The beauty of Patagonia outside our hotel window in Torres del Paine National Park

The beauty of Patagonia outside our hotel window in Torres del Paine National Park. All photos by Russ Wagner

Russ retched up to the moment we gingerly stepped into the zodiac that bounced in the rolling sea. If the Captain of the Stella Australis didn’t call us back due to a rapid gusting wind or sudden stormy skies, we would be among the few tourists this season to land at dawn on the legendary (Island of) Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos), the last bit of land before reaching Antarctica.

But that historic (for us) landing was many days after our group of 20 international travelers began our 18-day Patagonia Expedition with Smithsonian Journeys. It was not an adventure I would have chosen, but it fulfilled my husband’s dream to travel to the ends of the earth to visit one of the most recognized beautiful and relatively primitive destinations left on earth. This was not a laid-back vacation, but an adventure for even seasoned travelers.

Like all journeys, this one began with travel. Over the course of the next 18 days,

Carved statue of the Pope waving  in La Boca

Carved statue of the Pope waving in La Boca

we flew on seven airplanes, were on one ship, eight zodiacs, countless buses, and hiked on glaciers, volcanos, at national parks and through urban cities like Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile as well as the remote city of Ushuaia, known as the “End of the Earth.” We also stayed in five hotels, each lovelier than the next.

I could tell you all about the cancelled or delayed flights that were consistent with LAN Airlines (a key element of this trip organized by Odyssey Tours, the travel arm of Smithsonian Journeys), but suffice to say the airline’s reputation lies in being safe in the skies but quite disorganized on the ground. I’d be satisfied to never fly with them again.

Russ and I have never travelled with a tour before and were unsure what to expect. He had assiduously researched, bought and assembled the thermal attire on the checklist, paid our $160 each reciprocity fee to Argentina, bought smaller luggage to meet requirements and prepared ourselves mentally and physically for this adventure. Actually, truth be told, I left pretty much all of this planning up to him. I didn’t know we would be getting frequent political/historical/geological and cultural lectures from Scott David Palmer, former U.S State Department head of Latin American Affairs), that our Tour Guide would be Nicholas Tozer (former British TV journalist who’s a top guide for Antarctic and Patagonian tours), or that we would be sharing our adventures with such a diverse, educated and stimulating group. We had doctors,

One of many churches in Buenos Aires

One of many churches in Buenos Aires

lawyers, photographers, geologists and bird watchers. Each contributed their personal knowledge, conversations and thrill to the overall experience. At each of our locations, we had an accompanying local guide versed in that area’s assets.

As I said, this wasn’t a trip I would have chosen, but it turned out to be one of those literal trips-of-a-lifetime. Every moment was intense with rich history, cultural awareness, beautiful scenery, and the flavors of Latin America.

As we packed so much in each day, I won’t give you a running itinerary of everything we saw and did. This, and all the following blogs in this Patagonia series, will be more about observations, notable experiences, and cuisine and wines; enhanced by dramatic photos by my husband, Russ Wagner.

Miscellaneous Commentary

  1. We did not go even one day without eating empanadas, pastry pockets that are stuffed with an assortment of proteins or vegetables. We ate a few stuffed with chicken, but most were laden with tender minced beef chunks swimming in a rich gravy. Empanadas are as much a part of the Latin cuisine as hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries are in America. We often ate them at multiple meals a day, as appetizers or as the entree. No two were alike.
  2. Pisco Sours are ubiquitous. While the Pisco brandy is from Peru, Chile has adopted the Pisco Sour as their national drink. Every restaurant or bar offers a version of it. We prefer the Peruvian liquor to that made in Chile.
  3. Restaurants may not open before 8 pm, following their post-lunch siesta time. Even though dinner is often not eaten before 9 or 10 pm, people still rise early for school or work the next day.
  4. If you don’t plan on taking at least two hours for any meal, ask for the check immediately upon ordering. You’ll still be lucky to get it by the time you’ve eaten your meal.
  5. Toilet paper is never thrown into a toilet. They have antiquated waste water systems. Used toilet paper is tossed in a trash can sitting next to the toilet. Don’t expect to always have hot water or soap available. We carried Handi-Wipes and small rolls of toilet paper in our pockets. Wish I could say they never had to have been used.
  6. We were told that it was inconsequential that neither Russ or I speak Spanish. I can comprehend a tad because I speak a rusty French, but can’t converse beyond a few simple words. If we had not been with guides or others in our group who speak Spanish fluently, even at a hotel or when on a tour event, we would have been puzzled. We found very few people who spoke English, unlike the European destinations we’ve visited. I understand they shouldn’t expect to be fluent, but I do wonder, that in areas drawing huge North American tourists, why so many front-line staff can’t communicate even basic essentials.
  7. Currency rates can change daily. In Argentina, the rate was 14 or 15 pesos to the dollar. In Chile, it was 700 pesos to the dollar. Use your credit card when possible. Much easier to track. A modest amount of cash can be obtained from ATMs for incidentals.
  8. Each metropolitan area (around the world) has its own pickpocketing styled scams. In Buenos Aires, people (usually teams of two) would squirt something on your clothes (like mustard or ketchup), pretending it was an accident from food they were eating. Then while they offered to wipe your clothes, the other person would pick your pocket. There were several incidents where our group was targeted by pickpockets, but in each incident, we avoided any disasters. Just be aware: they’re counting on tourists looking up and around, but not observing who is watching every distraction, waiting to make a move. Do not flash your money or keep anything in a back pocket.
  9. Farmer or flea markets are everywhere. Even though merchandise is advertised as being locally made, assume most of it isn’t. We often saw the same products at every market at which we fleetingly stopped.
  10. Breakfast buffets always have thin sliced hams, slices of generic white cheese, wonderful locally-made breads, and the runniest scrambled eggs I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, I never ate eggs on this trip. What I will say is, unlike many American restaurants/hotels, these were made from real eggs, not Egg Beaters (at least that’s what people said). At many of the fine hotels and on the ship, the buffets were quite extensive. There were many fish dishes, loads of veggies and salads, various sausages and hams, and quite surprising to me, more desserts than I’ve ever seen at a breakfast buffet.
  11. Even though Argentina is known for beef and we had a choice of salmon or steak at most every Smithsonian-sponsored meal, the meat was typically chewy and naturally flavorless. Fortunately, chefs use plenty of tasty spices and herbs. It was grass-fed, so that likely accounts for the texture and taste. Lamb Is another popular meat. It’s typically barbequed on a giant four-pronged spit in the middle of a fire pit.
  12. We grew to really appreciate the Malbec (Argentina) and Carmenere (Chile) wines that we drank when possible. This introduction of wine labels with which we were unfamiliar greatly enhanced our palate and knowledge.

Buenos Aires

A mausoleum in Ricoleta Cemetery. They cost millions of dollars. Eva Peron's mausoleum sits nearby

A mausoleum in Ricoleta Cemetery. They cost millions of dollars. Eva Peron’s mausoleum sits nearby

Our journey began in Buenos Aires. Russ and I had been warned prior to the trip not to drink the water, eat any fruits or vegetables we couldn’t peel, not to eat seafood, and to never carry around our passports or other essentials while walking and sightseeing. We kept our passports and credentials safely tucked away in the hotel safe, but under the care of the Smithsonian and our adept guides, we never had to worry about where and what we ate. Most meals were provided at select restaurants and when in a city where meals were on our own, restaurant options were noted. Our doctors had prescribed ciprofloxacin just in case of digestive illness, and mine (who has been to Patagonia twice) added a prescription for nausea. Thank goodness he did, as it saved me from extreme discomfort when the roiling seas in the Drake Passage threatened to undo me.

  1. When Russ and I travel, we rarely go shopping, or it is a very minor, usually last minute jaunt into a souvenir store to buy him a shot glass for his collection and a magnet for me. Sadly, I think I was the only woman who never made it to a fine-leather shop for shoes, purses and belts, for which Argentina is acclaimed.
  2. We stayed at the 265-room Emperador Hotel. Lovely. Modern. Comfortable. Wonderful buffet.
  3. Many areas of Buenos Aires look tired. Sidewalks are crumbling, uprooted by trees and neglect. Even in the areas populated by luxury shops, we were surprised at how rundown buildings were or how many homeless people literally camped out on the streets even during the day. Newer areas are much better maintained.
  4. We saw a St. Patrick’s Day Festival, held on an off day so it wouldn’t clash with some other city functions. We saw two troupes of Irish-clad dancers. Not a blonde or redhead among them.

    Argentine Tango dancers draw your attention in La Boca, where the dance originated

    Argentine Tango dancers draw your attention in La Boca, where the dance originated

  5. Walked through La Boca, home of the Argentine Tango. Crowded tiny streets. Tango dancers flicked, kicked and clung to one another on tiny platforms in front of boutique restaurants while a singer emotional crooning set the exotic tempo. This area is vivid with color, from carved statues of dancers, musicians, and even one of the Pope waving from a second-story balcony. The streets are flooded with vendors. Restaurants are packed tightly. Tango dancers lure from crowded streets, encouraging you to don a hat or other accessories and pose with them for a photo. If you do, they will then expect you to pay for taking their time and image.
  6. We strolled through Recoleta Cemetery on a guided tour. We paused by Eva Peron’s mausoleum, continuously adorned with flowers and notes. Apparently, locals still regard Eva Peron as a saint and still appeal to her for divine intervention in their time of need. We were astonished to learn that even crumbling mausoleums can cost millions of dollars, let alone the ones with two stories and furnished with artwork, chairs and memories of the individual or family contained within.
  7. Saw a Hollywood-styled Tango show with dinner at Esquina Carlos Gardel. Gardel was a French-Argentine singer, songwriter, composer and actor, and considered a premier figure in the history of tango. He died in 1935 in a plane crash. The theater was beautiful. The show’s capable and very athletic dancers depicted the origins of Argentine Tango and how it has evolved over time. Dinner was as good as you’d expect at any dinner theater where the show is the main attraction.
  8. We heard from our guides that most homes have three revered pictures on the wall: The Pope, President John F. Kennedy and President Barack Obama. As a matter of fact, Obama and Michelle were visiting during our stay. The crowds and media were effusive in their accolades and visible adoration.
View from our hotel in Ushuaia

View from our hotel in Ushuaia

Part Two: To the End of the Earth in Ushuaia

Coming: Wines of Argentina and Chile

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI and is now serving on the 2015 – 2016 MPI Global advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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