Having spent 8 hours today traveling from Puerto Santa Cruz on the Atlantic coast to El Calafate on the edge of the Andes, it seems a fitting time to evoke Jack Kerouac’s book (On the Road) and reflect on traveling options. The sites in Patagonia are spectacular but the distances between them are large. How best to travel between them?
One could rent a car. But the roads are only two lanes (one lane each way). There is only ever one road, so it is full of trucks and buses. The drivers go too fast, they pass on curves and hills, and drive long distances, causing them to sometimes fall asleep. Not surprisingly, there are horrendous accidents. Most of the secondary roads (they are few) are made of gravel (and you now know that there is plenty of gravel in Patagonia!). That said, it is sometimes worth renting a car for a few days. On Peninsula Valdez we were happy to have a car to explore the area, which we otherwise would have had to visit in tour groups that went to only a few places.
But otherwise we are traveling in buses, which are really quite comfortable. Unlike our awful U.S. buses, the buses here are almost like riding in first class in an airplane – and the drivers are used to navigating these roads. The seats are wide and they recline, sometimes almost completely, and the windows are expansive to provide stellar landscape vistas. My favorite seat is in the front row on the upper deck, where there is a complete view out of the front of the bus. (The driver sits in the front on the lower deck.) Here is a photo of the bus we traveled in today to El Calafate.
When riding on the roads, it is mainly a featureless landscape on top of the vast terrace formed by rivers feeding sediments east from the Andean glaciers. Here is how most of the landscape appears – exciting, huh!
Yesterday, though, we saw the planar landscape interrupted by unusual ruggedness at Parque Nacional Monte León. This is Argentina’s youngest park, created only in 2004, and it is only the second coastal park – the other is Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. There is even a San Francisco connection. Former resident Doug Thompkins (who founded North Face and later Esprit), and his wife Kris Thompkins (who was a CEO for the Patagonia clothing company), have been buying land in Patagonia for the purposes of conservation, and their foundation provided the funds that were needed to create this park.
Like all the best parks, both geology and biology are well displayed. Sedimentary layers of browns and greens are spectacularly eroded by wave erosion and stream drainages. The sediments are filled with a variety of fossils, including clams, scallops, oysters, and snails. One of the eroded points is occupied by sea lions that you may be able to see in this photo. Another feature of interest is the tides, which are among the largest in the world, with a range up to 14 meters. Because of this, the sea lions get stranded on the rock and must remain there until the tide gets high enough for them to return to the sea.
Yet again, we were happy to view a penguin colony, this time seemingly bettered managed, with the path only going to a vista point overlooking the sea, not traversing right through a main part of the colony. This view along the coast includes many penguins on the beach.
Aspects of this park brought optimism about the change of human behavior. A large nesting area for cormorants was nearly destroyed for guano production – the birds are now protected. Remnants of pots used to render the blubber of sea lions for oil are visible along the coast – the sea lions are now protected. Early explorers killed large numbers of penguins for meat – they are now protected. It seems hard to imagine that we could ever revert to viewing wild animals as only products to be destroyed for our use. Other animals in the park include the guanaco, who occupies a niche like that of deer. Here is a portrait of one on the cliff top.
Before leaving the topic of road travel, I must give tribute to the wonderful people we have met along the way. The Argentinians we have encountered have been super sweet and welcoming – just this morning the owner of our small hotel took us to the bus station herself (at 4:00 in the morning!) when our taxi didn’t arrive on time. When we were in Sarmiento, a couple who have a farm in Buenos Aires province took us with them to visit a lake and then gave us a ride to the bus station. Here is a photo of us at the lake, where the wind (as usual) was blowing intensely.
Finally, the landscape has now changed, big time! We are now at the Andes and will go to a glacier tomorrow, so stay tuned for ice! Here’s a last photo for the meteorologists – we saw amazing lenticular clouds today, this one above Lago Argentina, a lake carved by ancient glaciers and still providing the water that flows down Rio Santa Cruz to the Atlantic Ocean.