A Trip to Remote Antarctica


Our Ship, the Sea Spirit, in the Antarctic.

A trip to Antarctica is on every traveler’s “bucket list”… and a trip that takes you south of the Antarctic Circle is an even finer “bucket”.  Such cruises are not for the budget traveler, but who could resist when we kept hearing that the place was melting?   We thought we had better get down to see it before it was gone.  Well, we can tell you that even though it IS melting, there is still a lot of ice left.

Fred with his Only Camera.

All cruises to the Antarctic occur during the southern summer, when sea ice is at its least dense.  Even then, however, it is never certain that you will reach any particular place the cruise company might promise.  It is decided by both the ice and the storms that rage all year long across the Drake Passage.  Most cruises stop in various hideouts along the more sheltered islands and coves along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Dusky Porpoises off our Bow.

Our cruise company, Poseidon Explorations, plans one trip every two years at the height of the summer (February), when the sea ice is the least, to try to go below the Antarctic Circle.  We were grateful that ice and weather conditions allowed the ship to accomplish its goal of reaching south of the circle with us on board.

Here are some facts:  The Arctic is frozen water surrounded by land.  Antarctica is a frozen continent surrounded by water.  At 5 1/2 million square miles, its land mass is larger than Europe.  Amazingly, it doubles in size in winter when it is iced in!

Chefs on Board the Sea Spirit.

An ice sheet covers 98 percent of the land mass, and is 15,000 feet thick in some places.  The continent contains about 70 percent of all the fresh water on earth and 90 percent of the ice.

It is the coldest continent.  A Russian research station recorded minus-89 degrees Centigrade near the South Pole.  Antarctica has so little precipitation that it is classified as a desert.  It is the highest continent on earth, with an average elevation of 7,500 feet, as well as the windiest, with gusts up to 200 miles per hour.

A Humpback Whale Observing Us.

Antarctica is also visited in the three months of summer every year by between 30,000 and 45,000 people, all on ships like ours.  What is interesting is that the ships cruising in the Antarctic agree to work hard together to plan their movements so that one is never in sight of another.  This requires lots of coordination, some of it requiring last-minute changes.  This strategy works to enhance the overall effect of remoteness and isolation.

Sharon and Some of Her Friends.

There is little flora but lots of fauna in Antarctica, and we certainly saw a lot of wildlife.  Besides dozens of species of birds, and several species of penguins (everybody’s favorites), we saw several types of seals, as well as dolphins, orcas and dozens of humpback whales.  We passed up the opportunity for kayaking and spent our time either walking on shore or cruising around in inflatable zodiacs.  We also passed up the chance for a “polar plunge” in the icy water.

On the zodiac excursions, our favorite sights were the numerous humpback whales we saw every day.  One benefit of the climate change warming the water is that more algae blooms feed more krill, which in turn feeds more whales.

Going Ashore in Zodiacs.

Another side effect of the retreat of glaciers is that land once thought to be mainland now turns out to be islands.  The U.S. base that we visited, Palmer Station, was once assumed to be on a major island.  It now turns out to be on its own fairly small island that is removed from the shore once the ice melts in the summer.

The only good news we heard in lectures about climate change is that the decline in the use of ozone-depleting chemicals has resulted in 20 percent less depletion in the shrinking hole in the ozone layer.  Whew.

Logo for the U.S. Base, Palmer Station.

The fauna ON our ship was often as interesting to watch as the creatures in nature.  We had a small number of Americans, Brits and Australians; a dozen or so Russians; and a dozen Germans.  Interestingly, some of the Germans did not speak English, having grown up in East Germany, where Russian was the second language.  All English-language speeches and printouts were translated into German, Russian and Chinese.  Even the films, etc. showed in the staterooms were programmed in the language of the individual travelers.

One of the Chinese Guests Doing the “Polar Plunge”.

The big surprise was that 46 of the ship’s passenger load of 120 people were Chinese.  Only a few spoke English, but all were enjoying the opportunity to travel the world with their new-found wealth and freedom to travel.  Most of them also carried gigantic cameras.

Coming from big cities with little wildlife, or even house pets, the Chinese really loved the thousands of cute penguins everywhere and often had to be reminded by their guides, “Don’t touch the penguins!”

A Bored Weddell Seal.


The Dzongs (?) of Bhutan


Pungthan Deichen Dzong of Punakha. © Goran Hoglund/flickr

Our earlier blog talked a bit about Bhutan and how to get there. The latest government pro-tourism project is called, “Why not Bhutan?” The tiny country is now pretty well set up for “high value” (or high cost) and low-impact tourism.

Bhutanese Men’s Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

A variety of tour companies run treks in the country, though no mountaineering is allowed…in respect for the deities who inhabit the 7,000 meter peaks.

We decided on the more usual visit of hitting the three main tourist spots, all centered around western Bhutan. Although the three–Paro, Thimphu and Punakha–look on the map as close as Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida, the serpentine mountain roads connecting the three means it takes hours to get from one to the other.

Monks Enjoying a Dance Performance. © Sharon Lundahl

Monks Enjoying a Dance Performance. © Sharon Lundahl

The sites to see are temples, monasteries, stupas, palaces and fortresses, as well as the various locations where famous holy men fought demons over the centuries. Bhutanese names, titles and words in general are at first almost indecipherable to outsiders. The Tibetan-like language of Drukba is written in Sanskrit letters, but even in English script is still confusing.

The dozens of “dzongs”, the often huge ancient buildings spread around the country, begin to look similar with their massive battlements and uniquely Bhutanese architecture. These have always served dual purposes of religious centers and administrative centers due to centuries of attacks between neighbors and from Tibetans and other invaders.

Pretty Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

Pretty Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

What makes them most interesting is that they are not empty antiques, but are living, purposeful places filled with Bhutanese government workers, religious workers or simple local people doing business. In Paro we saw what we thought was a huge dzong, along with a big watchtower which now houses the national museum. Turns out it was the smallest dzong we saw.

Driving to Thimphu, the 100,000 population capital city, we found a burgeoning city filled with new apartment buildings, all built with Bhutanese architectural shapes, along with new buildings for modern democratic institutions like the parliament and supreme court.

Masked Dancer. © Sharon Lundahl

Masked Dancer. © Sharon Lundahl

Still there, however, and still impressive, was the largest dzong of all, which is the Bhutanese white House, Washington Cathedral and government office buildings all rolled into one. There were lots of tourists, many of them local Bhutanese in national dress, who watched dance performances of the elaborate costumed mask dances in the huge courtyards.

We moved on over rough and muddy mountain roads and one high pass to Punakha, the old capital where the dzong was almost as impressive as Thimphu’s. With the government activities moved elsewhere, this dzong was primarily used for religious activities and was filled with chanting monks. Nearby we watched an impromptu archery contest between three teams of men which served as much a social activity as a sporting activity.

Carrying Baby with National Dress.  © Sharon Lundahl

Carrying Baby with National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

We did see strictly religious locations as well. In Punakha we visited a famous temple, the Chimi Lamphang, where childless women have gone for centuries to pray for a child. A recent “Modern Love” story in the New York Times recounted a New York woman’s successful visit there.

In Thimphu we spent an hour at the newish Memorial Chorten where dozens of elderly locals came every day to do a few perambulations of the stupa and hang out with their friends. Free lunches are served, and the place seemed as much like a community center and park as a religious site.


Fred Hiked up to the “Tiger’s Nest”. © Fred Lundahl

The Last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom: Bhutan


Bhutan–Docula Pass. ©Goran Hoglund/flickr

Our trip this October took us back to South Asia to visit old friends in both India and Nepal and to make new friends in Bhutan, a country we had never visited before. We found Delhi and Kathmandu as chaotic, bustling, polluted and wonderful as ever, and this made our stay in bucolic and unique Bhutan especially fun as a contrast.
Monks in Bhutan.  © Sharon Lundahl.

Monks in Bhutan. © Sharon Lundahl.

We had read a lot about this last of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, where every policy decision is judged for its contribution to the “Gross National Happiness” of the Bhutanese people. Still, we were unprepared to find such a quiet and tranquil…and easygoing…place in the middle of Asia. In many ways, it reminded us of the difference between rural, wooded and tranquil Whidbey Island where we live, in contrast to the bustling Seattle metro area on the mainland.


Contemporary Religious Art. © Sharon Lundahl

Bhutan is an ancient land with a very short modern history. The Switzerland-sized country, with a small population of 700,000, has participated in the spread of Buddhism and engaged in centuries of Tibetan influences, as well as Hindu Nepali pressures.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Bhutan’s location, sandwiched between giant India and China, has defined its world view. After centuries of strife between regional feudal warlords, the Bhutanese established a dynastic monarchy in the early 1900’s. Since then they have been lucky to have had a progression of five enlightened monarchs. The 21st century constitution, which enshrines the “Gross National Happiness” concept and requires the country to remain more than 60% forest, even allows for the impeachment of the king…and requires him to retire at age 65.


Fred on Trek to monastery.

Coming into the modern age only in the late 20th century, the country’s monarchs have managed change very carefully. They have been intent on preserving their culture AND bringing their citizens in the modern age at the same time. This has led to charming contrasts where the traditional dress for men and women is still required in almost all public venues, but even the smallest child…and almost all monks..now seem to have smart phones.

Father Carrying Child in National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

Father Carrying Child in National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

This is a country that bans smoking in public and bans the sale of any tobacco products, bans plastic bags, bans all billboards and tightly controls tourism (7,000 tourists last year) to preserve its traditional culture. This all is in stark contrast to Nepal next door which has done the opposite (700,000 tourists last year). Bhutan had no motor roads until the 1960’s and still has no stoplights. It did not allow any tourism until the 1990’s, did not allow television until 1999, and did not allow the internet until the early 2000’s. It became a constitutional monarch with a parliament only in 2008.

Making a trip to Bhutan is not just a matter of jumping on a plane and backpacking around. To obtain a visa you must pay a tour company in advance a minimum of $ 250 per day per person ($ 200 in the winter off season).


Bhutanese Chorten. © Sharon Lundahl

With that receipt, the government will give you a visa that is limited to the amount of days you have paid for, and even gives the dates of arrival and departure. You also receive a route permit that lists the towns you will visit and the hotels you will stay in on each day. You must be accompanied by a guide and driver who have to register you through each district’s checkpoints with your route permit. In some ways it reminded us of traveling with Intourist in the old USSR, though with more smiles and good humor.


Happy Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

The $250 per day actually includes a $ 50 tax for tourism infrastructure, and includes the costs of your guide, your car and driver, your hotel, any trekking gear, and all of your meals. Taking this into consideration, the daily amount is not as outlandish as it first seems. We also paid a daily “small group” surcharge, as we were a group of two.

We did see lots of tour groups, ranging from Seattle-based REI trekking groups to familiar names like Overseas Adventure Travel and Roads Scholar. Interestingly for a country who has had to fend off Chinese expansionism for centuries, Bhutan now hosts numerous Chinese tourists. Our own guide had been studying the Chinese language so he could lead the increasing numbers of Chinese tour groups.


Jejekangphu Kang. © Andrew Purdam/flickr

The New “Great Game” on the Silk Road


Site of the First Great Game. © Fred Lundahl

The 19th century “Great Game”,  the subject of Kipling’s classic book “Kim,”  referred to the geopolitical jousting between Czarist Russia,  busy expanding into Central Asia, and Great Britain, long established on the Indian subcontinent.

Fred and Pamiri Friends.

Fred and Pamiri Friends.

The two great powers almost came to blows along their common border in the high Pamir Mountains.   They finally agreed to give a buffer zone to Afghanistan to lessen the chance of inadvertent war between themselves.   That buffer, the Wahkon Corridor, is a finger of Afghanistan that now separates Pakistan from Tajikistan and points into China.    During that first “Great Game”,  China was too weak to play any part.  Not any more.

The recent news that the first Chinese freight train has arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, through new rail lines built in Central Asia, is the latest indication of a new “Great Game” —  this time between China and everybody else… and, friends, China has already won.  China’s “One Belt, one Road” or “New Silk Road” program has signed up 34 countries on its periphery.   In 2015 alone, it resulted in $92 billion in signed contracts.


Pamiri Mom Carrying Smart Phone. © Fred Lundahl

One of the big surprises of Fred’s trip to Tajikistan recently was the now ubiquitous presence of all things Chinese.    Traveling through remote mountainous areas, Fred found that he had better cell phone coverage there than back home on Whidbey Island.  That was thanks to Chinese-built solar and wind-powered cell towers dotting the mountain peaks.


Pamiris in Rags 20 Years Ago. © Sharon Lundahl

Villagers in even the most remote villages, who had been dressed in rags when Fred and Sharon passed through the area 20 years ago, now wore new Chinese-made clothes and carried cell phones.  Chinese consumer goods fill the most remote village markets.

Even before the now-complete final stretch of rail line through Central Asia, evidence of Chinese ascendancy in the economic life of Central Asia was everywhere.  Fred found hotels filled with Chinese businessmen and mountain highways clogged with hundreds of huge Chinese double 18 wheeler trucks.  Chinese-built infrastructure projects such as toll roads, airports, power plants, bridges, tunnels and railroads are everywhere.


Chinese Road Builders. © Fred Lundahl

All that China asks for all this assistance is unfettered access to all a country’s mineral wealth and a few border-line adjustments here and there.  Locals note that for more than a century, Russia took all their mineral wealth and gave little back in return.  In comparison, China is viewed by the locals as a welcome partner.


Empty Chinese Sneakers Container. © Fred Lundahl

Sure, the huge trucks take a toll on poorly made Soviet-era highways, but the Chinese are busy repairing and improving the roads.  All this building is being overseen by Chinese foremen, but there are plenty of new low-level jobs for local workers.

Several years ago in this area, a road accident resulted in a Chinese truck falling off a highway into the rocky and raging Panj river.  The truck broke open and spilled out its contents of hundreds of pairs of Chinese-made sneakers.  Little by little, these sneakers floated downstream and washed up on riverbanks where poor villagers were amazed to find them.

During his recent trip through the mountains, Fred saw a number of individuals in traditional dress wearing brightly colored sneakers they had fortuitously picked up during “The Miracle of the Chinese Sneakers.”


Chinese Truck on Pamir Highway. © Fred Lundahl

The neatest place you have never heard of: Tajikistan


The Pamir Mountains. © Fred Lundahl

Why go to Tajikistan?

In the 1990’s Fred served at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, while Sharon served at the Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.

A Mine Field from the Tajik Civil War. © Fred Lundahl

A Mine Field from the Tajik Civil War. © Jake Smith

Sharon’s country seemed like a happy Dr. Seuss country, while Fred’s was embroiled in a nasty civil war.   This conflict had transformed the USSR’s best mountain adventure destination into a no-go zone with landlines littering once-pristine trekking routes in the high Pamir mountains…home to numerous peaks over 6 and 7,000 meters.

Tajikistan on the Left--Afghanistan on the Right. Fred Lundahl

Tajikistan on the Left–Afghanistan on the Right. Fred Lundahl

After peace came in 1997, the two of us often traveled in the Tajik hinterlands.   We took one memorable journey along Tajikistan’s border with the then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and were escorted by armed security vehicles from the Tajik government.  Among the many Central Asian pictures in our shop are some heart-rending photos of  children dressed in rags living in this Wahkon corridor.


Sharon and Tajik Friends in 2000. © Fred Lundahl

We made many good friends in those years.  We had stayed in touch, but never had a chance to visit again.  When a Seattle mountaineer friend expressed interest in investigating climbing opportunities in Tajikistan, Fred did not need much more urging to plan a trip back to see what changes 15 years had brought.

Fred's Reunion with Same Friend 15 Years Later. © Fred Lundahl

Fred’s Reunion with Same Friend 15 Years Later. © Fred Lundahl

What Fred found in his three-week trip was the most amazing transformation of any country where we had formerly been posted as diplomats.  If Mongolia was the new adventure-travel destination a decade ago, Tajikistan is this decade’s new tourism discovery.  As a London newspaper wrote this spring, “the most amazing trekking destination you have never heard of…”

Even expecting tourists, Fred was surprised at the large numbers of tourists everywhere, especially solo travelers, bicycling or motorcycling or simply hiking

Bicycle Tourist in the Middle of Nowhere. © Fred Lundahl

Bicycle Tourist in the Middle of Nowhere. © Fred Lundahl

throughout the country.  Although most were Europeans, Fred even met Israelis–a sure sign that it was a safe travel destination, even though it shares a long border with increasingly unstable Afghanistan.

Perhaps most interesting was the presence of numerous American college students.  The U.S. needs a new generation of diplomats and scholars who speak Persian or Farsi–the language of Iran.


American Language Student with Hosts. © Fred Lundahl

The best way to learn a language is by total immersion living in the language, and there are three countries where Farsi is spoken.  We wouldn’t want a son or daughter to go to immersion training in Iran right now.  We also wouldn’t want to send a child to study in Afghanistan.  The third Persian-speaking country is Tajikistan.  Tajik is still written in Russian script there, rather than Arabic, but hundreds of American college students are now attending language immersion programs in Tajikistan.

What a change!


The Wakan Corridor from an Ancient Fortress. © Fred Lundahl



Argentina’s Clever Orcas: Part Two

Poster of Orcas in Peninsula Valdes

Poster of Orcas in Peninsula Valdes

Seeing the clever Orca “Killer Whales” of Peninsula Valdes has long been on our bucket list of things to do.  Our last blog talked about visiting the Southern Right Whales’ breeding grounds around Peninsula Valdes, and this second part centers on another fascinating whale-watching reason to stop here – – its unique Orca population.


Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia.

In addition to Southern Right Whales and Orcas, the Peninsula Valdes  marine nature reserve, which is the highlight of the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, is also home to other beautiful creatures, such as elephant seals, fur seals, sea lions, Magellanic penguins, as well as the rhea (relative of the ostrich), the guanaco (related to the llama), the mare (like a large hare) and many more on the peninsula.  This is not even to mention the birdlife in the area.


Fred Enjoying the View. © Sharon Lundahl

We stayed in the most amazing hotel in the Puerto Madryn area, the Territorio, which had stunning  sea views out across the bay from the bedroom and the bathroom.   Located out at the end of the bay on a road out of town, our hotel was convenient to the modern Puerto Madryn Eco Centro Whale Museum with its imaginative displays.

Orcas are found in every ocean in the world, and many populations have evolved hunting behaviors suited to their environment.


Eco Centro at Puerto Madryn. © David Stanley/flickr

For example, some Orcas in Antarctic waters have figured out how to move together to generate enough of a wave to knock a seal or sea lion off a small ice floe.

Nowhere, however, have orcas developed a more fascinating way to hunt than in Peninsula Valdes, where about a dozen Orcas have figured out how to intentionally beach themselves to grab unsuspecting seals, sea lions and penguins.  Then, more importantly, they unbeach themselves and subsequently share their meal with other family members.


Seals on the Beach. © familia catalono / flickr

Filmed scenes of this incredible sight — a full-grown Orca driving itself up through the surf and onto a beach crowded with unsuspecting meals and then wiggling itself back off the beach into the water with a struggling seal in its mouth — are certainly some of the most exciting wildlife films that we have ever seen.

Magellan Penguin. © Sharon Lundahl

Magellan Penguin. © Sharon Lundahl

After Right Whale watching, we spent a fascinating, but fruitless, day visiting all of the locations on the Atlantic beaches of the peninsula where these Orcas are known to do their often-filmed beaching and unbeaching exploits.

We saw hundred of penguins on one beach, sea lions on another, and seals on a third, all crowded around the water’s edge, oblivious of the danger of becoming an Orca’s meal.  But alas, the local Orcas had been absent that week and didn’t appear that day just for two Orca-lovers from Whidbey Island.


Mural in Eco Centro.

Our guide showed us the exact spots that the famous Orca photographers Andres Bonetti and Alberto Patrian  set their cameras up to record this incredible behavior …and gently reminded us that any 15 minutes of exciting wildlife film usually is edited from 15 days or more of sitting in one place waiting for some action to happen.  Shucks, we had forgotten that.



Pretty Argentinian Girls. Sharon Lundahl

We did get to see lots of film of these unique behaviors at the Eco Centro and hear how these behaviors had developed among a select few male and female members of the larger local Orca population.

We mused at what possessed the first Orca to think it could launch itself out of the ocean and onto the beach to grab a meal…and then get itself back into the water.  Perhaps natural selection played a part, and the Orcas that remained stranded after grabbing a meal did not survive to pass on the behavior to the next generation.  All of these Orcas seem very comfortable in shallow water, but only a few routinely engage in this unique beaching behavior.


Sea Lion. © Paul Burnett/flickr

Finally we had to leave, missing another unique experience–that of meeting the famous Park Ranger Roberto Bubas, who has made friends with these Orcas.  He can be seen in innumerable videos standing waist deep in water stroking and talking to Orcas that hang around him like a pack of puppies.  He happened to actually be up in Washington State visiting our own Orca specialist Ken Balcom when we were down there.  The most memorable video of Roberto is of him standing in the water playing his harmonica to a bunch of entranced Orcas.

To see Roberto playing with his harmonica, dancing with the Orcas, and his comments on the communication between Orcas and humans, please click here:

We just will have to return again to Peninsula Valdes.

Whales in Patagonia – Part One

Southern Right Whale at Peninsula Valdes. © Richard Towell/flickr

Southern Right Whale at Peninsula Valdes. © Richard Towell/flickr

We love whales.  We live in Langley on Whidbey Island and regularly see both Orcas (Killer Whales) and Gray Whales from the deck of our house.


A Guanaco on the Road to Peninsula Valdes. © Fred Lundahl

We are involved in Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center, and haven’t hesitated to travel to see whales in Maui, Mexico, Oregon and Maritime Canada.  So it will be no surprise that one of the reasons for the Lundahls visiting Patagonia was for the chance to see whales on the Peninsula Valdes.

Tourism Office. © Fred Lundahl

Tourism Office. © Fred Lundahl

Seeing whales is all about catching them at the right spot during their annual migrations.  Unfortunately our November time frame was too early in the year to visit the humpbacks who frequent the Cape Horn area in austral summer (our winter), but we hope to go back sometime in January-February.  Also especially interesting for the future was news of the Chilean government establishing the world’s first Blue Whale sanctuary in southern Chile.  In a couple of years it ought to be possible to take whale watching trips into that area to see the world’s biggest creatures.

Southern Right Whale. © Titus Hageman/flickr

Southern Right Whale. © Titus Hageman/flickr

Our biggest delight on this whole trip, however, was the chance to visit the world-famous (at least to whale lovers like us) whale sanctuary at Peninsula Valdes on Argentina’s south Atlantic coast.  Here is the gathering place for the world’s last remaining population of Southern Right Whales.  The huge bays on either side of this big peninsula are home from June to December of hundreds of those whales who mate and give birth in the area’s tranquil waters.

Picture in the Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

Picture in the Puerto Madryn Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

These whales, larger than humpbacks or grays, were so named because whalers considered them to be the “right” whales to kill…as they are more buoyant than other whales and float, rather than sink, when killed.  This biological trait led them to be hunted almost to extinction.  These Southern Right Whales are the only Right Whales left.  There are none in the northern hemisphere.

Happy Beach Guy. © Sharon Lundahl

Happy Beach Guy. © Sharon Lundahl

Famed whale researcher Roger Payne (who discovered while doing research in Hawaii that Humpback Whales sing)   was the first to set up a research station here to study Southern Right Whales.

Although mating season was over, and most of the boy whales had departed for their feeding grounds further south towards Antarctica, a number of mothers with calves were still milling around the bay when we were there.  We saw a couple of dozen whales with their distinctive social and feeding behaviors.

Where We Ate in Puerto Pyramides. © Sharon Lundahl

Where We Ate in Puerto Piramide. © Sharon Lundahl

They feed on prey near the surface, so they don’t lunge feed like the krill-eating Humpbacks, nor bottom feed like Whidbey’s Gray Whales.  These whales breach almost as much as Humpbacks, and–being bigger and heavier than Humpbacks–they are even more spectacular when they launch themselves out of the water.


Jumping Southern Right Whale. © Willem/flickr

One of the oddest behaviors engaged in by these Right Whales is “sailing” in which they stick their tails straight up out of the water, with their buoyant bodies enabling them to raise the tail quite high.  With their tails held high and stationary, the wind catches the tail surface and actually moves the whale along through the water like a sailboat.

Sharon at the Puerto Madryn Museo . © Fred Lundahl

Sharon at the Puerto Madryn Eco Center . © Fred Lundahl

No one knows for sure why they do this.  At first the researchers thought it was some sort of play activity, but more recently they have discovered that it is only pregnant females who engage in this activity.  Perhaps holding the tail out of the water for so long might help regulating body temperature prior to giving birth?

The other reason that Peninsula Valdes is a mecca for whale watchers will be covered in Part Two – Orcas who beach themselves to catch prey.  Tune in for the next blog!map2

map peninsula valdes

Patagonian Cowboys and their Rodeos


Argentinian Cowboys and their kids. © Sharon Lundahl

Argentina’s vast plains–the green pampas in the north, and drier steppes in the south–are similar in many ways to the American west.  They have spawned a historic horseman culture not unlike our own.

Leader of Traditional Dance . © Sharon Lundahl

Leader of Traditional Dance . © Sharon Lundahl

Before we visited Patagonia, we knew a little of the Argentine gaucho culture, horsemen who herded cattle and other animals, using weighted ropes called bolos, rather than lassos, and who had their own unique costumes and horse tack.

We were charmed by this vibrant culture.  We had the chance to watch both great feats of horsemanship, as well as their special dancing and singing.  Their costumes have changed little over the two centuries the culture has evolved.  They wear knee-high leather boots tucked into baggy “gaucho pants” and wide belts with sheath knives tucked in the back.


Typical Cowboy Meal. © Sharon

The cowboys ride in their own type of saddles that don’t have the pommel of American western saddles.  Their crops are huge paddle-type riding crops call “guechas”, in place of our smaller types they call “justas”.  Their stirrups, bridles and elaborate spurs are often beautifully crafted in silver.

Interestingly, we found that their flat-brimmed felt cowboy hats – a bit similar to our own older type pre-Stetson cowboy hats –  have largely given way to a knit beret called a “boina”, which they usually wear like our golf hats, rather than like French berets.


Youngster Competing in Gaucho Competition.

We watched some wonderful line dancing in traditional costumes and saw some amazing horsemanship contests in Argentina.  Participants of all ages raced along a course with a stick in one hand with which they tried to spear a small ring hung on a string.

Most unique and different from our own rodeos were the gaucho’s traditional “Jineteadas” horsemanship shows that are put on around the country in rural areas.  These rodeos are all about horses.  There is none of the calf-roping or bull riding of our own.  Instead there are incredible rides on unbroken broncos.

blog guys

Modern-Day Gauchos. © Fred Lundahl

In these horse contests there is a sliding scale of increasingly difficult events in which riders attempt to stay on wildly bucking horses.  These events range from contests with full saddles, stirrups, bridles, and bits…to less and less horse tack…and to finally bareback riding with no tack.  The gaucho clings to the horse’s mane for dear life.


Gauchito Gil Flag. © Fred Lundahl

Now there is a push by many aficionados to make the jineteadas a national Argentine sport on par with soccer.

Not to be overlooked, in Chile the skilled horseman, similar to the American cowboy and the Argentine gaucho, is called the “huaso.”   They are found all over southern Chile and have become a symbolic character of the Chilean countryside.   The main difference between the gaucho and the huaso seems to be that the huaso is involved in farming as well as cattle herding.

Huasos also are important in Chilean culture and folklore.  Travelers can see them in fiestas and parades, as well as at work on their ranches.

Another ubiquitous gaucho one sees everywhere in Argentine countryside is at the roadside shrines to “Guachito Gil”!   He was a mid-19th century cowboy who, legend has it, kindly healed the sick daughter of the man who was putting him to death.


Roadside Shrine for Gauchito Gil! © Fred Lundahl

These roadside shrines are filled with small gifts and requests for Gauchito Gil’s intervention and help in everything from speeding tickets to school exams.

We seldom saw a car, truck or bus in the countryside that did not have a Gauchito Gill talisman hanging from the rearview mirror.  We now hang one in our own truck on Whidbey Island…and have not had a repetition of earlier deer collisions…thank you Gauchito Gill.


Traditional Dance with Costumes. © Fred Lundahl


Chile & Argentina

Argentina,Blue Massif

The Blue Massif–Torres del Paine National Park. © Fred Lundahl

During our recent trip to Patagonia, we visited both Chile and Argentina.  We liked the flora, fauna and folks in both countries, but wondered why they have had so much trouble getting along throughout their history.


Pretty Argentinian Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

Looking closely at a map–you notice that there is a section of their joint border in the southern Patagonian ice field, the third largest hunk of ice in the world, where they can’t agree on where the border lies…even today.   Friends in both countries explained that this odd fact is because the mile-deep ice field moves.  Thus no one can demarcate a border line on the ground below it…and neither neighbor will give an inch to the other.


Minefield on Border. © Fred Lundahl

The last time they almost came to blows was in the 1990’s.  It was over ownership of three small islands at the very southern tip of the continent, and the Pope had to intervene to calm things down.  We saw the continuing results of that latest of skirmishes as we drove by signs warning of active minefields along the border, where livestock and guanacos (wild llamas) regularly continue to be blown up by land mines.


Argentina’s Pope. © Fred Lundahl

Although the two neighbors have not been in a shooting war for awhile, their joint history is full of conflict.  Both countries had nasty dictatorships for years who regularly hurled insults at each other, if not bullets.

When Argentina’s dictators went to war with the UK (another blog), Chile’s dictators secretly helped the UK.  While the dislike has quieted from violence to surly jokes about each other, travelers remark how Chile’s border guards can harass travelers coming from Argentina…and Argentina’s guards do the same in return.

blog ccA friend of ours who works on cruise ships out of Ushuaia, Argentina’s southern-most town, told us that the Chileans routinely hold up truck shipments of supplies that must pass through a small section of highway in Chile to return to Argentine territory.  And so it goes.

When volcanoes erupt in the Chilean Andes, as they regularly do, the strong Pacific Ocean winds blow all the ash over into western Argentina, where sometimes it winds up a foot deep.  Airports must be closed for months.  Both countries have pointed jokes about what this proves about whose side God is on.  Chile’s victory, finally, in soccer over powerhouse Argentina also stoked those feelings.


Sharon and Fred in Windy Patagonia.

The two countries’ competition even extends to Antarctica, where both have the only bases where families are stationed along with the researchers.  Argentina founded its “Esperanza” base at the bottom of the world in 1953 in an effort to bolster territorial claims


Magellan’s Ship at His Straits. © Sharon Lundahl

there, and in 1978 the dictators even flew in a pregnant woman so that they could claim the first baby born in Antarctica.

Not to be undone, in 1984, Chile’s dictatorship set up their base, “Villa Las Estrellas”, on the British-claimed South Shetland Islands.  To add further insult to Argentina’s injury, chile claimed the birth there of the first baby “conceived and born” in Antarctica.  And  so it goes…


Chilean Volcano We Hiked. © Fred Lundahl

Why Patagonia?


Near Bariloche in Argentina. © Sharon Lundahl

Fred and Sharon spent November of this year in Patagonia–that windswept expanse of flat lands and high mountains of southern Argentina and Chile.


Bus Blown over by Harsh Argentinian Winds. © Fred Lundahl

Why, our friends asked, did you go to a place not known for rugs or textiles and where, uncharacteristically, you can drink the water out of the tap?

Yes, Argentina is less “exotic” than our usual travel destinations, as Europe has been the main source of immigration and influence on the area.   Even though the population does look pretty much like Europe, and the food centers around red meat and potatoes, Argentinians have a special character of their own and they embrace this uniqueness with a passion.


Pretty Girl in Traditional Dance. © Sharon Lundahl

We traveled to Patagonia because we were curious … having never been to South America.   Second, there was spectacular scenery and wildlife to see, including some very unique whale-watching. (Whales are near and dear to our hearts, living on Whidbey Island).  We did find handicrafts to purchase and even managed to spot local textiles–horse saddle pads–to bring back to our store.


Tango Dancers in Buenos Aires. © Sharon Lundahl

Argentina is a vast country, with terrain including the Andes Mountains, glacial lakes and vast grassland.  It is known for its tango, steak and football.  Although a high-income country, Argentina is now still recovering from political instability and economic crisis of past decades.


Artistic Barrio in Buenos Aires. © Sharon Lundahl

Chile is quite different from Argentina, due in part to the fact that their European settlers failed to conquer the independent Mapuche locals;  the immigrants have since assimilated those natives into their blood and population.   After years of bloody dictatorship, Chile is now a prosperous and stable democracy.

Our itinerary included some time in Buenos Aires at the beginning and end of our trip.  It’s an amazing place just to wander, among the different barrios (neighborhoods), ranging from historically old-fashioned, to exuberantly artistic, and to high-style modern.

The culture and music of this great city was just as impressive as expected, even if Fred’s usual routine purchase of a local musical instrument had to wind up being an indigenous flute from the Andes.


Fred Playing Bandoneon He Couldn’t Buy. © Sharon Lundahl

His hoped-for Bandoneon Tango accordion turned out to be just too expensive; the few examples we tracked down all cost in the thousands of dollars.

Our time in Argentina encompassed the presidential run-off elections, and we think the politics we observed there merit another blog.

As we sometimes will do when we have no knowledge about what is best to see in an area, we signed on with a small-group “Overseas Adventure Travel” (OAT) tour.  After that trip, we slipped away on our own to fly down to Argentina’s remote Peninsula Valdez for several days of whale watching.  This is the site of one of the first whale research stations set up in the late 1960’s to study endangered Southern Right Whales.  We had the opportunity to watch dozens of those amazing sea mammals.


Puma We Saw in Patagonia. © Fred Lundahl

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also famous for its resident orcas.  A bunch of these killer whales have learned to intentionally beach themselves (and, more importantly, unbeach themselves) to snatch seals and sea lions to eat.  We saw lots of the latter but none of the former during our short visit.  We will cover this in a later blog.

Patagonia, itself, in both Argentina and Chile, was simply amazing.  The southern Andes peaks and glaciers were breath-taking, as was the wildlife.  We even had the rare treat to see one of the few remaining Patagonia pumas up close…very close.  By the end of the trip we began to wonder why we had never volunteered to work in U.S. embassies in South America during our diplomatic careers.


Sharon in Patagonia. Fred Lundahl