Our last trip of 2013 was a doozy! We traveled nearly as far south as we had traveled north in September to an area of vast proportions, unique wildlife, diverse environments and incomparable landscapes. Jane and I joined a small group of avid photographers to explore remote Patagonia and Easter Island. The tour was sponsored by Michael Francis (www.michaelfrancisphoto.com) and the in-country guide was Rex Bryngelson (www.patagoniaphoto.com).
We flew from San Diego, via DFW, to Santiago, Chile and on to Hanga Roa, the only community on Easter Island. Hanga Roa, with a population of about 3,800, is allegedly the world's most isolated village, located about 2,500 miles from continental Chile and 2,900 miles from its Polynesian neighbor, Tahiti. Easter Island was discovered by Dutch explorers on Easter Sunday in 1722, hence its name. On world maps it is also named Isla de Pascua, the Spanish translation of Easter Island. The Polynesian name preferred by the islanders is Rapa Nui.
The island is small, about 63 square miles, a mere spec in the vast southern Pacific Ocean. Its history is unique, controversial and makes for great reading. Rapa Nui has a vast concentration of prehistoric archaeological artifacts causing the entire island to be declared a World Heritage Site in 1966. The moai are Rapa Nui's most unique archaeological attraction and these iconic stone statues are what we had come to photograph. See the Rapa Nui gallery for images from Easter Island.
From Hanga Roa, it was back to Santiago and on to Coyhaique, Chile, to start our Patagonian adventure. Shared by Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is a vast 403,750 square mile geographic region stretching from Atlantic to Pacific oceans and from Cape Horn in the south to approximately latitude 40 degrees south. Patagonia is big, huge, enormous and spectacular. Imagine this, a region 115 time the size of Yellowstone National Park, 3 times the size of the Colorado Plateau, 1.5 time the size of Texas. Patagonia is also remote and solitary. There are more sheep than people. The population density is about one person per 130 acres.
Starting in the north at Coyhaique, we traversed some 1,000 miles in 15 days along the mid-section of Patagonia south to Punta Arenas. We lodged in old style, family estancias, quaint B&B's, and some stylishly modern inns. Lunches were served picnic style from the back of our vans between photo shoots. After all, this was a photo tour. We photographed at many of Patagonia's national parks and numerous spots in between. The most notable were Parque Nacional los Glaciares in Argentina and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile.
We encountered a few surprises along the way. First, I'd guess that a good 85% of our travel, that is 850 miles, was on graded gravel roads, with varying amounts of bouncing, jouncing and rattling about. That made for difficult cat-napping as we wended our way through the seemingly endless pampas of the Patagonian steppes. The second surprise was the arid nature of the terrain. Most of the Patagonia steppes we traversed, with the exception of the areas near the Andes mountains, consisted of undulating plains, much like the great plains of North America, however, almost bare of any vegetation. Even along mighty rivers emanating from the Andes, there were no trees. These plains, or pampas, are in the rain shadow of the Andes and receive relatively little precipitation. The soil supports various native grasses such as bunch grass. But throughout our journey we observed no extensive agricultural development, only sheep and cattle grazing. Finally, in the realm of unexpected surprises, let me mention the wind, the incessant wind, the perpetual wind, the unremitting wind, the unceasing wind, the knock-you-to-the-ground wind, the why-would-anyone-live-here wind.
Our first night was spent at the Estancia del Zorro (what are the chances of that?) and photographed Chilean Flamingos feeding in a small pond near the ranch house. The next day we explored the Estancia Punta Monte searching for Andean Condors. The condors are attracted to potential sheep carrion and we found a large group of condors soaring along a steep cliff on the ranch. Fortunately we were able to navigate within a few hundred yards of the top of the cliff where we were able to photograph the condors as they floated on the wind nearly at eye level. So our adventure in Patagonia began.
Another memorable photo shoot was at the Cuervas de Marmol (Marble Caves) along the shore of Lago General Carrera (you have to admire a general named after a Porsche). These caves were formed by 6,000 years of waves washing up against the marble (calcium carbonate) peninsula projecting into the lake and creating intricate, swirling tunnels and colorful columns, enhanced by the emerald blue reflection of the lake water.
After some fantastic photography at the marble caves we sojourned at Valle Chacabuco. The Lodge at Valle Chacabuco was recently constructed in the old, elegant style of the great railroad lodges of the west. The lodge was built on an old estancia that is being transitioned to be a future Chilean national park by the Conservacion Patagonia organization. This conservation group was started by Kristine Tompkins, the former, long time CEO of the Patagonia clothing company.
As we traveled from Lago General Carrera to Valle Chacabuco, we would occasionally see guanacos that I was anxious to photograph. On each occasion Mike Francis would dissuade me with assurances that there would be ample other, and better, opportunities to photograph guanacos. In fact, he boasted that we would photograph so many guanacos that I would be satiated. Doubtfully I acquiesced to his assurances. At the end of the tour, however, I found that I had photographed as many of the adorable mammals that I wanted and found myself, in fact, not caring to photograph any more.
We left the elegant ambiance of the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco in Chile for the home-style milieu of Estancia la Oriental adjacent to Francisco P. Moreno National Park in Argentina. Here we were treated to a sumptuous evening meal, served family style, of roasted lamb, red beats, potatoes, vegetables, bread and a cheery wine. The lamb was culled from the herd that day and roasted on a a rack in an open oven adjacent to the dining area. What a feast!
My original interest in Patagonia stemmed from its breathtaking mountain scenery. Images of Torres del Paine and Monte Fitz Roy were my inducement to sign on with Michael Francis for this memorable tour. Turns out that Patagonia is much, much more than just world class mountain landscapes. Jane and I so much enjoyed Patagonia's vastness and diversity. We watched new born guanaco chulengo taking their first staggering steps, we observed black-necked swans protect their young cygnets, looked into the eyes of condors, chased a hairy armadillo, were fascinated by the behavior of rheas, and marveled at the wonder of the Andean peaks. What a marvelous adventure this turned out to be.