By Jerry Ginsberg
This month, allow me to describe not a trip that I have already made to a place that I have photographed, but travel that I have carefully planned to a place that I have not yet been with plans first postponed and then canceled – thanks to the coronavirus that has stalled most of the world for the past year: A dream trip to the southernmost part of South America, the Argentine Patagonia. I have never done this type of article before. Never even contemplated going off on such a tangent. But in the very strange age of COVID-19, many once unforeseen things have become real possibilities. With fervent hope that this plague will soon be in our collective rear-view mirror, I expect to make this trip in late 2021 or early 2022. I’ll keep you posted.
Think about this.
Some time ago while channel surfing with my trusty TV remote, I stumbled upon a travel show on Tierra del Fuego (literally, “Land of Fire”). Harking back to my seventh grade geography lesson on this remote place at the tip of South America, I immediately resolved to explore that very exotic land.
There are two major parts and a convenient extension to such a trip.
Rather than a single island, Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago split by the border between Argentina and Chile and separated from the South American mainland by the Straits of Magellan. In addition to legendary Portuguese/Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan traversing these waters now named for him, Captain Bligh and the HMS Bounty, carrying a crew including Fletcher Christian and his future mutineers, were forced by violent storms to turn back and sail to the South Pacific via the Cape of Good Hope. Charles Darwin explored parts of the area in the nineteenth century as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The Beagle Channel is named for the ship in which he sailed.
Lay of the Land
It’s a truly fascinating, if somewhat extreme place. With storms and strong winds blowing most of the year, the most favorable months to journey to these islands far below the Equator are from November through March.
Windswept and largely desolate, the few trees here struggle to eke out a meager living. Most of the vegetation that can survive remains hugging low to the ground. But don’t think for even a minute that the place is lacking for wonderful nature subjects to enjoy and photograph.
With great trails to hike and lakes to paddle, Tierra del Fuego National Park on the Argentine island of the very same name is studded with crystalline lakes, lagoons and bays. Some of the most promising are:
- Emerald Lagoon (Laguna Esmeralda)
- Lapataia Bay
- Ensenada Bay
- Lago Roca
The reflection images made here that I have seen promise great opportunities, given the right light and some well positioned clouds.
Getting to the park from town is easily accomplished either by car or by riding the unique End of the World Train, an attraction in itself. Train tours are offered in combination with a choice of several other sights. Among these are the Beagle Channel and one or two of the park’s wonderful lakes.
Closer to the town of Ushuaia itself are Martillo Island with its protected colony of Magellanic penguins, Harberton Ranch (estancia) and the Martial Glacier. Myriad operators provide full and half-day trips to these unique and fascinating places. This covers one of the two major- features of an exploration of Tierra del Fuego
The other is what promises to be a great small ship cruise to the very southern tip of the continent, Cape Horn itself. The Australis line offers eight-day round trips and four-day one-way cruises to or from Ushuaia, Argentina, and Punta Arenas, Chile, gateway to Torres del Paine and all of Chilean Patagonia as well as the Falkland Islands. Both options include a stop at Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos) itself as well as lots of fabulous blue-white glaciers, carved fjords, waddling penguins and sleek cormorants, most accomplished with Zodiacs and short hikes. Australis ships are the only way to reach and actually touch Cape Horn. Such a cruise is not inexpensive, but is pretty reasonably priced considering how unique it is.
Now we come to what can be a natural extension to any trip to Ushuaia: Las Glaciaras Parque Nacional. Flights between Ushuaia and El Calafate, Argentina, are very reasonably priced and convenient.
Some of the prime attractions of this vast and largely wild and untrammeled national park of almost three million square miles are the 5 km wide Perito Moreno Glacier, the Upsala Glacier and the sharply serrated peaks further northth near remote El Chaltan, including monolithic Mt. FitzRoy, towering Cerro Torre, fiery Cerro Electrico and others. It’s a seemingly endless and ethereally pristine land easily accessible from Ushuaia and should not be missed.
If you choose to journey north of Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine (Towers of Blue in the native Tehuelche (Aonikenk) language) Parque Nacional, just head up to Puerto Natales and turn right.
The routing to choose depends on whether you decide to take a cruise to Cape Horn and if it is to be one way or round trip. If you choose the eight-day round-trip cruise, simply buy plane tickets to and from either Ushuaia, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile with a possible side trip originating from your choice of which side of Patagonia to explore further.
However, if you opt for the one-way cruise itinerary, you will need ‘open jaw’ airfare enabling you to depart to one of these ports and return from the other.
Both towns offer varied choices of lodging including hotels and Air BnB options with amenities and rates roughly proportionate.
Renting a vehicle will be straightforward. Opting for either a mid-sized sedan or SUV with a tailgate should prove perfectly adequate.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.