Scheme #2

When Theresa was studying in Germany, the first place she took me when I came to visit was to the doner stand. Somewhat like a gyro, but with a little more bread and a different sauce, the donor is the fast food of Germany, having taken on new life from its Turkish origins. And it is oh so delicious. But why do I bother to inform you on the fast food habits of the Germans? Because we found a doner stand in Cordoba, called Mega Doner.

Theresa attested to its relative authenticity (as real as one can expect 5000 miles and a hemisphere away) by demanding we go back a second time, and on that visit we saw the signs selling Mega Doner franchises to expand into other areas of South America. There are currently three in Cordoba and they are looking to expand. This was the germination of Scheme #2. Buy a Mega Doner franchise and locate it somewhere in Chile or Argentina. It’s brilliant! As Mega Doner’s own website says, it requires no cook or training, has no direct market competition, and is delicious.

We haven’t figured out the where part yet, because we need to find a good market of students mixed with an enjoyable city. We are currently in Salta, and while lovely, I don’t think it has the youth we’re looking for. Mendoza would be a fine choice but I don’t know if we could compete with the wine bodegas. And of course there’s Buenos Aires or Santiago.

Our other problem would be our own inability to keep ourselves from literaly eating our profit. The only growth may well be found in our bellies.

A Wildlife Bonanza on Peninsula Valdes

Maybe you’ve seen one of the nature program specials that show orca whales literally beaching themselves in order to feast on seals. It’s pretty freaking cool. Well, at least it looks that way on television. Though we recently visited Peninsula Valdes, where this survival of the fittest feat plays out, we didn’t see it. First of all, it’s not the right season. And second of all, you have to have the patience of a saint…or a Planet Earth videographer…to actually witness it as it doesn’t happen all that often.

But before you feel too sad for us (sob, sob, I know), let me just show you a few photos of what we did see on our day on Peninsula Valdes.

While on a large zodiac boat, we had a close encounter with two southern right whales, a mother and her baby. These majestic animals, which come to Peninsula Valdes to breed and give birth, were in their very last days in the area, as they are setting off any day now for the feeding grounds of Antarctica. These two whales hung out with our boat for nearly an hour, gradually getting closer and closer until they were practically right beside us. At 16 meters, the mother whale was larger than our boat. The baby, drinking 200 liters of milk each day, was well on its way to catching up. Though I’ve seen whales in the wild before, this was the closest I’d ever been, and I couldn’t help but ooh and aah every time they surfaced, which was approximately every 2-3 minutes.

While whale watching, we also saw a large colony of sea lions, who all seemed to prefer this one rock, though there were others nearby. We also spotted four bottlenose dolphins, which were hanging out with the whales.

The day involved a lot of driving on really bad roads as we hit wildlife hangout after wildlife hangout. Luckily the driving was made less boring by several wildlife spottings along the way, including a fox, some crazy rabbit thing, guanacos, and this father rhea and his baby. Actually, there were about 14 other babies with him. Apparently male rheas care for their offspring instead of the mothers, and not only do they care for their own, they also actively try to acquire others to care for by fighting other fathers and then stealing their chicks. Weird, huh?

The elephant seals proved a bit of a disappointment, as we didn’t see any with extremely prominent noses. We also didn’t see them do much. A few sets of them were fighting (or maybe just hugging), a couple were trying to bully others into fighting, but most were just laying there, looking awfully close to dead.

The penguins, however, didn’t disappoint. They completely amused us as they wandered around, looked at us bewilderdly, gathered together in little groups, and seemingly attempted to fly. We were also enamored by the little chicks that had already emerged and curious about the eggs not yet hatched. I just don’t think it’s possible to be around penguins and not smile (or for that matter, hold your nose, because phew for being so cute they sure do smell something awful).

So, sure, we didn’t see an orca attack, but we did get to see a lot of cool animals. Not a bad day, I’d say.

How to Walk on a Glacier

Begin by walking a few hours over mountains and through scrubby Patagonia valleys all while enjoying the view of dramatic mountains that are usually hidden by clouds but show themselves off the entire time you are in El Chalten.

Then clip on a harness and zipline across the river down which flows the melting water from the glacier you are approaching.

Next approach the edge of the glacier, which is covered in rock and dirt from the mountain from which this glacier comes.

Walk gingerly on the crusted top before stopping and putting on your crampons as the crust disappears, leaving only ice.

Taking wide steps so as not to accidentally stab yourself with the sharp blades of your crampons walk along the ledges of the glacier, passing small and large cracks which appear magnificently blue, peering down into an 11 meter sinkhole, stepping through small rivers flowing on the top of the glacier, and listening to the creak and moan of a glacier in decline (like most of the world’s glaciers).

Stop for lunch at the base of a large ice wall and after refilling your tank, pick up your ice ax, tie on a belay rope, and give ice climbing a try.

Continue walking on the glacier, passing through a tunnel of ice, dripping very cold water on you. Remember at this moment the one thing that you dislike about your Canon Point & Shoot Camera: that it doesn’t tell you the battery is low until it is totally and completely dead.

[Imagine here a 10 foot tall, 15 foot long tunnel that is icy white on the outside but bright blue on the inside with a texture that looks as if huge scoops of ice have been scraped out it. Picture a small river running through it and water dripping from the ceiling. And then imagine Theresa and Jeff with their tongues out licking the wall of the tunnel.]

Finally, exhausted from the hard work of walking on such a different surface, return to solid ground and then make the long hike back to town, returning 12 hours after you set out.

The Birth of an Iceberg

There’s a reason so many people come to El Calafate, and its not for the expensive restaurants, though with any tourist town that’s a part of the deal. No, El Calafate is the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Glacier National Park), and the highlight attraction, Glacier Perito Moreno. This is a glacier in the classic sense, flowing directly into Lago Argentino. We headed out early in the morning in a rental car to beat the tour buses so we could sit in silence and listen to the creaks, moans, cracks and thunder of the glacier, and we were not let down. We felt dwarfed at sitting at the bottom, now looking at the pictures it’s really hard to get the right sense of proportion.

What separates Perito Moreno from other such glaciers is that it moves really fast, meaning it is regularly calving, or as we like to call it, giving birth to new icebergs. We got to see four or five large “births” and each time was as incredible as the last. The noise as the ice cracked, then dropped, then hit water, then reverberated around the area was simply awesome. It was literately minutes before the sound totally died away and it was silent again for a few minutes (till the next creaks began).

(Hope that file didn’t eat your computer … or our website). I wish we had a way for you to hear the sounds too.

Standing Tall at the End of the World

On Thursday night, we made it to the end of the world. Okay, we didn’t quite make it all the way to the end as the cheapest boat we could find to Antarctica was $4,900 per person, but we are in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina (at least if you are willing to believe all the signs and ignore the town of Puerto Williams just across the Beagle Channel…hey, it’s a town, not a city).

To make it to this final outpost on the way to Antarctica, we rode a bus for 11 hours, passing through the wide open expanses of southern Patagonia where there’s nothing but scrub grass and sheep as far as the eye can see, crossing via ferry the Strait of Magellan where we saw penguins swimming in the cold water and Commerson’s dolphins (very small, black and white dolphins) playing in our wake, crossing out of Chile and into Argentina, entering the windblown nirre and lenga forests of Tierra del Fuego, and then winding along narrow roads towered over by massive snow-capped peaks.

Then before us, seemingly out of nowhere, the rather large and overall quite prosperous town of Ushuaia appeared. Alone at the end of the world, it’s surrounded by mountains and the depths of the Beagle Channel.

In the span of a few minutes, you witness blue skies and then get wet as the rain comes down. You can watch the mountains disappear as heavy grey clouds cover them then move out over the ocean, allowing the mountains to reassert themselves. A smattering of hail may be followed by skin-frying sunshine (the ozone layer above Southern Patagonia has one big fat hole in it). And the wind may blow hard enough to almost pick you off your feet before completely dying. It’s an odd place.

But it’s also an undeniably beautiful place. You can’t escape the striking beauty of the mountains and the sea, and you can’t fail to acknowledge the harsh beauty of this place balanced right at the tip of South America. To best take it all in, we hiked straight out of town and then straight up Glacier Martial.

At the top, while trying not to be blown away by the crazy gales, we stared out at the Beagle Channel, scanning over the boats in the harbor and squinting out to where the land gives way and there’s nothing between us and Antarctica but the deep, dark ocean.

And then, when our noses threatened to fall right off our faces, we threw ourselves down on the glacier and slid right back down to sea level, where it was warm enough for an ice cream cone.

From sea to glacier-covered mountain peak and back…all in a day’s play at the end of the world.