Into a South American Summer

I found myself on an Argentinian coastline, a mile from the trailhead in one direction, and more than a mile from an overlook in the other, crammed up against a phalanx of folk, facing a similar group coming from the other direction.  We were waiting.  Waiting for a line of two-foot tall birds wearing tuxedos, who were nonchalantly running our improvised gauntlet.  They were totally impervious to our paparazzi cameras, and just kept waddling along until they cleared our path.  We were warned not to impede the Magellanic penguins, but we were certainly not ready for the 200,000 birds spread out over almost the square mile that makes up the Punta Tombo Wildlife Reserve.  Did you know these penguins dig burrows in the ground, as well as carve out depressions under bushes?  Wowza!  Also, only four of the 18 penguin species live in Antarctica; the rest are in sub- or temperate regions.

But I’m here to tell ya, the southern half of South America in the summer–December, January, February–is not warm.  At least, a day or two south of Buenos Aires, temperatures plummeted.  We were lulled by 60s and 70s in the city, but once heading for the penguin rookery, we folded up our shorts and tee shirts, never to be seen again.  Jeans and sweatshirts were de rigeur.  My Green Bay Packer zip-up sweatshirt got a full workout.  Who knew there are Packer fans all along the way, not just on the ship, but way down to the tip of the continent as well?  Fun to be accosted with “Go Pack!” from an Argentinian or a Chilean.  We’re everywhere!

A fun fact and quick aside: Buenos Aires is at 30º South latitude, about three-quarters of the way down the continent.  For comparison, we here in southeastern Wisconsin are at 43º North latitude.  New Orleans is about 30º North.  Interesting to note, Rome, Italy is about 42º North, same as southeastern Wisconsin.  Does that surprise you?  It did me!

After the delight of the penguins, we stopped at the United Kingdom’s Falkland Islands, which are way the heck out there in the Atlantic…with unpredictable weather.  Duly warned, we were fortified.  And then the skies turned a cloudless azure, and the winds wafted instead of wailed.  We could shed jackets, and even the next layer down.  What a great day to visit a sheep farm where watched the manager demonstrate how to shear a sheep.   Would the sheep then go back in the herd?  Nope.  That one was destined for the abattoir.  Read butcher.  Yikes!  Well, they get old and the wool isn’t good anymore.  Better to sell for mutton that won’t be beyond eating.  Ah, yes, the real world impinges.  Great fun also watching the kilpie/border collie dogs leap from ATV clear over the fence in order to get to work herding.  They do love to work.  Though the sheep look at them rather…sheepishly.  (Sorry.)  Actually, sheep panic easily, and the dogs can control them without freaking them out.  But if you look at my photos, those sheep are keeping a very close eye on the dog.  After a “smoke,” which is really an English tea, with about a dozen different little cakes and bars, we were shepherded (I won’t apologize for that one…) back to Stanley, the capital, where we sent postcards home.  Those took two weeks to arrive back in the States because mail first goes to England to be sent on.  Mother Nature was kind to us in the Falklands, but the day after we left, it stormed and blew so badly, they had to close the airport.

Next stop: Cape Horn, at the tip of South America.  If I were Magellan facing those currents and winds, I would have turned and hightailed it for home.  We had both of those, enough to cause the ship to list.  Bottles, glasses, and silverware slid right off the tables as we encountered the clash of Pacific and Atlantic Oceans currents, reminding us that the sea can be treacherous.  The angle of list called to mind the Titanic!  Ships do not really go around the Horn, but only sail close, then backtrack to slip along the myriad of islands that protect ships from the worst of the weather.  On that day, we were able to get close to the Horn, but there is never a guarantee that storms, winds, and such will prohibit getting anywhere near.  I guess that’s good luck, even if we did have to catch ketchup bottles and plates of food before they skated off the table!

We hiked at Tierra del Fuego National Park, going from the paved road to a gravel road, to a simple path: the terminus of the Pan Am highway, which begins in Alaska and ends rather unceremoniously on that trail.  The scenery, reminiscent of the US/Canadian Rockies was breathtakingly beautiful.  Lakes, mountains, forests and acres of bushes and flowers.  We even got to the post office at the End of the World.  Patagonia, the southern end of the continent, shared between Argentina and Chile, with the Andes as the border between the two countries, is well known for outdoor adventure, like mountain climbing, kayaking, white-water rafting, hiking.  But it is well worth a visit, even if you do none of those.  The history is fascinating, the food great, the wildlife fun (dolphins and whales, giant beetles, and more), the hiking opening out to one gorgeous vista after another.  Even better, the people are friendly and helpful.  They clearly love where they live, and are happy to share it.

We were in for some pleasant surprises as we headed up the west coast of Chile, which seems to go on forever.  Two small towns were German settlements from the 1800s, charming with typical German architecture and gardens.  As the weather warmed when we sailed north, we encountered volcano after volcano.  Chile is part of the Ring of Fire, the tectonic plates that circle the Pacific.  We drank Chilean wines, ate empanadas, and visited churches and small local museums, all of which held their own captivating flavor.

We ended our South American sojourn in Santiago, Chile, the capital, a city of about 6 million folks.  The excursion feted us with a four-course lunch, including local drinks and food, with plenty of singing and dancing, before we were deposited at the airport for the 10-hour flight north to Houston, where we flew the last leg to Chicago and home.  Fun fact: a simple four-hour drive east from Santiago would have taken us back to Buenos Aires.  But we took the long way around: by sea.

Shopping for souvenirs was not the primary focus on a trip like this.  The weather in the summer if it’s far enough south is generally not beach weather, and the distances between places can be far.  Rather, the towns are remote and the coastal harbors center on container ships, exports and imports.  The feel is of vibrancy, burly shoulders, and hard workers.  Visit, for sure, and visit soon, before it all gets too commercialized!

It’s a trip well worth taking.