feeling headache-y and queasy for the rest of the afternoon.

Also, remember that this is a rainforest. It rains here, a lot! And that’s actually fantastic. Don’t be scared of it. Bring a poncho and go anyway. It rained on our second day, and it meant that a) the park was less crowded b) it was less hot, which added together meant c) there were more animals to see. Because, again, this is such a highly touristed area, there’s not a ton in the way of animal sightings, but on Day 2 we saw two caimans, a river turtle, a flock of gorgeous blue birds, two vultures, and several families of coatis. (Watch out for these guys–they’re basically tropical raccoons, which is to say, vicious thieves. But super cute!)

You’ll notice that nowhere in this story do I really describe seeing the falls themselves. And that’s because I can’t. I’m a decent writer, but here, words fail me. They were, truly, indescribable. I was overwhelmed with their beauty and power. All I can say is, Go. Or if waterfalls aren’t your thing, figure out what place seems amazing in pictures and go see that. Trust me: the pictures never do it justice.