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Patagonia: Lago Viedma, Santa Cruz, Argentina

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Mount Fitzroy on a clear day.

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On the banks of Lago Viedma & lenticular clouds.

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Horses at Estancia Helsingfors.

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Road to Estancia Helsingfors.

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Laguna Azul.

29 December: Buenos Aires - El Calafate

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Domestic waiting lounge at EZE airport

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First view of Patagonia with Lago Viedma in the foreground

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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.

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On the way to Estancia Helsingfors

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La Leona tea break spot

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Estancia Helsingfors’ check in counter and living space

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

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Flowers with a little bit of Fitzroy in the background

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Argentinian gaucho...

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...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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Laguna Azul from top of the moraine

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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.

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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.

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Leaving Helsingfors...

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... 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.

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Desert plants on the bank of Lago Viedma

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One for the road...

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*end*

Proceed to El Chalten, Argentina...