Postcards from Patagonia: February 2015

Patagonia.  Even the name sounds remote.

Iconic images of Torres del Paine by Galen Rowell, a larger than life nature photographer we did a workshop with in the 1990s, left a lasting impression on me .   My only other association was with the clothing company, which I have done my part to support over the years. In fact, the mountain ridge depicted in the Patagonia clothing company’s logo is in Patagonia, but depicts Mt. Fitzroy, on the Argentine side. Patagonia refers to a region in southern South America, spanning Chile and Argentina. The name is ascribed to Magellan, who adapted the name of a mythical race of giants to describe the unusually tall indigenous people encountered in the region during his 1520 voyage.

Patagonia landscape in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

We had considered a number of options for a side trip after Antarctica. At 9 days, including travel days, the Luminous Landscape flying to Antarctica trip would require 2 weeks off, with most of the second week open for another excursion. Where to go? Spend the days in and around Santiago, with excursions to Valparaiso and the wine country? That could be nice. Another intriguing possibility was to head north to the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest, famous for clear night skies. As late as Thanksgiving week before our late January departure, we had made no decision or arrangements. Steve and I spent that week in Guanajuato, Mexico, with our well-traveled friends, Randy and Steph, who suggested yet another possibility: the lake district of Chile, in and around Puerto Montt.

One obvious possibility, Patagonia and Torres del Paine, had been eliminated earlier. I had been thinking we didn’t have enough time to make it worthwhile to go there and should wait to go when we could put together more time. But after Thanksgiving, with a real urgency to secure our plans, I started looking at the specifics and thought maybe, after all, we could make it work.

Patagonia's strong winds do sculpt beautiful lenticular clouds

Patagonia’s strong winds sculpt beautiful lenticular clouds

The Antarctica trip ended with the group flying back from Punta Arenas to Santiago on Monday. Our departure from Chile was the following Saturday night. It didn’t make sense to fly back 3 hours to Santiago with the group, only to fly south again to Punta Arenas, the jumping off point for Torres del Paine. But no, we couldn’t use our tickets as vouchers for a later return. But, if we forfeited them…maybe there was enough time…

Time to spring into action. With our very well traveled friend Susan as a consultant (she passed 100 countries years ago!), a flurry of emails and inquiries looking for the right outfitter for us began in early December. I immediately learned there was unusually high demand for Patagonia guides and accommodation during our time frame. But, a few respondents gave me hope. Maybe the accommodation would have to be a few days here, a few days there, maybe we would have to rent a car and drive ourselves…many possibilities were considered during those uncertain weeks. Everything hinged on securing a photo guide, which seemed the linchpin. It was clear we had started rather late in our search.

Susan found Far South Expeditions on the Internet. Their services, including private driver and photo guide supported trips, sounded like exactly what we were looking for. Our first inquiry was not encouraging. When it became clear lodging was in short supply, I had reserved a triple room (the only one that seemed available via the web) at a new lodge, Pampa Lodge, in a seemingly central location. I had mentioned this in my initial inquiry to Far South:

“hi, we have 3 people (a couple & a single guy) on the luminous landscape antartica trip #2, ending feb 9 (2015) in am in punta arenas, looking to explore & photograph in patagonia/torres del paine (new to all of us) afterwards.  we need to return to santiago ont sat feb 14, so have 5 days to maximize.  we only recently decided on patagonia as our destination for the second trip, so are starting a bit late.  i have managed to find us accommodations at pampa lodge for these 5 nights (feb 9-14), but i’m looking for a guide/driver to get us to and from punta arenas & around torres del paine at the best times and places for photography.”

Their response was polite, but dismissive:

“I’m afraid that we don’t offer the requested kind of services; as you can see in our website Far South Expeditions we organize excursions that includes all the services (transportation, naturalist guides, accommodations, meals and even domestic flights).”

I quickly wrote back a “wait a minute, what-you-are offering is exactly-what-we-are-looking for” response and followed up with a phone call. Although they had never worked with Pampa Lodge before, they made inquiries and said, yes, this could work, and that the Lodge had enough rooms for all of us, including the driver and guide, and we no longer had to share a room with Greg! Progress!

Finally, by mid-December, the pieces had fallen into place, and we were no longer looking at putting together our own trip, with driving and navigation and road conditions and the lack of local knowledge to contend with, in addition to the usual photographic challenges of trying to be in the right locations during the best light.

On Monday, February 8, 2015, we parted ways with the group, some heading home, others to new destinations, including Puerto Natales, Patagonia and Easter Island.

Our guide Claudio and driver Ruben picked us up promptly at 8 am and we were off to Torres del Paine. We stopped en route in Puerto Natales for coffee and a tour of a beautiful contemporary hotel, Remota, not to be confused with Ramada. We all loved the indoor vanishing edge pool and living roof, with yellow accents and folk artifacts artfully displayed in the common areas.

Gorgeous indoor vanishing edge pool at Remota, in Puerto Natales, Chile

Gorgeous indoor vanishing edge pool at Remota, in Puerto Natales, Chile

Our arrival into Torres del Paine was well timed for afternoon light.

MT Patagonia 2015 Vertical HDR

We scouted several potential sites for future shoots on the way in, and then headed into the park for views over turquoise waters to the Cuernos (horns).

Torres del Paine

The site we picked for the following morning’s shoot was near Explora. We saw an armadillo retreating as soon as we alighted. The wind, about which we’d been warned, made it difficult to stay upright and almost impossible to stabilize a tripod.

Pampa Lodge is simple but chic, lacking in some amenities (the hot water takes its time in arriving and the water pressure was gentle rain to me, dribbles to Steve and non-existent to Greg), but stylish. Horses roam the property and the lodge offers guided rides. The large windows in the lodge and the dining room have an unobstructed view of the Torres del Paine beyond the Rio Serrano.  We could hardly take our eyes off these seemingly magnetic peaks.  At times, the granite is grey, other times very blue; the name Torres del Paine means in Spanish towers of paine, paine the indigenous word for blue.

Patagonian horses

Friendly horses roam the Pampa Lodge property

Power is from a generator, and off during the day. The restaurant is in another building a short walk away.  One surprise was its location in the Rio Serrano area, just outside the southern entrance to the Park.  On Google maps, perhaps because it was relatively new, it was shown as being virtually next door to more centrally located Hosteria Pehoe.

Lodging in the Park seems to come in 2 basic flavors, and almost no matter where you stay, there will be significant driving involved, to explore other areas of the park.  On the one hand, there are high end, all inclusive lodges, like Explora and Tierra Patagonia.  Explora requires entry and exit on fixed days, which didn’t seem to work for us, since we couldn’t be sure of returning from Antarctica on the planned day.  It did work out fine for a honeymooning couple on our trip, Ted and Yasi, but it was a gamble. Tierra Patagonia included guides, but I had the distinct impression we’d have to fit into their schedule, not them into ours.  It wasn’t at all certain we could insist on departures timed for sunrise.  The other choices for accommodations are less lavish, more basic, and almost no matter where one is settled, there will be significant driving involved.  But for serious photography, we thought going with Claudio and Far South Expeditions, with a driver, allowed us to really maximize our opportunities in limited time.

Rio Serrano, the region in which we stayed

Rio Serrano, the region in which we stayed.  Dust can be seen in the distance; all of the roads in the park are dirt

Tuesday, February 9, 2015 started early, setting off in the dark at 5:45 am. I was not optimistic about our prospects for a sunrise, with thick clouds enshrouding the peaks, and the minimal peach lightening the sky behind us disappeared as we approached our destination. From our perch above Explora, we were surprised to find ourselves alone, not elbow-to-elbow with other photographers as we had expected. We did have the ever-present wind with which to contend, whipping hair into eyes and making even tripods potential hazards.

MT Patagonia 2015 Sunrise Pano

I found a little protection from the wind below the brow of the ridge on which Steve and Greg were set up. To my horror, my tripod wasn’t in the vehicle as expected (Ruben had brought in my blue bag of extra clothes the prior day, which I had planned to leave there), so I commandeered the f2.8 Fuji set-up (50-140 mm), as my only chance of handholding for the sunrise.

Sunrise at Torres del Paine National park in Chile

I took a series of panoramas, as well as HDR components to later stitch together.

MT Patagonia 2015 Torres Del Paine HDR PS Pano

Breakfast back at the Lodge was pleasant, a scrambled egg, pan tostado, fruit (dried and fresh), strawberry juice, and homemade baked goods, including a killer poppy seed, not too sweet cake.

Back out on the roads, exploring the eastern sector, we ran into herds of guanacos on the way.

MT Patagonia 2015 5 Guanacos Cropped

I played with motion shots of them.

Guanaco running in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia region of Chile


We had a mini-reunion with Antarctica travel companions at a bathroom stop near the eastern park entrance, running into James from Bali, there with a group from the Singular Hotel in Puerto Natales, and Brad and Christel (who live in Bangkok and part-time in a South Carolina beach community), who drove themselves and were staying nearby at Hotel Rio Serrano. Brad and Christel materialized again at dinner.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 started very early, with intentions to set out for a more distant sunrise shoot, leaving at 5:15 am. We had agreed to bag it if it was pouring. At 5 am, Steve and I hung out the window, trying to decide whether the rain, which was definitely more then a drizzle, was enough to call it or not, when Claudio knocked softly on the door, and cancelled. We climbed gratefully back into bed for much needed additional sleep.

After a relaxing morning at the Lodge, we headed north to the Grey Glacier region. The plan was to hike before a 3 pm fjord cruise to Grey Glacier. While we managed the hike, the winds were so ferocious and unrelenting that our boat cruise was cancelled.

Beautiful forests of this type were once much abundant in Patagonia, which has been beleaguered by camper fires in recent decades

Beautiful forests of this type were once much abundant in Patagonia, which has been beleaguered by camper fires in recent decades.

A beautiful forest let out onto a wide level beach of grey, smoothly polished stones, which was howling with gusts of water and sheets of spray off the lagoon. The hike was to a headland overlooking the water, with a few stranded icebergs and giant Grey Glacier in the distance.

Stranded iceberg shed into the lake by Grey Glacier.

Stranded iceberg shed into the lake by Grey Glacier.

At dinner, we were entertained by one of the resident horses racing by, with two dogs in hot pursuit. Afterwards, the black dog, which had led the horse race, was lorded over by the russet-colored dominant dog, which pinned him to the ground with a piercing stare, slowly circling him 3 times, as Greg provided commentary:

“Did you just move your head?”

“Did I say you could move?”

Thursday, February 12, 2015 began very early, at 4:45 am, just enough advance time to pile on additional layers of clothes and hustle ourselves and our gear into the van for a 5:15 am shove-off to our sunrise shooting destination.

Claudio had showed us this site a few days before, with the massif beyond two lakes in the foreground. As soon as we alighted, my only thought was to escape the wind, omnipresent and so strong it was difficult to walk straight, much less set up a tripod or handhold a lens steady. Our friend Susan had mentioned the wind was so strong on her trip that her petite mother was knocked to the ground.

I found minimal refuge by sitting on the ground in the lee of a boulder. Not exactly an island of calm, but better, enough that I could enjoy the lightening sky, lenticular clouds and hint of color without tears streaking unbidden from my eyes.

MT Patagonia 2015 B & W

Another magical sunrise at Torres del Paine

Another magical sunrise at Torres del Paine

I was surprised to find myself dressed almost exactly as for Antarctica, except for 2 pairs of long johns under hiking pants instead of waterproof pants. On top, 5 layers, including a long underwear top, a long-sleeve top, a medium weight thermal wool layer, and a 2 layer coat (down lining and water-proof shell). Completing the ensemble was 2 pairs of gloves (one a liner), and a hat. My head was (at times) encased in 4 layers: the hood from my thermal top, a wind-stopper fleece hat from Mountain Hardware, my fleece buff pulled up from my neck to cover my chin and cheeks and back of my head, and the hood from my water-proof coat.

In the afternoon, we did a short hike to a lake, with a waterfall on the return. Waterfall in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

The wind was nothing short of astounding in its ferocity, and persistence.

Our Grey Glacier boat ride had been cancelled the prior afternoon due to high winds, leading to an unusual substitute offering, an evening departure at 6:30 pm. Heading out, the “3 hour tour” refrain from Gilligan’s Island ran through my head, as the small craft was pummeled with waves and spray. I wondered about its seaworthiness and tightened my life preserver. Although it seemed unlikely, when we reached the first arm of the glacier, we were released to climb to the top deck, where it was calm, not terribly cold, and the light was fantastic on the final leg of the W circuit.

Grey Glacier in Patagonia, Chile

Grey Glacier in late afternoon light

A giant lenticular cloud became more and more fantastically colored on our return.

Lenticular cloud at Grey Glacier in Patagonia

One poor, green-faced chica did not enjoy the voyage, imploring the crew to let her disembark at the pick-up for hikers, indicating she would take the bus (there isn’t one, only a several day hike). On the return, she huddled outside, with a bag at the ready and I could hear her on the skiff ride back:

“ Puedo salir ahora? Ahorita??”

“Can I get off now? Right now?”

If a place can be defined by a single word, in Patagonia, it is “wind.” It is a force such as I have never experienced before. It sculpts the clouds into lovely lenticular shapes, bends the trees into craggy, agonized forms and seems an incessant, insistent force of nature.

Friday, February 13, 2015

We were up again in the dark for sunrise, only 5 hours after finishing a late dinner. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

We headed to the site of our first sunrise shoot, on the hill above Explora’s parking. Steve headed for my former site. I had ended up there out of desperation, trying for meager shelter from the incessant wind. To my surprise, this morning was the first time in our entire stay that the wind was not blowing me around and endangering tripods, not to mention requiring higher shutter speeds than I’ve ever had to use before. The major benefit, besides being able to step away from the tripod a few steps, was reflections of the Torres in the lake, making up for the subdued color of the morning’s sunrise.

Torres del Paine sunrise panorama in Chile

Finally, a break in the wind, enough to see reflections of the mountains

Finally, a break in the wind, enough to see reflections of the mountains

We were so exhausted by the morning’s shoot that both Steve and Greg fell asleep in the hotel’s lobby (Greg quietly snoring), so I suggested to Claudio that we would all benefit by postponing our departure until 12:30.

Greg the guanaco whisperer with his flock

Greg the guanaco whisperer with his flock

We headed in the afternoon to the northeast corner of the park to search for wildlife, which we found in abundance: herds of guanacos, a pair of southern silver foxes, and rheas (a type of ostrich).

Guanacos in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Beautiful lenticular clouds and a golden pond on the eastern side of Torres del Paine

Beautiful lenticular clouds and a golden pond on the eastern side of Torres del Paine

A very rare creature, the push me-pull you guanaco

A very rare creature, the push me-pull you guanaco

Patagonia's version of the ostrich, the rhea

Patagonia’s version of the ostrich, the rhea

Pumas can be found here, as they predate guanacos, but require time and single-minded searching to find them.  I was amazed to hear from Ruben about a newlywed couple he had driven 2 weeks before who spent their entire trip single-mindedly tracking and observing pumas (incidentally, the same animal as our southwestern mountain lion, and also known as cougars, like CGUHS’s mascot), without taking a single photo!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentines Day

Our luck with the weather held, with our only rain holding out until departure day. Our plan to shoot the sunrise was cancelled by clouds and heralded by Claudio’s soft knocking at the door, just as I was about to swing my heavy backpack onto my shoulder. Steve had declined the night before and I think we were all secretly thankful for the much needed additional sleep. We dragged ourselves down to breakfast before 9 am, but late enough to interfere with plans to stop off at a condor roost en route to the airport. This Valentines is a long travel day, first hours on the road back to Punta Arenas, broken up only by a nice lunch at Remota in Puerto Natales and a few not very satisfying minutes at a nearby shore, where the black-necked swans eased just out of filling-the-frame reach. We didn’t have long enough for them to acclimate to our presence before the sky opened up and produced a rain which filled the vehicle with wet-wool doggy smells. Of course, this was virtually the only moment in 2 weeks in which I was not ensconced in my waterproof coat.

Although the light was better passing the lagoon between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, the flamingos themselves were not in.

Greg and I watched Tim’s Vermeer on the plane, marveling at the obsessive drive of the protagonist to prove Vermeer’s marvelous paintings and lighting effects could only have been produced with an optical aid.

At the airport, we bid farewell to reliable Ruben, whose careful attention on the road allowed us to relax enough to make up for some of our early departures and lost sleep on the road. Claudio was nice enough to stay with our camera and laptop laden Gura Gear backpacks while we checked in, lest LAN decide to be sticklers about the carry-on limit (8 kgs). He was a wonderful guide and traveling companion, and we all enjoyed his company thoroughly. Without hesitation, we’d travel again with Claudio and Far South Expeditions on a future trip to Argentina or Chile.  The next trip, maybe the W circuit, a multiday hiking trip from hut to hut, skirting the base of the mountains, ending up at Grey Glacier?


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One thought on “Postcards from Patagonia: February 2015

  1. What a read and photos! It brings back so many beautiful, wondrous memories. I too will never forget the wind, it did blow me about to see things at different angles. You make me want to return, sooner rather than later. s

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