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.
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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.

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.

On Being Uncool

I know you guys are going to be super surprised to hear this, but I often feel very uncool. I know, someone admitting to her own strangeness and anxiety on the internet! It’s a brand new thing.

Anyway, for this upcoming trip to Buenos Aires, an undoubtedly cool city, I’m a little worried. There are a couple of things that I want to do that I feel like I might not be cool enough for.

1) Checking out one of their no-longer-underground puertas cerradas, or closed-door restaurants, where chefs host pop-up-style prix-fixe dinners in their own homes or other unusual spaces. I assume that everyone who attends these dinners will speak at least three languages, dress in clothes by designers who I’ve never heard of, and will be literal fashion models. I will probably just spill soup on myself and leave still hungry.

2) Dancing tango. Oof. I cannot dance. At. All. I took one tango lesson one time from a friend’s girlfriend, and I wound up confusing which leg I was moving at any given time. I also have less of a sense of rhythm than most toddlers. Also: I assume that the same literal fashion models in beautiful clothes will follow us from dinner to milonga. Yes, I know that there are tango classes and dances that are specifically for uncool tourists like me, but going to one of those would be admitting that I’m one of those awful uncool people. And I just don’t wanna.

Being uncool won’t stop me from doing these things, but they will make me feel all wonky before, during, and after. And that wonkiness will then become part of the experience, too.

Brain Freeze

Sorry for the delayed post, all. It is about 5 degrees here in Chicago, both outside and in my office, and so my brain froze up.

To thaw out, please enjoy the Iguazu National Park UNESCO site. That’s Iguazu Falls, Argentina, where I’ll be in about six weeks, and where today it is 90 degrees. Not that I’m keeping track or anything.

Depends What the Definition of “Dodgy” Is

As loyal readers know, I’m finalizing plans for my first trip to South America, specifically, to Argentina. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a stupidly big country, and we want to see different parts of it. The question is, how to get to these different places?

Argentina is known for having fairly efficient and, one might even say, luxurious bus service. Like, lay flat seats, wine with dinner, games on board, etc. And I always prefer to travel by land than by air, because apparently facts and statistics are not convincing to my lizard brain that, while taking off in an airplane, always thinks, “This is very, very, very wrong, and we will surely all perish.” (That voice usually hushes once we reach cruising altitude.)

So I had assumed we’d travel by bus. Save a few bucks, see the country, and so on. But I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that, due to rising gas prices and increased competition, bus travel is not that much cheaper than air travel in Argentina these days. And there’s the time factor: the bus takes 17 hours (overnight, but you can’t sleep for all of that), while the flight takes only two. An additional consideration: my travel companion is essentially a giant. So while my short little frame may be comfortable on a bus for nearly a day, his legs will likely just secede from the rest of his body and hitch a ride back home in protest.

Last night we were discussing options, and Mike wanted to know why we wouldn’t just fly. I explained that I’d heard that Argentine flights were a little dodgy. This gave him pause. He needed more info. What, exactly, does “dodgy” mean? Based on what I’ve read, it mostly means uncertain schedules, lots of delays, possible cancellations.

“Oh,” he said. “Well that seems OK. As long as it doesn’t mean ‘held together with duct tape.'”

It’s an important distinction.

So what do you know, dear readers? Are Argentine flights merely late and annoying? Or are they death traps? Any experienced South American travelers out there who can shed some light on the situation?

This Is Why You Plan Ahead

This past Saturday in Chicago, the temperature did not even glance in the direction of “above freezing,” the air was in the teens by the evening, and winds gusted up to 32 miles an hour. Mike and I were out in this, dummies that we are, learning to our horror that neither of us has decent gloves. This winter is starting out worse, it seems, than last year’s ever got, and I’m afraid that it bodes ill for the rest of the season.

The only thing we could do to fend off frostbite (short of running home, which we wound up doing) was to daydream about Argentina. “We’ll be eating outside and swimming and wearing t-shirts and we’ll be so hot and sweltery that we’ll forget what cold even feels like.” Like a magic spell, this kind of talk seemed to protect us, at least momentarily, against the elements.

But then the wind picked up off the lake again and our lips froze shut. But still! For a moment, dreams of rooftop swimming pools and jungle hikes warmed us up.

And that, friends, is why you plan ahead. So you can get through the miserable bits between here and there.