Patagonia's Mountain Landscapes 2018 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on May 03, 2018

Our journey to the Mountain Landscapes of Patagonia began as participants met at our Buenos Aires hotel on Avenida 9 de Julio, the location of the widest avenue in the world.  With a total of seven lanes, two parallel 4-laned side streets, and gardened medians, our hotel’s front door was at the heart and soul of Buenos Aires.  The avenue is a busy place 24 hours a day and it was here that we enjoyed people watching from the comfort of front row seats in the lobby.  Our day prior to flying to Patagonia also included either a day tour of the city or a visit to one of the local conservation areas for a day of photography.  A good warm up for things to come!
Our first destination after leaving Buenos Aires was a small mountain village along the Rio de las Vueltas in Santa Cruz Province.  With a population of 1,000 El Chalten is a community based on tourism where climbers, backpackers and other adventurous travelers—like us—come to visit the Southern Patagonian Region and Mount Fitz Roy.  Here we spent the next 3.5 days photographing the majestic mountain range around Fitz Roy, the Chorrillo del Salto waterfall, Las Vueltas Canyon, and the Patagonian beech forest in fall color.  Many images were taken from roadside viewpoints or during short walks, and one day was spent hiking to some extraordinary viewpoints.  On that day we divided into three smaller groups based on everyone’s hiking ability.  Fitzroy massifThe longest and most challenging was a hike up past Lago Capri to a remote waterfall within earshot of Fitz Roy.  This hike, which I have done several times, is an 8-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet.  Our mountain guide and local photographer Cecilia took the first group to the waterfall, while I chose to lead another group on a 4-mile round trip hike with stunning views of the mountain at sunrise.  Both of these groups hiked in the dark with headlamps in order to arrive at choice destinations to set up in the twilight of the approaching dawn.  The third group headed out in a small van to catch the sunrise south of town.  Throughout this part of the trip we were definitely on a roll with beautiful sunrises every morning.  The previous two weeks here had seen only rain and no sign of the mighty mountain.  Luck was with us!
After leaving the Fitz Roy area we headed south to El Calafate where we spent the next two nights.  This is another town that is dependent on tourism and, unlike El Chalten, is filled to the gills with restaurants, gift shops, gear shops, tour companies, and a very busy main street with travelers and locals selling their wares.  It is always popular with clients for obtaining gifts or last-minute items needed prior to heading into Chile and Torres del Paine.  Perito Moreno glacierOn our full day in El Calafate we left our hotel prior to sunrise in the pouring rain to photograph in Los Glaciares National Park and at the Perito Moreno glacier. Suddenly, with the addition of the rain and wind, our trip stopped rolling.  But our luck still held as I experienced one of the most beautiful mornings at the glacier.  As the storm subsided, the clouds lifted they exposed the glacier with morning bands of light and clearing clouds.  I have led this trip many times and this was by far the best morning display ever at Perito Moreno.  The roll and momentum continued!
The travel day to Torres del Paine is a long one with an 8-hour drive and the usual inconvenience of a border crossing.  Same routine, different place.  After the formalities of crossing into Chile we arrived at Lago Pehoe in Torres del Paine National Park where we were based for the next four days.  Our hotel has stunning views of the Paine Massif reflected in the azure-colored waters of Lago Pehoe—and one only has to walk out the front door to start taking pictures.  This is one prime location for photographers!  On our first morning, the ball quit rolling, or rolled in slo-mo, compared with the first half of the trip.  Hyperion, the Titan god of light, took a break and exchanged places with Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and other waters.  It seemed like rain and the infamous Patagonian wind would shadow us for most of our stay in Torres del Paine.  Like all good photographers we ventured out rain or shine catching glimpses of mountain landscapes, guanacos, and the bird and animal life endemic to the region.  Paine Massif in Black & WhiteAs is typical of mountain weather, we had some breaks allowing us a chance to hike and look for pumas, photograph passing Andean condors, and spend time at several waterfalls in the region.   While we did not experience any stunning sunrises on the Paine Massif, I encouraged the group to think in terms of Black & White for their final product in post processing.  The atmospheric conditions here were perfect for photographing in black and white. 
Moving on to Lago Grey, our next destination, we arrived at our hotel under a torrential downpour and winds.  The following morning’s plan was to hike a little over a mile, in the dark using headlamps, to catch a boat tour to the Grey Glacier.  The tour company delayed the cruise departure for an hour when the rain started to subside at sunrise—which was perfect for our hike.  On the boat a deluge hit us with such ferocity that we were unsure if we could step out on the deck or view or photograph anything of interest.  Shortly before reaching the glacier, however, the rain subsided and Hyperion, the god of light, listened to our cries!  The skies parted and we experienced a great morning photographing the glacial walls of ice and the surrounding mountain scenery.  We were all in awe of how our morning had transpired.  Then the rain returned and when walking from the boat ramp back to our waiting bus we experienced horrific rain and 50-mph winds.  The rain came in horizontally and all you could see was your feet.  Looking in any direction was not an option.  I would compare this particular morning to scenes of those newscasters standing on a beach in the middle of a hurricane describing the play of events.  
Throughout the week of rain, the clients took the daily weather in stride.  I have been on trips where people became irritable, disappointed with the weather and the conditions, but this group always carried a smile.  Everyone had a great time and took the daily weather news as just part of another adventure.  We managed to pull the rabbit out of the hat with countless great photo ops—and meals were a time for delicious food and for laughter and telling stories throughout the evening.  I have to say, this was one fun group of seasoned travelers!
Tango dancers in Buenos AiresAll good things come to an end and we spent a long day driving and then flying back to Buenos Aires where we arrived at the hotel very late at night.  In the morning we had time to relax.  In the afternoon, prior to heading to the airport for flights home, we had a pre-arranged Argentine tango shoot on some gritty street corners and in the market area of BA.  Albeit short, we had a fantastic shoot with a talented and photogenic couple.  Since we were running late, the tango shoot moved rapidly from marketplace to street corners, varying our locations and settings.  After our shoot most of us said our goodbyes and headed to the airport, focusing on the homeward journey ahead.  We hoped that our paths would cross again in the spirit of photography!
If you like what you see in the photos and hear from my report (even with the rain!), John Shaw and Cecilia Costa will be your leaders for next year’s Patagonia Mountain Landscapes trip.  I will be leading trips the Croatia photo tour and Slovenia photo tour for Joe during the same time period.  Hope to see some of you there!

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