The Patagonian saga continues

We’re back in the USA! Thanks to everyone who followed my explorations of the geology and natural environment in this amazing part of the world—Patagonia. Also thanks for your comments along the way. I wanted to respond to many of them but was sufficiently challenged just getting the initial postings out there.

During the upcoming months, I will be focused on expanding these preliminary explanations into a more thorough field guide for Patagonia. In addition to the locations visited in Argentinian Patagonia, I will be incorporating information from previous explorations in Chilean Patagonia, on the western side of the Andes. For example—Osorno volcano (below) is one of the active stratovolcanoes that are located west of Bariloche; as in Argentina, where glaciers flowed eastward from the Andes, this region is called the lake district where glaciers flowed westward and scoured depressions now filled with water.

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Earthquakes will be another important addition to the Patagonian story. The western coast of Chile is a subduction zone that is subject to frequent large-magnitude earthquakes. Near the town of Valdivia (photo below) it is still possible to see sunken forests where the land sank during the 9.5 magnitude earthquake in 1960—the largest historical event on our planet, to date. Of course, the region was again subject to intense shaking during the 9+ magnitude earthquake in 2010.

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I will continue to post updates about the geology of Patagonia, although not so frequently. I continue to welcome your comments and perspectives.

Penguin viewing. By the way, you need not go to Patagonia to see penguins in action. At the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, there is a small colony of African penguins that visitors can gaze upon. Even if you don’t live in San Francisco, or don’t want to visit the academy, you can view them on a live webcam: http://www.calacademy.org/webcams/penguins/

It’s particularly interesting at feeding times—10:30 AM and 3:00 PM—when they also have an audio feed that includes discussions among the staff and questions from the on-site audience.

Technical note about blog postings while traveling. This was my first blog. Although set up initially on my home computer, all of the on-the-road postings were done using an iPad. After some initial struggles, this process worked well. Photos must be loaded into iPhoto before they can be uploaded to the WordPress site. Apple makes this easy with a “camera connection kit”—a small memory card reader that connects directly to the iPad. WordPress provides an iPad app that, while lacking many of the “bells and whistles” of their regular site, has a straightforward process for publishing new posts. Since time was always limited, I didn’t mind the lack of fancy formating tools. My iPad uses only a wi-fi connection, which was available at every type of lodging, from basic hostels to fancy hotels. Sometimes connections were incredibly slow, however, and a great deal of patience was often required, especially for uploading photos. All in all, though, it’s a process I’d recommend to others, and it was wonderful not having to carry a computer for 7 weeks.

¡Que les vaya bien! (May everything go well for you.)

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From the cordillera to the capital

Last night in the cordillera—where to stay? Not in Bariloche but west of it, where it’s possible to be immersed in mountains, lakes, and sky, rather than atrocious architecture and consumer products. We splurged with a night in a 5-star hotel: the Charming Hotel—who came up that rather silly name? It is on a cliff overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi with its numerous arms and surrounding glaciated peaks, and has service and food appropriate for a hotel at this level—fortunately, they were offering a 30% discount so we could afford it! The hotel is also situated on an awesome conglomeratic sedimentary rock and the adjacent beach still has pumice fragments from last summer’s eruption, so there was plenty to amuse the geological explorers! Here’s Jay soaking up the view in the early morning on the terrace. We were reminded of Lake Tahoe but with a much more intricate shoreline.

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On the overnight bus from the cordillera to the capital—heading northeast. Very quickly one is back in the arid Patagonian steppe with its stark landscape. Then the road is lined with outcrops of red sandstone that are part of the sedimentary basins around Neuquén, where extractions of dinosaur bones and petroleum help maintain a healthy economy and the largest, most modern-looking bus station we’ve seen on the trip.

Then, continuing northeast, as day is dawning, one awakens to a verdant landscape and wonders—have I been transported to the U.S. Midwest? No, but La Pampa region of Argentina is, like our Midwest, the “bread basket” of the country. Vast fields of corn, soybeans, sun flowers and other agricultural products grow well in this flat mid-section of the country that is beyond the rain shadow of the Andes and therefore receives more moisture. Below is a field of corn (taken from the bus window), which helps support the large herds of cattle that provide the beef Argentina is so famous for.

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Also like the U.S. Midwest, the rich agricultural land is a product of past glaciations. In both places, rivers flowed from the glaciers that advanced from Canada (U.S.) and the Andes (Argentina) and wind blew silt-sized rock flour (called loess) that mantled the landscape and produced rich agricultural soils. Argentina widens to the north and the Pampa region is distant enough to avoid the vast quantities of gravel (seen in Patagonia) that would be obstacles to farming; rather, it received much smaller-sized sediment that more readily breaks down to form arable soil.

For we Californians, it is interesting to see Pampas grass in its native habitat. Here in California it is an invasive plant that was imported, no doubt with a good intentions but with unintended consequences. In Argentina it is an important grass for cattle—they say one key to the quality of the beef is that the cattle are grass fed. Here is the Pampas grass, again from the bus window,

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Back in Buenos Aires—the hot, humid air and warm summer nights feel good after the cool and windy climate of Patagonia. But the crowds of people and landscape of concrete feel foreign after weeks in small towns amidst grass and mountains and sky. There is still some geology to explore though.

First, in the Recoleta cemetery, where the illustrious citizens of Buenos Aires have been buried over the years. These are mausoleums that make our simple tombstones look humble indeed. Like the city itself, the deceased are packed densely one after another along narrow aisles where the still-living can gain access. This is a popular tourist site because of the notables who’ve been buried here—military heroes, doctors, educators, business men, and politicians including Evita Perón—and because of the incredibly over-the-top architecture of the mausoleums. Note the people for scale at the far end of the aisle.

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Some would have done well to consult with a geologist before choosing their material and style. Like cemeteries everywhere, this one is good for investigating weathering processes. Marble (metamorphosed limestone) looks great when it is first cut, but in this humid climate will tend to dissolve and deteriorate. Those who choose igneous rocks, such as the labradorite below with its beautiful large crystals, have structures that tend to better withstand the effects of the elements.

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Still, the marble is good for sculpting and although the statues have dissolved somewhat, they continue to provide impressive entrances to the tombs. Most of these were carved in the prosperous period of the late 19th–early 20th centuries and the tomb decorations must have been important commissions to support the highly-skilled artisans. This was one of my favorite sculptures, all of which are life sized or bigger than life.

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All of this polished rock and artwork must have cost families a small fortune. Some were built like small cathedrals. Here are two side-by-side. The one on the left was built more recently (the rock is in better condition) and it seems they had to outdo the one on the right—they’ve built their tower just a little bit higher!

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Another place to see rocks is in the national office of SEGEMAR, Argentina’s geological survey. Here is a sign that shows their full name; the sign is from the Navy’s Hydrographic office, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of SEGEMAR. We went there to purchase maps and books that will help me to expand these geological explanations of Patagonia into a more complete field guide.

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In the SEGEMAR building there is also a mineralogy museum that is used to explain rocks and minerals to groups of students and other visitors. We got a personal tour from a very helpful staff member and learned, among other things, that rhodochrosite is the national mineral. Below is an interesting piece that is a stalactite formed in a cave (rhodochrosite is a carbonate mineral).

Before the national mineral, I need to include one more penguin, since they are such a popular topic. To accompany our last dinner in Buenos Aires, we ordered a “penguino de vino tinto”—a penguin filled with wine. It is accompanying a parrillada of roasted brochettes and veggies with sides of french fries and puréed winter squash. Those penguins spread joy wherever they go!

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And now, the sample of rhodochrosite.

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Perito Moreno glacier does its most spectacular show

Breaking News! Yesterday (4 March 2012) the ice dam that was connecting the Perito Moreno glacier to the peninsula in front of it burst and released all of the water that had been trapped behind it in an arm of Lago Argentina. Unfortunately, we were there about a month too early! But even those who were in the region were denied views and photos of the spectacular rupture, which occurred at 3:45 AM. The ice dam had begun to break up on Wednesday and visitors were excitedly awaiting the grand finale. On Saturday, ice falls accelerated, but it was not until everyone had been forced to leave the national park that the pressure of the rising water broke the arc of floating ice above. Only the stars and the wildlife were able to observe it. If you search the Internet, you’ll find photos (before and after but not of the fall itself) and explanations of the physics behind this event, which last occurred in 2008. No one knows when it will happen again—perhaps in 1 year, or perhaps in 4 or 5. It’s enough to keep the tourist hordes coming from around the world!

Here’s a link with good photos: http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/03/04/10578278-perito-moreno-glacier-experiences-first-major-ice-fall-since-2008

The prettiest town in Argentina

We have not visited all of the towns in Argentina, but San Martín de los Andes is the prettiest one we’ve visited so far. It is situated at the east end of Lago Lácar and at the edge of Parque Nacional Lanín.

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San Martín is a ski town in the winter; in the summer it’s a tranquil base for kayaking, sailing, swimming, hiking, and taking excursions to other lake locations and the national park. It is the one town we’ve seen where a building code seems to have actually been enforced—attractive low-rise buildings made of local rock and wood.

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Jay has dubbed it the “Aspen of Argentina”—and we imagine the cost of living is consistent with this designation!

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Like Bariloche, San Martín is a big chocolate town. We have speculated about the quantity of chocolate in town at any one time but can only say—it’s a lot! Bariloche and San Martín both take advantage of comparisons with the Alps (fondue restaurants, hotel called Chamonix!) but San Martín has actually retained the charm of those mountain towns.

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Speaking of food—like every town in Argentina, this one is filled with restaurants called parrillas. A parrillada is a meal of meat that can consist of a single meat type—e.g., lamb, deer, beef, chicken—or a mixture of many meat types. The mixture typically includes items such as blood sausage, kidneys, sweetbreads, and other body parts not commonly consumed in the U.S. This parilla has a cow on its sign—appropriate for a country known for the high quality of its beef.

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Another cultural item we’ve noticed is the quantity of U.S.-manufactured cars and trucks from the 60s and 70s—mostly Fords! We’ve talked with people about this; the vehicles from that era are very basic and keep on trucking. When living in remote places, with large distances between ranches and towns, you don’t want a vehicle that must be taken to the dealer every time something goes wrong. Here’s one in San Martín that still has a body in pretty good shape. [Note for my family: we’ve seen a lot of Ford Falcons like the one we used to go to the Rocky Mountains for a week in the late 60s—nine people with kids bouncing all over and no seat belts!]

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Parque Nacional Lanín is named for the Lanín volcano that is equally shared by Chile and Argentina (the country border is at the top of the peak). I’ve not yet figured out why, but this volcano is at the top of the cordillera, farther east than the other active stratovolcanoes that are located wholly in Chile. Because of the clouds, we were not able to see the volcano while in San Martín. This photo (from the Internet—sorry about the poor quality) is how it did look though, when we saw it 6 years ago, while crossing over from Chile (view is toward the south from Tomen pass) in May after the volcano had just received a fresh coating of snow. (Remember that May is like our November.)

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The trees in the foreground are the Araucaria trees that are emblematic of the region, which is sometimes referred to as Araucana. In English they are called “monkey-puzzle trees”, probably because the leaves are sharp and spikey, which would present challenges to any critter trying to ascend it. Here is a close up of the branches and the brown cones it bears. [Note: I’ve seen one of these in San Francisco but I can’t remember where!]

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The scenic route between San Martín and Bariloche is La Ruta de Siete Lagos (seven lakes route). On our trip along this route yesterday, we saw lots more ash from the June 2011 eruption of Puyehue volcano in Chile. We also saw an unusual geologic phenomenon—a beach made completely of pumice fragments that were also floating on the water because they are so light. Pumice is a frothy rock that is like those candies made of baked whipped egg whites. Here is the beach of Lago Espejo (mirror lake) with its pumice beach. Most of the pieces are about 1 centimeter in diameter. It’s cool to walk on a beach made of 9-month-old rocks!

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Yes, after 6-plus weeks of travel, we’ve gotten a few days of rain. It’s hard to complain, especially because people throughout Patagonia have referred of problems associated with a current drought. Tonight we’ll head back to Buenos Aires (20-hour overnight bus!) and warmer temperatures. I’ll end this posting with a typical Patagonian meal—lamb stew, fried potatoes, bread and Patagonian red wine from Neuquen, the province where Bariloche and San Martín are located. The town of Neuquen is famous both as a new wine region (they are currently experimenting with different varieties to see which work best) and also for paleontology. For example, one winery was named “Saurus” because they found dinosaur bones when excavating to build their wine storage facility! We will need to explore this area on a future trip.

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