Archive for the ‘Patagonian Explorer’ Category

The Remote Land of Patagonia

Friday, February 7th, 2014

688_thumbnailPepper Trail has traveled around the world in the course of his studies on the ecology, behavior and conservation of birds. After receiving his Ph. D. from Cornell University, Pepper did post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the California Academy of Sciences. An expert photographer and writer, his work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic and American Birds to Science, Evolution and Conservation Biology. Pepper has led natural history tours in Africa, Costa Rica, Brazil and the Amazon, and his enthusiasm and sense of humor always convert a few ‘non-birders’ to ‘birder’s every trip. He is the ornithologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.


The very word “Patagonia” conjures up images of untamed wilderness, windswept and remote.  And indeed, that is what our group of intrepid travelers experienced again and again on this journey – climbing to the base of the Martial Glacier in Tierra del Fuego; standing on the cliffs of Cape Horn, looking south toward Antarctica; walking among a herd of wild guanacos beneath the towering spires of Torres del Paine National Park; hiking above treeline on the Osorno Volcano in Chile’s Lake District.  All this adventure was cushioned by our nightly return to luxurious lodgings, where we relived the day’s events over gourmet meals.

In the finest Smithsonian tradition, we learned as we traveled, with lively discussions on topics ranging from how Gondwanaland lives on in Patagonia, to how Darwin’s explorations of the region shaped his theory of evolution, to the extraordinary adaptations of albatross and penguins to their challenging world.

Finally, our experiences in two great South American capitals, Buenos Aires and Santiago, were the perfect prelude and postscript to our Patagonian journey. Whether we were watching a stunning tango show in Buenos Aires or creating our own special red wine blends at the Verramonte Winery outside Santiago, these cities provided a sophisticated and glittering frame to our wilderness adventures.

For all of us, “Patagonia” is no longer terra incognita, the uttermost end of the earth.  It is a place filled with memories, of adventures with an extraordinary group of fellow travelers, and of transcendent landscapes which will remain part of us forever.


To learn more about our Patagonian Explorer tour, click here.

Cono Sur of Patagonia

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Dr. Jeffrey A. Cole is a Latin American historian. His interest in the region was kindled at the University of Connecticut, where he completed a B.A. and M.A. in history, including a semester at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, México. At the doctoral level, Jeff focused on civil-military relations in Argentina and Chile, the archaeology of the Americas, modern Chinese history, and – primarily — colonial South American history. He won a Fulbright grant to complete his dissertation research in Perú, Bolivia, and Argentina. Upon receipt of the Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, he taught at Tulane, SUNY, Cornell, the University of Massachusetts, and Smith College. Jeff also served as Associate Director of the UMass exchange program with Argentina from 1985 to 1991, during which time he taught at the Universidad de Buenos Aires as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. His last full-time job was as Director of International Programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. For the last twenty years, Jeff has served as a Study Leader for Smithsonian Journeys (nearly sixty in all) and as a lecturer on other academic excursions to Latin America.


This departure of “Patagonian Explorer” was special for three very unusual reasons, all of which were unplanned and, as our Argentine Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay put it, “espontaneous.”

The first, of course, was that our group was witness to the inauguration of the first South American (and Argentine) Pope, Francisco I, and the celebration of the events of his first week in that role by the people of Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole.  The obelisk in the middle of the “9 de Julio” avenue was draped in yellow and white (the Papal colors), the Plaza de Mayo was packed – from Monday evening to late Tuesday morning – with people following events at the Vatican on large television screens flanking the Cathedral, and the city as a whole showed symptoms of hope for the future than were absent as recent as a month ago.  No Argentinians were more proud than the fans of San Lorenzo, the new Pope’s favorite football (soccer) team; indeed, the supporters presented Francisco I with a team jersey with his name and a halo as his number!


Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

The second grand surprise was the morning of our landing on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, just north of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Disembarkation in zodiacs for this visit to a huge Magellanic penguin colony always comes early, as the winds tend to be lighter and the waves lower in the morning, but on this occasion we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over Tierra del Fuego to the east and a bath of golden sunshine flooding the penguins ashore and in the water.  There was no wind at all, and even the ship’s crewmembers were on deck taking pictures.  As we all sat down to breakfast later that morning, there was an enthusiastic comparison of photographs to see who had taken the best image.

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Third, Easter Sunday brought a forced change of plans caused by the closure – probably because of an accident – of the Pan-American highway south of Santiago.  We were returning to town after a wonderful visit to the Haras de Pirque winery, when access to the highway was closed off.  Taking side streets to get back into town, we were destined to miss our appointed times for a visit to “La Chascona,” one of Pablo Neruda’s homes.  Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay, local guide Iván Bustamante, and I agreed to go instead to the Museum of Remembrance, which chronicles the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973, which toppled the government of Salvador Allende, through to the removal of Augusto Pinochet by the 1988 plebiscite which told him “No” to his staying in power until the end of the twentieth century.  Iván’s family had been forced into exile in Britain as a consequence of the coup, and his guiding of the Associates through this powerful museum was extremely moving.

The Patagonian trip offers Smithsonian travelers many different dimensions of two wonderful countries, Argentina and Chile, including landscapes and nature, but we never ignore the terrible moments in their recent histories, for the two peoples’ ability to recover and progress despite those events are all the more remarkable after we learn what they have suffered.

So, by the time we traveled from Valparaíso to the Santiago International Airport on 1 April, we all knew that we had been witness not only to Buenos Aires and the Argentine tango, fabulous Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia aboard Vía Australis and in Torres del Paine National Park, as well as the pleasures of the Chilean Lake District, but also to three different experiences that were unplanned and unexpected, but very special indeed.  Such surprises are often the most memorable moments of a tour.

I am sure that the 2013-14 season of “Patagonian Explorer” will bring similar “espontanous” experiences, and so am already looking forward to my return to the Southern Cone and Cape Horn.  My license plate and its frame say it all:cono sur


To learn more about our Patagonia Explorer tour, click here.

Enchanting Iguazú Falls

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Jeffrey A. Cole has led over 50 Smithsonian Journeys to Latin America since 1992, including 26 to Peru and 20 to Chile. He has taught Latin American Studies at Clark University, Tulane University, SUNY-Oswego, Cornell University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Smith College.

In the spring, Jeffrey led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a Patagonian Explorer adventure.


For the 2012-13 season, the Patagonian Explorer journey will offer a pre-tour excursion to Iguazú Falls. Iguazú, which in Guaraní means “big water,” is one of the must-see places in the world, and I am very pleased it is now available to Smithsonian travelers. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited the falls, she was asked her opinion, and her response was reportedly “Poor Niagara!”

Iguazu Falls

Iguazú Falls. Photo by James Elliott.

Many will remember the falls from “The Mission,” with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, which chronicles the removal of the Jesuits from the region in the seventeenth century. Others may have seen nature programs about the swifts that live among the falls. Whatever your inspiration, Iguazú Falls – like Machu Picchu in Perú – usually exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.


Urraca. Photo by James Elliott.

The experience is now enhanced by a network of walkways along and over the falls on the Argentine side, including one that leads to the “Boca del Diablo” (“Devils Throat”), where the volume of water and the noise it makes are impressive. It’s also enhanced by the presence of coatíes (raccoon-like animals) and fantastic birds, including the macaw and blue-and-yellow urraca. At the end of the day, as the sun goes down, the sound of the falls and the animals make Iguazú a very special place, and one you’ll remember fondly.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Patagonian Explorer tour here.

Uncovering Family History in Chile

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Jeffrey A. Cole has led over 50 Smithsonian journeys to Latin America since 1992. Jeff’s research and publications have focused on colonial South American history and civil-military relations in Argentina and Chile. He has taught Latin American Studies at Clark University, Tulane University, SUNY-Oswego, Cornell University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Smith College. Here he discusses a recent Patagonia Explorers trip to Chile.


Sometimes something really wonderful, and unexpected, takes place on a Smithsonian tour. In February 2012, on our last day in Chile and while visiting the port city of Valparaíso, our Smithsonian group visited a statue dedicated to William Wheelwright. Mr. Wheelwright, born in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, introduced steamship navigation, the telegraph, and other innovations to Chile in the nineteenth century. More importantly, on this occasion, his great-granddaughter, Margaret (“Peg”) Keirstead, had the chance to share her pride in his service with her fellow Smithsonian Journeys travelers. As we all lined up to have our picture taken in front of the statue, a Smithsonian banner proudly displayed, everyone reflected on the many ties between Chile and the United States, and how our histories are intertwined.

The group had visited Cape Horn on a beautiful morning, had walked among more than 100,000 penguins on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, and had enjoyed beautiful weather in Torres del Paine National Park, but this sharing of a personal connection to William Wheelwright in Valparaíso might well have been the highlight of the trip; it certainly was for Peg.

Smithsonian Journeys - Valparaíso, Chile

Smithsonian travelers pose in front of a statue of William Wheelwright, an important early steamship and railroad entrepreneur in South America and great-grandfather of Peg Keirstead (in the very back wearing a gray shirt).


Find out more about our Patagonian Explorers trip here.