Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Ushuaia, Argentina – The End of the World

February 12th, 2010 at 6:22 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Yesterday morning, Thursday, February 11, 2010, was really the start of our Antarctic expedition with Lindblad Expeditions aboard their vessel, the National Geographic Explorer.

We're in the right line for our flight from Santiago to Ushuaia

We're in the right line for our flight from Santiago to Ushuaia

Approximately 140 of us set forth from our hotel in Santiago, Chile to catch a LAN Chile charter plane to Ushuaia, Argentina. “Ushuaia” is pronounced “Ush-why-ah”, in case you were curious.

It was a nearly four hour flight, taking us past incredible views of the Andes mountain range for most of the flight. I should add that all of our worries about the 17.6 pound carry-on limit appeared to be completely unfounded, resulting in needless stress and grey hair for me. Since the flight was a charter flight the carry-on weight limit was ignored, but a few bags were checked for size. Overheads were overflowing however.

Glacial lakes seen from our plane - photo by fellow passenger Bob Reichart

Glacial lakes seen from our plane - photo by fellow passenger Bob Reichart

Volcano peak in the Andes seen from our plane

Volcano peak in the Andes seen from our plane

Regarding Ushuaia, it is the southern most town in South America, never mind Argentina, and located on an island in the Tierra del Fuego (Lands of Fire – based on early explorers seeing Indian-made fires and smoke on the cliffs) archipelago. The locals refer to Ushuaia as the “Fin del Mundo” or “End of the Earth”. Ushuaia is also one of the key embarkation points for cruises to the Antarctic, which is why we were heading there – to meet up with our ship.

The view from the Ushuaia international airport - beautiful mountain scapes

The view from the Ushuaia international airport - beautiful mountain scapes

The town of Ushuaia has a whopping 70,000 inhabitants, many of whom are there to take advantage of extremely high salaries (triple the going rate elsewhere in Argentina) which the Argentinean government subsidizes (along with very favorable tax savings for large employers and manufacturers) to encourage settlement in this remote area. Buenos Aires and Santiago are both about four hours away by plane, and driving to Buenos Aires is a four or five day effort across roads that aren’t always that great.

The region is incredibly mountainous, but at the same time surrounded by ocean, creating some incredible vistas, mostly forested with several different species of native beech trees.

We learned that over the years the government has tried to introduce various species of animals to the area in order to generate both food and revenue sources. Among the introduced species were rabbits, reindeer, and beavers. Rabbits have thrived, while reindeers were eaten by the humans to the point of eradication.

One of several introduced species to the area - a rabbit

One of several introduced species to the area - a rabbit

The beaver introduction is interesting. Apparently Canadian beavers were introduced in the hopes of creating a thriving beaver fur industry, but not enough research was done on how beaver fur gets lush. It turns out that beaver fur grows best in climates where it gets very cold in the winter and temperate in the summer. But in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago it does not get cold enough to encourage heavy pelt growth, so the beaver pelts they harvested here were of mediocre quality at best, and not particularly sellable. However, by the time they discovered this, the beavers had gotten firmly entrenched and now are responsible for destruction of countless beech trees which cannot survive in the flooded plains the beaver dams create.

Bas and Linda on a footbridge in the national park

Bas and Linda on a footbridge in the national park

Upon our arrival at the Ushuaia airport, we were whisked away in three buses to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. After a scenic, guided ride through the park where the history of Ushuaia and the ecology of the area was explained, we got off for a short walk to board a couple of large motor powered catamarans for lunch and a cruise on the Beagle Channel, named after the Beagle – the ship in which Charles Darwin first visited these waters.

A nature moment in Tierra del Fuego

A nature moment in Tierra del Fuego

Krystyana about to board the catamaran for our afternoon water tour

Krystyana about to board the catamaran for our afternoon water tour

We encounter amazing views, saw the virtual boundary between Chile and Argentina, and even had our first aquatic wildlife sightings along the way, all accompanied by very brisk, cold air (relative to Santiago, anyhow).

An Antarctic Sea Lion with a seagull near Ushuaia

An Antarctic Sea Lion with a seagull near Ushuaia

A flock of Antarctic cormorants with some gulls near Ushuaia

A flock of Antarctic cormorants with some gulls near Ushuaia

Our journey ended in the harbor of Ushuaia, where we came upon our home for the next three weeks – the National Geographic Explorer, owned and operated by Lindblad Expeditions.

Three freighters at dock behind the National Geographic Explorer in Ushuaia

Three freighters at dock behind the National Geographic Explorer in Ushuaia

We spot the National Geographic Explorer for the first time - our home for the next three weeks

We spot the National Geographic Explorer for the first time - our home for the next three weeks

It should be mentioned that Lars-Eric Lindblad, the founder of Lindblad Expeditions, was the first person to run commercial tourism expeditions to the Antarctic region, around a half century ago (1964), and his son Sven-Olof has continued with such expedition efforts, ever improving the adventure while at the same time working to preserve the ecology of areas visited.

Lindblad Expeditions was also a founding member of IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), whose purpose is to insure safe, responsible, environmentally sensitive tourism in the fragile ecosystem of Antarctica.

Once settled aboard the National Geographic Explorer – we’re in a spacious stateroom at the stern end of the vessel, while the kids are in a regular stateroom located in the middle of the Explorer – we all participated in a mandatory safety drill in the unlikely event of an emergency onboard.

We also all loaded up on seasickness medicine in anticipation of a potentially tumultuous ride through the roughest waters in the world – the Drake Passage. More on that later, though.

After some more orientation and a pleasant dinner, we retired, enjoying the wonderful view from our balcony.

Our wake as seen from our stateroom on the National Geographic Explorer as we head east out of the Beagle Channel

Our wake as seen from our stateroom on the National Geographic Explorer as we head east out of the Beagle Channel

More photos from this day are at my Flickr photo sharing page. A map showing where the photos were taken can be found here.

I will post

 

GPS Tracking – Valparaiso to Santiago via Viña Del Mar

February 10th, 2010 at 4:46 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

After a stay at the wonderful boutique hotel, Casa Higueres, in Valparaiso, we toured more of the city, as well as the resort area of Viña Del Mar. We also spent an hour in the Museo Fonck, which had a great blend of Chilean, Easter Island, and South American cultural and natural history. We’re now back in Santiago and about to have our introductory cocktail reception for the Lindblad Expedition to the Antarctic with a hundred-plus other adventure seekers.

Far less pictures today (don’t have the count yet). Hope to post some pictures from our last two day via Flickr tonight, however.

Our GPS track for today is below:

 

A Taste of Santiago and Chile

February 8th, 2010 at 10:53 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

As previously mentioned, our departure from Aruba from Saturday was uneventful, as was our landing in Bogota. But as an example of the small world we live in, in Bogota, at the departure gate, we bumped into a friend from Bonaire who was also on her way to Santiago. She regaled us with stories about how tough Chilean customs is with respect to bringing in food, herbs, or spices, and told us to make sure to declare anything that could remotely be considered to be food or be fined lots of money (US$300 for a bag of prunes for her the last time she fell afoul of Chilean customs).

It was good advice to follow. By declaring our protein powder, chocolate, tea, nuts, chewing gum, and hot chili powder at customs they didn’t hassle us at all, and just waved us through after examining our written declaration.

Interestingly, we had also been warned that Chile requires birth certificates and proof of parental status for kids entering the country, but we were never asked for that documentation.

The one last issue we encountered, again with advance knowledge, was something called the “reciprocity fee”. Apparently Chile decided to charge citizens of certain countries (Canada, USA, Mexico, Australia, and Albania) an entry fee commensurate with what Chilean citizens are charged for visas to enter those countries. For Canada, for example, this fee is US$132, while for Mexico it’s $17. For U.S. citizens it is $131. The only white lining here is that the fee covers the passport for as long as it is valid. Great for people with new passports, but less for those with passports about to expire. And it’s quite a hefty tab for families.

Fortunately the kids and I have dual nationality – we’re Czech Americans, so we used our Czech passports and did not have to pay any sort of reciprocity fee (the Czech Republic is part of the European Union). Thus we only had to pay the reciprocity fee for Linda. Savings of $393.

Our luggage was waiting for us when we got past immigration and customs, and outside we found a sign with our name on it, held by a representative of the tour company responsible for our transfer to our hotel. The representative’s name was Pablo, and our driver was Patricio. As we learned, Pablo and Patricio would be our companions during our Chilean exploration as well, with Pablo being our multi-lingual tour guide.

View from our window at the Grand Hyatt - note the Andes in the distance

View from our window at the Grand Hyatt - note the Andes in the distance

We were dropped off at our hotel, had a very early 6am breakfast, and then slept until noon. Red eye flights are never good, but having a bed ready so early in the morning was a wonderful thing to help compensate for the sleeplessness of the flight.

After a good Thai/Chile buffet lunch we met up with Pablo and Patricio for a half-day tour of Santiago.

Pablo had detailed information on statistics, economic factors, and the history of Chile and Santiago. Unfortunately I do not have enough to relate much of that here due to limited time tonight.

In terms of places we visited, the short list would be the Plaza de Armas (translated) (plaza of armaments), the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago (translated) (the main cathedral, located at the Plaza de Armas), the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (the museum of Precolumbian art), La Moneda Presidential Palace, and Cerro San Cristobal. You can see our path in the previous post, and also see a number pictures from our afternoon in Santiago on a map at Flickr. A few of our photos appear below.

View down the Plaza de Armas

View down the Plaza de Armas

Pablo describes the Santiago city plan of the 1712 time frame with Linda and Bas

Pablo describes the Santiago city plan of the 1712 time frame with Linda and Bas

People praying in the silver chapel of the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago

People praying in the silver chapel of the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago

Jake stands guard with the honor guard at the La Moneda Presidential Palace

Jake stands guard with the honor guard at the La Moneda Presidential Palace

Amazing wall murals on a set of buildings in downtown Santiago

Amazing wall murals on a set of buildings in downtown Santiago

The funicular arrives at the top of Cerro San Cristobal

The funicular arrives at the top of Cerro San Cristobal

More important than a play by play, perhaps, would be our observations of Chile and Santiago in particular.

One of the most impressive features of Santiago is that it lies in the foothills of the Andes mountain range, one of the tallest mountain ranges (Pablo says #2) in the world. The city itself is at around 1800 feet above sea level, and we can see tall, snow covered mountain peaks in the distance from our hotel room windows.

In comparison to other Central and South American cities we’ve visited, Santiago feels almost European, and somewhat safer. The climate is also quite moderate, with temperatures into the mid-80s during the day during the summer (now), ranging down to around freezing in the winter. During the summer, the air is clear due to regular winds, but the presence of the six million inhabitants of the area is more prevalent during the winter, when air pollution can get pretty bad, according to Pablo.

Santiago appears to also be European in its prices, which are quite high relative to those we found in Ecuador and Peru, and Pablo mentioned that Chile is the most expensive Latin American country to live in, while at the same time, having the highest per capita income (which makes sense).

Chile has a bit of turbulent history, both politically and geographically. Frequent large earthquakes over the centuries have destroyed many of the older structures in places like Santiago, resulting in a diverse blend of modern, traditional, and colonial architecture, all interspersed with one another. Politically, Chile is a democratic nation, but in 1973 General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup d’état and took power from President Salvador Allende. Pinochet ruled until he stepped down peacefully in 1990.

The Chilean people have a reputation for being the most reserved of the Latin Americans, but our limited experience so far has found them to be warm and friendly.

Finally, the local currency is the Chilean Peso, which trades at a rate of approximately 531 pesos to one U.S. dollar. However, they use the “$” symbol to represent the Chilean Peso, which makes price displays rather intimidating, as seen below:

A very scary ATM display in Santiago - they use the dollar sign for the Chilean Peso - rate is 530 pesos to a U.S. dollar - so this is actually about 500 dollars

A very scary ATM display in Santiago - they use the dollar sign for the Chilean Peso - rate is 530 pesos to a U.S. dollar - so this is actually about 500 U.S. dollars

We’re looking forward to experiencing a bit more of the country and its history in the coming couple of days (Tuesday and Wednesday) as we explore and experience Valparaiso, Chile’s main port.

For those wondering, we spent today (Monday) sleeping in, resting up, editing photos, and trying some new foods, such as calf testicles. Seriously. Wouldn’t probably try them again though, unless they were deep fried, perhaps.

Photos from the day can be found at Jake’s Flickr Pages and Krystyana’s Flickr Pages.

We might be able to post something from our hotel in Valparaiso tomorrow night, but if not it might be Wednesday night before our next post.

 

Antarctic Preparation – Done!

January 29th, 2010 at 2:40 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The various members of The Traveling Richters have spent the last week or so staging our luggage and carry-ons for our upcoming trip to the Antarctic, and I’m pleased to report that we are pretty much done. We’ve also watched a couple of movies/documentaries about Antarctic exploration to help get us in the mood.

Several situations have overlapped to make our packing complicated, including the fact that we will be spending almost two weeks in tropical climes (Aruba and Chile – temperatures from around 70°F / 21°C to 88°F / 31°C), and over three weeks in cold to temperate climes in the vicinity of the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia Island, and the Falkland Islands (temperatures from about 20°F / -4.5°C  to  50°F / 10°C). And also, as I have been bemoaning, the restrictions on carry-on and checked luggage.

Our art gallery floor serves as a staging area for our Antarctic luggage

Our art gallery floor serves as a staging area for our Antarctic luggage

However, with Linda’s excellent planning, and Bas’ willingness to carry much of my camera gear as his carry-on, we have tackled and conquered all of these factors.

My Antarctic-only bag, unpacked so I could inventory it

My Antarctic-only bag, unpacked so I could inventory it

Each of us has two pieces of luggage. One piece contains things we will only need for the cooler portion of our exploration – we’ve dubbed this the Antarctic bag, and it is limited to 33 pounds of weight. I’m the only one that has reached that limit. Everyone else seems to have come in below that.

The absolutely best travel tool ever - the Balanzza luggage scale - showing a perfect 33 pounds for my bag

The absolutely best travel tool ever - the Balanzza luggage scale - showing a perfect 33 pounds for my bag

The second bag is our multi-destination bag, and includes clothing and other items that apply in both sets of climates we’ll be frequenting.

My other piece of luggage, with things for both warm and cold climes

My other piece of luggage, with things for both warm and cold climes

We are each also allowed one carry-on. Mine consists of my computer, a GPS, and my Kindle DX and not much else. Bas has a bag with all my extras (camera gear mostly). Linda has my small VAIO P notebook computer, which she plans on using as her computer during the trip, and Krystyana has her own set of camera gear.

Not ever having been pretty much ready with our luggage more than a week prior to a trip, the current situation is a bit weird. We feel like we should be doing more, but there’s not much more to do for the trip. Instead, we are merely focusing on wrapping up various projects that cannot wait until our return in mid-March.

Jake models a balaclava he plans on wearing during his Antarctic exploration

Jake models a balaclava he plans on wearing during his Antarctic exploration to stay warm

With respect to the research we’ve been doing on the Antarctic, in additional to some interesting books on the subject, we have also watched three movies/documentaries, as well as reviewed various web site. Some of these items are listed below:

Movies/Documentaries:

  • The Last Place On Earth – Mini-series about the rivalry between Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen to reach the geographic south pole. For those that don’t know, Amundsen was the first human to reach the South Pole, on December 14, 1911, 35 days before Scott. Amundsen and his men survived, while Scott and four of his men died on the return. The series provides a fascinating insight (don’t know how true) of how Scott’s autocratic behavior and poor planning doomed his mission, while Amundsen’s slightly more democratic approach to his men, along with much better preparation allowed him to succeed. Ironically, Scott’s death made him a hero, and vilified Amundsen at the same time. The mini-series is based on a book of the same name by Roland Huntford.
  • Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure – 40 minute documentary narrated by Kevin Spacey on Ernest Shackleton‘s unsuccessful and harrowing expedition to attempt to cross the Antarctic continent on the Endurance in 1914-1916. Beautiful video footage, and a reasonable summary of Shackleton’s incredible adventure, but we found the presentation of the adventure less dramatic than what the diaries and stories of Shackleton and his men portray. Was a bit too pat for our liking.
  • March of the Penguins – Tells the story of a year in the life of emperor penguins (which we will not see on our trip). Great documentary both in terms of explaining the overwhelming natural challenges facing emperor penguins during their annual attempt to create and raise their offspring. There are some nice extras on the Blu-ray version of the movie we watched, including a section on how they used the National Geographic CritterCam to get an idea of how emperor penguins feed underwater.

Books:

  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. First published in 1959, it’s the account of Shackleton’s voyage in the 1914-1916 time frame based on the diaries and oral reports of the members of Shackleton’s expedition, every single one of whom survived (which, considering the ordeals they faced, is what’s truly incredible).
  • The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander. Great complement to Lansing’s books as it provides a large number of photographs taken during the expedition as well as many more personal excerpts from various crew member diaries. I would highly recommend reading both books on the subject.
  • The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica by David G. Campbell. In depth explanation of the climate, flora, and fauna of Antarctica. I have not read it yet (it’s next on my list), but Linda gives it a thumbs up. If you want to learn about Antarctica’s natural history and ecosystem, this is the book to read.
  • An Adventurer’s Guide to Antarctica and the Subantarctic Islands by Marilyn J. Landis Flanigan. Covers the human history of the region in extensive detail, interleaved with a large number of photos by the author (an admitted Antarctica-addict), and includes information about the Falkland Islands as well. Only available on the Kindle, apparently.
  • Perishing Poles – Horrible Geography by Anita Ganeri & Mike Phillips. Part of the excellent Horrible Histories series for kids, published in the U.K. This was Bas’ favorite book about Antarctica because it has all the facts, plus all the gore.

Web Sites – these are only a few of the dozens we have visited (we didn’t keep records):

That’s it for now. Unless some other cool travel thing pops up, the next message will be from Aruba in a week.