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Pategonia! Where is it and why would ANYONE want to go there? , writes Jay Smith.
(c) Jay Smith, 1997

Patagonia! Where is it and why would ANYONE want to go there? Patagonia is a huge region in Argentina and Chile that is south of the Rio Colorado. It stretches south from the province of Buenos Aires all the way to the straits of Magellan and the Tierra del Fuego. The genesis of the name "Patagonia" is unclear. It may have derived in Magellan's day from the Spanish pata meaning foot --- referring to the tall natives with large feet. Or it may derive from a fictional monster in the Spanish romance of this period. Most of Patagonia is prairie and desert with low grass, monotonous and boringly brown. The only relief is the estancias, sheep ranches with tall trees serving as wind breakers around the main residence. The Patagonian horizon is endless, you can see forever. There are few roads and most of them are dirt. There are many mammals but most of them are sheep!

Isn't Patagonia windy, rainy, snowy, cold, and generally desolate? YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! Absolutely, it is all of these and more. Its the more that people go for, however. What's the more? Well, there are world class glaciers [Petito Moreno], mountains like vertical pinnacles [Torres del Paine & the Fitzroy range], and beautiful immense turquoise lakes [Lago Argentina & Lago Viedma] and rivers [Rio Santa Cruz, etc] fed by glaciers. There is also the Patagonian ice cap, nearly 400 miles long, called the Third Pole. This ice cap has yet to be crossed by humans due to inclement weather, worse than Antartica.

If you go to Patagonia be forewarned. Two deities are constantly vying for control of the climate there. One is the wind [viento] and the other is the rain [lleuve]. Neither is willing to relinquish the battle; on a lucky day, they will be resting, on an average day, one or the other will be in command, and on unlucky days, BOTH will be working against you. Imagine the worst possible weather you can in order to prepare for Patagonia. If you are lucky, it will be about what you expect, possibly it will worse than you CAN imagine. So be prepared to fight these two deities if you go. You WILL get wet! Count on it!

After selecting the destination of Patagonia, I began a search on the Internet for expeditions to the area. I came across a site sponsored by Earthwise Journeys in Portland, OR [www.teleport.com/~earthwyz]. I liked the 10-day itinerary that was set up for this trip, as opposed to other trips I had seen advertised which lasted 17 days. I spoke with Barbara Canavan of Earthwise Journeys about the trip and it was apparent that the air arrangements would take a while and might be difficult because of uncertainty in Latin America. The uncertainty arises from connections between Buenos Aires and Rio Gallegos. These flights are offered by both Aerolineas Argentinas and by Lapa; however flight times are subject to frequent change. I was potentially booked on both airlines to ensure that I would have flight at a reasonable time of day and because last-minute flight changes were difficult to track in the US. The land portion of the trip was arranged by Andean Treks, of Watertown, MA. Andean Treks was responsible for obtaining the bus and other arrangements, such as hotels and camping sites. Finally, our guides, Robert Noonan and Catherine were with Earthquest, based in Flagstaff, AZ. So, arrangements were pretty complicated!

About telephones: Once in Buenos Aires, I re-checked all Argentine reservations. A word of advice here. You cannot rely on telephones in BA for this. You must visit airline offices in person. If you want to call overseas, find a "Locuturio."

About trekking: My other advice, especially if you are going to be trekking, is to take several changes of clothes, pack everything in separate zip-lock bags so that wet clothes won't dampen dry clothes! Take a "waterproof" jacket [Goretex?] but it will get soaked and wet anyway, if my trip is typical. Your hiking boots will get soaked. My primary boots got wet and stayed that way, except that I did dry them once by the fire. But do not be tempted to switch to another pair of dry boots once your primary pair is wet; otherwise, you'll end up with two pairs of wet boots and no dry boots! Your camera may become wet from hiking in the rain. Keep it in a plastic zip-lock bag. Also keep your passport and airline tickets in plastic bags.

About food: We had a varied and tasty diet including meats [sausage, steak], cheeses, pastas, vegetables, lettuce, & tomatoes. For breakfast we usually had oatmeal, granola, and the like. We mixed these with hot water and added dry milk. We had plenty of cafe, tea, and juices. We had green salads just about everyday. For lunch we carried sandwiches, trail mix, cucumbers, carrots, and apples. We had some meals in restaurants, usually steak and lamb with a salad. I would rate the food as quite good, considering the circumstances -- and you WILL get hungry if you trek because of the extreme physical exertion, so the food will taste good! All of our camp cooking was done over a propane camp stove. All of our water was run through a bacteriologic filter; however, a few times I drank from streams and never became ill. In fact, to my knowledge, no one on our trip became ill from the food. One thing, be prepared to wash your dishes! You may get dishpan hands!

About people on this trip: There are 15 people on this trip, 10 from Australia, 2 from Canada, and 3 from the USA. Most of the Australians are from the Blue Mountains area, north of Syndney. Two Australians are from Montreal. The two Canadians are from Vancouver. Two Americans are northerners and one is a southerner [me!].

January 5, 1997
Today is the day for leaving for Patagonia via Miami and Buenos Aires [BA] --- then south ~1,500 miles to Rio Gallegos two days after arrival in BA! I am excited but apprehensive about leaving because my dad had a stroke about year ago and it has been difficult for me to deal with that. In fact, one reason I am making this trip is to get some rest from dealing with his illness. I am a runner, usually running 30-45 minutes some 4-5 times per week. One of the questions I have about this trip is whether I should take running shoes. I don't think I can run in BA and there is a lot of hiking scheduled; also the weather is supposed to be poor in Patagonia; finally I am running out of packing space. So, I decide not to take my running shoes, knowing that it will be difficult NOT to run for two entire weeks; I console myself by realizing that there must be lots of walking.

I expect a fair amount of rain in Patagonia and have re-packed everything in zip-lock plastic bags. I test my heavy jacket and ensure myself that it is waterproof, also I am taking a lightweight water-resistant shell, gloves, and a warm pullover hat. I am taking two pair of hiking boots, thermal underwear, a polarguard Kelty compressible sleeping bag, and a thermal, self-inflating sleeping pad [Therma-a-rest]. Antihistamines, anti-diarrheal tablets, melatonin, and pain killers are coming along. Finally, I throw in my eye covers and ear plugs for sleeping on the plane. So, I figure I am pretty well prepared for everything. Little did I realize what Patagonia was going to throw at me!

In order to prepare for the long flights to Buenos Aires, I run at 8:30 for 45 minutes under cloudy skies and light misting rain. This is sufficient to get a runner's high which is the way I want to begin today! I have spent lots of time on the phone with my friend, BED, to prepare also. Later, I pick up a couple of last minute items at a drugstore and go by my parents at 1:30 to say goodbye; I review my flight schedule with them so they'll have some idea of my whereabouts. They are apprehensive about my leaving but I promise to return safely within two weeks. Frankly, I am also apprehensive, I know that if something were to happen, I will totally out of touch with civilization and would not be able to return, so I leave with this possibility in mind. I leave instructions with AS as to what I want done if my dad dies while I am away.

Immediately after returning from my parents' assisted living apartment, AS drives me to the MARTA rapid rail station in Dunwoody. The trip starts badly when the token machine steals $1.75 from me, yielding no token, I move to another machine, insert $5.00 and get more tokens than I need. I am certain I'll lose these before I return to Atlanta! But, my luck changes when I take the escalator, hop on a train and immediately leave for the airport! I arrive at the airport about 3:30, still mad about the machine stealing my money! I complain to the MARTA representatives, who give me another token to lose! At the Delta Airlines baggage check-in, I have no problem checking my bag to BA. Its going to be a long trip so I stop at the food court and have a hot dog before boarding my plane.

At 7:30 I arrive in Miami and make my way to the United Airlines check-in, where I enter a long line. Just behind me is a ~30 year old female carrying a huge Minnie Mouse stuffed puppet. She is hitting me with it as the line moves. As I reach the front of the line, she bolts in front of me to the counter, then her parents do the same thing. I stand in front for a while waiting for an available agent. All of a sudden, a woman behind me claims that I have broken in front of the entire line and that I should go the back of the line. The security guard comes over and demands that I go to the back. I keep insisting that I have gone through it and refuse to leave. Finally, I check in, and get the aisle seat that I want. The agent even moves me farther away from the smoking section after I tell him that I work for the Centers for Disease Control! Cool! Things are definitely looking better after that MARTA token incident!

At the Miami terminal I make several phone calls and wait. We finally board about 10:40 and the 747 lifts off. Unfortunately, I am not able to sleep on the ~9 hour flight, but this is nothing unusual.

January 6, 1997
The huge city of BA comes into view as we descend and I remark on the seemingly infinite number of tall apartment buildings there. We land at 7:30 EST or 9:30 BAT. I decide not to reset my watch so I will know what my friends are doing back home. Customs is quick and I retrieve my luggage after only 15 minutes. Then I find the Manuel Leon Tienda bus ticket kiosk and buy a ticket to downtown for $14. Hundreds of folks are lined up past this kiosk with large name cards to greet people --- but I see no one with a card "Jay Smith." So I keep going and get on the bus. The ride into town is through flat land with pretty evergreen trees for the first 15-20 miles, then urban sprawl starts. I don't think I have ever seen so many tall apartment buildings in one place but this city has 12 million residents so they have to be somewhere! I note that BA is like Los Angeles, there is no vacant space anywhere. Finally, we reach a bus stop and I take off all my carefully packed gear. Then a mini-bus takes me to my hotel, the Castelar, where I am to stay two nights [close to the intersection of Lima & Avenida de Mayo]. This hotel is quaint, with accordion doors in the elevator. There is lots of marble and wood in the lobby. I find my 9th-floor room small with high ceilings and an air conditioner that does not work. The front desk turns it on after I complain, however. It is hot here.

There are two things I must accomplish in BA and I start to work immediately. First, I must straighten out my Aerolineas Argentenias airline reservations, making sure of a noon departure on the 8th and a 5 p.m. departure on the 19th of January. Second, I have to reconfirm my United Airlines flight back to Miami on the 20th of January. No problem, I figure, I have phone numbers. However, after repeated attempts to reach both, I realize the phone is useless, it is always busy. So, I decide to call Diego at Ecology Adventures, surely he can fix this. Again nothing but busy signals, no one ever answers. What to do now? I figure I might walk or take a taxi to Ecology Adventures at 736 Talahuano. I have no idea how close I am to this address, but at the hotel front desk, I learn it is only ~7 blocks away .

Next I discover another problem, my luggage is locked but I can find no key, I swear I put it in my security pouch with my wallet, but its not there. I become afraid that I will have to go through the entire trip with only one pair of trousers and one shirt! So, not relishing this, I boldly go to the front desk and ask for a selection of luggage keys. Voila!!! Remarkably one of them actually fits! Wow! Things are looking better.

Having access to >1 outfit now, I set out to find Talahuano street. I begin walking and ask where this street is in passable Spanish. I have no map; finally I pass some large judicial buildings and park, I am now at the 700 block. BA is laid out nicely so that all blocks run with parallel numbers, making things easy to find. Up one flight of stairs and I have arrived! I introduce myself to Diego, a tall, handsome Latin chap and explain my predicament. He indicates that in BA you MUST go in person. Furnishing me with a map, he indicates that to reach AA, I have to go back to the hotel, then cross Lima Avenue [largest in the world?], then continue another 8 blocks to the Playa de Mayo. I am hungry but refuse to stop for food on the way, wanting to get this over with. After about an hour, I locate AA, and note the short line, this will be easy, I conclude. However, the short line is deceptive, you need a number to actually get service, so I take one and enter the queue. Strange, as numbers are called, few customers answer, so I am called quickly. I arrange both my departure and return flights into the EZE international airport. Also, I ask if they can confirm my United flight. No can do, busy phone number, but they provide me with the address of UAL, however. Leaving the offices of AA, I find a Burger King, so I opt for American fast food, being famished! Relieved of the burden of never leaving BA, I can begin to enjoy it!

BA is a cosmopolitan city with many outdoor restaurants and bars, pizza parlors. There are many small kiosks, some no more than 6 feet wide, where you can buy snacks. The streets are crowded and there is a joyful atmosphere. People are drinking cafe and agua mineral at 6 p.m. Everyone eats much later in the evening. I order a medium sized pizza and beer for $11. BA is an expensive city.

I am told at the Castelar that you can dial the US directly from your room: 4-001-XXX-XXX-XXXX. This never works, however, the phone is always busy. So I locate a public phone booth, called a Locutorio, and am able to call from there with no problem, other than the $4-5 cost per minute! I call my friend BED and learn she has the flu, then call AS and ask her to tell my parents that I have arrived in BA. At 9 p.m., BA time, I hit the sack and sleep well except that I feel like I have a cold.

January 7, 1997
I awake at 6 a.m. EST or 8 BAT and shave, perhaps for the last time, as I don't plan to shave once we begin camping. Then I have a continental breakfast of cafe, toast, and croissants. Its now time to walk 12 blocks to United Airlines, located at 1100 Carlos Pelligrini, which parallels Lima Avenue. There is one problem, however, it is raining like crazy! This makes me wonder what it will be like in Patagonia. I wait and wait but the rain never stops, so at 10 a.m. I decide to brave the rain and go anyway. On the way, I note that many umbrella vendors have set up shop but I resist the temptation, after all, what good would one be in Patagonia with all that wind? Passing banks, restaurants, kiosks, office buildings, clothing stores, I reach the 1100 block. Now to cross Lima with its four major arteries and central medians in the rain. This takes a while, you can't do it with one change of the traffic lights.

Finally, I arrive at the appointed address and ease past the guards to the elevator. Making my way to the 5th floor, I find a queue of perhaps 20 people and put my name on a short list of people. Why is the list so short and yet so many people are waiting? Three assistants sit at the counter, two are working, the third loafs behind a sign that reads "Mileage Plus." No one goes to him. So I take a chance, walk to him, state that I just want to reconfirm. Voila! He can do it immediately! But there is some paperwork. Where am I staying in BA? What is my phone number? Where am I staying in Rio Gallegos? What is my phone number there? Where am I going from there? I am too embarrassed to say that I will staying in the wild Patagonia outback! And I certainly won't have a phone in my tent! My flights are confirmed, however. If I survive Patagonia, I can make it back to the USA! Afterwards, I walk back to the hotel, my trousers are now soaked, why didn't I wear rain pants? Oh, well, you can't remember everything!

During the afternoon, I walk the side streets around my hotel, reaching the districtorio del oro with dozens of shops. Some of these are only a few feet wide, while others are huge. I stop in one shop, and they seem to say they don't sell jewelry, which is odd considering the number of apparent customers, perhaps I haven't understood their Spanish well. Later, I find a small shop and buy a bracelet for 40 pesos. Its fun to practice my limited Spanish in purchasing the bracelet! Then, I locate a rock/gem shop and buy some nice royal blue geodes.

Around 6:30 I begin to look for a place to have dinner. I was not able to find Mexican, Italian, Greek, or such ethnic restaurants. The most common restaurant is the pizzeria, which offers a good selection of omelets, sandwiches, fish, chicken, beef, and of course, pizzas. But cafe and pastry seems to be the staple drink and food at this early hour. At the Alameda, I have a turkey sandwich and top the meal off with pie for desert.

January 8, 1997
Last night I slept well. This morning I awake to the sound of my alarm at 6:00 BAT. After a continental breakfast, I check out at 8:00 after paying $12 to have my trousers and shirt laundered. By 8:30 I am on my way to the EZE airport. My AA ticket qualifies me for a free bus ride to the airport. Arriving at the airport on the bus, I follow the instructions and get off at the domestic terminal since my flight is within Argentina. Then I learn that the flight to Rio Gallegos does not leave from there. Apparently it leaves from the international terminal. So, I have to walk there to leave, oh, well....ALL Aerolineas Argentenias flights leave from the international terminal, regardless of destination, how curious. I check in O.K. and then head through security. There, I note that I have apparently left my other airline tickets on the counter. So I go though security in reverse to get them and back through security again! Now I must go through the customs area. They check my passport. Next, I try to buy a coke and discover all my change is gone, I've left it in security! So back through customs one more time to get my change left in security. I must be the only passenger to go through both security and customs twice in one day!

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