Patagonia’s Mountain Landscapes 2014 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Jun 01, 2014

Our flight landed in El Calafate, Argentina, and we headed directly to the small town of El Chalten.  At first glance, the landscape appeared identical to that around my home in Wyoming where sagebrush dominates the steppe and the Wind River Range rises from the plains.  A closer inspection, however, revealed basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers, tuft grasses like Stipa and Poa, and desert shrubs.  The wind whipped across the roadway.  A characteristic of this region of the world is the weather.  The weather defines Patagonia and winds blow with terrific force from October to March. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia described winds that can “strip men to the raw” and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, flying the mail route in Patagonia, described winds pushing his plane backwards rather than forwards.  We experienced the ferocity of that legendary wind only on the first day as we drove to El Chalten—and enjoyed only light winds and good views for the rest of our Patagonian adventure.

The first destination was El Chalten, considered the launching point for trekkers and mountain climbers—and for our fine group of photographic adventurers.  This quaint mountain town of 900 people is a great mix of small lodges, restaurants, coffee shops and gear shops for the outdoor enthusiast—and offers stunning views of the Fitz Roy Massif and Cerro Torre.  We spent the next four days photographing from prime viewpoints.  We were an intrepid band of travelers and half of the group assembled for a morning assault to Lake Capri, a 4-mile hike from town.  Leaving in the dark at 4:30 AM, we hiked with headlamps and minimum gear to the lake to catch the first light on Fitz Roy.  The elevation gain was about 1,300 feet and it took us about 2 hours hiking at a leisurely pace.  We set up and enjoyed a traditional hot mate tea.  Our timing was perfect.  First, a red glow appeared on the top of Fitz Roy.  Within 15 minutes we experienced one of the most unbelievable sunrises I have ever seen.  The entire landscape turned such a deep red that everything—water, rocks, peaks—glowed with such an intense luminance that our histograms were clipping the red channels and everyone thought something was wrong with their cameras!  As the light illuminated the landscape and waterfalls in our foreground, shutters were going crazy on every camera.  Split neutral density filters were a handy item to have for this and for our other mountain shoots on the trip.  I frequently changed out my Singh-Ray ND filters to balance the illuminated mountains with the shaded foreground, as is often the situation when shooting during first-light mountain images.  Another useful bit of gear was my Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo polarizer which emphasized colors in the landscape.

After a few days of photography around the base of the Fitz Roy Massif, we drove to Chorrillo del Salto and the Rio de las Vueltas canyon and, although photo opportunities were somewhat limited by a downpour, we did manage some good images of the waterfall and autumn-colored southern beech trees.

After leaving El Chalten, we visited two impressive glaciers—the Viedma and the enormous Perito Moreno.  The Viedma Glacier boat ride was fantastic and then most of the group either hiked to the base of the glacier or clamped on crampons and walked to a very unique ice cave.  During our visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier, we experienced a heavy rain which put a slight damper (ahem—I did mention that weather defines Patagonia) on the photographic opportunities but the grand scale of this glacier was still quite impressive.

After a night in El Calafate, we drove south to Torres del Paine National Park located on the Chilean side of Patagonia.  Here, we had a southwesterly view of Cerro Paine Grande.  Surrounded by beautiful lakes—Grey, Pehoe, Nordenskiold and Sarmiento—and flanked by the glaciers—Grey, Pingo, Tyndall and Geikie—awesome views and incredible mountain backdrops were everywhere.  From our beautiful island lodge at Lake Pehoe we went on daily drives and moderate hikes to mountain waterfalls.  The area abounds with wildlife—guanaco, Patagonian fox, puma, huemul, black-chested buzzard-eagles and Magellanic woodpeckers.  While we did not see a puma or the endangered huemul deer, everything else was checked off the list!  One of the photographic highlights of the trip was capturing the guanaco.  One of our mornings was dedicated to “hunting” the guanaco in front of mountain backdrops with our cameras.  The objective was to place the animal in its natural habitat for what I like to call “animal landscapes.”  The majestic mountains of Patagonia are a fitting backdrop for any wildlife or scenic photographer—and the best part of this particular outing was that the only lenses needed to accomplish great landscapes was anything in the 100‒400mm range.  No super telephoto necessary!

After a few days at Lake Pahoe, we ventured south to Lago Grey Lodge to shoot mountain landscapes and southern beech trees.  A highlight of this part of the national park was the boat tour to Lago Grey Glacier.  Although much smaller in size and scope than Perito Moreno, it equaled any ice and glacier photography that I experienced in Antarctica.  The landscape took everyone’s breath away and numerous images were taken during our half-day boat trip along the foot of the giant glacier’s walls.  A fitting finale to our Patagonian mountain adventure!

Following the drive back across the Chilean border to the airport in El Calafate, we flew to Buenos Aires for our farewell dinner.  The next morning we boarded busses to the quaint section of the city known as La Boca.  The barrio retains a strong European flavor with colorful buildings, outdoor venues, and is noted for the world-renowned football club, the Boca Juniors.  We had only a short window of shooting time before we needed to be at the airport for flights home, so we arranged for a private photo session with local tango dancers.  Tango, the sexy partner dance, originated along the Rio de la Plata area of Argentina and Uruguay.  Gorgeous pastel-colored building walls were our backdrop and the beauty of Argentine tango was performed for us on a side street of La Boca.  Many members of our group then had their photos taken “dancing” with our models—their classic dance stylings highly entertained everyone involved!  For our group, after all of our Patagonian adventures, this was indeed the Last Tango in Argentina!