How “Howdy” Has Made Me A Better Traveler – Considering Cultural Identifiers and Their Value

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Each time we interact with a stranger there’s a significant amount of uncertainty. When that interaction occurs between people from different backgrounds, cultures, and languages that level of unknown is magnified significantly. To convey our background and express ourselves while reducing that uncertainty we dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and when it comes to travel, we present ourselves a certain way.

It’s a common desire among travelers to fit in. This has significant advantages in the form of increased safety, added opportunity for cultural immersion, and the chance for increased experiential engagement. However, it also makes it significantly harder for you to communicate basic information about yourself to the strangers you have an active desire to communicate with.

While we will almost always be readily identifiable as a visitor to locals due to the brands we wear, the camera slung around our shoulder, or the day-backpack we’ve got strapped to our backs it is fairly easy to start to blend in, should you desire it. At which point you’ll notice your interactions begin to change, both with locals and other travelers.

So, where does “Howdy” come into this?

The moment you open your mouth and utter a word the people you’re interacting with will know that you’re an outsider. Often, what they’ll have trouble identifying is where you are from, and how to engage with you. Unless, that is, you decide to help them. As an American from the southwest, that’s where the word howdy enters my equation.

With one word, I can share a wealth of information with the person I’m striking up a conversation with. It tells them I’m probably from the USA, that I’m a native English speaker, that I’m ok with a slightly more casual interaction, and that I’m likely friendly. One word used at the very onset of the conversation creates and establishes a baseline of common information upon which we can build a more comfortable interaction and less awkward conversation.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you always use a cultural identifier, only that you consciously add one to your vocabulary.

Hostel Inn Tango City - Buenos Aires, Argentina

A Few Examples

The first time I realized the benefit of using a cultural identifier, howdy in this case, was during an off-season trip to the Greek island of Crete. I’d been on the road for 2+ months already, and was apparently dressing more like a European than an American. When combined with my international features I could have been from almost anywhere. Time and time again in stores, or when interacting with street vendors they would approach me and begin to work through a variety of languages. Most started with German, then switched to French, then often Italian before eventually growing slightly frustrated and defaulting to English. These were individuals I wanted to communicate with (otherwise a simple smile and shake of the head would have been sufficient), but with whom I was accidentally making communication significantly more difficult. The moment I started responding to their inquiry with the same smile, and a howdy we immediately began communicating more effectively.

Hostel common areas provide another excellent example. In these spaces there’s really only one well grounded assumption to be made – that the people you’re about to interact with could be from anywhere in the world. In these spaces the level of social uncertainty is magnified. While almost everyone is eager to socialize and interact, there’s a high level of uncertainty in the initial interaction. In these types of situations everyone is hungry for any hint that helps them relate and connect with the other people. Once again, this is a perfect chance to use a cultural identifier to help reduce uncertainty and build common ground.

A third is when locals or other tourists approach you with questions, which I find happens surprisingly often. These instances can be somewhat awkward, as you may or may not have a decent familiarity with the area or subject they’re asking about. They’ve approached you, a perfect stranger, with the assumption that you’re probably a local, and have already taken a social “risk”. One made more awkward if you don’t understand their inquiry, or if you have to ask them to re-state it. A process which can be accelerated, or avoided all together with a word or two right off the bat. The added benefit is that words like bonjour and howdy can be spoken immediately, even if the other person has already started to talk without being impolite.

Subtle Language Requests

To be fair, when you use a cultural identifier like howdy, you’re doing more than just expressing information about yourself. You’re also subtly inviting the other person to have the conversation in your native language. If you’d prefer to try and remain in the other person’s native language it may be worth considering what regional salute is suited to that language, or opening with your own cultural identifier and then adding a brief phrase in the local language. This tells them your native language, but then also indicates that you’re interested in continuing in their language.

Think about your interactions both while abroad, and with visitors in your home region. Where are you from? What words might you use to identify yourself? Can you think of a time when you used a cultural identifier, or perhaps did not and should have?

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My Argentina Trip in Review – Analyzing One of the World’s Greatest Destination Countries

Over the last decade Argentina has gone from quiet tourist destination to one of the world’s most sought after.  With world famous steaks, an absolutely delightful wine industry, and incredibly captivating Argentine Tango the country has stolen the hearts and minds of 20-40 something adventurers throughout the world. I have to admit, I wasn’t any different.  Hailed as the Paris of South America Buenos Aires offers a rich cultural experience and serves as the main draw for aspiring visitors.  In reality, most of the visitors I met in Buenos Aires intended to spend almost all of their time in the city chasing great dances, food, and drink.  I was initially drawn to Argentina by those three factors and in the early stages of my trip planning, envisioned myself spending nearly all of my 21 days in Buenos Aires learning Argentina tango, feasting on cheap meals, and finding grand adventures late into the morning. If I had I would have never truly experienced Argentina and would have made an egregious mistake.

Dinner Cooking - Ushuaia, Argentina

Luckily, as I researched the country in greater depth I had several close friends suggest that I leave the city to explore some of Argentina’s natural beauty.  Driven in no small part by the simple desire to get as far south as possible, I researched the southern Andes and was captivated by Tierra del Fuego, and the world’s southernmost city  – Ushuaia.  As my research unfolded I quickly realized that Argentina is home to some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders and offers natural landscapes and terrain that can easily give New Zealand a run for its money.

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

The incredible thing about Argentina is that it allowed me to go from hiking out to the middle of a glacier and sitting with thousands of penguins on a pebble beach to lazily swimming at the base of one of the world’s most incredible waterfalls situated in the midst of a massive, sprawling jungle filled with vibrantly colored toucans and other exotic wildlife.  I feasted on delicious gas fed steak, mouth watering seafood, and split lamb cooked over an open fire, all washed down with fantastic wines while relaxing after watching a heart stirring Tango. In short. I fell in love with a country I merely expected to enjoy. Sounds good right?  Ready to go?  Before you do here are a few of the surprises I ran into.

Penguin with Woman - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Surprises

The Cost – One of the first things you hear when listening to people talk about Argentina is how cheap it is. I say bullshit.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that its an incredibly expensive country, but its also not an incredibly cheap one.  With massive inflation over the last decade and an incredible surge in the tourism industry prices in all of the places you’ll probably be visiting as a tourist, even an off-the-beaten-path backpacker will still be fairly expensive.  Believe it or not Argentina was my most expensive trip to date, yes, even more so than my recent 18 day trip through Europe and Scandinavia.  In no small part, that was due to airfare, the size of the country and the pace at which I was traveling but it also had a lot to do with the general cost of, well, everything.

Street Food – I love street food. Yeah, that stuff that comes out of a cart, people are afraid will kill them, and which usually tastes absolutely delicious all for dirt cheap.  I had mental images of incredible street side vendors selling mouth watering food lining Buenos Aires’ grand avenues. Unfortunately, they don’t exist. Apparently they’re banned from operating in the city (possibly the entire country).  I was incredibly disappointed.  On the upside, the classic Argentine grills/holes in the wall do exist, typically boasting a large open faced grill covered in the meat(s) and cut(s) of the day.

Steaks – Argentinian steak especially “Bife de Chorizo” really is as good as everyone makes it out to be.  However, to really find a good steak you’re going to need to hunt for it and take care in how you order it.  I ate a LOT of steak during my trip but unfortunately I didn’t figure out how to order it until about half way in. In your standard cafe or low-mid range restaurant in Buenos Aires they will consistently do two things. Under salt, and over cook.  When you order make sure that you specify that you want it medium-rare or pink, they probably wont ask and the default is a great way to waste an even better steak.  It also never hurts to make sure the steak is properly salted to really bring out the flavor. Also, don’t assume that price means anything.  Some of the best steaks I had were also some of the cheapest. Similarly some of the worst were the most expensive.  Also, the stories of $3 steaks? They’re a lie.  Expect to pay at least $7 and usually closer to $12/meal for a decent steak in any of the main cities. 

Spices –  Sure, its a bit dense of me but I honestly assumed all of Latin/South America was powered by strong spices with a passion for spicy food.  Not Argentina. In practice they avoid anything spicy like the plague.Even the various spiced sauces they serve with meats and meals is a bland, but flavorful mixture of spices and ground peppers without any bite or zing.

Buses – I’m a train guy.  To say that I didn’t like traveling by bus before Argentina is an understatement.  That said, you don’t take the trains in Argentina.  It took me a long time and a lot of conversations to finally be dissuaded, but it’s the simple truth of the matter.  You fly, take a bus, a ferry or a taxi.  That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you spend a little extra for an upgrade and skip the chicken buses, the buses are actually fantastic.  They are clean, modern, surprisingly fast, and if you invested in a cheap upgrade you’ll find great food service and an experience that rivals a commuter 1st class on an airline. Those 17 and 26 hour bus rides you hear about?  They’re not a bundle of fun, but they’re not nearly as dreadful as you might imagine.

Distance – While this can’t quite be considered a real surprise, it bears repeating.  Argentina is large. Very large. Massive in fact and getting around isn’t the worlds easiest (or hardest) task.  The nation is also dominated by two major airlines and lacks any major budget airline presence.  So, you’re either left with long-leg, sometimes multi-day bus rides or somewhat expensive flights. It sucks.  It’s also totally worth it.

Tours & Trips – There’s a lot in Argentina you can do on your own as a traveler.  There’s also a lot that you can’t or really just shouldn’t.  For some of you jumping on a guided tour of something may be par for the course, for others it may be the last thing you want to do.  Especially if that tour is relatively expensive ($50-$200 USD).   Do your research, but when it comes down to it, if you’re doing Argentina you need to bite the bullet and do it.  Two of my favorite experiences on the trip were my Penguin adventure and guided hike to the center of the Perito Moreno Glacier.  Neither was something I could have done on my own, and both were well worth their near budget-busting price points.  I spent the extra $50 to do the on-glacier hike, which was a full $130 more than just visiting the national park’s boardwalk across the bay.  It was worth it. It was incredible.  Similarly, the extra money I spent for a guided tour out to an island with 4,000 penguins on it. It was slightly more expensive. It was guided. It was the only one that landed on the island and gave us an hour 2 feet away from the Penguins. They only allow 40 people on the island a day.  Of the places that I visited where I didn’t need a guide and can be done freestyle I strongly suggest doing Tierra del Fuego National Park, the hikes around El Chalten, and Iguazu Falls.

Language – One thing that took me by slight surprise was how difficult it was to speak English in Argentina.  Which is not to say that it was difficult to get around, only that it is fairly common that most Argentinians only speak limited English or none at all.  While this can be a slight challenge in taxi-cabs and elsewhere, I never found it to be anything more slightly surprising.  For those more familiar with traveling in parts of Mexico or Europe, be aware that you may have to do a little more work to ask questions, seek directions, or engage in conversations.  Luckily the Argentinians are delight, friendly and welcoming people.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Must See Destinations

While I feel a bit guilty in constructing this list I have to admit that there wasn’t a single stop along my trip which I would have skipped or shortened.  For the specifics of each stop along the way I encourage you (if you haven’t already) to read my blog posts on that leg of the trip. You’ll note that Buenos Aires is NOT at the top of my list despite being a required starting point for any trip through Argentina.  More on this later.

  1. Iguazu Falls – This is hands down one of the most, if not the most, spectacular place I’ve ever been.  I’m a huge waterfall guy and these falls did absolutely nothing to disappoint. Even if your skeptical about major tourist destinations, this will impress, awe and amaze. It’s a bit hard to get to but well worth the effort.
  2. Perito Moreno Glacier – The Andes are incredible, Glaciers are spectacular and the Perito Moreno Glacier combines the best of both. Accessed through El Calafate this was an amazing experience. Don’t just settle for seeing the glacier though, make sure you book a tour and hike it as well.
  3. Tierra del Fuego – There’s something magical and exciting about being as far south as you can go without heading to Antarctica. The landscape is beautiful, the weather was energizing, and the chance to see and spend time with wild penguins was fantastic. While not as majestic as other National Parks in the area it’s a great starting point (do it first) and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Also, as the base for most Antarctica trips, be prepared to want to stow away.
  4. Buenos Aires – A great city, especially for those who love a European influenced feel and spirit.  While the city has some historical draws the main things to see are cultural and revolve around tango performances, social dancing, food, and night life.  The city never sleeps and its impossible to experience both the day and night life simultaneously.  Set aside a few days to focus exclusively on one, then on the other.
  5. El Chalten – Located just north of El Calafate the hiking around Mt. Fitz Roy is stunning. If you want nature, awe inspiring grandeur and mountains that look like they’ve been photoshopped this is a must. Make sure to hike, and to set aside some extra time in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires

I’m sure a lot of other travelers who have been to BA will disagree, but I’ve got to beat up on the city a bit.  Buenos Aires was one of my most heavily anticipated destinations. It was also the one disappointment on my trip, though I hesitate to say that as it was still delightful and I’d go back in a heartbeat.  The people I met in BA were incredible, the dancing I did and saw was absolutely some of the best in the world, and the food I found was great. The night life in BA is also some of the best you’ll find anywhere.  The real disappointment for me was the city itself.  La Boca was dirty and seemed more like a cheesy ride  at Disneyland.  People often compare BA to the Paris of the Americas. I disagree. I wasn’t overly impressed and found it to be more like a dirty, run down version of Madrid than anything.  The old districts and the San Telmo market are great, but they’re nothing special. In truth, that’s how I felt about the majority of the city. The main architectural and historical tourist draws are interesting, if nothing to write home about.  So, my final verdict?  It’s a great city with a lot to offer, the safety and security concerns are over stated, but so-too is the city’s character and personality.  Go instead for the food, the people, the dance, and the people’s culture.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

Final Thoughts

Argentina is spectacular. There’s no other way to put it. If you’re a person drawn to natural beauty, rich culture, or food you need to put Argentina at the top of your list.  The language barrier can be more pronounced than in some other areas, but its never insurmountable and always worth it.   I’d go back in a heartbeat and know that for as much as I fit into my brief trip, there’s much, much more which I missed.  I highly encourage you to peruse my videos, photos and previous posts documenting my time in Argentina and invite you to ask any question you may have.  Have an amazing trip and enjoy the adventure!

Debating going? Head on over to Amazon and pick up the Lonely Planet Guide to Argentina.

An Authentic Tango Experience While Tackling the Language Barrier

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

When I announced my plans to travel to Argentina I knew immediately that there were several friends I absolutely had to get in touch with.  One was Kellen, a friend who had spent 3 months the previous summer in Buenos Aires as part of a fantastic study abroad program. He had honed his Spanish, danced up a storm, and met a bunch of amazing people.

When I told him about my plans I was immediately greeted by a giant smile which quickly transitioned into a list of places to see, foods to eat and friends that I needed to meet.  One of those friends was Kellen’s Argentine tango instructor and good friend, Rodrigo.

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

New Friends

Kellen quickly connected Rodrigo and me on Facebook and we began to chat.  The one catch?  English wasn’t one of the languages he spoke and…well…my Spanish could be called a lot of things but fluent is definitely not one of them. Not to despair though, where there’s a will there is always a way.  Before long we’d friended each other on Facebook and using my very basic Spanish and Google translate we were able to get acquainted and chat away.

By the time I arrived in Buenos Aires I had a list of tips, places to see, and suggestions from Rodrigo which were a huge help.  The real fun started during my third and final time in Buenos Aires when our schedules finally aligned.  We set a time and place to meet. As it worked out it was about a 10 minute walk from my hostel, located in the heart of the Palermo district.

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous. Here I was standing on a street corner in a fairly quiet part of Buenos Airies at 11pm waiting to meet someone I’d only seen photos of on Facebook. I didn’t have a phone, didn’t know for a fact if I was in the right spot or not, and wasn’t sure how well we’d be able to communicate given the absence of Google Translate.  Over the previous two weeks I’d spent in Argentina a lot of my Spanish had come back to me, but would it be enough?

As an odd assortment of people walked by I’m sure I left a few feeling uneasy as I tried to make inquisitive eye contact while making that haphazard “is it you?” face. Eventually Rodrigo arrived and with a warm smile introduced himself. We said hello and chatted with each other breaking through the initial awkwardness that makes communicating hard.  As we (or perhaps more I) started to relax we began walking and he told me that it was too early to Tango yet (yep, 11pm is the Argentine equivalent of 6pm elsewhere!) but he had a few friends he wanted me to meet.

A five minute walk brought us to an apartment where I was introduced to several of his friends: A group of several Argentinians and an Israeli exchange student. We quickly got acquainted and made our way to the rooftop terrace where they had a table and set of chairs. The evening air was warm and delightful.  It was also still fairly light out as it was the heart of Argentina’s summer.

They had ordered pizza and picked up several liters of soda and beer. As it turned out the evening was a bit of a post New Years Celebration among friends. A celebration I felt very blessed to be included in.

As the meal and conversation transitioned from eating, we prepared for a bit of dancing. The table was moved to the side, the ipod switched to Tango music, and the performances and lessons were on!

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

The Dances

Despite my background in Ballroom and focus in Latin dance, Argentine Tango has always eluded me.  Which is to say that even the basic was something that I had previously only seen, but never danced. The beat, the rhythm, the flow, it was all new and I quickly found myself more than a little confused.   Luckily under the guidance of Rodrigo, and several of his patient friends, I learned the basic box and at least started to get a feel for the dance while only periodically mangling the poor girl’s toes.

Once sufficiently satisfied that I’d gotten the basics down to Argentine Tango and sensing my background in slightly more fast paced/constantly paced dances they introduced me to the Milonga.  This dance, which shares the same name as many of the city’s tango venues, is a faster, constant version of the tango. Wikipedia explains the Milgona as, “Milonga,(in 2/4 time) has a strongly accented beat, and sometimes an underlying “habanera” rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce double time steps (incorrectly called syncopation and more appropriately called traspies) into their walks and turns. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some danced in other varieties of tango. Some tango instructors say that tango steps should not be used in milonga and that milonga has its own special rhythm and steps, which are quite different from tango.”

While the beat was easier to relate to for me, I have to admit that the speed and execution left me more than a little baffled and confused.  Still, it was a fantastic introduction to a dance which was both passionate, engaging, and exciting as well as being an entirely new dance for me.

To my surprise we finished the lessons out with a third and far more traditional dance, the chacarera (I believe).  The dance was a zero contact partner dance which resembled a traditional waltz or Victorian era dance.  A fun line dance of sorts, it consisted of a number of turns, pauses, a bit of tap dancing, and then a final salute which left both partners near embrace without touching.  While I initially thought it was just a fun cultural dance they were sharing with me, later I’d learned that it was actively used and danced in the Milongas.

Rodrigo Dancing Tango

The Milonga

As 3:30AM quickly approached Rodrigo and I said our goodbyes and our thank yous before setting off into the night.  I assumed that we were probably done with the evening, but quickly realized that it had just started. As we made our way back out to the street he explained that the good tango clubs in the area were just getting going. Before long we arrived at one such venue, located in the spacious basement/bar area of a large building.  The area was packed with a ring of small tables lining a large rectangular dance floor.  My guide quickly chatted with one of the local waiters, who he obviously knew, and found us a seat.

Before long we were joined by two German girls we had bumped into on the walk over and had been introduced to by one of Rodrigo’s friends who had decided to call it a night.  The girls were in Argentina learning Tango and quickly took the dance floor where Rodrigo launched them into a series of fantastic routines. His tango was skillful and an absolute delight to watch.

As the night went on the venue would play a series of 5 songs back to back before some sort of old rock jam would blast on as a sign to rotate or take a break.  Then every 10th song or so they would play an Chacarera or two, which were equally fun to watch!  Though possessed of a flimsy understanding of the bare basics for both, I have to admit that I opted to sit, relax and watch the dancers without ever joining them.  Perhaps after a chance to practice a bit more, and to force the basics of Argentine tango into my memory, I’ll be up for the challenge.

By 5:30AM I could barely keep my eyes open and the wear and tear on my body from the previous week’s travels and New Years festivities came crashing down upon me.  I bid the girls goodnight, thanked Rodrigo for one of the most delightful evenings I’d had in Argentina, and began my walk home.

He was a truly wonderful host and one who patiently put up with my dreadful Spanish and bad jokes while sharing his culture, music and dance with me.  My first night at an Argentine Milonga will always stand out as one of my favorite dance experiences and easily one of my fondest memories from Buenos Aires.

**The photos in this post are of  Rodrigo and his dance partners used with permission from his facebook. Impressive ehh?

Inspired to learn a bit of Tango or at least listen to some?  Browse Amazon’s digital Tango Music library.

Lands of Ice and Snow – The Perito Moreno Glacier

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

**This post is Part III in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rewind to: Part I or Part II.

One of the most exciting stops along our route was a brief pause at a large waterfall in the middle of the glacier. Easily 8 feet across, the waterfall carved a trough along the surface of the glacier before diving deep into a dark blue hole. As the guide turned and motioned for me to ease towards the lip of the hole, I was thrilled. With him securing my safety harness, I eased up as close as I could to the edge, then leaned out and stared straight down, my eyes hungrily following the water’s course as it splashed of rich blue ice walls and carved away at white crystalline walls. The roar of the falls was mesmerizing and the cool, humid air spilling up and off the waterfall crisp and clean.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we wound further onto the glacier, we passed a number of large crevasses. Some of which we would skirt, others we would walk along, and yet others – those small enough – we would carefully jump across, all the while with a large lump in our throats and a sense of controlled adventure in our hearts.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Eventually we reached the half-way mark and the group settled in for our pick-nick lunches. The spot we chose? A small hollow which blocked the wind and some of the light rain. As most of the group casually sat on the ice, enjoying the protection of their waterproof paints I dug around in my bag and fished out a bag. It held a massive, bright orange carrot that stood out in an explosion of color against the grays and blues of our equipment, the sky and glacier. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as I saw eyebrows raise, and heads tilt. The thoughts racing through their minds were obvious, “who is this kid, why the hell does he have a giant carrot and how’s he going to manage without waterproof pants – is that really all he brought?”.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As I contentedly finished my carrot, I took the plastic bag it had come in, kicked out a flat space in the ice, set it down, and then plopped my body down on top of it. Next up? Lunch meat. As I sat there with numb fingers, I set to trying to open two plastic packages of lunch meat I’d purchased. Largely unsuccessful, an idea eventually struck. Before long I’d leaned forward and impaled the plastic wrapper on one of my crampon spikes and had set upon the small pile of lunch meat with a voracious hunger.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Ever one to be inclusive, the third and final course was a large bag of baguettes. True, I could have taken the effort to combine the meats and bread, but my approach seemed more fun and convenient. Especially in light of the chuckles I was getting from other group members who had purchased pre-packaged lunches from the local supermarket. I quickly gave away a couple of the 6 or so loaves of bread that had come in the bag, and chewed away contentedly. As we prepared to move on, one of the guides poured a tin of sweetened matte which he passed around and a few of us shared and enjoyed. It was the ideal desert and re-heated us as we prepared for the trek home.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we wound back along the ice we paused briefly for a rush of excitement as one of the group members failed to step far enough, tripped and almost fell into a crevasse. One of the guides as on hand, stabilized him, and helped him the rest of the way across.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The hike back towards the mountain trail was every bit as good as the trip out to the center of the glacier. Where the view before had been of ice, white, and distant mountains, the view on the return was constantly framed by the imposing presence of the mountains.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Each new view dragged my mind further and further into a fairytale. With fresh air in my lungs, spectacular sights bombarding my eyes, and clean rain drops decorating my face I had one of those incredible moments and relished every ounce of the experience. As the thought echoed through my mind I smiled and whispered, “This…this is why I travel”.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Eventually we found our way back to the base camp where we shed our harnesses and crampons, and then wound back along the path. The end of a hike is usually somewhat boring. Not so in this instance. After the lifeless beauty of the glacier, the wealth of blooming flowers and booming thunder of large waterfalls drew my exhausted feet forward.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The view of the glacier where it gave way to rain slicked rocks was also completely different. Given the honeycombed nature of the glacier, the ice formations looked new, fresh and unique as we revisited them from a different angle.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we wound back down toward the lake, we enjoyed a great view of the glacier’s forward face and another reminder of how small we truly are. Can you spot the ferry, and people out on the glacier in the above photo? They’re both there!

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The trip had been expensive by backpacker oriented day-trip standards but if looked at from a purely value oriented perspective, it had been dirt cheap. My only real regret was that there wasn’t more time.

The Photographer, Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Eager to keep us together and safe, our guides ushered us along as a fairly constant speed. While this allowed us to see more and was good for the non-photographers among the group, it left me as the constant straggler. Pausing here and there for a quick shot, or a bit of video often set to the background of one of the guides impatiently encouraging me to hurry up and stick closer to the group.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Still, it was only a small annoyance and cost to pay for the opportunity to see, experience, and capture the Perito Moreno Glacier in all of its beauty.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Argentina is about much more than just tango and great steak. If you have the opportunity, definitely add Perito Moreno and the Glaciares National Park to your list of must-see destinations.

**This post is Part III in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rewind to: Part I or Part II.

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Middle Earth? Nope, Just the Perito Moreno Glacier!

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

**This post is Part II in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. View Part I or skip to Part III.
As the ferry blasted across the lake’s smooth surface, deftly dodging floating icebergs with the appearance of giant sized ice cubes floating in an oddly colored martini, I had to chuckle. Our dock, if it can be called that, was little more than a rock outcropping with a series of old tired tires chained along its face. I watched our approach, pondered briefly the probability that I’d end up getting shipwrecked again, then shrugged and went back to staring at the glacier.

Landing On Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Our docking procedure was as flawless as one might expect. Closely watched by our guides we transferred onto dry land, formed up for a brief orientation and then split into smaller groups. We bid goodbye to those going on the minitrekking trip, and our smaller and more dedicated band set off towards the glacier.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The glacier was massive. It is a glacier after all. That said, it wasn’t until we paused and watched small groups of people make their way out onto the ice that it really struck me just how massive and awe inspiring the glacier was. From afar the groups of people looked more like small specks of dirt than people.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Our trail led us down and across the coast towards the glacier. The path wound over rock outcroppings  and along stone beaches backed by a few skeletal trees with rich forest and vegetation further inland. In the distance incredible snow capped mountain walls faded away into the clouds.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

It’s hard to say why, but the clean white and rich blues of glaciers always surprise me. Given the pollution caked onto and often staining the white marble of major Cathedrals and statuary the fact that the glaciers manage to remain such a pure white excites me.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

While not always ideal for photography, I love seeing certain types of locations on misty days. A periodic light rain, and the lack of wind is ideal for wetting down rocks and vegetation while leaving things with a richer look and feel. My voyage along and eventually out onto Perito Moreno was one such occasion, though for obvious reasons the rain didn’t do much to bring out the color once actually ON the glacier!

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

After reaching the base of the glacier we passed a larger base camp where the minitrekking people were suiting up and preparing to head out onto the ice. We paused briefly, then turned and began up along a small path, just wide enough for one person. It traced its way up along the glacier’s edge and alternated between being sandwiched and carved into the cliff face.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we wound along the path I was taken off guard by the number of waterfalls which were visible. In retrospect it makes sense, with snow melt up on the mountain’s peaks, the water would have to melt and run down. Still, with snow and ice surrounding us I was taken off guard by the large falls each crowed by lush vegetation and blooming flowers which cut across our path.  Though not tramping through snow, I could not help but fancy myself climbing into a dangerous mountain pass as part of an intrepid company of stalwart explorers of Tolkienesque fame.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

A mile in our trail climbed up and into the moss covered vegetation, but not before a steep and muddy switchback. At the top we found a small base camp built to survive hearty weather. Our guides quickly explained that we’d be donning our safety harnesses and would be issued our crampons before heading back down and out onto the ice.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

What is a Crampon? It’s a re-sizable metal shoe, not unlike strap on roller skates. You sandwich your shoe onto the top of the crampon, then carefully strap and clamp it down. The crampon itself is little more than a flat shoe base with large spikes protruding down and out from it.  Made for icy conditions, they allow you to dig into the ice and turn otherwise difficult walking conditions into leisurely strolls.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Crampons attached, we struck out and began our trip across the ice. As we prepared to travel up and out onto the glacier we split into smaller groups of 8-10. Though wearing harnesses we did not need to tie ourselves together or ever really approach anything nearly dangerous enough to feel as though it was necessary.

The path our guide took us down wound up along the edge of the glacier for a while and then down through large fields of dirty ice that looked like massive ant colonies.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Our guides explained that what we were seeing was the stone which had been carved off of the mountainside, then gathered together as the top levels of the glacier melted. As other parts of the glacial ice melted away, the areas underneath the accumulated stones and dirt remained protected and cool creating small rock covered ice hills. All in all a pretty fascinating process which left deep blue, rock hard ice underneath the stones.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

After getting accustomed to the ice, our crampons, and the rules of the road we struck out along a smoother area on the glacier. With gentle rolling ice hills it still offered access to a plethora of small crevasses and min ice-falls, but lacked the jagged, shark tooth like feel I had expected after seeing the glacier from afar.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Along the path we wound past, over, and along a series of small surface streams which cut their way from tiny pool to tiny pool before eventually diving into a crack and cutting their way down into the glacier’s inner bowels.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we neared the halfway mark I paused briefly and turned around. As i did so, I stumbled slightly and let out a sharp intake of breath. The view back the way we had come was incredible. It was one of those moments that feel straight out of the movies. Fairytale crafted into reality so powerful, so magnificent it takes you several moments to accept it as real. Was this middle earth? Perhaps not, but it sure was indistinguishable from it. A long expanse of ice, stretching out before me towards charcoal grey mountains, thousands of feet tall stretching in either direction like a massive wall. A wall cut and carved by giant waterfalls tracing their way down from the snow capped peaks and periodically crowned by small mountainside forests of a rich green so dark that it almost blended with the gray-black of the mountainside. Words fail to describe the majesty of the experience.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The falls, cliffs and general feel of the experience reminded me heavily of the Norwegian Fjords. Though in this rare case the falls were larger and the backdrop more impressive than what I’d enjoyed in Norway. Truly, this was the Andes and southern hemisphere in finest form. The fact that I was at a similar latitude to New Zealand’s south island and exploring a similar backdrop was not lost on me. I will say that for those who have a deep desire to explore New Zealand’s natural beauty, adding Patagonia and southern Chile to your list is an unanticipated must.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The ice itself fascinates me. Clean enough to drink straight off the glacier (and believe me it was delicious), it is crystal clear but with a deep blue tint to it. In some places small pools have formed on the surface creating spaces that give the illusion of walking on water. The trick quickly became judging just how shallow (or deep) that water was and where solid ice began.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

I mentioned earlier the role rocks play in protecting certain areas and raising small ice mounds. In other areas the opposite would occur. Note the above photo where a large rock is gradually sinking down into the ice. You can see that the pool forming around it is roughly shaped in the same size as the rock itself.

Hiking Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we neared the center of the glacier, the ice fields were something to behold. Despite the light rain the reflection off the ice and clouds was extremely bright creating an odd type of light that was half middle of the day and half twilight.

**This post is Part II in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rewind to: Part I or fast forward to Part III.

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Hiking the Perito Moreno Glacier – The Approach

**This post is Part I in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Fast forward to: Part II or Part III.
The adventure began sometime between 7AM and 8AM when a small 16 person van pulled up in front of my hostel.  I’d been briefed quickly the day before by one of the hostel staff while investigating various ways of exploring the nearby glaciers. They’d shared the three primary options available from El Calafate: A basic bus trip out to the “balconies” AKA a long boardwalk that stretches along the lake shore opposite the face of the glacier. A more advanced middle of the road option called minitrekking which tours the balconies, then ferries across to the glacier for an an hour and a half hike. Lastly there was the third and final option, the “Big Ice” tour.

The Countryside - El Calafate, Argentina

At over 7 hours long it included the balconies, ferry ride over, and then another 4 hours spent hiking along and out to the middle of the glacier.  As I read over the pricing and descriptions I groaned slightly.  The minitrekking tour was about $150 USD, the Big Ice tour right at $200.  Both of which are expensive for day tours. Still, as I thought about it, the glacier was one of my main reasons for heading south. Then I saw it – the Big Ice tour, in addition to spending 4 hours on the glacier and covering 6km, had a suggested age range of 18-45 vs minitrekking’s 10-65 age range. Game on. An extra 2.5 hours on the ice and a more rigorous adventure for an extra $50? You bet! Was it worth it? Oh, you better believe it!

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Unsure just what I was getting myself into I packed warmly with all of my backup layers stashed away in my day pack along with a picnic lunch (despite the price it was BYOL). Our shuttle took us out of town to a large 50 person bus and then sorted us out into different groups. From there it was an 80km drive through the Patagonian country side and along Lago Argentin0 to the Los Glaciares National Park.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

A unique glacial blue the lake is truly gorgeous to behold, especially dotted as it is by small icebergs and set against the backdrop of the Andes on one side and sweeping open flat lands on the other. In many ways it looks like a jagged castle forged by the gods for Titans with the mountains serving as the castle wall and the lake a long, serpentine moat.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

Once at the park we headed straight away for the boardwalk where we disembarked as a group and set out towards our first glimpse of the glacier. The walk wrapped around the water’s edge and was a stout wood and steel raised walkway.  I paused often during the 30-40 minutes the walk took, and snapped photos greedily.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

It was my first glacier. At least up close. I had seen them in the past from above and from afar but never from within a stones throw, despite my trips to Norway, Scotland and above the Arctic Circle in Alaska.  In researching the Perito Moreno Glacier while stateside, I had only come across info from people who had done the boardwalk which had led me to believe that was as close as I was going to be able to get. The knowledge that the boardwalk was to serve as little more than a table of contents for the day’s adventure left me with a giant foolish grin on my face.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As I walked the giant circuit, I led the way with the guide. Immersed in conversation she shared exciting pieces of information about the glacier, the region and her job.   Eventually, however, I slowly drifted towards the back of the pack as I paused to take photos, video, and watch the clouds gently roll over the snow capped peaks surrounding the glacier.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The sky had traded the morning’s cloudless existence for good visibility and medium cloud cover along the mountains.  It suggested rain and mist further up the valley, but left us with a great view of the glacier’s jagged face along with a beautiful view back towards the area I assumed we would be hiking.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we strolled casually along the path and stretched our legs we would pause often.  Heads would whip around, ears perk up, eyes frantically searching and photographers drawing cameras to eye at the booming crack of ice giving way as the glacier shed a layer off its forward face. I got lucky with the above shot which features falling ice in front of the small cave.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

As we reached the end of the boardwalk and prepared to head back to the bus I paused and took in one final view of the glacier as it stretched away to the right and out into the lake. The scale and size is incredible. The rich blues and majesty captivating. I felt torn, eager to race towards the ice and to scale it, but at the same time caught in the moment and left wistful that I didn’t have longer to relax and watch the lake’s still waters gently tease away pieces of the glacier.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The bus whisked us down and around the point to a small bay on the lake. There we disembarked and boarded a mid-sized ferry with a warm interior and exposed upper deck. Eager for an unobstructed view I headed to the roof with several other group members who I had befriended: An Israeli backpacker my age and an American couple from the east coast. There we watched as the boat wound past small icebergs and cut in front of the far side of the glacier towards an area which had been invisible from the observation platforms.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

The view from the water helped drive home the sheer size of the glacier, but it wasn’t until we started to see people hiking up on it, and decorating it like small specs of dirt that the true size and scale struck home.

Perito Moreno Glacier - Patagonia, Argentina

**This post is Part I in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Fast forward to: Part II or Part III.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

The End of the World - Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Having limited myself to two full days in Tierra del Fuego I quickly decided that the National Park was a must-visit during my second day. Admittedly, it was a difficult decision given it was the park or traveling via a day trip out to the lighthouse which would have presented the opportunity to witness elephant seals and more time spent boating the Beagle Channel. In retrospect I’m glad I made the choice I did as the weather was beautiful, the flowers in bloom, butterflies out and about, and the hike was absolutely gorgeous.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The morning of I stumbled down to the front desk, checked my watch, and was able to walk on the shuttle out to the national park.  While technically a tour, it was basically an organized bus to/from the park and cost (if memory serves) around 50 Pesos.  The park is about 11KM outside of Ushuaia which makes for a fairly short trip.  En route we paused at the entrance gate to pay the park’s admittance fee of around 50 Pesos (for international travelers) before identifying which of the four walking paths we were interested in hiking.   The bus driver strongly recommended the seaside path and eventually convinced the majority of us to opt for it.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the bus pulled away I took in my surroundings. I was along a coastal channel, had beautiful partly cloudy skies, and quickly noticed a small dock/hut offering the ever popular and terribly gimmicky tourist passport stamp.  Seldom one to indulge, I made an exception and paid the $2 for a massive  “Fin del Mundo” or end of the world stamp complete with several stamps, dates and a large sticker.  As I went through the process, I continued to strike up a conversation with several American guys my age and a gal who they had already befriended.  Before long we’d joined up for the hike and merged into one cohesive group. In retrospect it worked out beautifully, as it might have been a somewhat lonely/long hike otherwise despite the incredible beauty.  the path was, after all, some 8km long.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As we made our way along the coast I was once again struck by the natural richness of the region.  It’s easy to forget that you’re near the southern most tip of the worlds major continents and in a region and climate which is brutally cold, barren and harsh the majority of the year.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The path was awash in life.  From a plethora of flowers in bloom, small butterflies and rich green moss the air hung with the fresh scent of perfect, clean air lightly salted and flavored by the ocean’s gentle kiss.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the path wound along the channel it was constantly framed by a beautiful winding maze of tree branches. Fighting for sunlight and similarly growing to stand against the region’s violent storms they snake upwards, outwards and at times sideways in their pursuit of the perfect position.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As our group wound along the gently used earthen path we found ourselves pausing regularly in our stories to take in our surroundings.  The distractions varied, but usually consisted of flowers in bloom, odd branches, or old gnarled trees.  All the while we worked to combine our collective knowledge to identify what little we could manage.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

When I say that nearly everything was in bloom, I’m barely exaggerating.  Of the multitude of plant species we ran across, I’d guess that at least 10-20 species were either in bloom or bearing berries of some sort.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Throughout the first half of the walk we had an excellent view of a beautiful, snow capped mountain range across the channel.  The mountains and far half of the channel are actually in Chile and for those interested, near the end of the hike one can make their way up to/along the border.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the path continued on and along the vegetation thinned slightly as it wound down onto and among the narrow stone and rock beaches that lined the channel.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

From there it was back in along a small stream which then wound up a steep embankment and eventually spilled us out on top of a small cliff which offered a beautiful overlook back along the way we’d hiked. The view also made it easy to see just how clear, rich and clean the water was. Crystal clear with blue hues to it, it had the look of cold near arctic water but still felt alive and awash in sealife.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The colors weren’t just limited to the flowers in bloom. Many of the trees offered their own fanciful display, mixing together different species and various parasitic vines for brightly colored combination’s.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The tidal zone served as home to a mixture of different creatures. Most prolific, however, were huge colonies of miniature horseshoe mussels and limpets. Covered in small barnacles they decorated the region’s blue green rocks in massive blanket-like clusters.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Though mostly disguised by moss and lush foliage we’d periodically stumble on evidence winter’s harsh hand. The left over skeletal remains of shattered trees, cracked trunks, and splintered branches created beautiful portals full of contrast and depth.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Where there was sunlight there was life. The above image highlights how even among a bed of dead leaves flowers flourished and small sprouts had begun to take hold.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Others harbored a more alien appearance with long finger-like blooms that looked extraterrestrial in nature. Some stood alone, others combined with large bushes to create whole walls of vibrantly colored, red spear-esque flowers.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

And then there were the odd circular parasitic/fungal growths which decorated many of the trees. Grown out of gnarled knots in the trees, these silver dollar sized orange balls had a spore-like nature to them, were squishy, and seemed more like some sort of delicious candy than wild growth. Most decorated the trees, but some had fallen to the ground. Note the deep black color of the soil in the image above.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

In some areas the balls were so common and brightly colored that they gave the illusion of some sort of odd Fae colony hiding a bustling ferry civilization from prying human eyes.

Shortly after taking the above photo we all paused at a large tree which had naked branches running out parallel to the ground.  Once there we climbed into it, and spent a good 30 minutes monkeying around.  Literally.  From hanging and posing on tree branches, to using them as swings we had a good go of it before pausing for a final “hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil” photo op.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the path prepared to head inland for the final 1/3 of the hike we paused briefly for a snack and to rest our legs. The wind had begun to pick up and the temperature was dropping, but still generally pleasant. As we sat and played with our cameras a large hawk landed near by. Fairly tame and familiar with tourists he allowed us within 3 feet of him, all the while turning a wary eye to us. With a stout body and beautiful coloring he was a an impressive creature.

ATierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Even as we sat and relaxed I turned to the left, only to notice a small plant in bloom. Sandwiched into little more than a tiny crack in the rocks, it embodied the balance between rugged climate and the beauty of life.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

From there it was up a steep embankment and then through several thick stands of trees which were decorated by thick moss and delicate white blossoms.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The forest would break periodically for small bog-like areas. These were mossy and looked like tundra with small streams flowing through them. Most were broken periodically by the sun bleached, skeletal fingers of long dead trees.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As we made our way across one such marsh, I was surprised to see the beige and brown grasses give way to a beautiful set of lily-esque leaves set just beneath a gorgeous old wooden walkway.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Tired, footsore, hungry and cold we eventually reached the end of what had been a spectacular hike. While Tierra del Fuegno National Park may not be as impressive as what you’ll find in Patagonia and Southern Chile it is a fantastic introduction to the region and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Just make sure you’ve got the time and weather to enjoy it properly!

4,000 Penguins and the End of the Earth

My shoes made a soft squishing noise as I stepped off the paved path and onto a narrow band of muddy earth which wound its way between the road and a small set of kiosks along Ushuaia’s main pier.  The morning was crisp, partly cloudy and smelled fresh.  The air prickled my skin and teased at a refreshing day.  The sky over the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame was gorgeous and set the perfect backdrop for the day’s adventure.

I’d be using Pira Tours which is somewhat expensive but it is the only group that has rights and access to actually disembark on Martillo Island where the penguin colonies are located. Eager to begin the adventure, I tracked down the 16 person mini-bus that would transport us out to the Harberton Estate where we’d catch a zodiac out to a small island located in the middle of the Beagle Channel.

Countryside - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The drive east along the coast was a beautiful one.  The first 1/3 was on pavement and wound through snow-capped mountains with lush but rugged vegetation on either side of the road.  The trees were green and moss-covered with foliage and moss serving as a dense carpet below.  Despite the lush verdant colors everything maintained a hearty look that hinted at the harshness of winter and the brutal nature of the landscape.

Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Our first stop – well, more of a pause really – was near the 2/3 mark. We’d wound through rich forest and along the base of tundra-esque valleys before eventually bursting out of the underbrush and returning to the coast. The scenery had been fascinating. I noticed recent work had been done on the road and there were whole stands of trees that had been blown over or literally snapped in half.  I’d later learn that the damage had happened a mere 3 days previous during an incredible micro-burst.  Yikes!

Our first pause was along a stone beach covered in horseshoe muscle shells, urchin bodies and other small, vibrantly colored seashells.  The view looked out over an old fish smoking/drying stand at the Beagle Channel and the Chilean coastline to the south.  The water was clear, fresh, and rich with life. It made for a grand start.

Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Eager to continue along our way we re-boarded and watched as the forest gave way to open grassy areas, small bogs with gnarly, protruding, sun-bleached branches, and a rugged mixture of hearty trees that stood valiantly with snarled branches and a perpetual tilt as if trying to shrug off the wind.

Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Shortly thereafter we arrived at the Harberton Estate – a fun little cluster of buildings with an old dock, a few animals and several boats. There we were introduced to our guide – a perky gal in her late 20s/early 30s whose face was decorated almost completely by a birthmark.  Her wide smile and a twinkle in her eyes oozed character and hinted that she’d be every bit the spunky guide  a trip out to spend time with penguins demanded. We boarded the hard-bottomed zodiac and let out a collective sigh of relief when we noticed that a plastic wind cabin had been installed to protect us from the cold weather.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The boat ride was fairly quick and smooth.  The water was calm and largely protected from the harsher conditions one might expect. Eventually, we killed the motor and slowly floated in towards a black pebble beach dotted with thousands of tiny white and black feathered bodies.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

One by one we awkwardly slid over the side of the zodiac’s rubber bow and down onto the beach. There we paused and took in the incredible world we’d arrived in.  The island serves as home to a colony of some 4,000 Magellanic Penguins for 6 months of the year and another permanent colony of some 50 Gentoo Penguins who reside there year round.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

I’d opted to use Pira Tours because the island has a cap which only allows around 40 visitors a day.  Based on the advice received at the hostel, Pira Tours is the only group in the region with the rights to disembark passengers onto the island. Standing on the beach I knew my choice had been worthwhile.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we paused and collected ourselves our guide explained the ground rules.  No chasing, feeding or touching the penguins.  Stay within the driftwood outlines which have been laid out. Don’t wander off.  Watch where you step and make sure you don’t collapse a penguin burrow. Easy enough right?

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Our first stop after the main beach was the Gentoo Penguin Colony.   This smaller, permanent colony was located in the middle of the island in a flat space and offered a cluster of small craters built up into nests by the birds.  A smaller and better established colony, the surrounding grass had been ground to dirt. The penguins stood with backs to the wind relaxing and periodically running some small errand or another.  Larger and more colorful than the Magellanic penguins they have a more recognizable look which one might readily identify as a staple of animated films.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we continued to make our way across the island I couldn’t help but pause and relish the view.  At times it struck me as unique.  Others moments I had to pinch myself and remember that I was at the southern-most continental point in the world…not the northern-most.  The landscape could have easily been confused for a bay, mountains and island in the far north and reminded me of my time spent in Alaska above the Arctic Circle.

Penguin Nest on the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Unlike the Gentoos who built their nests above ground, the Magellanic penguins opt to dig small burrows.  The island is covered in small holes, most of which have at least one baby penguin inside.  The babies were adorable, fluffy little creatures that hunkered down in their holes for safety and relaxed under careful parental eyes.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The island’s penguins have two primary predators.  The first are the large hawk-like Skua pictured above with two young hatchlings.  These birds will raid penguin nests for eggs if the opportunity presents itself but don’t offer a significant threat to the birds once hatched.  The other main predators, though far less common on the island, are elephant seals.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The Magellanic penguins are highly social creatures which can be seen in their general behavior.  It was not uncommon to see a couple out strolling along the coast, or through the grass.  I couldn’t help but chuckle and think they looked like human couples out for a stroll while dressed in their winter finery. I’ll admit the mountains, bay, tress and beach made for quite the romantic backdrop.

Penguin Nest Under the Stairs - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we neared the central part of the island, we came upon a small wooden staircase which had been constructed to ease our way up onto a large grass field.  Proving that even in nature some animals are more entrepreneurial than others, several penguins had burrowed out hollow spaces underneath the stairs allowing them well-protected nests.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The grassy area served as the primary nesting ground for the Magellanic penguins.  They would take advantage of the large clumps of grass and burrow under them, or near them, while using the grass to block the wind, visibility and to reinforce their burrows.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we walked along the small dirt path it was difficult to avoid recently dug penguin burrows and not uncommon to suddenly become aware of them as they moved mere inches away from your feet.  Overall they were fairly apathetic about our presence and only spent a moment here or there to evaluate us with unblinking eyes before returning to their daily activities.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

From there it was back down to the coast where we paused and watched the few penguins braving the windward side of the island go about their business.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Low and flat, the island is ringed by gnarled driftwood which adds a wild, natural, rugged feel to the environment.  The penguins themselves don’t make much of it, other than winding their way through the bleached wood as a castle’s defender might make his way through bulwarks and small defenses.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Once back on the leeward side of the island, I was once again taken by just how many penguins there were and how different each looked.  As I sat down and silently began to snap photos I noticed that one of the younger Gentoo penguins had ventured down and was intermingling with the Magellanics.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As I sat and enjoyed the tranquility of it all, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been transported to another world.  This was the stuff of movies, of legends and of tall tales.  A rare experience and one I was privileged to enjoy.  I sat and relaxed and soaked in as much as I could.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

…and then I was shaken from musings by the crunch of webbed feet on rocks as my young, colorful friend waddled his way towards me.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Curious, he made a casual circle down towards me, leveraging the slight incline from the hill to accelerate his haphazard waddle.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Then as quickly as he’d begun my way, he switched directions and began to backtrack. If I didn’t know better he was playing the role of a runway model.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

He’d pause to stare, and made sure that he was never out of sight. Though on a pebbled beach, that’s not exactly a challenging undertaking.

Penguin with Woman - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Eventually he’d opt to make another quick drive-by.  This time he decided to head down and take a close look at one of the women on the trip.  In truth it was hard to know who was watching whom.  He seemed to derive every bit of the enjoyment watching us, that we found watching him.

Windswept Tree - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As our hour on the island wound to a close we let out a lament-filled sigh and then re-boarded the boat.  Before long we were back on our bus and well on our way back to Ushuaia, but not before we paused for a few quick photos at the flag tree.  It is one of a series of profoundly stubborn trees that have braved fierce winds and grown to embrace them.  Shaped by the winds, they’ve naturally grown into wild shapes that mirror blown grass.

Sleeping Tree - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Even those that failed to survive the winds have continued on, adapting to what came their way. In truth, I’d almost say that the tree pictured above has not only survived the wind’s hash thrashing, but embraced it and thrived.

Windswept Trees - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

From there it was back to Ushuaia where we disembarked and made our way back to our respective hostels and hotels, but not before a few of us paused at a local restaurant for a delicious Bife de Chorizo (Argentinian steak).

Total cost for the tour? 285 Pesos or about 70 USD.  Expensive as far as day tours go, but worth every penny.