Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

​This post spans 7-11 January 2011 that I spent in probably the most spectacular landscape I've seen so far at Torres del Paine National Park. It starts with the crossing into Chile from Argentina with time spent at three Estancia, first at Laguna Verde in the south, then to Lago Grey at the southern end looking at Glaciar Grey and finally to Las Torres for the final big hike up to Mirador Las Torres. It was a combination of landscape photography and wildlife hunting. In terms of scenery it was the icing on the cake.

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Patagonia: El Calafate, Santa Cruz, Argentina

El Calafate is the largest town at Parc Nationale de Glacieriares but it is still a small town with tens of thousand inhabitants. It is named after Calafate berry that is close to blueberry and make very good jam and sorbet. This was a one night stop, like a trip break between driving from Perito Moreno into Chile, which otherwise would be a long drive indeed. I think it was fun to be able to walk around a small city once, since after leaving Buenos Aires the only thing I saw was estancias and vast patagonian deserts and plenty of mountains.

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Patagonia: Perito Moreno Glacier, Santa Cruz, Argentina


Perito Moreno Glacier in the hot summer sun


This picture gives a sense of how big this glacier is


Tourists on the glacier


On the glacier


More lenticular clouds


Perito Moreno Glacier early in the morning before sunrise

4 January 2011 Leaving El Chalten this morning on the paved Ruta 40 down south past Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino, leaving behind Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. I’d say that I have been lucky to be in El Chalten and having a few days of clear skies. Today as we leave El Chalten, the peaks are already obscured by low clouds. It would have been depressing to come all the way to not see any of the amazing peaks at all, so I’m thankful to the weather gods.

Highway 11 brings us to El Calafate in time for lunch. El Calafate, named after a local berry (which makes a very nice breakfast jam, very close to blueberries, raspberries but a little more tangy sour) is more like a large camping ground. With a casino. Its a brainless way for bureaucrats to stimulate a boring local economy with a casino. For lunch, a local pizza place served up a large portion of food, do people here eat a lot... Even North Americans think the portions are too big. I ordered a special sandwich with bacon, egg and I think a small slab of steak, and it was filling enough I had no more space left for desserts.

For the short drive along highway 11 to Perito Moreno, the bus went along the banks of Lago Argentino. There are a few glaciers that feed into this massive lake, and every once in a while (more like every few hours) a large chunk of ice breaks off the glacier and floats on the lake. Imagine seeing ice bergs in a lake in summer. This, I was told, was mostly coming from Glacier Upsala which is melting the fastest of the lot. I don’t remember but this could be one of the glacier highlighted in “An Inconvenient Truth” as being a fast disappearing glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the largest in the region. Supposedly larger than the space occupied by Buenos Aires, 35km across and at the point where it meets with the lake and the part that is easily visible, 5km wide and it is supposed to be stable and in equilibrium.


Entrance to Perito Moreno Glacier National Park


At the entrance, checking up on cars

Nothing much in term of view on the way, until the bus got to the entrance to the glacier park where there was a little problem with the Hosteria forgetting to tell the entrance guards that a bus load of photographers were going to stay that night and not to charge entrance fee. The road ends at a look out broad-walk, and every car that goes in is required to pay an entrance fee. There is a hotel inside, not cheap, but with one of the best views of the glacier from every single room. This is the one that we are headed to.


First view of the glacier from the road

Glacial ice, made up of compacted ice, is deep blue in color when light illuminates. Behind the mountains here in southern Patagonia, is the southern Patagonian ice field a large expanse of ice third in size after the two poles. When looking at the mountain ranges, it is sometimes possible to see part of the ice field and what looks like ice overflowing over mountains and pouring into big lakes in the form of a glacier. In terms of the mechanism of how it all works, air coming from the pacific ocean contains plenty of moisture and when forced over the mountains it causes precipitation (or snow), which in turn feeds the ice field. Glacial ice breaks and melts into the lake, but is replenished by the ice field. By the time the air reaches the Argentinian side of the Patagonian range, it is mostly dry, which explains the desert terrain on the Argentinian side of the mountain range. After a few days in this place, that’s my understanding of how things work around here.


View of the glacier from the hotel living room


Hotel room view


Los Notros Hosteria rooms


Hauling luggages up to the rooms

For Perito Moreno glacier, I will spend two nights at Los Notros Hosteria. My room is on the ground floor with a view of the glacier. The window is big enough to be able to climb out through it and I already had some idea to set up a tripod and camera outside for star trails and for the morning shoot of the glacier tomorrow. The lazy landscape photographer.

After a short rest at the hotel, we take a hotel shuttle to the broad walk to get close to the glacier. This is an elaborate set of pathways overlooking the front face of the glacier. There are some steps here and I did notice lift for the handicap. Its an easy stroll mainly and one could spend hours here. The shuttle bus comes back to pick up tourists from the broad-walk after 1 hour. This leaves no time for all the paths but there is no necessity to do it all. There are different color coded paths there, some of them will take a few hours.


The full face of the glacier from the broadwalk


Nice infrastructure here


This picture gives an idea of how close the glacier face is to the broadwalk


Bridge connecting glacier and land where the broadwalk is located


As usual...


Dinner at Los Notros

First thing that hits you the first time you get out to the broad-walk is the size of this glacier. It's so wide you need a 12mm full frame lens to take the face in one shot. The broad-walk is directly facing the glacier face. Its close enough you feel like you’re touching it. From what I have heard, every 4 years the glacier blocks off a small portion of the lake from Lago Argentino where the level of the lake rises to a point where the pressure is so high it bursts the temporary ice dam. Today, I could see that the glacier has creeped close enough to the side where the broad-walk is and there is an arch with ice touching this side and water flowing under the the arch. I was told that the breach happened recently and everyone is waiting for the ice bridge to collapse and for the next cycle to happen again. There is also a constant roar of cracking ice and fissures forming deep inside the ice. Everyone on the broad-walk would look around every time a loud crack was heard. Again, sound travels slower than light, so we look around a lot for falling ice and making sure that the camera is set so that we can just put it to eye level and snap without doing too much complicated setting. After a while I learnt to see the telltale sign of when a break will be coming... listen to cracks (not splashes) an little bits of ice will usually be seen seconds before a clean break. The path were constructed on an elevated ground on this side to make sure that waves from crashing ice will not wash away visitors, which is a possibility seeing how close the ice is to the broad-walk.

5 January 2011 I spent most of the last evening trying to perfect my star trail shots, but as I am not that well versed with predicting how the stars here move in the southern hemisphere, I almost always shoot in the wrong direction. The morning shoot was centered on a nice lenticular cloud during the magic hour. One second it looked like a space ship, next second it starts to look like a interstellar giant creature. Minutes later it starts uninteresting. Shape shifter.

Back to this morning, the hotel prepared some packed lunch (sandwiches, juice, water and an apple). It comes in a paper bag and a backpack provided by the hotel. A hotel shuttle moves the guests to a pier just downhill, and onto boats that seats at least 50. The view of the glacier is to the right of the boat.

Yesterday was an appetizer. Today, I will get to walk on the glacier with crampons.


Tourist boat pier


View of the glacier from the boat


Boat captain


Destination: A patch of land next to ice that is flatter than the rest of the glacier

We alight at a small pier on the business end of the lake, before the boat starts picking up passengers for the return trip. The trip to the glacier is pretty straight forward, almost in a straight line and on the way back the boat usually goes in front of the wall of ice but still far away not to be dangerous when a big slab of ice breaks off crashing into the lake. First thing to do is to trek up to a locker room to leave the lunch backpack behind, and then a short trek in the woods to an area where land meets the glacier. All these procedures are quite well organized. There’s a professional tour company that manages the whole glacier walk, pretty much a monopoly. As long as they do a good job.


Short trek to the glacier

Back yesterday, the ice on the glacier is made up of large chunks of pointed ice, not something where one could walk on, but this section where the ice walk happens, the ice is a lot flatter, more like rolling hills. No mountaineering skills required. Just put on crampons and walk. While walking around the rocky ground before going to the area where guides put on crampons for the tourists, I loiter around the area hoping to see a large chunk of ice falling into the lake. Every loud crack made me look around for falling pieces of ice, telltale sign of the upcoming break. Since there is a long queue of people waiting to put their crampons on, I think I have about 15 minutes at least to spot breaking ice. I set my camera on continuous shot mode and high shutter speed just in case, and I focus my concentration on one are of the glacier that looked promising. Here, small ice chunks are breaking off quite regularly.


Another piece sliding off. I have about 40 frames of this event.

And sure enough, soon, some movement in the ice face and short seconds later, a chunk the size of a house starts to slide off the glacier. A big splash later, it was bobbing in the water along with a large wake of a wave radiating outwards. Nearby, a tour boat started to turn around so that it faces directly at the wave coming at it and once the first wave has passed, it decided to get out of the little bay and back into calmer waters. I did shoot about about 20 frames, capturing the event on my DSLR. Felt happy my patience was paid off.




And putting them on...

Spent enough time on the 20 frame, and time to rush to the crampon zone to put on the metal spikes. Excited. First time on crampons. Guides here tie on world-war two era crampons on tourists’ shoes. These are bare steel crampons without the toe spike so they are only good for walking and not for ice climbing. Its secured by a series of straps tied tight. Not a place to be wearing your office shoes for sure as the crampons will damage the leather. Who would be wearing their best shoe to a glacier anyway.

Walking for the first time with crampons is quite strange. Imagine not being able to flex your forefoot at all, and crampons on rocks is no fun. When walking on ice, it has the feeling of running on a wet grass pitch with studded soccer boots, except again, you can’t flex your forefoot. Our guide demonstrated the Godzilla walk. Its easy enough, and another precaution is to walk cowboy style to ensure one does not impale your other foot while walking with the spikes.


Tourists waiting for the trek on ice


Pool of water with a nice blue hue


Walking on ice


Crevasse with deep blue water. No idea how deep this one goes.


Tables set up on ice to serve glacial ice and whiskey


Ice gaucho giving a climbing demonstration


A guide in action...

The ice that I’m walking on is like medium-sized ice cubes and it has the same texture. Looks like the kind of place that you don’t really want to slip and fall as the ice looks sharp enough to cause some serious injury. Not the astroturf rash kind for sure. Think lacerations. At a couple of locations, one could look down a bottomless crevasse with dark blue colored water falling into the void. All water on this glacier, including small ice pools are dark blue. The guide’s story here is that snow that falls in on the southern Patagonian ice field takes about 300 years to move to this point and ample time to be compacted almost to the point of looking and feeling like ice cubes. So that’s what you get here, crevasses and rolling hills of ice. Highlight of this trip was a private session getting of official guide to climb one of the house-sized ice stalagmites to demonstrate how big it was. But seriously, walking on ice was never that much fun, and I was already thinking about buying a set of crampons for use during winter when I get back!


Waiting for the ferry

An hour or two on the ice was all we got. Back at the locker room the group sat down for sandwich lunch while waiting for the next boat to ferry everyone back to the hotel pier. The wait was almost an hour. Most of it was wasted resting on large rocks overlooking the Perito Moreno Glacier. I set up the camera and my sound recorder, hoping to capture picture and sound of the ice breaking off, but didn’t get a single thing at all in that single hour. But I have already captured enough frames earlier on, so was not utterly disappointed, though it would have been a lot nicer to capture some sound too.

The rest of the day was for resting. The walk on the glacier was still hard work and luckily for an extra dab of sunblock lotion just about everywhere on my exposed skin (reflection off the ice could also cause sun burn) my already burnt skin did not get additional stress. The last few hours of the walk on ice saw some cloud cover coming in giving a nice light to shoot in. Much more moody then a clear blue sky. Overall, pretty happy with the shootout today. Nice photos, first time on crampons and first time walking on a glacier. Many firsts today and well worth the effort finding my way all the way here. Don’t miss the glacier walk.

6 January 2011 After the glacier trip, the next destination is a long drive into Chile broken up with a night in El Calafate. This is a little like a rest stop. It was possible to go directly into Chile’s Torres del Paine National park but that would have been a whole day of tiring drive, so a rest buffer day would have been a lot better. This marks the end of Argentinian side of Patagonia. Another day and I will be in Chile, some say for the grand finale.





Proceed to El Calafate, Argentina...

Patagonia: El Chalten, Santa Cruz, Argentina


Arriving in El Chalten: Cerro Torre and Fitzroy in the background


Fitzroy in the morning


Rio Blanco from the top of the moraine at Laguna de los Tres


On the trek up Laguna de los Tres


Hikers at the start of trail to Laguna Torre


Cerro Torre

31 December 2010 ... Continued from the previous post. After Laguna Azul this morning, and a long drive around Lago Viedma later arrival at El Chalten was perhaps one of the best road trip I’ve been on. From far, the mountains I’ve seen in magazines and pictures start to appear slowly, and while the bus stops in many spots for us to take panoramas, it always seem to look better the closer you get to it. Normally there are not that much traffic on the road, but when the cars do appear they drive fast. Just before the descent into El Chalten there is a look-out point with a nice view that is spoilt by certain inconspicuous large buildings in the town.


Entering El Chalten


This is what I always wanted to do. BMW 1200GS roadtrip.

The bus went straight into El Chalten and out of it, proceeding straight to El Pilar which is just right outside of town. The rocky gravel road leading to the hotel runs alongside Rio Blanco and with mountains to the other side. Mount Fitzroy is visible closer to El Pilar and one or two other peaks. It’s not really a full unobstructed view of Fitzroy from here, but the peak is visible while the base is covered somewhat.


Picture says it all. Also the start of the trail up to Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia.


El Pilar Hosteria

A small stream runs right next to El Pilar, I’d say that this is Rio Blanco or one of its upper tributaries. It looks shallow enough a quick wade is sufficient to get across. I didn’t try as the water coming from glaciers are horribly cold, just an educated guess. I decided that the pebbled stream bed is a good place to be shooting in the morning and the first order of this evening at El Pilar is to scout for a good place for the morning shoot. For this purpose, a nice small point and shoot camera like the S95 is perfect for visualization. At this hotel, there are some rooms with straight views of Fitzroy, which is not the one I had. In fact, Fitzroy is visible from the dining room, the good thing being the diners could see the peaks of Fitzroy while having dinner at 8:30 pm just before the sunset at 10pm (summer).

Arrival at this place was close to dinner time, and for new year eve the chef prepared lamb for mains. There will be a long new year hike to Laguna Torre tomorrow to see Cerro Torre, one of the long hikes of this trip. New year celebration was quick and before midnight it was already time to get into bed to get ready for the next day. The last sunset of 2010 was average. There was no cloud at all, so no spectacular light show on Fitzroy, so there was no camera action at all tonight. Weather forecast for the next 2 days are supposed to be blue skies and very hot, apparently ideal for serious climbing, blue skies and calm winds


Setting up tripod in the morning


The result... Fitzroy in the right, and Poincenot on the left


And another interpretation from the same location.

1 January 2011 When staying at a nice place like this, anticipating a nice morning for shooting is difficult. Talk about sleepless nights, my room was not facing Fitzroy, but nothing stopping me from waking up every hour to check the weather hoping for no rain or low clouds. The weather looked clear this morning, and the alarm would wake me up at 5am and by 5:30am I’m out by the stream next to El Pilar looking for the best spot to set up the tripod. I swear I should have brought my headlight this trip but somehow I forgot it. The morning light that we photographers crave comes out close to 6am and the shooting does not really last for more than 10 minutes if that long. The setup has to be ready minutes before to be sure nothing is missed. Before the first light it out, the mountain looks bland and colourless, and after the good light, what you have is another boring mountain drenched and bleached in bright sunlight. The skies are really clear this morning and I could see the sun’s rays coming up over the mountain behind me and start to illuminate Fitzroy. First both Poincenot and Fitzroy is lighted up while the rest of the mountain middle and base is still in the shadows, and then the amber light hits the middle ground and the peak gets darker (I suspect it is my eyes playing a trick on me) and eventually in a short time, before 6:15am, everything is no longer amber and the morning light show is over. That is also a good time to catch up on some sleep. Long hike today.

What a way to spend the new year. A nice long strenous hike to Laguna Torre close to the base of Cerro Torre, about as far as we amateurs could go without making a fool of ourselves and inconveniencing the rescue team. Early morning, after breakfast and packing up sandwich lunch filled with sliced hardboiled eggs, ham and pickles lettuce, its time to start the long hike.

The bus ride goes back into the heart of El Chalten and to the start of the trail head by the edge of town. Don’t think I’m going to spend too much time describing the whole trek, but in summary, its rolling hills, sometimes in the shelter of trees and sometimes not, and then the first major view point at El Mirador (which I understood stands for “view” in Spanish). The view here is of the valley where the rest of the trek is about to take place. Cerro Torre, Cerro Egger and Standhardt stands in front marking the destination today. The full sun makes the trip difficult as a slow slog. It is hot and feels humid today. The next part of the walk descends into the valley floor along Rio Fitzroy.


Just in case I forgot where I am...


Somehow I trust my GPS more than this dumbed down map


This time without hikers


Magellanic Woodpecker


Cerro Torre from the Mirador


Llama train. Llamas have shorter legs and are domesticated compared to Guanacos.


Valley Floor just after the Mirador


Camp de Agostini


Occupants list at Camp de Agostini


Cerro Torre from the valley floor

There are a couple of streams here at the Mirador where bottles could be refilled with cold mountain stream water that tastes really good with a hint of tree barks. There was a llama train spotted going to the foot of the mountains to haul gear out. A few hours of walking in seemingly repetitive terrain, the path seems to be gaining some altitude. It looks like I’m going up a large moraine that holds Laguna Torre. At the top of the moraine and with a couple of large rocks to climb and avoid, Laguna Torre is just in front. To go any further will require a little more than zero mountaineering skills. The skies are still perfect and cloudless and right in front is Cerro Torre right to be photographed. There are not that many places in the world where you get a cluster of peaks made up of steep, almost vertical granite walls. Time for lunch and plenty of staring at the mountains and make the long strenuous hike worth every single bit of sweat that was shed on the way here.


Moraine holding back Laguna Torre


Setting up at Laguna Torre


... This was the result


... looks good in black & white too

The hike back was the least enjoyable part of the day. The heat is starting to get to me and that makes the hike back feel a lot longer than this morning’s trip to the lake. Everyone seems to be moving pretty quick, probably hoping to get out of this heat wave as soon as possible, but the rolling hills make it difficult to judge the distance. I had my GPS with me, but it just seems to go on and on and even with many refills of the water bottle it was still hot as hell. But at the last of the rolling hills, there was music blaring from the town of El Chalten, welcoming everyone that survived the hike back to town and best of all, was greeted by a big cold box filled with beer. Beer never tasted that good.


El Chalten from the trailhead to Laguna Torre.

And glad not have been devoured by a hungry puma.

Dinner that night was a quiet affair. Fatigue started setting in for most. I had sunburn all over. And this was on top of some burnt skins from Buenos Aires!

The hike today was so tough, an original plan to hike up a tougher route to Laguna de los Tres tomorrow was to be delayed. The weather tomorrow was supposed to be hot blue skies, with good views and visibility, but at the aftermath of this new year hike there was no other choice but to take a chance on the weather for the day after. A rest is required. So gamble we shall.


Salto del Chorillo waterfall


Food. El Chalten on our rest day.


Yup. Tourist town.


Small Town. Nice Views.

2 January 2011 Rest day: i.e. do nothing today. That’s not true to be exact. Took the bus down to El Chalten for a bit of walkabout. Nothing much in the town, most of the people walking around are backpackers but in the hot sun there are not too many people nor cars on the street today. How hot? Like the inside of an oven. Dry and hot. On the way back from the town, made a stop over at Salto del Chorrillo, a waterfall close to El Pilar. I found a good spot to take my shot but had to wait long for the sun to get to a point where I get the lighting that I wanted, so I ended up not making the shot at all. The real reason for the laid back day was to be rested for the long hike tomorrow. Glad the hike was not today. However the weather forecast for tomorrow is tough to call... patches of rain, definitely some clouds to be expected, marking the end of sunny days.


This silhouette of Fitzroy was taken during dinner between mains and dessert.

3 January 2011 Contemplation. General sleep problems this morning wondering if I would survive today’s anticipated long walk. Skipped the morning sunrise shoot and it all starts at 8:30am walking along the banks of Rio Blanco up to Laguna de los Tres near the base Mount Fitzroy. The backpack is pretty heavy, tripod, one camera, one wide angle zoom (17-35mm) and a medium telephoto zoom (70-180mm) plus water and lunch.


Easy Trails


No idea how this tree got to be like this...


Private Property? Where?


One looks like a dog. No idea what the second one looks like. Personal squirrels?


Result of woodpeckering on this tree


Lenga Trees

The start of the trail is easy enough, rolling hills and under shade of old lenga forest with trees that seem to have snapped sometimes at the trunk, either by strong winds or perhaps old age. It has the look of a spooky type of forest with trees up to 20m tall in some places. This is the type of place you’d wonder if you want to camp out at night. Trees here seem to just die off and take its own sweet time to rot. There are patches of clearing with shorter trees and patches that are in the clear with just short undergrowth. The last two days were perfect blue skies and we get the payback today with cloudier days and a chance of rain on the evening perhaps on the way back down the mountain. In fact the cloud cover is so low, Fitzroy would occasionally go in and out of the cloud cover.

The walk is punctuated with sounds of cracking roars, chunk of ice from nearby glaciers breaking off and falling into glacial lake. Glaciers here hang off mountains so broken parts crash pretty loud. Since sound move slower than light (if you still remember what you learnt in school), when the sound is heard, its usually too late to see anything. So don’t bother looking if too far away.


Distant hanging glacier, source of all the cracking sound. Glaciar Piedras Blancas.


This was going to be the last time I will see Fitzroy today before the cloud cover came in.


Camp Poincenot

After 3 hours of walking, we walk past Camp Poincenot, a campsite with occupied tents, with personal belongings and laundry hanging on lines. This, I was told is the demarcation line between “nice long walk” and “long hard climb”. Right after the tented area, the path goes down to the pebble river bed, a nice place to refill the bottles for the oncoming sufferfest, and crossing one of those rickety bridge where one person crosses at a time because it is THAT weak. It doesn’t sway at all, but the wooden bridge does creak a bit when I crossed, and the weight of my backpack made it quite unstable for me to cross the bridge. At this point I must be around -49.27916, -72.96525.


River crossing


I feel important already...

The bridge crossing was uneventful enough, but the view of the switchbacks we’re about to go up on is a different story all together. Laguna de los Tres. Steep. Tiring. But I have been walking close to 4 hours right now and turning back would be a serious character flaw. And this is one serious looking moraine that has to be conquered before getting to the destination. There is no tree cover on the switchback, but good that it is a cloudy day because a full sun would have been horribly exhausting. Loose rocks form the ground almost all the way up but they’re not really dangerous unless you decide to fling yourself over the cliff or faint on the way up.


Up the switchbacks


Almost at the top


Panorama of Laguna de los Tres

One step at a time, and eventually we go get up to the top of the moraine. Reminded me of the long high altitude hike I did in Sichuan China which ended with a broken artery in the cornea, so this time I rest when I’m short of breath. The altitude is not that bad here, but the sheer strain from carrying a few kg backpack and steep switchback does sometimes take its toll. On occasions, I could feel the build up of lactic acid in my calves. The problem with moraines are the loose rocks. They are horribly tough to walk up, zapping up energy going uphill.


The small speck on the bottom right are 2 climbers on the ice field across from Laguna de los Tres. Nice weather to climb it seems.

Up here, it is devoid of any vegetation. Laguna de los Tres has a nice blue colour from the melted glacial ice. Unfortunately, the clouds did not lift when I got up there, so it was only possible to see the base of the mountain. There was enough time up there to have my packed lunch sandwich and fruit juice while waiting that the clouds to clear. The winds here are strong, sometimes the weather can change for the better (or worse) in a few minutes. But not today. I made do, photographically, with what was in front of me and tried to take a panorama or two. With a long telephoto lens, I spotted two climbers hiking up a ice field opposite the lake. The footprints in front of them tells me that this is a common path and they’re not the only two going up the mountain today.


Hopping to the cliff edge to have a peek at Laguna Sucia


Laguna Sucia

Over on the left edge of the lake, crossing a little stream that leads to a waterfall that drops a few hundred meters, Laguna Sucia is visible down below. Imagine one lake high up (de los Tres) and a second one (Sucia) below in a steep valley, almost vertical walls. Laguna Sucia itself is quite big but the clautrophobic valley it is located in makes it very difficult to take a nice picture of the whole lake without either a helicopter or me dangling off the side of the cliff. I believe that these two lakes are what feeds Rio Blanco that flows next to El Pilar where we stayed, can’t really confirm it and I’m too lazy to do a wikipedia to check.

This is not the first time in Patagonia, but it always seem to feel like the return hike along the same path feels a lot longer than the way up. I don’t mean to say that it is boring, the views are stunning, but either its strenuous or the craving for pampas-fed steak at the end of the hike awaits every night.




On the return trip, the peaks are now covered.

The way down the moraine was quick, while trying to be careful not to bust a knee cap or two when descending too quickly, but the rolling hills in the forest just seem to go on forever. I could feel my knee starting to buckle. Which reminds me that I will need to get a trekking pole next time I do one of these long hikes. And perhaps to lose the tripod and try to hold my camera a little bit steadier. Sometimes times like this you realise that you don’t really need so many gear to shoot a nice photo. Looking at the result at the end of the trip, I think I could have done 90% of the pictures I wanted with a wide angle and a medium telephoto around 200mm range. I want to think that my cheap 200mm f4 AIS would do but I’m not confident to shoot that without a tripod, hell even with a tripod I’m quite wary of camera shake. Anyway. equipment aside, its true the best camera for you is the one that you have with you.

Returned to El Pilar at 6 pm after around 10 hours outside. That’s a long long day. Dead tired and legs are sore. It started to drizzle a bit, and what I didn’t mention is that I do have some raingear in my pack just in case. Weather here changes quickly and you can go from hot summer to cold winter when the wind changes direction. In fact for some parts of the trek today it was drizzling, but that helped to keep the temperature at a bearable 15-20C level which is a welcome respite compared to the trek up to Laguna Torre 2 days ago.

But now back at El Pilar, what better way to cap a long day than a hot shower and a argentinian steak dinner. Food in this place is amazing. I won’t call today a good day photographically speaking. Would have been a lot better to be rewarded with a nice view of the laguna in the foreground and Fitzroy in the background and perhaps some high cloud cover, but it was not to be this time. Even back at El Pilar we could see that it was probably starting to rain up at Fitzroy. The mountain didn’t show itself today, which makes for a good excuse to come back in the future. I shall return.

Tomorrow we take a bus down back past El Calafate towards Perito Moreno glacier.




Proceed to Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina...

Patagonia: Lago Viedma, Santa Cruz, Argentina


Mount Fitzroy on a clear day.


On the banks of Lago Viedma & lenticular clouds.


Horses at Estancia Helsingfors.


Road to Estancia Helsingfors.


Laguna Azul.

29 December: Buenos Aires - El Calafate


Domestic waiting lounge at EZE airport


First view of Patagonia with Lago Viedma in the foreground


There are not too many boarding bridges at this airport. Not more than 2. Maybe even only one.

From Buenos Aires, will be leaving early this morning to the domestic terminal at Ministro Pistarini Airport (EZE). Will be taking a two hour flight into the heart of Patagonia, a small town called El Calafate close to the southern tip of the continent. This is still in Argentina, and there is another airport bigger in Punta Arenas, Chile, but for this trip, we will be driving down to Punta Arenas from El Calafate over a period of about 3 weeks. The flight is a little different than the other I have been on, usually flights require passengers to have the window shades up during take off and landing but on Aerolineas Argentinas you could keep it down the whole flight. It felt different because the flight was in bright daylight but the inside of the plane felt like night time. I swear if the flight was any longer, it would be possible to get jet lag as the body adjusts from an implied nighttime to bright daylight when we land! Right after landing the same plane heads off to Ushuaia so passengers were advised to make sure bags were off the plane else it will be ending up in Ushuaia.


On the way to Estancia Helsingfors


La Leona tea break spot


Other than the cakes and cookies on offer, La Leona also has proper meals. Not something you expect in the middle of nowhere.


La Leona also has a small museum of articles used in the farm

Then it was a few hours drive from the airport directly to Estancia Helsingfors where I will stay for the next few nights. We’ll come back to El Calafate in a couple of days before going down to Chile. The scenery here are deserts and some shrubbery and the road hugs the giant Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma. Most of the time the bus would be heading up North on Ruta 40 before branching off to the left on the south bank of Lago Viedma at an Estancia called La Leona (-49.80915, -72.05317). There is almost nowhere to stop and rest along the whole drive, so most drivers make a stop at the rustic La Leona for some refreshments and pastry. Good food there too.


My first view of Cerro Torre (the pointy bit on the left of centre) and Fitzroy (the tallest peak in this picture) looking across from the other side of Lago Viedma

Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy are visible throughout most of the drive. Terrain started off with deserts after leaving the airport and the vegetation denser as as we get close to the mountain range. There were rabbits, some guanacos and an armadillo that was spotted along the way. Have a group of serious photographers in the bus and you'd guess there were plenty of stops along the way. Cerro Torre is the easiest peak to spot, a large granite needle sticking out of a mountain range. But don't be fooled as it is 3200m tall. The unique thing about the mountains around here is the cluster of granite peaks sticking out of the ground, carved by giant glaciers.


Right after La Leona, the road to the estancia becomes just a simple gravel road


On the way to the estancia with Fitzroy in the far distance. It is soft because of the heat causing atmospheric distortion.


Estancia Helsingfors’ check in counter and living space


Wind here comes only in one general direction, so most trees here only grow branches on the downwind side.


Flowers with a little bit of Fitzroy in the background


An Armadillo that we spotted while on the way to the estancia

Estancia Helsingfors (-49.668503, -72.88523) is a further tens of km away on a gravel road that looks like a private road that leads just to the estancia. Along the way along the banks of Lago Viedma on a hot day, Mount Cerro Torre (3128m) and Fitzroy (3405m) are visible from a long long way away. So far away, that photos taken with a long telephoto showed severe atmospheric distortion. The estancia is on the banks of Viedma, at the entrance of a finger tributiary of Viedma that is surrounded by mountains and at the end of it on the western shore, hanging glaciers (like Upsala) could be seen marking the edges of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. I’ve never seen that many of these hanging glaciers before. Was checking out the maps of the area and some of the mountains that are around the place is Cerro Don Bosco (2515m), Cerro Murallon (2656m) and Col Cono (2530m).

30 December: Estancia Helsingfors From the estancia, Mount Fitzroy is about 50km away across the lake and framed by mountains in between. From here, the mountains around Cerro Torre are not visible.


Fitzroy in the morning covered by clouds. In fact, most of the time I was there, wind was pounding Fitzroy from the left and it looks like a fin sticking out of the ground and trails of clouds and turbulence always form on the right side of the mountain.


Fitzroy on a clearer evening. Notice the cloud trails on the right of the mountain?


Morning at Estancia Helsingfors. This was shot with a long lens, and the shadow cast by the morning sun and heavy cloud cover gives it a little mood that I liked.


Evening at the estancia. That’s the stable house by the lake side.


As the winds in Patagonia can be very strong, clouds like these semi-lenticular clouds are very common.

This morning the sun rose at 5:30 in the morning. Not knowing what to expect on my first morning in Patagonia, I decided to play it safe and start early at 4:30am setting up tripod at a spot I thought would be good, waiting for the morning sun to illuminate Fitzroy. This morning there were mainly grab shots and the sun really only emerges and hits the slopes at about 6 am during summer. However, after all the wait, the dense clouds this morning were not really cooperating at all and only the lower part of the mountain were illuminated by the amber light while the rest of the mountain was covered in clouds. At least I have my timing right for the next morning. Still some more chance to take a morning shot.


Argentinian gaucho...


...And the horses

After a late breakfast the first order of the day was to go out and shoot some horses and a single gaucho. They were all from the Estancia Helsingfor’s private stable. The hired gaucho was supposed to run the horses around for the photoshoot while keeping the recognizable Fitzroy in the background. This was close to noon, so the exposures had harsh shadows and most of the time the subject was in the shadows and the mountains were in the bright sunlight. Pictures coming out of this shoot will have to be adjusted in Lightroom for sure, to boost up the shadows and keeping the background from getting blown highlights.


Peninsular hike. The estancia is hidden between the trees in the distance.


This was taken at the peninsular, and I was having problems standing upright. This tree is fixed in this position after being pounded by strong winds all the time.


View from the peninsular. I see this peak all the time from the estancia but never got to take down its name.


Nothing to do with the peninsular, but I just like the way this stick looks on the bed of shrub.


Fences on the return way back to the estancia.

After lunch and a short nap, it is time for a introductory warm up short hike over to a peninsular on Lago Viedma (-49.6681, -72.9168). It's a good hour hike away and the wind was relentless here. At the peninsular, it was so strong it was impossible to stand upright much less setting up a tripod. I'm guessing this is easily typhoon strength wind and is supposed to be a Patagonian specialty (roaring 40s?). Although I had a tripod with me, it was useless here. The wind flowing around the tripod was vibrating the setup so much it would be less vibration while holding the camera in hand. Trees here are pounded by the strong winds all day (and night) long and the trees are all growing in one direction and showed a lack of branches where the wind is blowing from. However it is still possible to have shelter when you stay on the downwind side of the tree. Of course the tree will have to be dense enough. Whatever it is, strong winds. Beware the Patagonian roaring 40s.

31 December: Estancia Helsingfors, El Chalten The trek that is in store for this morning is a little more brutal. Its a long hike up to Laguna Azul. Since the price of a horse ride is included in the room rate in the estancia, I thought it would be a good idea to save some strength and go on a horse instead of walking all the way. Before the trip the gauchos would give us a lesson on how to ride a horse for dummies. They're like machines with temper. Take the reins, but not too tight. Arms out and pull the reins slightly to the left and it will turn left and right goes where you'd expect it to. Pull it up to get the horse to stop and if you pull it long enough it will reverse, turnaround or get confused. Give it a little kick to the belly with your heels and it will move forward. Kick harder and it will gallop. For me it is very uncomfortable during the gallop, so I think I will just let it cruise all the way. I’ve been on horses before in China (first time) I never knew that I could control the horse that intuitively. There it was just sit on the horse and a minder walking alongside the horse will guide it.


Horse ride up to Laguna Azul. This is at the start close to where my horse slipped a little bit.


A Crested Caracara. Seen quite a lot of these in this Argentinian side of Patagonia

The route is a relatively easy uphill path (at least on horseback) with a cliff to navigate early on. My horse slipped there but I was busy looking at the scenery and didn't notice at first. Was heart stopping for sure. Made me regret not hiking myself for sure. The arrangement for the fleet of about 10 horses was for a guide gaucho in the front, while another gaucho took the rear to make sure no one strayed away and got lost. Most of the time the horses were just following the train, they may stray off a bit taking a different path but it always merge back with the rest of the team. I’m guessing that its because they can’t see the front without turning their heads since horses’ eyes are on the side. I thought that the horse knows the path better than I'd ever would so after some time I'd let it do whatever it wants as long as I don't fall too far behind and will have to be forced to gallop.

Some way up the hill we come across a clearing, pasture on the mountain where we spotted a guanaco grazing. The first group that opted to hike on foot was already here, crouched low with their telephotos shooting the animal. No guanacos for me this time then. It was not possible to switch lenses on horseback. Not a gaucho yet. After that was a patch of forest with fast streams of water flowing through it and I can stay here and sleep anytime. Before long we were going uphill again, along the sides of a valley. The horse train would get to a point not too far away where the gaucho tied up all the horses and the lazy passengers would have to hike the rest of the way up to Laguna Azul since the path is starting to get quite steep.


Laguna Azul from top of the moraine


Hanging glacier at the lake.

The reason this part was getting steeper is that I would have to climb up a moraine to get to the glacial lake. Checking wikipedia on moraines and you’d see that long ago, glaciers would push a pile of rocks and when it retreats it would leave a rock dam (moraine) and a lake behind. This one is high up on the mountain side so it is necessary to gain that much altitude to get to the moraine and then climb it to get to the lake.

Truth is this is my first glacial lake ever and it was an amazing sight and a half. Only issue is that my lens was a little long, a D300 with 28-70mm lens. Would have loved to have a 17-35mm and FX camera with me. To improvise, this called for a tripodless panorama, which is the only thing I could do. Lunch here was a matter of sandwich I made myself during breakfast and some fruits while sitting on the top of the moraine looking at the lake. Unfortunately the wind was also quite strong up here, and I had to look for big rock to go behind. Colour of the lake is dark blue, very saturated kind of way, I was told because of the composition of the glacial ice. Spent close to an hour up here, including a short hike down to the bank of Laguna Azul just to stick my feet into the water for the record.


View on the ride back to the estancia, Fitzroy in the background.

The trip back to the estancia was simple enough. Same route on the same horse and this time the steep side slopes that we pass didn't feel as scary anymore. Right after the horses were dropped off at the stables, and after quick refreshments and checking emails on the estancia’s slow internet connection and toilet break it was time to board the bus for the long drive around Lago Viedma to the destination for the next few days, closer to Fitzroy and Cerro Torre in El Chalten. Weatherman forecasted perfect climbing weather the next 2 days. Can’t wait to get there.


Leaving Helsingfors...


... towards El Chalten. Hello Cerro Torre & Fitzroy!

At El Chalten, we pull up at a charming small hotel called El Pilar (-49.23601, -72.93328) with a view of Fitzroy and at the start of the trail to Laguna de Los Tres.


Desert plants on the bank of Lago Viedma


One for the road...



Proceed to El Chalten, Argentina...

Patagonia: Buenos Aires, Argentina



Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aire


La Boca, Buenos Aires


La Boca, Buenos Aires

25 December: Microcentro, San Telmo, Puerto Madero, Palermo & Recoleta I’d arrive in Buenos Aires on the eve of Christmas, mainly to recuperate from the 2 days of flying from Asia, and also to have a look around the city before the real Patagonian adventure starts.


First Morning in Buenos Aires

First day of this trip and i will attempt to walk around without carrying a DSLR. There is something strange about carrying one around a city. I barely, if ever, print any city scene beyond 5R. That is also why I prefer to be quick and fast around cities with small cameras like the Canon S95. My plan on this first day is to start off by surveying the tourist area of Buenos Aires next to the hotel at Microcentro smack in the centre of town. There’s a tourist street called Florida. Think Oxford Street, Orchard Road and you get it right. There’s probably much more souvenir shops here than anywhere in Buenos Aires, and I would be expecting quite a number of football jersey shops. Most of the shops are all closed today, being Christmas and the Argentinians being pretty religious and all, except for the usual tourist stores selling tourist paraphernalia. Seems to be quite a number of Burger Kings around in the city centre.


I am where it says I am.


At the park: I was hoping it was not my mind playing tricks on me, these tree branches just look unique.

At the end of Florida is Plaza Libertador Saint Martin, a park that sticks out on the map. I walk around with a hotel given free tourist map, and just to be sure, I have Google Maps on my Android device as well. The latest Gmaps circa December 2010 is quite nifty, you zoom in to street level till you get the 3D buildings and then just move it around the area I plan to visit and the app will cache the map on the phone. Too bad the GPS on the Samsung Galaxy S sucks so much it is slow and inaccurate, but it will do for a tourist.


Monumento a los caídos en Malvinas at the end of Plaza Libertador


I don’t believe this is a metro station. Subterranean passageway on Florida should be the right answer!


Usually I see this in China only. On a hot day, what’s the best way to cool down?

The apparent thing while walking around downtown Buenos Aires is that signboards here are almost all donated by some company or another and the ones in this park are donated by American Express. Walk a little farther and you see signs donated by the local telephone company, Claro. Cars on the streets are mainly small Fiats and Fords for police and taxis. Saw quite a number of old cars from the 70s too. There are just tourists and homeless hanging around this park. Time to make my way back on Florida aiming straight to San Telmo to see some old parts of Buenos Aires.


Plaza de Mayo


Cabildo de Buenos Aires, around Plaza de Mayo


Catedral Metropolitana


Quiet Streets at Plaza de Mayo

Headed straight down Florida and I’m now at Plaza de Mayo outside of my plan. That Catedral Metropolitana is an interesting one. Its got a Roman architecture, I initially mistook it for a library. Doesn’t look like a typical church at all. Casa de Gobierno is a reddish building in the same square. The rest of the central square is strewn with rubbish and pigeons are everywhere in the form of the bird and droppings. The lawn is partly dried up, perhaps due to a hot summer, not somewhere you’d want to lie down for a sun tan. Museo de Cabildo is a white building that’s one of the standouts here but closed on this public holiday, but also apparently for a cleanup renovation which it seems to desperately need. Boards are used to cover up all the windows which suggests that the homeless love this place.


A Pub Signboard close to San Telmo


I like the old cars in Buenos Aires, they are sometimes very well kept.


Cobblestone streets tell me I’m at San Telmo (I think, but I’m quite sure based on Google Maps)


Not all places in San Telmo is quaint and tourist friendly.


If something is predicatable, I just like tiles like these. Very Iznik in style, but obviously not made the same way.

After a long enough walk, along quiet streets devoid of traffic, I’m at San Telmo along Peru street and left along Humberto. Drunks are all over the street, broken bottles and graffiti are everywhere. There are some sections of this place that has old cobblestone streets. They are to the left of Bolivar St. Walked up to Plaza Dorrego with outdoor cafe ‘Todo Mundo’. Looks full of tourists. I move on. Pardon the staccato type. Not that easy to walk on a hot day and writing this at the same time on the iPhone. I’m using Plaintext this time to do all these typing, what it does is that it saves the text file onto and I will be able to access it when I get back to my iMac at home when its all done.


Museo de la Parroquia, San Telmo

Humberto I and Defensa. Right at Museo Penitenciaro Antonio Ballve which is not open today right at the corner of the small park. Sign outside describes the history and what to expect on the inside. Next to it along Humberto is a church-like building called Museo de la Parroquia (Apparently also called Museo Iglesia San Pedro González Telmo). That’s it for me at San Telmo. Nothing is opened today, streets are quiet and it is a hot day. Time to walk back to the hotel and a detour at Puerto Madero.


Puerto Madero


This restaurant was closed when I was there, but it does have a nice looking parilla grill.


Puerto Madero Cranes


Usual format: posh apartments on top, posh restaurants below.


Not everything is flashy in Puerto Madero

It helps that Puerto Madero is just next to San Telmo on the map, it is still a walk and a half away, but not that far for someone that is used to walking. New developments start to show up at Dique 1. At least after seeing the old buildings in San Telmo, this is a welcomed sight. Restaurants are everywhere overlooking the waterfront. Puerto Madero is littered with large dockside cranes still intact to impart the port atmosphere. Most of the restaurants here are Parrilla-type restaurants specializing in grills. The price looks on the high side but that would be what you’d expect here. Every city has one of these redeveloped areas with restaurants with crisp white table clothes. It’s early 1 pm and I am not in the mood for a heavy lunch. It is a long walk back to the hotel, and I have my phone wifi on just in case I spot an open access point to send out some emails and sync Plaintext.


Metro station entrance

1644hrs: Microcentro. Taking the metro for the first time. They call it the Subte. No tickets required today probably because of Christmas, the ticketing gates are opened, at least and I don’t speak spanish, since everyone just passes through it, I do the same. Nothing special about the metro here. As dirty as any European metro. Taking the B line train from Florida to the next stop to switch to the D line.


Buenos Aires Metro. Its Christmas day.

Now this is where it gets confusing. Guards were closing up the entrance to the platform. Followed the guys over to another entrance and I have no idea if there is a train or not here at 9 de Julio station. People are moving from one end of the platform to another to look at the opposite platform. I do the same and noticed on the other side there are some security guys standing about with a stretcher and something that looks like a long garbage pile covered in black plastic trash bag. Dead body in metro so they’re closing up the platform. That’s a first for me! Before long, the train arrives so I can stick to the original plan and no need to take a taxi. On my way to Ministro Carranza station to have a walk at Las Canitas and Palermo districts. That’s a good 10 stops away from 9 de Julio so guessing half an hour or so.

I walked the whole of Ave Santa Fe to Recoleta without seeing too many functioning shops. That’s from Las Canitas region to Racoleta, at least a few kilometers. Restaurants are also mostly closed. As usual opened shops are those mini marts opened by Chinese. I can’t tell the dialect they were speaking, sounds like Vietnamese to me and not too much Cantonese. As walked in Palermo, the shops clustered around D metro stations, some cafes and pizza parlour are opened. Otherwise the street is messy with dog shit all over and it is clear that people step on it all the time. Reminds me of Paris. People like to keep dogs but they don’t clean up after their pets. After a while I decided to take the metro but this time the lady at the counter wants money for the ticket. So now I can’t explain why the counter lady at Florida didn’t bother collecting money. I passed her 100 pesos and she showed a sour face and refused to take the note. I understand why. But for the fun of it I had to curse her in a different language. It’s starting to get close to 7 pm so I decided to talk a slow walk towards Recoleta for dinner before going back to the hotel, the night is still young.


Plaza San Martin de Tours, just outside Recoleta Cemetery


My first evening in Buenos Aires, this is along Av Cordoba

Soon I reach an area with a little higher concentration of bars than the rest of Palermo I just walked just now. Ah, the elevated sculptures of angels on one side of the road opposite of the bars tell me that this has to be the Recoleta cemetery. A quick check on Google Maps confirmed this. Some fancy, some look more ordinary but they all look towards the sea. I had my first big juicy Argentinian steak there, never thought steak tasted so good without any sauce or dressing on it. And then it was a slow walk back to my hotel along Av. Del Libertador, after having a good day without too much jet lag affecting me. That buffer day in Los Angeles is starting to look like a good idea.

26 December: Microcentro, La Boca & Puerto Madero


Teatro Colon

Started off today’s walk with a stroll to the Teatro Colon (-34.600998, -58.38259) on Av 9 de Julio. Here’s the short review of the place. Renovated. Clean. Security everywhere. Possibly called the Colon because of a nearby huge obelisk erected in the middle of the wide avenue. This area is full of Tango theaters, I’m guessing because they all seem to advertise tango, and the probability of a temporary tango festival happening at this time is probably unlikely, Buenos Aires, being famous for the dance. I guess a city cannot be cultured without its theaters, so this is where all the culture in this city is located.


Lunch. Pizza. Happy.

Then it’s down to Corrientes for lunch. It is noon and extremely warm. Good that the weather is not too humid. The cars are coming back onto the streets today on boxing day and most of the shops are open. The buses here, I noticed is almost as decorated as the jeepneys in the Philippines. Maybe it has to do with the conquistadors. The other observation is their love to stick telecom towers on top of building, looking extremely ugly breaking the original aesthetic of the building. I’m sure the original architect never expected the owners would stick a tall tower on top of it. And I’m looking at the type of slim towers secured by cables on all sides.

Had a good pizza for lunch. Not especially fine, this shop is made for a quick meal. But the mozarrella they put on the pizza was fresh and plentiful. Which makes a good enough Napolitana for me. With that much cholesterol and fat for lunch, I’m afraid I might just pass out sleeping on the street!


Monument to Pedro de Mendoza at Parque Lezama


Lazy afternoon at Parque Lezama


On the way from Parque Lezama to La Boca

To prevent myself from sleeping after the meal I continue the walk southwards, and fast, along Av 9 de Julio passing roads named after countries. Just passed Venezuela and now Mexico is coming up. Still a long walk to La Boca. Pretty ambitious day. In new places, if time permits, I prefer to take a walk and experience the whole city rather than an easy taxi ride where you’re in one spot and suddenly you appear in another. Took a long break at Parque Lezama (-34.625611, -58.370715). There is a monument dedicated to Pedro de Mendoza. Perhaps the founder of Buenos Aires. On the north west corner of the park are restaurants and cafes. Will take a long break here after walking for close to an hour. Nothing much to do on this Sunday afternoon before continuing to La Boca, just a lazy day in a new location.


How do I know I’m close to Boca Juniors Stadium? Then again, this mural is quite common in this area, there must be a template sold somewhere.


Outside the stadium


Outside stadium souvenir shop entrance

1550hrs: Reached La Boca. Quickly had an iced cappuccino at Cafe Mendoza and quickly the neighborhood turns messier and looks poorer, which is quite the norm with the area around major stadiums. A little while more I come across the yellow and blue colored towering structure that is the home of Boca Juniors (-34.636227, -58.36435). Souvenir shops are everywhere but I know myself better. All souvenirs that I buy end up in storage very quickly, so no souvenirs other than photos. A little bit southwards is Camanito (-34.639281, -58.36298), a street full of bright colours and street stalls selling street paintings and portraitures. I don’t personally understand why someone would buy one of those. To tell friends who visit them where they bought it? If it’s still hanging on the wall in ten years time. But there should be plenty of buyers people, which is why people are still selling it in all tourist locations anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the sun is still directly above right now, meaning that colors are not as saturated as they could be, so I took just a few grab shots with my small camera and went straight to the docks (-34.639502, -58.36140) for a little break. Quite disappointing destination. Maybe I was over-expecting what I would see here at La Boca. I will have to comb wikipedia later today when I get back to the hotel to learn more about this place. In the mean time, I shall sit here by the piers and enjoy the breeze before the long walk back. I guess I could take the metro but I still need to walk this city, and collect GPS plots. Did I ever mention my GPS was on all the while in my bag logging all this?


Pier at La Boca


These giant cranes at La Boca doesn’t seem to be operational, just a landmark.

On the way back stumbled across a dodgy looking part of the city right next to La Boca tourist area. Residents here are lounging on the street bare-chested with beer, streets are messy and gutted cars can be seen left there to rot. Somehow it didn’t look like a good place to be walking especially if you look different to them. Time to plug in the iPhone audio, and quickly make my way back towards the crowded area around the stadium. One guy even stuck his hand out for a high five. I slapped it and walked away being careful not to strike up a conversation or get distracted. Distraction is the most common trick employed by thieves on tourists. Next Direction on the way back to the hotel: Puerto Madero. Safe. Familiar. Boring.


Navigation in Buenos Aires with a Samsung Galaxy S and Google Maps


Second day of Puerto Madero

The good thing about today, the day after Christmas, is that the choice for food is much better. Close to the hotel I saw this Parrilla called “La Posada de 1820” (-34.600877, -58.374157) with a respectable looking grill and much more relaxing atmosphere than Puerto Madero. Ordered a serving of Parrilla special, short ribs, chicken, sausages and blood sausages. Thought about leaving the giant grilled bife de lomo to another day since I have 3 more weeks in Argentina. Time to try the other dishes first. Tenderloin later. Ordered a side dish of boiled vegetables to drown the guilt. All dishes here seem to come with small mini baguettes in mini baskets. Skip. Where’s the meat? One first word I learnt here is “carne”. Next would be “gracias”. Priorities. I’m surprised the orange juice here is usually freshly pressed without any dilution. Wine was tempting but not in the mood to have half a bottle of a Mendoza.

The dinner bill came up to 85 peso. Not too bad. There was just too much for me. People here sure eat a lot. What I had for dinner is enough for two back where I came from. And I did not touch the potatoes at all, expecting the large portions. Most shops including this one also advertises exchange rate at the front door especially for USD. Probably meant I could pay with USD as well and the rates ranged from 3.9 to 4. The spread here is quite good paying in USD. This, compared to the 15% spread at the airport exchange bureau between USD and Argentinian peso, is a deal. Anyway left the restaurant very very bloated and it is time to return to the hotel and recover for the next day.

27 December: Central Buenos Aires This will be a lazy day. Started off with a move to another hotel just a short walk down the road. Everything is fine except the Internet at the Melia is not free. Again I’m very much against hotels that charge for Internet. Should be free like running water. Looks like I will have to look for open AP instead of paying the hotel chain for this basic necessity. The other thing is that I received sunburns from the last 2 days of walking Buenos Aires. I don’t think I will want to walk too much anymore so it will be a strolling day around Microcentro.


The bookstore


Where else would I be browsing?

This afternoon, I took a walk along Ave Santa Fe to El Attaneo bookstore that is popular on many travel websites. Its a hot day and most shops are opened by now. I was thinking between a heavy lunch and a sandwich and the guilt of last nights dinner means its a sandwich for lunch and a bottle of synthetic juice. El Atteneo is a nice place though most of the books are in Spanish, it is still possible to find the occasional English. The inside of this bookstore is a small theatre converted to a bookstore. The stage, complete with velvet curtains is now a coffee shop packed when I was there. Many in this bookstore are snapping away pictures along with flash exposures. I took a few and started to browse photography books on the ground floor. I need to cool down here before the walk back to the hotel in the hot sun. Not sure about the acoustics though, not an opera buff.

The walk back is just as uneventful except there was an intersection where pedestrians were crowding around someone on the ground and the police was present. Just like anywhere else, humans are curious animals. Another thing I noticed is that a lot of the stores and minimarts seem to be run by Chinese. How can you tell? Chinese owners always manage their cash registers.


Huge slab of meat

Dinner tonight was at a restaurant called El Carbon (-34.597618, -58.372875). And I had a big slab of bife de lomo and side dish is always never included with the mains. I had grilled vegetables with it along with Argentinian Malbec. Never had beef that tender before. Great stuff. Argentina is starting to be a beef heaven for me.

28 December: La Boca & Recoleta


Caminito Street in La Boca: Colours everywhere


More colours


This one was shot against the sun, around noon and the wall was in the shadows. Amazing how much you can pull out in postprocessing.


There are a lot of people and mess in La Boca, so it is difficult to get isolated shots like this one.


Tourists in La Boca, doing tourist things


This is in one of the slightly less crowded streets


Main Caminito street. Can’t miss this sight.

Today marks the first day of the photo workshop. We were supposed to spend some time at La Boca and Recoleta to practice composition. Nothing new about La Boca. I was there before except this time I have more camera fire power with me. It was a hot sunny day and I was drinking through many bottles of water. The bright sunlight made it very difficult to get anything with nice lighting but with close enough crop it is still possible to get something.


It was a hot day at the cemetery, and I was waiting here for the right frame with “make a wish” above. Didn’t get what I wanted.


Some of the mausoleum is quite elaborate at Recoleta


One of the higher class corners in the cemetery.


Maintenance goes on all the time here. And it looks like sometimes they remove the casket while the fix stuff.


The colour version of this picture didn’t give enough of the right mood, but I thought the b&w version works better.

Recoleta cemetery is a little different. There are statues everywhere and for the adventurous, some crypts are open and it is possible to down the stairs and admire the caskets. In fact most crypts have ground level caskets and some are rotten out of care. Spooky enough even in bright daylight. Most tourists seem to make their way to Evita Peron’s crypt and that’s all. We spent a few hours there and had a few people asking us the direction to that famous spot. That’s the equivalent of Jim Morrisson’s grave in Pere Lachaise, Paris. Hot day. Gone through many pictures but still very disciplined. Plenty of time to concentrate on what to shoot.

Dinner time started with a little hunt along the main street to look for open wifi points. Did find a few, most of the cafes have open points. Had to find one just to send off all the emails that has been accumulated in my phone mailboxes. Dinner was at a restaurant I found on the street thanks to called El Establo Cafe along Paraguay street. I think I’ve had enough meat for this stay at Buenos Aires so it will be fish tonight and especially need to try the Southern Trout.

Today is the last day in Buenos Aires. Tomorrow I will fly out to El Calafate, saying goodbye to the city and hello to Patagonia.


I’ll end this post with more colours


Proceed to Lago Viedma, Argentina...

Patagonia 2010/2011: Pre-Trip

Trip date: 23 December 2010 to 20 January 2011


Nothing to do with the post, but I like this shot taken close to LAX


Over Cuba. One day I will visit this place.

It is not everyday that one gets to make a trip that is so long it is almost epic. That’s an overstatement perhaps, but I had to ask for a month off work around Christmas and it was not that easy to convince the boss that I need to disappear that long, most of the time in areas of the world where I would not be sure if my mobile phones would work.

The last day at work started with a late 3am sleep on the day of travel, no thanks to a late night cup of coffee. Then there was the work day that got extended while spending too much time looking for the "out of office" menu item in Outlook. (Eventually found it was a victim of my overzealous extension pruning in the name of performance-optimization, accidentally removed it and never knew OOO was an extension!). There was also the last minute packing routine, making sure I have enough power adapters, and minimum clothing and the right equipment. Got to the airport extremely tired and then realised that Singapore Airlines booked me on a connecting flight with less than 2 hours layover at SFO going from international to domestic terminals.


In LAX: I don’t know what the fuss is all about water coming from Fiji, my daily latte, and a book to keep me awake when I should.


Only SFO had free wifi. The other airports I went through were too stingy with the internet, but at least they had free power supply.

That was a long winded opening without really mentioning where I was going, although the title should have given it away. It is December in the northern hemisphere, and of course it is summer down south. This trip was already planned close to one and a half years ago.

It is Patagonia, baby! to get there I will have to fly into San Francisco, then Los Angeles, Miami before hitting Argentina. I will start off with a few days and Christmas in Buenos Aires, and then a domestic flight to El Calafate to loiter around El Chalten and particularly the peaks of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. It will be a totally landscape affair, main attraction being the landscape photography opportunities and of course plenty of pampas-fed beef steak. Next would be the glacier at Perito Moreno, my first glacier. There were a couple of chances to visit one in China but I skipped it, so this one is a good start. A long drive later, crossing the border I will end up with a week at Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Punta Arenas is the next destination, and I will then make the trip down to Ushuaia by bus, again going back through Argentina, and into Terra del Fuego. A few days there to claim that I have been to the bottom of the world, I would fly back from Punta Arenas to Santiago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and finally back to the far east. Plenty of flights, many connections and if everything goes well, and no delays, I should not be missing any flight. Just to be sure, I inserted a buffer of a day in Los Angeles to break up the tens of hours in economy class.


Waiting for an early morning flight at Miami


More or less the same in Miami: Bottle of water, what they call Cafe con Leche, and breakfast

Equipment... lets see, my Garmin GPS is with me, as usual, so is the Sony PCM-D50 sound recorder. Camera wise, Canon S95 for everyday shoot out, and 2 DSLR, a Nikon FX and backup DX and 4 lenses, going from 17mm all the way to 300mm plus a 1.4x teleconverter just in case animals appear. I pack a mid size tripod and get ready a panorama kit and all my landscape filters. The idea is I pack light and do laundry along the way. Some tools will help with Macgyver situations during the trip. Otherwise its all set.

Yes it could be once in a lifetime trip, but I’m sure I’ll be back again if the hype is to be believed. Lets see...


Over Miami


Munsubongsan, Seoul, South Korea

I’ll make this post the laziest one that I’ve had so far. Rather simple. North Seoul. Mountain. No map, just follow those usual old Korean hikers and live to record GPS paths and pictures. It was a bright day, so it made taking pictures boring.


So lets do it quick: 1. Line 3 Metro to Gupabal 2. Bus 7211 to 진관사 3. Munsubong 문수봉 727M ( 37.632133°, 126.971909°) 4. Down to Daenammun thru ilseonsa temple

Trip Statistics: Odometer 11.4km, Moving Average: 3.6kmph Moving Time: 3:11 Stopped Time: 1:30 Maximum Altitude 727m


View from the top of Munsubongsan. Picture is a subtle HDR.


The rocky top of the mountain is littered with boulders, and there are hikers as far as the eye can see. Some are more daring than others. Behind me is an all wall protecting Seoul from invaders.


This is the real peak of Munsubong, but it is not that easy to get up as it requires some rock scaling on your hands and knees and perhaps a rope.


At the peak.


And it is still autumn, just a reminder.


Fujikawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

What a hectic weekend. Saturday morning flight to Haneda airport followed by a drive to Fujikawaguchiko and the rush back the next day to catch the last flight from Haneda. This trip was supposed to take place the week before (31st October) but was delayed because of Typhoon Chaba, which would have caused non stop weekend of rain. And there would be no way Mount Fuji would be visible from the town located 10km away to the north. If you have followed this site quite a bit, you would have noticed that this is one of my favourite sites to shoot Mount Fuji. I could wake up early in the morning and walk 30 mins to the other side of Kawaguchiko across the bridge and set up my tripod before 6am. And in the last 3 times I have been here, Mount Fuji would always be visible in the morning along with a calm lake to catch some reflection. Kawaguchiko is large enough not to be perfectly calm, and the wind does kick in about 7-7:30am. So get there early. I will not detail too much how to get there, the easiest would be via the Keio Express bus line from Shinjuku just opposite Yodobashi Camera. And as a primer, Fuji 5 Lakes regions composes of... of course, 5 lakes. From the right to the left, there’s Yamakako, which I have never been, and since I have not heard too much about the view there, I have no plans to visit since it is also out of the way. Kawaguchiko is arguably the easiest one to access, as it is just situated by Fujikawaguchiko and the northern shore is littered with attractions like a monkey show and a music box museum. The views here are one of the best accessible without long hikes and a car, and Mount Fuji looks symmetrical from here. The only possible issue is that the town would be visible in your picture of the famous mountain. Only an issue if you’re after the mountain sans civilization. Just next to it would be Saiko, where Mount Fuji is not visible at all, obscured by a close by hill. News has it that Saiko is a good fishing place. Next to it, a little drive a way is Shojiko, which I think rivals Kawaguchiko. Cars could drive to the lake bank facing Mount Fuji, and you could get down to water level. What you would see on the opposite bank on the foot of the mountain is just pure nature. However, Shojiko is not that easy to reach without your own car. The public buses don’t run regularly, so you may have 1 hour there and if you do not get on the returning bus, the wait may be quite long. No buses at night the last time I checked, so night time shooting by bus would be impossible. One could camp by the lake side though. The last one is Motosuko, a relatively large lake, with an elevated vantage point at the far side of the lake. It is even more remote than Shojiko. This is also the view of Mount Fuji that could be found at the back of a 100 yen note.

Lets see what we have here...


Shoji-ko: This is one of the first shot of this Autumn season for me. The EXIF reads 5:30pm and it was already dark. Exposure reads 30 secs at f5.6 on a 28-70mm. It was already dark when I got there, and the long exposure lights up the mountain a bit. I kept the foreground dark to convey the evening mood. You could see car lights on the right at the bottom of the mountain, and some faint lights at what could be the mountain 5th station. AT this time of the year, the snow cap is starting to grow, but obviously it is still early.


Shoji-ko: This is one of my favourite picture of the shoot. Exposure reads 4 minutes 30 seconds and f8. I did another one that was 20mins long but came up to almost a blank shot. I had a ND8 on the lens and I would have to stretched it to 1hour exposure if I was to get something like this. What I wanted to do with this shot was to have a long enough exposure to catch the star trail. You could also faintly notice a line of a passing aircraft. I would have wished to have more time here, I guess I will explore the possibility to camp here the next time. Would have been great to catch an hour long star trail.


Kawaguchiko: This was taken at very close to 6am. Note the vapour on the lake surface. This morning was not what I hoped for, with cloudy skies in the morning. When I got to the lakeside at 5:30am the mountain was covered in clouds, but almost always it clears at close to 6am when the faint trace of sunshine appears. You also notice that Fujikawaguchiko town is quite prominent in the foreground. This is a 4 sec exposure at f8, at about 40mm, and I cropped the top and bottom of the original frame. You also noticed that the view from Kawaguchiko is a little different, with the long gentle sloping sides of the mountain visible from here, while at Shojiko, the slope is quite strong.


Kawaguchiko: Looking at the east at the rising sun. The only good thing about a cloudy day is that the morning red sun glow is quite strong.


Kawaguchiko: With the sun starting to appear in the morning, Mount Fuji starts to glow a little shade of red. This scene only lasts not more than 10 mins. In fact I think it might have been shorter than that. So this is where an ergonomic camera comes in, when you switch from one scene and light type to another. The controls has to be easily found and you do not have the luxury of diving into the menus to change something.


Kawaguchiko: Looking towards the west, at the thin layer of fog on the surface of the lake early in the morning. We are at 6:20am now.


Kawaguchiko: Here’s a 1 minute exposure intended to give the lake a smooth appearance and to blur out the clouds. It has this mysterious look although it was not one of my favourite shots. Lacks drama. EXIF says 60 sec at f8 and so far all these were shot at ISO200.


Kawaguchiko: This is one of the opportunistic shot for the morning. A fisherman was just passing by in front of me and I waited for him to reach the middle in nice alignment with the mountain peak before I took the photo. Note the altocumulus clouds, as the lower level clouds start to be blown away.


Kawaguchiko: And with a little graduated ND filtering, here is a shot that starts to look different from the rest. This one is 6:48am. There is now enough light to do 1/30sec at f8. I’ve switched to a 17-35mm wide angle set at 22mm for this shot. All on tripods and remote trigger.


Saiko: One of the reason to come here at this time is to catch the Autumn leaves in Fuji 5 Lakes region. At the lower altitudes most of the trees are still between green and yellow while it has already started on the top of hills.


Saiko: Ok I lied a little bit. It is possible to catch Mount Fuji on the western end of Saiko, but only at an oblique angle like this. Since Saiko lies on the shadow side of a hill, it gets the sun later in the morning, and the fog on the surface of the water is still visible at 7:50am. The lake surface is relatively calm here, with reflection of the mountains quite well defined. The blue tint on the water surface was courtesy of a Singh-Ray Gold-n-Blue polarizer. The non filtered photo looks quite bland since I’m shooting more or less into the sun. EXIF reads 1/90s at f8 and I’m back to the 28-70mm.


Saiko: Morning fishing at the lake. This close crop isolates the scene from the messy mountains in the distance which would distract from the subject, in this case the boats. This was shot with a telephoto, one of my favourite lens, 70-180mm Micro. It looks sharper than this on the original file, almost pixel level sharpness. I just love the way the surface level fog stays on this lake surface longer than the other 4 lakes.


Saiko: On the same side as I am standing on, a fly fisherman prowls the banks.


Motosuko: This is the only one that I liked from the banks of Motosuko. This is 8:30am and the sun is already quite high up in the sky. It looks like it over the mountain as at Motosuko you are looking from the west. The vantage point at the carpark is elevated, and I don’t think the lakeside view will be better because part of the right slopes of Mount Fuji is obscured by a hill. This view is very difficult to digest for me, mainly due to the lack of ability to capture a clean Mount Fuji like at Kawaguchiko. However, I met some Large format photographers at Motosuko, so there is obviously some with different opinions than me. The cloud day and the fact that most morning you would be shooting into the sun, makes Motosuko a better evening spot.


Shojiko: back at Shojiko, I noticed this opportunity to shoot a reflected bank at the western end of the lake. Mount Fuji would be on the right in this case. This was shot at a humble 35mm. ISO had to be cranked up to 560 due to the fact that most of the foreground is actually in the shadows. I had to use Lightroom to bring it out while keeping the skies controlled.


Shojiko: The rest of the lake looks quite normal. Nothing special in this view.


Shojiko: One of the boats you could rent for fishing. I’m not sure if a fishing permit would be required to rent it, but for fishing that’s for sure. For this shot I had to add +2/3 stops to the exposure as as the boat is relatively in the shadows compared to the background. But the resulting image was better than I expected when I first shot it.


Shojiko: This marks the second trip where I get ducks swimming past me. The first time I fumbled to switch my camera to the right setting to get the ducks and the mountain sharp and the right shutter speed. I ended with a blurred out ducks... motion ducks. This time I dialed in 1/250s and f11 right away and also managed to set the camera to continuous shot. I have about 10 shots of various duck positions, but I tend to like this one that is a little past the mountain in the middle. I also like the way the sun is partly obscured by the cloud and it is possible to see the god rays above the mountain. Focal length for this shot is 17mm on FX sensor. I’ve heard of people complaining about the Nikkor 17-35mm, but it is a fine lens for me.


Shojiko: Picnic by the lakeside. One day....


Fujikawaguchiko: Enough mountains... the other reason to come here is for the red leaves. There is an entire tourist attraction the week I was here based around a flea market and the sights of red leaves like these. This was shot just next to the road on the northern banks of Kawaguchiko, with many tourists passing behind me. 70-180mm Micro does its second purpose as a micro lens.


Fujikawaguchiko: More red leaves. This is at 1/180s f5.6, the only reason for the large aperture is that I was hand holding the lens set at 90mm and I really wanted something sharp. ISO is 450. For close up shots like this I would go for shutter speeds that are reciprocal of double the focal length (i.e. 1/180s)


Fujikawaguchiko: Trying something different here.


Fujikawaguchiko: I have no idea what this chair is doing here, but it is one of those test shots that made me go “hmm, not too bad looking” after importing it into LIghtroom. So it stays.


And one last shot to close this post. What a better way than to shoot a Japanese Maple leave, Japanese style with uncluttered background and lighter earthy toned overall picture. Over and out, till the next season at Kawaguchiko.


Ungilsan, Seoul, South Korea: Autumn Hike


Ungilsan in Autumn: Achieved by focusing much closer than the subject itself and let the bokeh work its magic.



Although I was using a wide angle lens, the slope on the left and right is not an optical illusion.

This trip started as a routine mountain hike a little outside of Seoul at a place called Ungilsan (운길산) mainly because it is possible to get there by taking the suburban line 1 metro to a station with the same name. At least on the map it looks like there is a mountain to climb over there. And it looked like one of those popular places to go on weekends as there are quite a number of overdressed korean hikers (nothing new here). The metro line is supposedly quite new, going all the way to Yangpyeong town and going upstream along the Han River.

Ungilsan metro stop is new enough to be built less than a year or two ago. Just outside the station is a large map of the hiking paths that lead off the station. I counted at least 2 or 3 high peaks and many smaller routes. There’s no real need to memorize it for me since all routes would be new to me. Best would be to follow the crowd. The path starts by going back where the train came from, past many village restaurants on your left. This is where it is possible to load up on lunch by buying a kimbap or two (Korean maki rolls). Then the road goes under the train track and through a small village. Very quickly it starts to go uphill through some woods.


At the village at the bottom of the montain, some of the lower peaks around Ungilsan


Some parts of the hike is quite like an easy walk.


Hikers in Korea have this habit of stacking up rocks while making wishes. This is one of the largest I’ve seen to date.


I’m still wondering what caused this tree to grow in this manner.

The route is simple enough, and you do get tired from the slight incline through the woods. I’ve noticed that other than using the path in the woods, it is also possible to walk on a road that is possibly steeper and leads to Sujongsa temple. The hike is not really that difficult and not really that far. I’m guessing that the top of Ungilsan is not more than 3km from the metro stop. Very soon the path leads to the spine of the mountain where the path becomes a little easier to climb. I wouldn’t call it a climb, more like an easy hike.


Start of autumn.


This is one of the first red leaves I encountered on this hike, not particularly pretty, but still red.


In some sections the leaves are starting to dry up, getting ready for winter.


This is close to the rest area, showing the close proximity of the leaves, making it possible to take pictures of it without any specialized gears.

A few hours later hikers will reach a rest area where some adventurous sellers will sell you lunch or refreshments. When that happens you know it is an easy climb for some. From here the summit is less than 200m away. However on this day it is understandably crowded. The peak itself is crowded, and at the time I was up there, just after noon, the sunlight was so harsh, it was only possible to look at the view but not to photograph it. I guess I could but I would never be happy with the picture. Instead I took a geotagged photo with my iPhone for the token momento.


On the way downhill. Again, the slopes are not an optical exaggeration.

The hike is possibly even forgettable for me, but since we are in early autumn here in Seoul, trees are starting to shed leaves, and there are a couple of trees with very saturated red leaves. I’d want to call them Maple leaves but I’m not scientifically sure, so let’s just call it red leaves for now. When I see one I’d take a break and attach my macro lens and get to work documenting it. The lighting is not that easy to shoot with a Nikon D300, sometimes I wished I packed my heavier D3s. But with a little bit of luck and patience I’m sure I will be able to get something out of it. I try to look for a break where sunlight would be able to get through the canopy and illuminate the leaves. Sometimes I’m lucky, othertimes I get a nice arrangement of leaves but no good light. At times like this I normally try to shoot manual mode so that changes in lighting intensity do not mess up the pictures, and it helps also to dial in a fixed white balance since the WB between direct sunlight and shooting in the shadows can mean that the same scene be rendered in uncontrollable hues.


One of the buildings making up Sujongsa.


View from Sujongsa.


Main Temple



Buy a tile, write something and tile it up. Most of the tiles are in Korean, I didn’t see any alphabets on it.

As usual, my path downhill is usually a different one compared to the uphill trek. This time we decided to go down the path that leads to the temple called Sujongsa (수종사). Again, an easy walk down the hill to the temple, and right after the temple it is possible to take the road down to the metro station. At least when walking downhill, this road does look quite steep compared to the path through the woods, but it is not possible to figure out if this is a perception thing or whether it is really steeper. All I know that is that it is quite hard on the knees to walk down a steep road for a few kilometers.


Always need my picture of farm machinery.

Reading about this post after the trip, it sounded like one of the most unexciting posts I’ve done in a while. I’d say that this hike was not too bad, lingering around the “standard” level and not much more. If not for the autumn leaves I’d say that this trip would be quite boring. Maybe it would be better after a heavy snowfall in winter? Who knows... Maybe its time to try it out in the dead of winter.